Backbone of a Nation
Everyone loves a hard worker. A vehicle so ingratiated in the public consciousness that it becomes a byword for national pride. In the UK we have the Ford Transit, the Americans have the Ford F-100 (originally known as the F-1) and the French have the Citroën HY van. These are the vehicles that keep a country moving and in the case of the Citroën, it was born out of necessity, helping to get a ravaged post-war France back on its metaphorical feet.
History of the Citroën HY Van
It’s fair to say that WWII devastated France and with it, its industry. Commercial vehicles were in high demand but in short supply and coupled with the scarcity of materials, Citroën acted quickly by diving into the spares bin of the Traction Avant and seeing what they could conjure up from minimal tooling, design and crucially, materials.
It may not look like it but the HY was the first mass produced commercial van to have a monocoque construction with the body and chassis designed to be fully integrated with each other. It also featured rack and pinion steering, side-loading, independent suspension all round and a hefty load limit of 1.2 (later 1.6) tonnes. It would take the best part of four decades for this to become standard kit in the UK.
When it was launched onto an unsuspecting public in 1947, it was hoovered up by the armed forces, the police, builders, shop owners, butchers and all sorts of people who needed to shift goods and produce from one place to another.
Between 1947 and the time they ceased production in 1981, Citroën made 473,289 HY vans, mainly in factories in France and Belgium, almost exclusively in left-hand drive and the vast majority were sold there and in the Netherlands. A very small number of HYs were assembled in Slough and there are rumours of a single surviving right-hand drive example somewhere in the UK…
Interesting fact: In France, the HY is known as ‘nez de cochon’ or ‘pig’s nose’ but when the police used them, it was known as ‘panier à salade’, or ‘salad basket’.
The corrugated body was inspired from the Junkers airplane from Germany. The ribbing in the sheet metal added strength but no weight and the manufacturing process was simple and cost-effective with the engines changing very little during the entire 44 year run. Citroën used just two 1.9-litre four cylinder petrol engines as well as a 1.6-litre for the second iteration. They made a noisy diesel version with a little more torque but they could all cruise at a steady 55-60 mph.
The early vans had a VW Camper-esque split-screen but in 1964 it was swapped for a single piece of glass. There were other style changes over the years, such as a bigger rear window, the nose cone was flattened and the round wheel arches became squared but all in all, the HY van is a genuine cult classic that will be fondly remembered for re-energising an entire nation.