A commercial break that outlasted the programme.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
A total of 478,743 H vans left Javel and Aulnay-sous-Bois in Belgium with another ten thousand Dutch built 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.
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?
 Only around 2,000 TUC’s were made.
 Dutch vans had conventionally hinged front cab doors.