In the mid 1940s and as Europe was recovering from the catastrophic consequences of World War II, Citroen started developing a practical, strong, durable and technologically advanced light commercial vehicle to cover the ever-increasing needs of the growing market. The Citroen Type H, unveiled at the 1947 Paris Motor Show, wasn’t just ahead of its time but also set the standard for modern vans with its innovative design.
The development of the Type H started in 1943 as the evolution of the short-lived TUB (1939-1941) and TUC (1941) vans which were produced in low numbers due to the war. Finally, Type H production commenced in June 1948 at the French city Javel, almost a year after its debut in Paris. The LCV was based on a unitarian construction with torsion bar suspension, instead of the traditional body on frame architecture with leaf springs which was the standard for both commercial and passenger vehicles at the time.
Borrowed from the flagship Citroën Traction Avant (1934), the 1.9-litre engine (producing from 26kW to 38kW) and the three-speed manual gearbox were positioned ahead of the front axle (cab-forward design). Power was sent to the front wheels making it the first mass-produced front-wheel-drive van in the world. Even though its top speed would hardly reach 80-100km/h, the monocoque architecture, unusual suspension setup and hydraulic brakes allowed for great cornering ability, while the rack-and-pinion steering made it easier to manoeuvre around town.
Responsible for the design of the Type H was Italian car designer Flaminio Bertoni (1903-1964), the same man whose illustrious portfolio includes the Traction Avant (1934), the 2CV (1948-1990), the DS (1955-1975) and the Ami 6 (1961-1978). In order to reduce costs, the LCV used many parts from existing models in the Citroen range.
The signature design element of the boxy look with geometric shapes and flat surfaces was the corrugated body panels. The parallel creases on the bodywork inspired by the aeronautics offered increased strength with the minimum weight possible. The same technique was also used on the bonnet of the 2CV Prototype (1939), and the early production versions, as well as on the side panels of the Méhari (1968-1987).
At the front, the cab-over design resulted in a long front overhang with the passengers sitting above the front axle. The short bonnet was shaped around the rectangular grille occupied by the Citroen double chevron emblem. The 2CV-sourced round headlights were popping from the angled sides of the bonnet similar to the lowered-positioned turn signals.
Bellow the nose was a protruding metal bumper protecting the bodywork from minor collisions. The van initially featured a double windscreen which was replaced by a single unit from 1964. Other than the front end, the curved roof panel and the holes for the wheels, the rest of the bodywork was completely flat to make the best possible use of interior space.
In its standard form, the Type H was 4.28m long, 2m wide and 2.34m tall, and weighed 1300kg. Despite its compact dimensions, the futuristic layout allowed greater cargo space than any other vehicle of its size (around 7.3 cubic metres). Thanks to the independent suspension, the lack of a transmission tunnel and the monocoque architecture, the loading floor sat very low at just 35mm above the ground and was completely flat.
In a vintage brochure, Citroen states that one could fit two cows, 8-10 pigs, 25-30 sheep or 6-8 calves inside a Type H - obviously, ethical treatment of animals wasn’t a thing back then, but you get the point. At the same time, the double floor could support the weight of a horse. Standard payload was 1200kg but depending on the derivative it could vary from 850kg to 1600kg.
Among the best design features of the Type H and the one that distinguished it the most from its competitors is the three-piece rear door, with the upper part offering protection from the rain. The front doors were hinged at the rear, allowing passengers to easily enter the cabin using the integrated steps.
Inside the cabin, driver and passenger had access to adjustable seats, heating and ventilation, with a practical drawer in the middle of the dashboard for extra storage. At the passenger side of the van, there was a sliding door which gave access to the cargo compartment and made the Type H profiles asymmetrical. In typical Citroen fashion, there was a hidden spare wheel inside a special compartment ahead of the rear fenders. From 1969, the rear wheels received a more stylish boxy cover replacing the old circular fender.
So, what happened next?
After the original Type H debuted, Citroen gradually presented more versions of it with the HY (improved version with 1200kg payload), the HZ (softer suspension and 850kg payload), the HW (more capable with 1500 kg payload), the Type H Plateau (pick-up), the H Minibus (people carrier), the H Bétaillère (for the livestock), the HY Long Wheelbase (extended length of 5.24m) and the HW (with hydropneumatic suspension at the rear axle). According to the French company, the most significant updates of their LCV occurred 1964, 1969 and 1969 with a few exterior changes and mechanical improvements.
As for the engines, besides the regular 1.9-litre petrol engine which was retained until the end of the production with minor revisions, Citroen expanded the range with a four-cylinder 1.6-litre petrol and a 1.6-litre Perkins diesel, which was later replaced by a four-cylinder 1.8-litre Indénor diesel.
In 1948, Citroën unveiled the Type G prototype - a smaller version of the Type H with similar design, more compact dimensions (3470mm / 1855mm / 1680mm) and the 2CV’s tiny engine - however unlike its bigger brother it never made it to production.
In 1950, Volkswagen unveiled the Type 2 - the main competitor for the Citroen Type H and one of the most successful and long-running commercial vehicles in history, although it had a weaker engine and could carry less volume and weight compared to the French van.
During its 34-year production run, the Type H served in many forms as a specialised vehicle for the police, the post-office, hospitals (ambulance), bakeries, groceries, mobile shops, camper vans, small busses et cetera. Today, some examples are still in use as retro-style food trucks or as advertising vehicles around Europe.
Between 1948 and 1981, a total of 473,289 units of the Citroen Type H were produced, making it a very common sight - especially in France.
In 2017, Italian designer Fabrizio Caselani, in collaboration with David Obedorfer, presented a special bodykit for the Citroen Jumper, transforming it into a modern reinterpretation of the Type H. The retro-inspired van was designed to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the launch of the original, and also as a tribute to its designer - Flaminio Bertoni.
The kit including all the body panels that can be purchased separately to be fitted in a donor car, or directly as a brand new vehicle. Buyers can choose between the Panelvan, Minibus, Chassis, Campervan, Food Truck, Camper, Towtruck and Wildcamp for off-road adventures. Production was limited to 70 units of each version at the Italian motor valley by Caselani Automobili, while the project was officially licenced by Citroen.
The Citroen Type H was one of the greatest commercial vehicles the world has seen. This van is an example of industrial design at its best, introducing a series of innovative solutions and features while successfully answering the specific needs of its target group. Even by today’s standards, the concept of a light commercial vehicle with compact dimensions, a unitarian body construction, huge loading space and front-wheel-drive is still relevant.