By on October 9, 2010

I return from Paris fulfilled. This was a family trip, with a focus on culture, museums, food and window shopping; not cars. But in our walking haunts of Paris’ most colorful neighborhoods, I found exactly what I needed to keep CC going on its regular schedule: two classic little French cars, and one truck, to continue the trucks-on-Saturday tradition. And not just any old truck, but the most iconic French truck ever. The Citroen H Van’s distinctive appearance and corrugated panels exude everything that is the French approach to automotive solutions: technically innovative, eccentric yet practical, visually delightful (some may take exception), and with a timeless appeal. And I have my younger son to thank for finding it.

He’s not along for several reasons. But he requested that we bring him back a bottle of genuine French absinthe. We got an address for an absinthe purveyor, and finally found it after getting quite lost across the river near the Rue de Rosiers (best falafel pitas ever there). And in front of it was parked this H Van. The shop (green one above), like so many here, was the size of an American walk-in closet. How do they make a living from them? It’s great dealing with the knowledgeable and friendly owners of these little store-fronts; sure beats the surly clerk at Albersons.

Back to the H Van: Having successfully launched the revolutionary FWD Traction Avant sedan, in 1942 Citroen developed what is probably the first mass-produced FWD van, naturally using as many components from the sedan. The main difference was that the engine-transmission unit was turned 180 degrees, to get the motor out front, and out of the way.

The benefits of FWD in a van are all-too obvious, as the picture above makes clear:  a very low cargo floor, due to the Citroen’s suspension that puts the floor at or below hub height. Almost all French vans and light trucks have been FWD since the H Van introduced its joys to the market.

The Citroen’s distinctive corrugated galvanized steel panels are also highly practical, since they have a degree of rigidity that allowed a more minimal supporting structure. The 2CV prototypes also used these corrugated panels, but only the hood made into the production version. Citroen was inspired by the pioneering Junkers monoplane of the late twenties, which in turn was the basis for the Ford Tri-motor (below), also known as the Tin Goose.

The H Van didn’t only borrow the corrugated panels, but the general styling as well, it seems.  That won’t have been for the first time, though. And like an airplane, the H Van was quite light, just a hair over 3,000 lbs. Given that the 1911 cc four put out some 50 hp, the light (empty) weight was helpful, if not necessary. The early versions had a three-speed transmission, and a top speed of 78 km/h (48 mph). Life was lived slower then, especially in France.

The seats in this H Van appear to be similar to the 2CV’s, in having a thin upholstered cushion suspended from webbing attached to the seat frame rails.

The H Van had a long life, like so many of Citroen’s vehicles. After some thirty four years, the end came in 1981. And there were a number of variants built during that time, including longer and taller versions. A special ambulance model had the DS’ hydro pneumatic suspension fitted to the rear, to make the ride extra soft on the way to the hospital.

In the seventies, the H-van was the hippie van/camper of choice. Not surprisingly, the H Van still has an enthusiastic cult following. And like absinthe, some folks are still enjoying its peculiar pleasures. A votre santé, Will!

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24 Comments on “Le Curbside Classic: Citroen H Van...”


  • avatar
    Robert.Walter

    Saw a scary movie, on TV, over here once (CH), in which a creepy-dude in an H-van chases down a chick … at one point, she is trying to get away in some kind of euro Ford, Taunus, Capri, Granada, I don’t recall, and she rolls it over in a forest … Then, she has to figure a way to get out of her H-van back compartment prison… no idea the name of the film, but there are plenty of shots of the van chugging away in hot pursuit…

  • avatar
    OldandSlow

    Excellent! You found a surviving H-van in front of a place with green absinthe.

  • avatar
    Hank

    This camper version looks perfect for parking in front of the manoir de la Clampett in Beverly Hills.
    http://www.hvan.co.uk/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=92:1975-camper-for-sale&catid=21:for-sale&Itemid=44

  • avatar
    Johnnyangel

    What a find! From its color scheme, this particular sample even seems to be an ex-police vehicle.

  • avatar

    Great article, great photos!
    Another icon of the French way of transportation was the Renault Goulette (some nice pics here: http://www.mijnalbum.nl/Album-FDUFGAKZ-Foto%27s-van-Renault-Auto%27s.html )

  • avatar
    Scottdb

    All I can surmise from this series is that the “parallel parking” portion of the French driver’s test must be brutal.

  • avatar
    brandloyalty

    My father was in the Canadian Air Force, and we were stationed in France from 1958-1962.  I remember these vans well, but the clearest memory is of the one stocked with various candies that daily trolled Cite Canadienne (PMQ’s, which means a housing complex built for the Air Force families).  Our favorite treat was a real scallop seashell, about 2-3″ diameter, filled with hard candy. The shell was the perfect shape to lick the candy out.

    A few years ago I digitized and scanned thousands of 35mm slides taken back then, and they have all sorts of interesting European cars and trucks in them.  Including our ’58 Simca Vedette Bealieu

  • avatar
    brandloyalty

    My father was in the Canadian Air Force, and we were stationed in France from 1958-1962.  I remember these vans well, but the clearest memory is of the one stocked with various candies that daily trolled Cite Canadienne (PMQ’s, which means a housing complex built for the Air Force families).  Our favorite treat was a real scallop seashell, about 2-3″ diameter, filled with hard candy. The shell was the perfect shape to lick the candy out.

    A few years ago I digitized and scanned thousands of 35mm slides taken back then, and they have all sorts of interesting cars and trucks in them.  Including our ’58 Simca Vedette Bealieu

  • avatar
    Monty

    Is this a floor shifter or an umbrella style shifter? I can’t tell from the photos.

    Edit – Nevermind, it’s a floor shifter. I searched google images and found the answer.

    Also, any idea what is the year of this example?

    Just like the 2CV, it’s so ugly that it has an inherent beauty, in the way that function>form vehicles often possess.

  • avatar
    ClutchCarGo

    Paul, do they sell genuine wormwood absinthe there or just the non-wormwood version sold in the US?

  • avatar

    Well you’ve made my day with that thing. They were all over in ’65-66, when I lived in Paris for the year. And it is beautiful, and the 3,000 lbs seems just amazing on a truck that size. I actually rode in one of these several years ago at the annual Citroen shindig at Saratoga Springs, NY.

  • avatar
    PeriSoft

    Call me shallow, but isn’t there a point where ugly is really just ugly? I get the feeling that a lot of the love here is nostalgia, not something genuinely inspired by the shape.

    Also, it seems bizarre to describe life in 1942 France as being ‘lived slower’ – at least, for those whose lives didn’t stop altogether.

  • avatar
    porschespeed

    Absinthe has been legal (again) in the US for a coupla years now. ‘Tis hardly exotic.
     
    Thujone levels are no higher in Frogland.
     
    Snore…
     

    • 0 avatar
      fastback

      Oh… a porschespeed comment…..

      yawn. 

      Sorry if you’ve just lived so much more life than us, dude.
      I guess we’re not worthy of reading your crap posts.  

  • avatar
    Nick

    ‘The Citroen H van…for people who want to drive a Quonset Hut.’

  • avatar
    postjosh

    i’ve noticed an awesome citroen h van parked on north moore st. here in nyc. it is apparently a coffee van from the venerable espresso bar la colombe on church st. i have to say not only do they exquisite taste in transportation but they also serve the best coffee downtown.
    http://citypaper.net/blogs/mealticket/2010/08/06/this-sunday-get-closer-to-the-roaster-at-la-colombe/

  • avatar
    probert

    Thank you for this series of french cars.  I lived in Paris in the late 60s when these cars defined the landscape.  I think they have a beauty that is peculiarly French, and something that’s missing in most modern cars – especially here – called charm.
     
     

  • avatar
    Slow_Joe_Crow

    You didn’t have to travel that far to see an H van in regular use. Portland Citroen guru Bill Lonseth has one that he uses as a shop van, painted in Ikea blue and yellow, or at least it was in 1995.

  • avatar
    fred schumacher

    When I was in my mid-50s, I worked for Fedex Ground for a couple of years as a utility driver, never knowing each morning where I would be sent out in a 20-county Southern Minnesota region. I begged for a van like this, with its low step up height and front wheel drive. If Fedex had let me, I would have bought the nearest American equivalent, the Utilimaster Aeromate, built on a Mopar minivan FWD running gear.

    Having owned two Simca 1204 GLS cars during my early farming days in North Dakota, I know the French are really good at designing suspension systems for very bad roads. The standard Fedex Ground stepvan, based on a two-ton I-H farm truck chassis, is an oversprung pig, unable to get down unplowed farm driveways without sliding all over the place. On washboard gravel roads, I had to match the frequency of the ruts with precise control of my ground speed to keep boxes from bouncing off the shelves.

    The Citroen H has the right morphology for a delivery van. Why can’t manufacturers make a modern version?

    • 0 avatar
      joeaverage

      Fred – the Ford Transit Connect is about as close as we’ve got right now. I thought the same thing when I lived in Italy. Why can the Europeans do so much of their delivery work and their TV/phone/cable/IT/utility support with these little car based trucklets and Americans need giant trucks and vans with 2 ton suspensions under them for the same jobs?
      I don’t think the really, really soft French suspensions of the originals would work with the higher speeds of modern American traffic. I’ve driven 2CVs and their bodyroll is pretty extreme even at modest speeds. I guess that keeps the driver driving at sane speeds though. My aircooled VWs have the same “feature” built in. GRIN!


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