The Citroën 2CV – “Duck”, as we lovingly call it in Holland – remains one of the most loved classic cars around. So you’d assume everything about it has been written by now. Wrong. Deep in France, a group of jolly people brings the “Duck” back to its roots: the water. The “Aquadeuch”, as they call these swimming Ducks, are not just hysterically funny, they’re also little pieces of art.
The picture alone is as French as it can get. A little lake, near the town of La-Breille-les-Pins, 80 kilometres south of Le Mans, and a little west of Yours. On the pastures surrounding the lake, there’s a typical French flea market taking place. Old, rusting Renault Trafics and Citroën HY’s are parked under the trees, their rear doors opened, revealing the most eccentric “brocantes”. Everything is “A vendre”. The smell of ancient cotton candy and red wine drifts past. “Friteur Casse Croute” says a sign that has hamfistedly been attached to a wooden barn. Snails are bought and consumed fanatically around here. In the meantime, a crowd is gathering along the shores of the lake. Some people make it a picknick, park their Deux Chevaux with them, take their chairs from the boot and open another bottle of wine. A high pitched voice speaks to the crowd from the loudspeakers. He’s talking about “le spectacle” that’s about to arrive. Six weird little boats speed onto the lake. They produce a dark drone, and bounce across the waves at high speed. If you’re quick enough to keep them in view, you’ll recognize the unmistakable shape of the Citroën 2CV. Les Aquadeuch sont arrivées.
While the fights among the little boats grow in intensity, so does the enthousiasm of the speaker. His voice climbs another octave as he shouts “La vitesse est formidable!” Alert viewers will have spotted him by now, on the far side of the lake. Gesturing wildly, with glasses on his nose and a white shirt he vaguely resembles the famous British F1-commentator Murray Walker. Only the language he speak and the somewhat eccentric hat distort the picture, and provide a hint on the nationality of this man. And anyway, if this were Formula 1, Bernard Vitre (69) wouldn’t be Murray Walker, he’d be Bernie Ecclestone. Vitre is the man who dreamed up the Aquadeuch. He and his French come from the town of Huelgoat in the region of Brittany. One day, while visiting Belgium, Vitre saw a 2CV that had been transformed into a boat. “A lovely sight”, he says, “but that 2CV was a paddle-steamer. I thought that could be improved on.” Vitre spent his life as an entrepreneur in the catering industry, owning a hotel near a big lake. During the French national holiday “quatorze juillet” – July 14 – in 1984 he organised a contest in which he invited locals to dream up a way of crossing the lake as fast as possible, using a 2CV. “The winner would get a million”, he smiles, “a million centimes to be exact.” That price, around about 1500 euros, made his event an instant sell-out. 42 “Ducks” appeared at the startline, and that’s how a one-day event turned into a club, the Association Bretagne Aquadeuch, that travels across France tot his day to show what the Aquadeuch are capable of.
What the Aquadeuch are showing here is a demonstration, not a race. “We can’t race, for insurance purposes”, says Vitre, “that would make it too expensive. That’s why we put up this spectacle nautique. The 2CV is a huge part of French culture. This is our tribute to it.”
As much fun as the idea is, the 2CV’s reputation automatically leads you to not take the Aquadeuch seriously. That would be a mistake though. The little boats reach speeds up to 60 miles an hour, and they reach them a hell of a lot faster than a real 2CV would on the road. That has something to do with the body, made out of super-light fiberglass. That body has the exact same dimensions as a 2CV. “We use one as a mould”, says Vitre. Rules stipulate that the body should contain six original parts from a 2CV, as should the engine. Definitely not from a 2CV is the huge turbo on top of the Aquadeuches block. That doesn’t just affect power – rising from a standard 29 to about 80 horsepower – but also the sound. A normal 2CV sounds a bit goofy and definitely friendly. Not so the Aquadeuch. That sounds, to use the stereotype, like it had way too much garlic, is moody and a bit windy.
The passionate commentating of Bernard Vitre makes the almost 5000 spectators feel like they’re witnessing a race more exciting than the Le Mans 24 hours and more spectacular than the best French Grand Prix. At the end of each leg Vitre waves the chequered flag, like it should be waved in a race. Despite that, it’s clear to see that this isn’t a serious competition. No trophies or champagne for the men piloting the Aquadeuch. No, they just take their paddle and row their boats tot he shore. Getting out means landing in the French mud with a loud “splash”, from where they have to pull their 2CV ashore all by themselves. A 2CV doesn’t get more “Duck” than this crazy form of powerboat racing. But still, even here it doesn’t swim by itself. Apparently, driving is in its DNA more…
The tale of the Aquadeuch was published in AutoWeek in 2012.