Citroën Traction Avant camionnette: van extraordinaire

| 4 Jun 2019
Classic & Sports Car – Citroën Traction Avant camionnette: van extraordinaire

Few classic Citroëns get rarer than this, the classiest load-lugger in town, says Jon Pressnell

It’s the rarest production Traction Avant ever made. No, it’s not a coupé.

Thin on the ground though those are, a full 110 of the estimated 773 built between 1934 and ’38 are said to survive.

Nor is it the less scarce roadster, of which around 450 remain of the 4672 made pre-war.

You’d have to be a lover of the obscure to have put your finger on it, but the model in question is an, er, van – a variant that was factory-built, of all places, in Citroën’s Denmark plant.

Classic & Sports Car – Citroën Traction Avant camionnette: van extraordinaire
The brochure for the second-type van touted its 450kg payload

A mere 500 or so were made at the Copenhagen works, and it is thought that only three survive. Rarer than that you don’t get, this side of the three known pre-production 15-Six roadsters.

The idea might seem incongruous, but the reality of this Franco-Danish cut-and-shut is surely one of the most elegant commercial vehicles you’ll ever see, judging by Jens Møller Nicolaisen’s delightful 1950 example.

One of the first series of conversions, and thus with a lengthened roof and squarer back, it began life as a grocer’s van on one of Denmark’s islands, and has been owned by the Copenhagen graphic designer for 26 years.

Acquired as an engine-less wreck, its roof caved in by children playing on it, it has covered 40,000 trouble-free miles since emerging from restoration. So how did these camionnettes come about?

Classic & Sports Car – Citroën Traction Avant camionnette: van extraordinaire
The 1947 prototype had welded-up rear doors and a metal hatch

New cars were hard to obtain in the early post-war era in Denmark, because the government restricted imports. Accordingly, it required proof of a genuine need before the sale of a car would be authorised.

This meant that private cars were difficult to buy – but that a purchase licence for a commercial vehicle was less of a problem, on the basis that need was easier to establish.

To capitalise on this, and on the lower rate of tax payable on commercials, Citroën’s Danish operation developed an 11BL – or Onze Légère  – van, the conversion being approved by Citroën in Paris.

The 1947 prototype was a simple adaptation of the saloon, with welded-up back doors, blanked-out rear windows and a top-hinged tailgate cut into the back panel. It seems that this was not sufficiently distant from the saloon to convince the authorities – or that its payload was inadequate for it to be deemed a delivery van.

Classic & Sports Car – Citroën Traction Avant camionnette: van extraordinaire
The van entered production with this problematic wood-slat door

Whatever the reasons, the definitive version, which went on sale in October ’49, had a remodelled rear, with different side panels and an extended roof.

The new panelling was braced by a vertical strengthener on each side and a further welded-in strap between the rear quarter-panel and each wheelarch.

The only structural timber was used to form the aperture for the rear door. Payload was quoted as 450kg (992lb), and access to the loadspace was by a cheap-to-make roll-up wooden door.

In dry weather this rattled and squeaked, while in the rain it leaked and the teak slats swelled so the door refused to open.

It was superseded by a one-piece hinged door – steel over a timber frame, and with or without a window – probably in around mid-1950.

Apparently a squad of half a dozen body-men was drafted in to bash through the conversions, the starting point being a saloon supplied from Paris without its bootlid and some items of trim.

At peak output, the vans were cranked out at a rate of up to six a day: by the end of 1949 there were 131 awaiting customers.

Classic & Sports Car – Citroën Traction Avant camionnette: van extraordinaire
The rear features a grille behind the driver and a side-mounted spare

Consequently workmanship was not of the highest standard. Despite using a reputed 70lb (30kg) of lead, the doors weren’t hidden that satisfactorily, and when the lead began to sink their shape tended be revealed; customers often complained.

The flipside was that it wasn’t difficult to melt out the lead, cut the welds and convert the van into a saloon – complete with hatchback rear.

The law encouraged such conversions: after three years, you could pay a supplementary tax and legally transform your van into a passenger vehicle. To help the process, Citroën offered a kit of parts neatly packaged in a smart wooden box.

In any case, it did not go unnoticed that for many people buying a van was a dodge from the start. In such instances, once the car was home it received rear seats, if not rear windows.

In April ’52, the Copenhagen works made life easier both for itself and for tax-evading customers by offering a revised van that retained the existing saloon shell.

The rear doors were welded shut and the window apertures panelled over, and there was a side-hinged door cut into the tail.

Manufacture of this ‘short-roof’ type continued until September ’53, so the final examples used the ‘big-boot’ body – but with the back door as before.

Of these ‘short-roof’ versions, only one survives.

Classic & Sports Car – Citroën Traction Avant camionnette: van extraordinaire
Here’s the Nicolaisen car in later life, when altered back to a saloon

Nicolaisen’s van originally had the slatted door. Soon after its first owner bought the vehicle, he had it given a wood-framed steel item by a local firm.

“I kept it, because it was so nicely made,” Nicolaisen says. “But you can see it was hand-formed, because there is a different curvature to each side of the window surround.”

Wandering around the van you take in various unique details: the behind-grille mesh stoneguard common to all Danish-market Tractions, the scuttle-mounted trafficators used until about 1952, the red roundel on the rear numberplate that signifies a commercial vehicle and thus – at the time – prohibited use on Sundays.

Those rear bumpers? Specific to the van in all its forms, says Nicolaisen, who took 15 years to find a pair.

Inside, there is a protective grille behind the driver, fold-flat seats, and on the dashboard the temperature gauge fitted to all but the first Traction Avants sold in the Scandinavian country.

To the rear there’s a wood floor and exposed painted wheelarches: at the time there were complaints about these, as well as noise from the exhaust.

The side mounting for the spare encroaching into the loadspace was another source of grumbles when the vans were new.

Classic & Sports Car – Citroën Traction Avant camionnette: van extraordinaire
The heater ducted from the radiator was appreciated in Danish winters

There are no great surprises when driving, once you’ve accepted the restricted rear vision and the higher noise level

Firm controls, the deliberate three-speed ‘mustard spoon’ dash gearchange, the taut rack-and-pinion steering: it’s all standard – and seductive – Traction Avant fare.

The low gearing is doubtless less of an issue with a commercial vehicle and, mated to the lazy torque of the beefy 1911cc pushrod ‘four’, it facilitates trickling along in top gear.

With the Citroën’s legendary roadholding and adequately comfortable ride, the delivery driver of the time would surely have been spoilt.

Classic & Sports Car – Citroën Traction Avant camionnette: van extraordinaire
A swish solution for the milk round, this ultra-rare van was produced at Citroën’s Copenhagen facility – just three out of 500 are left

Ultimately, though, a van based on a costly mid-sized saloon made sense only as a tax dodge or a way of leapfrogging the new-car queue.

In any other context a purpose-built small van – think A30 or Minor – would have been cheaper to buy, run and maintain.

But Citroën’s classy load-lugger offers a window on a particular period of history and has the extra charm of its extreme rarity.

“If I had to choose between my 1935 roadster and this,” smiles Jens Møller Nicolaisen, “it would have to be the van.”

Images: Tony Baker


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