From 1960 to 1980, the Renault Estafette and the Citroën HY (a.k.a “Type H” or “Tub”) were straight up rivals in the small world of FWD vans. The Renault’s smaller engine was compensated by its newer approach, being about 20 years younger than the HY. But the pioneering Citroën did have the capacity to haul greater loads, and look good while doing it. Which one would you have picked back in the day?
Let’s look at each contender in turn. Age before beauty: we begin with the Estafette. Renault launched this little van – their first-ever FWD vehicle – in late 1959, using the Dauphine’s 850cc engine mated to a specific 4-speed all-synchromesh gearbox. Soon, the R8’s 1100cc became available, followed in 1968 by the R10’s 1300cc providing 43 hp (gross). That’s pretty much as good as it would get, engine-wise.
The Estafette was originally rated for 500-600kg of cargo, though the platform could handle well over 1000kg in its latest iteration. Campervan, food and ice cream truck, police and military transport, pick-up, ambulance – the Estafette could fit every purpose. Though it was never a quick mode of transport, it was perfect for limited-range urban or country use, especially for small businesses and local authorities.
Renault tried to sell their new van in the US in 1960, when the Dauphine was selling well, renaming it the “Petit Panel” (or “Hi-Boy” with the tall roof). According to French sources, US Federal authorities never gave the green light, so Renault eventually gave up, though it seems a few did make it across the pond.
The main competition on the European market was of course the VW Transporter, which was the van Renault took their inspiration from. Crucially though, Renault determined that the rear engine layout, though it was close to their heart, was impractical for a useful minivan. Front-wheel-drive was becoming almost obligatory, as Alfa Romeo also found out in the ‘50s, to lower the floor, keep it flat and make full use of cargo space. The curbside rear sliding door, pioneered by Citroën, was also included.
When the FWD Estafette came out, Renault’s main car output was small rear-engined cars (the 4CV and the Dauphine), but also the Frégate saloon and the Dauphinoise wagon, which were front-engined RWD. Renault were the first automaker to have all three basic car/engine layouts in production at the same time, in 1959-60. So this van is highly significant as Renault’s first-ever of a long, uninterrupted line of FWD vehicles.
The aesthetics of this Renault van are not my personal cup of tea, but then that wasn’t the brief. In 1969, the bumper was beefed up and extended to include the step. A new, better-defined grille was a welcomed development in 1972. The last change was the new Renault logo designed by Vasarely in 1974.
The one I found was obviously an old Gendarmerie van – that colour is a pretty obvious clue. These are becoming hard to find in France, after decades of them being everywhere. Over half a million were made in 21 years, but it seems most have worked themselves to the salvage yard by now. In the late ‘60s / early ‘70s, Renault usually sold over 20,000 in France and exported around 10,000 per year.
Bit tricky to get a shot of the inside. It’s all very period Renault, with buttons and dials from the contemporary R 6, R 8 or/and R 16. What cannot be seen is the gear lever, which is mounted behind the driver’s seat and must be operated by feel, though there is a diagram on the dashboard, just like on the Citroën.
Our Estafette does not have the sliding front driver’s door, but many did. One up on Citroën, whose H van was structurally incapable of that. The rear door arrangement was straight-up Citroën though, as this three-door configuration was, consumer surveys showed, a huge plus. If you can’t beat ‘em…
So on to the Type H already, then. I’m not sure how to date this one precisely, as the seat belts (which are correct HY seat belts, as fitted from 1975) can and are retrofitted to older vans. It’s certainly the last series, with the single-piece windshield (since 1964), the revised grille (1965) and the squared-off rear wings that came for model year 1970.
Much like the 2CV, Citroën’s original FWD van, the 1939-41 TUB (Traction Utilitaire Basse), acted as a final draft before the company re-examined the brief and aced it when the TUB was reborn as the Type H in 1947 (production started in mid-1948). The idea was to create a practical, low FWD van, using as much of the Traction Avant’s technology as possible. That’s exactly what they did.
I mean, just look inside this thing. The original Traction-sourced speed gauge was replaced with an Ami-inspired atrocity in the ‘60s, but they sure kept the Traction Avant’s streeting wheel and lights stalk. The switchgear, wipers, pedals and other bits are a mish-mash of DS, Ami and Traction parts as well.
The engine, front torsion bar suspension, gearbox and brakes are also from the Traction Avant, though the 1991cc did go through a fair amount of substantial changes. In the HY, the old Citroën 4-cyl. was definitely not geared for performance like it was on contemporary DSs. It produced a mellow 56 hp (gross) and was still mated to the Traction’s 3-speed manual gearbox. Though there’s a good chance this oil-crisis-era van has the Indénor 1.8 Diesel: only 50 hp (gross) to push 2 tons of van plus 1.5 tons of cargo…
But then the Type H is a hauling machine if there ever was one. The Citroën 4-cyl. is a notoriously able workhorse and, like the Estafette, the Type H was used for all sorts of activities. The HY’s larger engines enabled it to pull anywhere from 1000 to 1800kg. Some folks even upgraded the HY with hydropneumatic suspension.
The door handles are also unmistakably from the ‘30s Traction. The HY’s suicide front doors were part of the design and a very popular feature. In the ‘70s, some European governments mandated that suicide doors, perhaps a victim of their name, were to be outlawed on new vehicles. That is why late model Dutch- and Belgian-market HY vans have reversed front door hinges. In France, the old doors carried on all the way till the end of production in late 1981.
Though produced over three decades (two for the Estafette), The Citroën H van was made in about 475,000 units – not as high as the Renault, but in the same ballpark. It was certainly better than its predecessor, the TUB, which sold fewer than 2000 units. That’s what you get for being launched in the summer of 1939.
The TUB had shown the way, but the Type H was a reinvention of it on a larger scale. The man behind the H was Pierre Franchiset, head of Citroën’s body development unit. The H did not require an engineer, it required a monocoque. The TUB had gone with a chassis, but weight-saving was a great concern. This also explains the corrugated panels, straight out of a Junkers aircraft. The same thing was done on the contemporary 2CV, though limited to the hood only.
Citroën considered a 2CV-based “Type G” van for a while. This tiny vehicle (under 6’ high) would have used a 475cc version of the flat-twin to enable it to carry 500kg of cargo. The front suspension was 2CV-based (though toned down), but the rear had torsion bars like the Type H. In the end, a cheaper, smaller capacity saloon-based van was preferred.
The 2-cyl. FWD van did exist: Ailing automaker Chenard-Walcker made a 1-litre twin-powered mini version of the TUB in 1941. Chenard updated their design after the war and started using Peugeot engines, which were quite bigger, giving them a “pig nose” look. The operation was bought by Peugeot in 1950, ending the Chenard-Walcker marque by 1951. The Peugeot D3 (D4 from 1955, with the bigger 403 engine) was in the class just below the 2-litre Type H. Renault then opted for a smaller and cheaper Estafette to box in the 1-litre category against the VW van. It was like a cartel, each of the Big Trois splitting the FWD van market into slices like that, but it worked out well enough for everyone except Peugeot. The D3/D4 sold in fewer numbers than the HY or the Estafette, perhaps due to pricing and the age of the design, which did not have a sliding side door.
Peugeot launched the J7 in 1965, a much more competent competitor and contemporary of our two CCs. Peugeot’s ultimate ace in the hole was their proficiency in Diesel engines, which soon proved to be very popular. The redesigned J9 replaced the J7 in 1980, keeping the cab-over-engine design through to 1991 in France – though the van is apparently still in production in Turkey as the Karsan J11. By contrast, both Renault and Citroën quit making CoE vans after 1980 and 1981, respectively. A new generation of transverse FWD layouts took over. They were much easier to deal with – cheaper to make, easier to operate. But they lacked a certain identity.
Surely the Citroën HY is the demonstration of how iconic a CoE one-box van can be. Vans don’t need to be boring, though many are. And these “icons” are clearly still hard at work. Our Type H has had some restoration work done, but it’s back in the game – in this case, carrying crates of freshly-picked olives to the oil mill.
The Estafette is less appealing to me because of its looks, but this relatively well-preserved 45-year-old is also hard at work, building a house. The Renault engines in these are still pretty common, so mechanically, it could run for a long time yet. It all depends how much rust lies beneath that patina.
Yes, I would take the Type H in a heartbeat. But I’m not unmoved by the Renault. They are having their time in the shade these days, but the early ones do have a definite period charm. But just like I’d pick the 2CV over the Renault 4, there’s something in a Citroën’s uncompromising style that never fails to appeal.
QOTD: How Do You Prefer Your Citroen H Van?, by Roger Carr