I was born in the 1980s, over a decade after the gas crisis forced Citroen and other French automakers out of the American car market, and I've always been drawn to the quirky French classic automobiles that are mostly absent from American roads. The Citroen H Van is no exception. Introduced in 1947 for the Paris Motor Show, the design remained largely unchanged for the van's 33-year run ending in 1981. Using 1900cc and 1600cc 4-cylinder engines, power is delivered to the front wheels through a 3-speed transmission with a nonsynchromesh first gear.
When a friend purchased a Citroen H Van as a work/show vehicle for her bakery, I had to go take a look. Even better, I was given the opportunity to drive it. Since the van is nicely emblazoned with her bakery's logo, I was compensated with tasty baked treats for showing the Citroen off around town.
The H-Type was directly influenced by one of Citroen's historically significant cars, the Traction Avant. Debuted in 1934, the Traction Avant made great leaps in French car development and production. It was one of the first monocoque-constructed cars, an advancement over body-on-frame or coach-built chassis. In addition, the Traction Avant also introduced four-wheel independent suspension, which carried over to the H-Type Van. I personally believe that this suspension lead to Citroen's development of the hydraulic suspension later made famous by the Citroen DS, one of the most stylish and iconic vehicles ever produced. The pressed metal exterior of the H Van added rigidity to its body without adding weight, and this design feature carried over to other Citroens -- even the tiny Mehari buggy, if only for aesthetic purposes.
Approaching the Citroen, tiny key in hand, I first noticed its size. It's surprisingly compact -- and at 168 inches long, it's exactly the same length as a 2017 Volkswagen Beetle, which would be laughably small for a modern cargo van. The interior, however, is very spacious, and includes space for a sink, shelves and all the implements you'd want in a bakery van. The floor is low, thanks to the four-wheel independent suspension, and an average-sized adult need not crouch in the back. There's a large sliding door on the passenger side for easy entry to the cargo area. After my initial inspection of the rear, I opened the rear-hinged front door and climbed in. The seats are nicely upholstered and comfortable despite lacking seat belts and nearly every other modern innovation in automotive comfort and safety. The Citroen H did have headlights, wipers, turn signals and a horn, but no climate control except for a single speed fan that directed air through a tiny center vent directly below the ashtray. It was clearly made to be a stylish service vehicle, spacious and efficiently designed. When I sat down to drive, I imagined myself smoking a Galouise, delivering milk around the French countryside.
I started the Citroen by turning the tiny key to the on position, and a dim red light to the left of the speedometer was illuminated. I pulled the choke and pushed a red click button that reminded me of a gas grill ignition switch. After a little cajoling, the motor coughed to life with a loud rumble. I let it warm up for a minute, put the choke in, and acquainted myself with the gear-shift lever. The shift pattern was different from any other vehicle I've driven. It was an H pattern where third was at the top left, second was at the bottom left, first was at the bottom right, and reverse was at the top right. The shift travel from first to second was long. Shifting from first to second involved starting with your arm behind your back in first gear and making a full diagonal extension as far forward as you can reach to second. Once you're moving, shifting between second and third is easy. First gear was exclusively needed to start moving, second gear for slow speeds to around 20 miles per hour, and third gear for anything faster. It was loud and bouncy, and traveling at 30 mph felt pretty fast. I certainly had no interest hitting the top speed of 55-60 mph! Did I mention that it didn't have seat belts?
Although my friend's H Van was from 1980, very few changes were made since its introduction after the end of the last World War. It felt archaic and underpowered, but that didn't matter to me. The Citroen H Van was crude, loud and utilitarian to the bone, yet stylish -- and an adventure to drive in the most French way I could imagine. Plus, I was turning heads as I drove down the street, a feeling that brings me the most joy in the driving experience -- especially when I'm piloting something weird and unique.
Special thanks to Carissa's Breads in East Hampton, New York.
Sam Keller is a visual artist from Brooklyn. He runs the Instagram account @hamptonwhipz, capturing classic cars in the Hamptons, New York City, and anywhere else his travels take him.