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70 Years of the Citroen H

This year marks 70 years of not just one of the greatest Citroens ever made but a true French automotive icon.

The H is not just the world’s first van with monocoque construction, it was also the vehicle that became an essential part of everyday life in France, from the black and white ‘Panier à salade’ (salad basket) police vans to delivering the post and fresh bread every morning.

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The H’s origins date back to 1942 when Citroen devised a truly audacious plan to build a light commercial that would not only boast a unitary body but also front wheel drive, rack & pinion steering and all-independent suspension.

As France’s motor industry, and the supply of raw materials, had been decimated by the Second World War, the H was to use as many existing Citroen components as possible.

A front subframe carried the running gear; the 1.9-litre engine from the Traction Avant Onze Normale plus the steering, front suspension and brakes from the six-cylinder 15/6 saloon.

To further reduce costs and overall weight, the body would employ the corrugated steel panels that would eventually gain the H its nickname of ‘Le Tube’.

The tailgate could be opened in a variety of ways, the lack of a drive shaft helped to create a load bay that was six feet in height while a side door enhanced the ‘walk-through’ interior - which was yet another ‘first’.

The top speed of 55 mph was more than adequate by the standards of the day and the ratios on the three-speed transmission were selected for maximum flexibility.

In the late 1940s, the H was possibly the only van that could safely transport egg crates over the worst rural French roads while the floor was said to be strong enough to support a horse.

The new Citroen van made its debut in October 1947 at the Paris Salon des Automobiles and full manufacture commenced in the following years.

Production only ceased in December 1981 and over the decades, Citroen naturally made many improvements to the design; the electrics were eventually upgraded to a 12-volt system, the 1959 HY had a much greater payload and a diesel engine was offered from 1961 onwards.

Eleven years later, the ambulance version could even be specified with hydropneumatic rear suspension.

Of the 473,289 Hs made by Citroen, most were destined for the company’s core European markets but Le Tube was not officially sold in the UK even though, on paper at least, it stood a considerable chance of appealing to fleet and private buyers alike.

By the early 1960s, the Renault Estafette, and especially the Volkswagen Type 2, enjoyed quite a following while Citroens had been assembled in the UK since 1923.

In fact, a handful of vans were converted to RHD at the company’s assembly plant in Slough for purposes of evaluation, but it was eventually decided not to market the H in Britain.

One challenge was that the body would have to be modified so that the side-door was on the left-hand side but the principal reason seems to have been that Citroen did not believe that they could compete with the likes of the Bedford CA.

And so for a very long time, motorists on this side of the Channel were more likely to have seen the great Citroen on the BBC’s Maigret series or the Five Miles to Midnight episode of The Persuaders! than in real life.

Today, you will often encounter Le Tube as an ultra-stylish mobile shop and that famous profile looks set to be a part of the motoring landscape for many years to come. Formidable!

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