Streamwise and quasi-streamwise elongated structures have been shown to play a significant role in turbulent shear flows. We model the mean behaviour of fully turbulent plane Couette flow using a streamwise constant projection of the Navier–Stokes equations. This results in a two-dimensional three-velocity-component (2D/3C) model. We first use a steady-state version of the model to demonstrate that its nonlinear coupling provides the mathematical mechanism that shapes the turbulent velocity profile. Simulations of the 2D/3C model under small-amplitude Gaussian forcing of the cross-stream components are compared to direct numerical simulation (DNS) data. The results indicate that a streamwise constant projection of the Navier–Stokes equations captures salient features of fully turbulent plane Couette flow at low Reynolds numbers. A systems-theoretic approach is used to demonstrate the presence of large input–output amplification through the forced 2D/3C model. It is this amplification coupled with the appropriate nonlinearity that enables the 2D/3C model to generate turbulent behaviour under the small-amplitude forcing employed in this study.