Curbside Classic: 1974 Citroën HY Van – Corrugated Irony

I’m writing this literally from the middle of nowhere, otherwise known as the island of Hokkaido. And it so happens that on the western shore of said island, in a small fishing village, I found this pristine late model Citroën van. This, in a country overrun with body kit makers who try to turn present-day Subaru or Suzuki kei vans into ersatz Type Hs?

Well, at least it’s quite nice to finally see the real thing and not the surimi version. But it is very strange to bump into a classic Citroën van in a coastal village on Hokkaido. It’s like finding a Chinese restaurant in the Amazon rainforest. I’m sure those exist, too. Just looks a bit out of place. I’ve not seen many CC-worthy cars here so far, unfortunately, save for this Type H and another major find, which I will write up forthwith. Otherwise, the weather is cooler, the scenery is dramatic and the seafood is wonderful. Kind of like Iceland, but without blond people.

Just to add a smattering of weirdness to this innocuous encounter, this Type H is a Benelux or Swiss market model. I don’t think I’d ever seen one of these before. Those countries outlawed suicide doors, so Citroën had to make a version of the Type H with front-hinged doors for these crucial export markets. I believe this happened in 1969, just as the rear wheels got square fenders.

So whereas the French/rest-of-the-world markets kept the original doors, with the Traction Avant’s antique-looking handles, the Dutch/Belgian/Swiss vans got a their door handles (taken from the DS) on the other side, and set much lower. Also, the step ahead of the front wheel is noticeably different, with a much more pronounced angle. It really goes to show that this vehicle was designed to have rear-hinged doors – getting in and out with these front-hinged ones must be a bit of a pain.

Strangely enough, this rather substantial change took place just as Dutch and Belgian Type H production was being wound down. About 10,000 of these vans were assembled in Amsterdam and another 6000 or so were built in Citroën’s Belgian plant in Forest, but that was all over by 1970. Some H vans were also made in Portugal, but those all had the normal doors, as far as I know.

Above: last Type H, Aulnay factory, 14 Dec. 1981; below: LWB Dutch carrier with precious cargo, early ‘70s

The French mother plant(s) made about 475,000 Type Hs between 1947 and 1981. Many had the Traction Avant’s 1911cc engine and 3-speed manual (no synchro on 1st), as this was the default model from beginning to the very end. In 1963, a 1.6 litre option was added to the range; a Perkins Diesel became available in the early ‘60s and was soon replaced by a Peugeot-made Indenor, but those are less common.

Inside, it’s a veritable Ali Baba’s cave of classic Citroën parts – the Ami’s instrument binnacle, 2CV headlamp controls, DS-19 switchgear, Traction steering wheel… The red interior looks great with that black.

For a vehicle that was never really styled (Flaminio Bertoni was kept completely out of the loop on this one), the Type H still managed to look both completely weird and utterly logical, which should have been Citroën’s slogan in those days.

Citroën didn’t even bother integrating the headlamps in the body (which the Type H’s predecessor, the TUB, did have). The 2CV’s free-standing pods were in mass production, so they would do quite nicely. In making these non-designer choices and working on a shoestring budget, Pierre Franchiset actually designed a perfect engineer’s van – something durable, easy to manufacture and very user-friendly.

Same with the corrugated panels, which Franchiset got off the German Junkers aircraft. That was a cheap solution to help make the monocoque van much lighter and sprightlier than its competitors, but it also made it look very distinctive. The Renault 1000Kg van, for instance, had a cumbersome wood-framed body sitting atop a conventional RWD frame powered by an antediluvian side-valve engine. Renault and Peugeot both switched to FWD for their light vans as soon as they could, because the Type H was so clearly superior that it could only be imitated – but not with corrugated panels. That would have looked too much like they were copying Citroën.

The van that was not styled became a styling legend. It’s certainly iconic in most of Western Europe, but also in Japan. It’s so popular here there’s even one having its retirement on a beach in Hokkaido, hoping, like the rest of us, that the anti-tsunami wall does its thing. I guess this van was meant to work for a living – its owner looks like he’s planning to turn it into something revenue-generative, but the work is not yet done, despite our being in the middle of the summer. Perhaps this is all on hold due to the COVID-19 thing, which is the one wave we didn’t see coming. Ironic.


Related posts:


Le Curbside Classic: Citroen H Van – The French Tin Goose, by PN

Cohort Sighting: Citroen HY Truck – My Latest Heartthrob, by PN

Cohort Outtakes: Ice Cream Trucks, Tall and Long, by PN

Food Truck Outtake: Citroën H-Van – A Long Way From Chartres, by Jim Klein

QOTD: How Do You Prefer Your Citroen H Van?, by Roger Carr

CC Twofer: 1972 Renault Estafette / 1976 Citroën HY – A Couple Of Your Best Van De Table, See-voo-play, by T87