Photos via L’Aventure en 2CV.
Stories abound of overlanders who put their lives at risk venturing off into vast deserts in their 2CVs in search of adventure enough to fill volumes upon their return home. One French expat, however, drove his Tin Snail thousands of kilometers to the other side of the world not out of some death-defying stunt but as a means of saving his family from civil war.
Just a few years after the introduction of the 2CV, Frenchmen looking to travel the world found that its light weight, its thriftiness on fuel, its ease of maintenance and repair, and its long-travel suspension made it a capable expedition vehicle. Michel Bernier and Jacques Huguier made the first known long-distance trip in a 2CV in 1952 with their round-the-Mediterranean 13,500-kilometer drive. Over the next few years, enough other travelers used 2CVs on their expeditions across Africa, Asia, and the Americas to prompt Citroën itself to institute an annual prize worth 100,000 francs for the most interesting and best-documented excursions using a 2CV in 1957.
Some of those trips became the stuff of legends. In 1959, Jacques Séguéla and Jean-Claude Baudot found themselves without a drop of oil in their 2CV’s crankcase after a drain plug fell out while traversing the Atacama Desert in Chile as part of a 100,000-kilometer round-the-world trip. According to their reports, a local happened to stop by with a bunch of bananas, then proceeded to stuff into their engine the peeled bananas, which they claimed provided enough lubrication to get them out of the desert.
Others included record-breaking stunts. In 1953, Jacques Cornet and Henri Lochon, while making their way from Canada to Tierra del Fuego, decided to climb Chacaltaya in the Bolivian Andes in their 2CV. Despite not being prepared and tossing their luggage (and Lochon) out along the way, Cornet reportedly made it to the top, setting an altitude record for automobiles at 17,782 feet.
Jacques Pochon-Davignon intended neither to become a legend or break any records when he set out from the Laotian capital of Vientiane in November 1960. Instead, he simply wanted to get back home to France.
Laos was an entirely different place when Pochon-Davignon arrived there just after World War II. Though a nationalist group had attempted to declare independence from French rule in late 1945, the French regained control there and held on to the country until more lasting independence came in 1954.
Whatever Pochon-Davignon’s role was in Laos, independence didn’t threaten it. He married and had four children while in the country: Anna-Marie, born 1946; Jean-Luc, born 1949; François-Régis, born 1953; and Thierry, born 1957. (We’ve yet to find any mention of his wife’s name in the references to their trip.)
Civil war, however, did threaten the Pochon-Davignon family’s continued existence in Laos. While fighting began along the Vietnamese border in 1959, it threatened to hit Vientiane, where the family lived, in the summer of 1960. Pochon-Davignon decided to leave the country before war arrived. In November 1960 he packed all six members of his family and 330 pounds of their luggage into a 2CV camionette and crossed the border into Thailand. Less than a month later, violence erupted in Vientiane, resulting in an estimated 500 civilian casualties.
Rather than frame the trip as an escape from war, many sources instead describe the Pochon-Davignon family’s 2CV expedition as an educational jaunt, one the four children would never forget. While that may be the case, the timing of the trip against the turmoil in Laos points more to self-preservation than alternative education.
Pochon-Davignon apparently made an initial effort to drive west toward Europe, but the difficult Burmese jungle and the closed Burmese-Indian border apparently made that route impossible. Instead, the family backtracked to Bangkok and then headed south to Singapore, where they and the 2CV caught a ship to India. After visiting Sri Lanka and zigzagging across the Indian subcontinent, the family then picked up their western route, across Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, and Jordan on their way to Jerusalem.
From there, they headed north through the Middle East, up into Turkey, and then across to Greece, through the Balkans, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, and Belgium before finishing their journey at Kiolmetre Zero in front of the Notre Dame cathedral.
In total, the trip took eight months and covered 32,000 kilometers, or about 20,000 miles. Reportedly the 2CV, which already had 36,000 kilometers on the clock when the family set out, suffered no mechanical failures. Citroën awarded the family its annual prize for 1961.
Whatever happened to the Pochon-Davignon family – or their 2CV – in France afterward, no mention seems to have been made. Citroën continued to hand out its annual 2CV expedition prize through 1970, discontinuing it in favor of the off-road Raids the company organized through 1973.
The Pochon-Davignon family’s trip might not have been the longest 2CV expedition or one that set records (though it may very well qualify as world’s longest family road trip), but if it allowed the family to avoid a civil war, it only needed to bring them safely back home.