Occupation H. Monster

A commercial break that outlasted the programme.

Image: Citroen Origins

While it’s undisputed that the Raymond Loewy-designed International Harvester Metro van remains an icon of American commercial vehicle vision, it remains precisely the latter to this author’s eyes, in that I’ve never seen one. Today’s encounter on the other hand, far from veiled, may best be seen from just behind the covers. Welcome to the beast that many find beautiful – the Citroën H van.

Similarities between the Yankee and that oh-so Gallic commercial vehicle are limited to their periods of production. The Metro boasted a firm quarter century before changing in no way for the better, whereas the French fancy managed thirty one at a glacial rate of change. But for the worse? Don a beret, spark up a Gauloise and swing those rear doors open wide to see.

We must rewind to just prior to the Second World War to trace the H van’s existence. Pierre Michelin and Pierre-Jules Boulanger hatched an extremely simple plan in 1936 for a van with 800Kgs capacity. Namely, position the driver as forward as possible, a pavement side door for easy in and egress along with a load area accessible from the cabin. Add in for those under 175 centimetres tall, the benefit of not stooping and a 35cm load height from the street. Then place it all on the front-driven Traction Avant underpinnings. A prototype ran the following year with the TUB (Traction Utilitaire Basse) a practical, not quite rectangular van available to French customers on 12th May 1939. 

Deriving power from the Traction 7C with its 1,628 cc mill, good for all of 35 bhp. A three speed manual, torsion bar front suspension, with leaf springs to the rear. Once built, the team were pleasantly surprised to find the van could manage an all-up 1,020 Kgs. Drivers soon encountered tail happy characteristics when empty, making it all too easy to imagine the rack and pinion steering twirling rapidly on route to re-supply locally grown produce.

Image: Citroenvie

The TUB’s replacement arrived in 1940. Officially titled the 11-T série U, the eleven refers to the taxation class. The TUC camionette (as it became known) now sported the 1,911cc engine along with such extravagance as a second screen wiper. Production continued until Spring 1941 when hostilities forced a halt but the Citroën plan makers had fresh ideas.

First mooted in 1942, instruction was given by André Lefèbvre to improve upon the TUB[1] whilst maintaining the Traction set up. The H van was brought to light at the 1947 Paris Auto Salon becoming available to purchase in June 1948. The van’s engine was mounted in front of the gearbox, the opposite of Traction fitment. Keeping the three speed box (no synchromesh on 1st), H could reach 78 Kph sipping 13 litres of essence every 100 Km. 

Image: Citroen Origins

Measurements being a length of 4.28 m, a width of two metres and a height of 2.34 m. The wheelbase was unusual; 2.5 m to the right, 2.53 m to the left. Akin to the Metro, H was a local dweller and those simple mechanicals and distinctive looks held out. Described as a pig’s snout, H carried not only the double chevrons proudly but also held aloft the company’s reputation for years to come. The strong and practical ribbed body was designed by Pierre Franchiset, believed to be inspired by the Luftwaffe’s Junkers JU-52. Part of that look is owed to the pinless hinge known as the Yoda. Two forged curls of steel fixed the bonnet and suicide doors, the hinge also making it into 2CV production.

Image: Citroenvie

H’s floor had to be “strong enough to support a horse.” A wooden bétaillére or horse box body could also transport two cows, eight pigs, six to eight goats and twenty five to thirty sheep in a standard size. Default factory outputs were the enclosed van, pick up or plain chassis cab; the latter wont to the coach builder’s imagination. Indeed, ambulances, post office, fire brigade support, tv camera van and municipal duties amongst many others soon followed. The police van accrued the sobriquet panier á salade due to its look. Currus, a French bus company offered the H with seating for fourteen. Body extensions, rear overhangs and raised roofs could all be specified, some of which diluted the looks.

Image: Citroenvie

1949 launched the HZ, with a smaller payload of 850 Kgs and a top whack of 88 Kmh. 1958, the beefier HY which hauled 1,500 Kgs. The difference lay in rear spring rating, nothing else.

Mechanically, H and TUB were similar. Hydraulic brake drums all round, hand-braked on the front. An uprated 1,628 cc with 45 bhp from its alloy head arrived for ‘63. Five years later the practically default 58 bhp petrol launched. Diesel reared it’s head in 1961; a Perkins 1,621 cc. Imbibing the black stuff at only 8l/100 Km, the engine weighed 160 Kgs and made 42 bhp. Lasting but three years, replaced with an Indenor, altering their names to HY-IN or HZ-IN. Gone too, the 6V system, now making 12 volts.

For 1963, HY and HZ 72 models offered petrol power, the 72 alluding to the cylinder bore size. A year later the front looks changed – to a single windscreen, resembling a person now wearing goggles rather than spectacles. By 1969, H could be filled up to 3,100 Kgs but essentially came in for cosmetic surgery. Rectangular wheel arches and new front indicators now recessed into the front wings with parking lights discontinued. Rear hydropneumatic suspension arrived for ‘72 with other minor tweaks occurring until production ended in 1981.

Image: The author.

A total of 478,743 H vans left Javel and Aulnay-sous-Bois in Belgium with another ten thousand Dutch built[2] variants from 1963-70. Over forty years since their conclusion, they can occasionally be seen still plying a trade other than mobile coffee shop or food vendor. But thank goodness the trade in restoring them continues unabated.

How can a corrugated and plain odd looking (often rusty) van cause such emotions? The Metro was curvy and cute – the H is a furrowed metal brick with an unprepossessing nose – a monster without hair. Yet every example seen (not too often) causes your author to smile. Not something a Transit can elicit. One can only attribute such feelings to other conundrums as seeing an attractive female smoking seductively, or aromas relating to childhood. Both vans are enigmas. Noisy and slow yet worming their way into the fabric of everyday life.

Image: typeh.eu

Inspiring, too. Carroserie Caselani (www.typeh.eu) will sell you a fibreglass kit (or full vehicle for the well heeled) to transform your Citroën Jumper van into a modern H van tribute. Known as the Type H under licence from Citroën, one can even specify a beaver tail pick up truck. Almost as distinct as the original, a worthy successor and considerably brighter in aspect than any other commercial vehicle.

The H van. Loved the world over. Or am I being a sentimental old fool?

Data Sources: Adrian flux.co.uk, citroënnet.org.uk, Citroën car club.co.uk, citroenvie.com, Citroenorigins.co.uk

[1] Only around 2,000 TUC’s were made.

[2] Dutch vans had conventionally hinged front cab doors.

Author: Andrew Miles

Beyond hope there lie dreams; after those, custard creams?

24 thoughts on “Occupation H. Monster”

  1. Good morning, Andrew. You’re not alone in your love for the H van. Dutch writer Rudy Kousbroek called these vans ‘Junkers without wings’.

    I loved the H ever since I first saw one. When I first saw these, they were still around as commercial vehicles, then I only saw them as camper vans. After that there was a time when these were rarely seen, but now with the food truck phenomenon it looks like they are back. The other day I saw a ’58. There’s even a garage not too far from my office that specializes in these vans.

    The H van might be a monster, but it’s an adorable, cute monster and I hope to see them for a long time to come.

  2. On the rare occasions I see an “H” it is always much smaller than I was expecting.
    I find the 2CV based van rather charming too.

  3. Corrugated metal construction had also been used on the Ford Tri-motor, and I think there had been some sharing of ideas between Citroen and Henry. Didn’t Citroen visit the US to see what Henry was doing? I realise the plane was built in a different factory.

  4. Good morning Andrew. Knowing nothing about the ‘H’ other than the fact that it existed, I thoroughly enjoyed reading about its history, thank you.

    It seems that that every other mobile barista, street food vendor, artisan baker etc. seems to have an H these days, so I guess there must be a very strong market for restored examples. There’s just one unrestored example for sale on AutoTrader UK at present:

    https://www.autotrader.co.uk/van-details/202208178879823?postcode=nr349nd&sort=relevance&advertising-location=at_vans&onesearchad=New&onesearchad=Nearly%20New&onesearchad=Used&model=H%20VAN&make=CITROEN&page=1

  5. I can just remember a time (Before Britain embraced street cafes and silver cars and France therefore felt very different), when H vans were part of the street furniture of France, along with R14’s and Peugeots with yellow headlamp tints.

    Now they have become the waggon of choice for “Street food” vendors and etc in Britain. Are there any left on France at all? You can even buy an electrically powered pseudo H van for dispencing coffees to people with man-buns, the restaurant across our street brought one. Pity the poor Barrista who I see by Salford Central Station though, he can only afford an Estafette. I bet sound H’s now cost nearly as much as SM’s.

  6. I loved reading about the H van. I have a soft spot for commercial vans, especially the classic ones but even a mundane Ford Transit Connect will make me turn my head and smile.

    1. I’ve got a soft spot for vans, too. I think it’s because they are often developed on a tight budget and there’s quite a lot of ingenuity involved in adapting components from other vehicles (passenger cars). They’re important vehicles, too – although many people don’t give them much thought, we’d be lost without them.

      As the H was based on the Traction, it seems its specification was pretty advanced in some respects, although I’m always amazed at the lack of power obtained from engines all those years ago.

      I couldn’t find an old advert for an H van, but I came across this one for the 2CV-derived van, which I rather like.

    2. My love for vans came from the years I worked as a delivery driver, first I drove a 1992 Ford Ranger but it was such a pain to carry the goods during rainy
      /snowy days. Then I decided to replace the Ranger and I bought a 1994 Mercury Villager, and it proved to be a very wise decision. Although it is not a commercial van, I removed the rear seats and used it as such. II could load as much stuff as I used to when I had the Ranger, but the cargo was protected from the weather and locked. The van also gave me the comfort of driving a car, After that, I just fell in love with cargo vans.

  7. Not a huge van man myself, but as Charles correctly pointed out they perform an essential service to society, as do trucks. The Citroën H is definitely charming and interesting though; Citroën was also contemplating adding a slightly smaller rendition to the range, named “G” but that never went past the prototype stage:

    …if you require an even smaller version, the good people of Mitsuoka can help you out:

  8. Hi Andrew
    Very interesting piece.
    Reminder: I am French, born in 1944.
    The H Van was ubiquitous during my childhood, teen age and young adult life. It was commonly dubbed (wrongly) “le Tube”. It was very popular among small retail shop owners, whether brick and mortar or open-air market, thanks to its practicality (low floor, boxy shape, sliding side door, ease of maintenance), superior road holding and robustness. It was considered rather comfortable for the driver.
    I read long ago that one of the motives at Citroën to produce it was to use more of the power train of the 7CV and 11CV (in a reversed position), along with many other commercial vehicles.

    You say: “The H van. Loved the world over. Or am I being a sentimental old fool?”
    In its days the H van was widely regarded by its users as well as by the rest of the people as just a practical tool. Of course the shop owner who spends hours at the wheel of his van and depends on it for his income tends to develop a kind of family relationship. I doubt anyone at this time thought it was beautiful and truly loved it. It became just a matter of nostalgia, especially among people too young to have seen it in its time. There is the same thing with the 2CV: it has nowadays a rather strong fan base who believe Citroën’s advertisement motto: “Plus qu’une voiture, un art de vivre”, i.e. “More than a car, an art of living”. Nobody ever felt that way then. Similarly the H van became a collector’s. It’s very small fan base but since very few of the vans survived they keep a certain value.
    The H van, like the 2CV, is a paragon of Citroën’s industrial design especially with its corrugated iron panels (that helped use thinner metal sheets).
    Nick

    P.S.
    May I mention a couple of misspellings in French:
    It’s not camioniette but camionette, a diminutive of camion, i.e. lorry.
    It’s not Javal but Javel, the historical Citroën site.

    1. Nicolas: Thanks for the corrections. Noted and amended. The sub-editor has been placed in the voiture balais to consider the error of his ways…

    2. And I hope the voiture balais is an H van, or “Tube”. 😉
      Nick

    3. Oddly enough though, in the lead photograph of the article the word is spelled as “camionnette”. Did Citroën’s proofreader make a mistake or have spelling rules changed since then as they sometimes do in a language?

    4. brrrrno wrote:
      “Oddly enough though, in the lead photograph of the article the word is spelled as “camionnette”. Did Citroën’s proofreader make a mistake or have spelling rules changed since then as they sometimes do in a language?”
      Ooops! You are right! It’s ‘camionnette’. I copied and pasted the word, deleted the ‘i’ and omitted to add the double ‘n’.
      Nick

  9. France had the H van, Renault Estafette and Peugeot J7.
    They had R4 Fourgonettes, 2CV AZ/AZUL, Simca 1100 VF
    There were two door window-less versions of standard estate cars and really large estates like DS Break/Safari, 404/504 Break.
    Did they really have so much more stuff to transport?

    1. Dave – that’s an interesting question which probably has a very complex answer, related to geography (comparatively rural / large country), the structure of industry (more, smaller companies?), vehicle manufacturers’ policies (e.g. expertise in making cars versus trucks), the state of the railways, the size of families (the need to carry multiple generations in one car), peoples’ leisure activities….

      Interesting to consider what goes in to the equation, though.

      Bruno, I think you can spell ‘camionette’ both ways, although my 1980 edition of Le Robert dictionary gives it with to ‘n’s. Perhaps ‘camionnette’ is an older spelling . Also, ‘camionnage’ (haulage) and ‘camionneur’ (van driver).

      Interestingly (?), I notice that ‘canon’ (gun) similarly goes to ‘canonnier’ (gunner), ‘canonnière’ (gunboat), etc.

    2. Charles,
      Thank you for the further clarification on camionette / camionnette; it’s indeed very possible that both are considered correct in the French spelling- language rules can be funny like that sometimes (the Dutch language has more than its share of oddness as well).

  10. Thank you Andrew for a great and very enlightening article. The only H vans I’ve seen are those converted to coffee, crepe or beer mobile vans. At least they’ve been preserved. Even tatty/rusty ones now command high prices over here in the UK.

  11. I have seen vans and fourgons but not many Hs. Citroen 2CV and Renault 4 and Simca in the past. Citroen Visa and Renault 5 in glorious 80s. Peugeot 404 and Peugeot 504 the camion of choice for the serious electrician or technician. Now I see around the Citroen Nemo, Fiat Fiorino, Peugeot Bipper that are attractive and cheerful.

    1. Citroën sold just under half a million H vans over 34 years.

      In 2019, the last ‘normal’ year for vehicle sales, the combined elements of what would become Stellantis sold 1.12 million LCVs and vans, accounting for 13% of the global market share.

      They’re not going to let that go, and have established market leadership in light commercial EVs.

      Apart from anything else, LCVs have far higher margins than passenger cars, and far longer model renewal cycles.

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