Devoted to Cars That Haul a Full Load of French Charm

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TOMS RIVER, N.J.

OF all he could have fallen in love with during his trip to France in 2001 -- the food, the wine, the architecture, the women -- Ed Perzel became smitten with a tin snail.

Much to the relief of his wife, Elli.

Tin snail is a nickname for the Deux Chevaux, a charismatic French car manufactured in 1948-90. Produced by Citroën, it has been called a frog, a goat, mon petit and a student Jaguar. In the United States, it is known as a 2CV.

Deux Chevaux -- or more completely, Deux Chevaux Vapeur -- indicates an official rating of two taxable horsepower, a modest number that conferred the benefit of a lower tax assessment based on the car's small size, light weight and tiny engine.

"I knew what a 2CV was, but had never actually seen one until our first trip to Paris in 2001," said Mr. Perzel, 74, a retired college professor and a lover of eclectic cars. "I said to Elli, 'I've got to get one of those.' "

The 2CV was to France what the Volkswagen Beetle was to Germany and the Ford Model T to America -- inexpensive transportation for tough economic times. Depending on how many variations of the basic model are counted, production estimates for the 2CV can exceed seven million.

The Toute Petite Voiture, or very small car, development program was conceived in 1934 with its original design brief calling for "four wheels under an umbrella." It was to be a minimalist car that could equally haul four adults wearing proper hats to church on Sunday or 50 kilos of potatoes to market on Monday.

The mission of the 2CV's lanky yet compliant suspension was to assure that it could be driven across a plowed farm field with a basket of eggs on the seat, not breaking a single one. Being easy on eggs meant it would be comfortable for humans, too.

The car was equipped with an air-cooled 2-cylinder engine that powered, more or less, the front wheels; output peaked at about 30 horsepower by the time production ended.

To Citroën enthusiasts, however, traditional measures of performance are not the point. They say a 2CV can accelerate from 0 to 60 "in a day," but it produces more smiles-per-mile than any car.

On subsequent trips to France, Mr. Perzel looked into buying a 2CV that he could ship home to West Jefferson, N.C. He even considered a 2CV restoration project from a junkyard in Provence before deciding that project would be too complicated.

An Internet search eventually led Mr. Perzel to Noel Slade, owner of Eurocar Imports, a Citroën specialist in Toms River, on the Jersey Shore.

Mr. Slade, a native of Essex, England, inherited a love of 2CVs from his father, who operated a Citroën repair shop. The younger Mr. Slade brought his skills to the United States after marrying an American working in England who yearned to return to the New York area.

Mr. Slade, 38, refurbishes 2CVs, importing derelict hulks by the container load from France, Germany, Spain and Belgium. When they arrive in New Jersey, the cars are disassembled and sandblasted to remove corrosion. The rust-prone original frame is replaced with a new galvanized-steel unit.

"We're not just doing paint jobs; we're completely remanufacturing the whole car from the ground up," Mr. Slade said.

"It's like a giant Lego set, just parts, nuts and bolts," he added. "We've shipped finished cars all over the United States, Canada, South America, across Europe and Australia. California is our most popular state."

Typically, 2CVs that are at least 25 years old face no licensing problems with regard to emissions or safety equipment, Mr. Slade said. Cars destined for California need to be 1975 or earlier models.

Each 2CV gets new body panels and upholstery -- reproduction parts are readily available -- and the engine and suspension are rebuilt. Mr. Slade sells most of his remade cars for $20,000 to $25,000, depending on the paint configuration and optional equipment, which may include higher-grade interior trim and engine modifications.

The Perzels ordered a 1964 2CV in classic burgundy and black, a color combination with an Art Deco riff that Citroën used on the Charleston models.

"The reality is that I bought a 2CV before I ever drove one," Mr. Perzel said. "I made one quick trip to Toms River to check out his operation. I ordered the car in June 2009, and it was delivered the following February."

Mr. Perzel has been driving his 2CV around the North Carolina mountains ever since.

"It's a fun car to go out and play in," he said. "Everyone who sees it does a double-take."

Mr. Slade said he's had a customer waiting list for the cars since he opened for business in 2003. Even though it takes only about eight weeks to completely rebuild a 2CV, customers ordering a car today will wait six to eight months for delivery. He and his staff restore some 25 to 30 2CVs a year, and the shop works on the delivery truck version as well as other Citroën models.

Those waiting times may be extended as a result of recent events. The shop suffered severe damage in October from Hurricane Sandy.

"Water flooded the building," Mr. Slade said. "I lost or sustained damage on 40 2CVs, and I lost most of my tools and equipment."

The pressure to get the shop back in operation may not be as dire as it would be for conventional repair businesses because Mr. Slade's 2CVs are often bought as hobby vehicles. But customers soon discover the cars are competent as daily drivers, he said.

"A 2CV can get 45 to 48 miles per gallon and can travel at highway speeds," he said.

One customer, Sam Scribner, bought a yellow and black 1975 2CV from Mr. Slade last spring. Mr. Scribner, the American owner of a furniture business in Panama, decided to treat himself to a car he had admired for years after retiring to Maitland, Fla.

"I bought it to keep company for my 1970 VW Beetle convertible," said Mr. Scribner, 64, whose 2CV has its steering wheel on the right. "Most people have no idea what kind of car it is. People take pictures of me at traffic lights."

Mr. Scribner says he regularly reaches 60 miles per hour when taking his wife to work at Disney World in Orlando, 32 miles from home. "It's designed to be driven hard," he said.

Mr. Slade also services 2CVs bought elsewhere. Ben Boyle, a high school English teacher from Kingston, Mich., bought his red 1986 2CV nine years ago from a private owner in Atlanta. Mr. Slade has not only replaced the car's frame, he also made a house call to rebuild its engine.

"As long as it's not snowing, I'm driving that car," said Mr. Boyle, 32, whose collection includes such disparate vehicles as a 1980 Chevy Chevette and a Russian S.U.V. called the Lada Niva.

"I've driven 90,000 miles in my 2CV since I bought it," he said. "It's a car full of quirky features, like windows that flip up, a quirky suspension and a quirky shifter that comes out of the dashboard. It's a collection of simple parts that are put together in an unorthodox manner.

"I can understand how the new versions of the Mini Cooper and Fiat 500 drive up the value of older models, but thankfully there is nothing culturally I can identify that will drive up the prices of 2CVs," Mr. Boyle said.

Whatever happens with 2CV values, there are orders waiting to be filled, so for the near term, Mr. Slade said, he will rebuild the business at his current location. But he hopes to sign a lease soon for a new shop five miles farther inland, in Manchester, N.J.

"I'll be up and running 100 percent within four weeks," he said.

autonews

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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