They're Going to Pieces for a Little French Car : Citroen 2CV Kits Satisfy Owners, but Not Safety Officials

Times Staff Writer

The down-to- terre essence of France is a blue beret, raw wine, rougher cigarettes and long bread . . . all protruding from a Citroen 2CV.

Curiously, the tangibles aren't much different in California, where life has become a gentle and broadening pursuit of Perrier, quiche, Yoplait, "La Cage aux Folles" and other syndromes of fashionable Francophilia . . . including, if only for the time being, that two-cylinder Citroen 2CV guaranteed to reduce the pace of all things in the fast lane. (That car, defying the latest in safety and environmental standards, is coming into this country--in pieces and with tenuous legality. We'll get to that apres awhile. But first, the fascination of the 2CV itself.)

Guessing Games

Here's what was said when this 46-year-old Gallicism appeared (actually, it kind of sagged) at the Los Angeles Convention Center and this month's Auto Expo:

"Who am I?" yelped a visiting yuppie, twitching the steering wheel, making lawn mower noises. "Brrrrrt, brrtttt. Inspector Clouseau. ' Hemmmmm, is this a mutter car or a bemp in the red?' "

" Mon Dieu ," muttered another show visitor, his continental oath exposing an obvious conversion to the mood. "It's a tin croissant."

It's also a vehicle that generates the power and noise of a tin alarm clock. Parts for the 2CV are readily available from the plumbing department of better hardware stores. It's a cabbage patch car with a horn that chirps oui-oui .

The 2CV (or deux cheveaux , French for "two horses," a reference to the horsepower rating, which for the latest version really is a more respectable 29) first lurched into life as a 1939 experiment. Since then, 6.5 million have been sold worldwide, and more than a few million words have been devoted to it:

Georgano's New Encyclopedia of Motorcars--"The corrugated gray finish attracted unkind comparisons with garden sheds." A Wall Street Journal report from Paris--"Four wheels under an umbrella."

Seymour Bogdonoff, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at Princeton: "It took me a year to pass (state vehicle) inspection because it was the only car they ever had that flunked everything."

Stringent safety and emissions standards, on state and federal levels, have long prevented Citroen from importing its TPV (another nickname, Toute Petite Voiture or Tiny Little Car) to the United States. To comply would be like bolting a catalytic converter to a chain saw. "Meeting specifications means diminishing a motor's power," a Citroen spokesman once noted. "When you diminish a 2CV's power there isn't much left." Yet the high sense of innovation that created this bug-eyed perambulator in the first place was recently harnessed by a Hollywood company that in February began bringing the cuddly 2CV to California.

A Legal Kit Car

In several thousand pieces. In three crates. With assembly by owners or (for $250) by a designated mechanic. And in that fashion, as a kit car, claim executives of World of Citroen, the 2CV is perfectly legal by any interpretation of standards established by the Department of Transport, Environmental Protection Agency or the California Air Resources Board.

Chris Maroe, 24, a former BMW salesman, ex-importer of exotic European cars and general manager of World of Citroen, acknowledges that formation of the 2CV venture was a "legal orchestration" following careful study of existing safety and emissions regulations.

World of Citroen can claim exemption, he said, because it neither manufactures nor sells cars. The company is a wholesale importer of automotive parts. That the sum total of those parts, once assembled, happens to bear a striking resemblance to a showroom fresh Citroen 2CV is purely coincidental.

"You are registering the car as a 'Target 2CV Kit' and as that, to my knowledge, it is legal," Maroe said. "Being registered as a kit car makes it exempt from regulations laid down by DOT."

Further, he explained, the company is nothing more than a "coordinating agent" between potential buyers and a Dutch firm, Target Imports of Amsterdam. Target purchases the parts from Citroen in France. World of Citroen sets up a purchase contract between American customer and Amsterdam shipper. Target ships to customer and the deal is complete.

Official Disclaimer

"Buyer accepts full responsibility for payment of merchandise, registration and all other items not mentioned herein," states the company's purchase package beneath a covering letter signed by Eric Rosendahl, president of World of Citroen.

But what about several dozen Californians who already have bought and assembled kits and by their signatures are now responsible for registration?

According to DOT and EPA spokesmen in Washington, these new owners may be snug within a frail immunity, one that exists for no other reason then that the government didn't know about the importation of 2CV kits.

"I've never heard of them (World of Citroen)," EPA's Rob Weissman, special assistant to the director in the office of mobile sources, said. Then, a kit car with a putt-putt engine smaller than most motorcycles would be exempt from federal emission standards? "It might. I'd have to take a look at it."

On the other hand, Weissman added, the 2CV most definitely is a motor vehicle and someone is assembling, i.e. manufacturing this motor vehicle. "So it sounds like they (World of Citroen) are trying to evade emission and safety requirements. People often look for loopholes and generally, if it's pretty clear they are specifically trying to take advantage (of loopholes) there's a countervailing tendency on the part of law enforcement agencies to come down hard."

Standards for Parts

A spokeswoman for the DOT's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said her agency was not aware of the 2CV kits but that "if a kit is imported, the parts must comply with our standards . . . but obviously, we can't investigate every piece of a car that is assembled from parts."

How does that leave things in California? "I think you've got a bunch of slippery people out there . . . so caveat emptor ."

The World of Citroen, however, is no foreign country to Richard Kenny. He's manager of the new vehicle certification section, California Air Resources Board. In February, his agency ordered the company to "cease and desist all advertising and sales of the . . . cars in California."

World of Citroen has neither ceased nor desisted. In a written response to CARB, president Rosendahl pointed out that the company is not selling a car. It is selling kits.

"There's obviously a disagreement," Kenny said. "So we've turned it over to our legal people." His official advice to potential purchasers of a 2CV kit: Check with the Air Resources Board.

Healthy Sales

Meanwhile, car buyers being what they are and the 2CV being the wind-up wonder it always has been, the kits are selling warmly with World of Citroen predicting delivery of 25 such erector sets next month.

George Rakous of North Hollywood, a retired Lockheed Aircraft mechanic, has purchased and assembled a 2CV. He said registration "required more paperwork and talk" than other vehicles because his local DMV office was unfamiliar with the car. But stickers and plates, he said, are in the mail.

Harriet Baba, a Los Angeles production artist, bought her kit six weeks ago. After a CHP headlight check (DMV apparently being mystified by the 2CV's headlights that can be adjusted by a lever) her deux cheveaux currently is motoring beneath a temporary registration sticker while awaiting permanent plates.

Hers is a top-of-the-line, gray-on-gray 2CV Charleston. After assembly, tax and license, it cost just under $6,000.

If the 2CV is allowed to remain in California there could well be a war to claim the only vanity plate it should wear.

POOBELL.

That's a contraction of yet another word the French have for their darling.

La Poubelle . It means garbage can.

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