Words by Sivan Goren with Mike Schmucker behind the camera
Say “cool van” and most people will automatically picture a split-window kombi with a couple of surfboards on its roof, trundling along a scenic coastal road in Southern California. Indeed, VW kombis these days, despite having been the vehicle of choice for dope-smoking, love-not-war-making (and usually penniless) hippies the world over, now fetch astronomical sums of money – even in considerably less than desirable states. We discovered another (far less familiar) van that, risking vehement opposition from the fiercely loyal air-cooled camp, argue is much cooler. And just to add to its cool factor, it hails from France, naturellement.
This van’s story begins after WWII, when in 1946 Chenard-Walcker launched a front-wheel drive light van powered by a two-cylinder, water-cooled, two-stroke 1021cc engine with a claimed output of just 26hp. Even by the standards of the time, this was woefully insufficient and by 1947, this engine was replaced with an 1133cc engine – that of the Peugeot 202.
Chenard-Walcker had never had huge capital reserves and as a result most of its cars were built by hand, meaning that the company could not be competitive as far as the price of its vehicles. It had already gone bankrupt once in 1936, when it was taken over by body maker Chausson, and it was now clear the business could no longer survive on its own. As Peugeot had provided its engine for the van to use, it became a major creditor and was by virtue of this fact the natural frontrunner to buy the floundering business.
The trade-off of having had a compact two-cylinder engine was that the van could have a streamlined, attractive front. However, with the upgrading to a larger four-cylinder engine, the nose had to be extended, giving the van an odd, protruding front and resulted in its rather derogatory nickname – nez de cochon (pig nose). It did, however, provide a slightly higher output of 30hp. Peugeot stuck its own name on the Chenard-Walcker CP3 van after it acquired the business and it became known as the Peugeot D3.
Power was again increased late in 1950 when the engine was replaced with the 1290cc engine of the recently introduced Peugeot 203, and the D3 became the D3A. In 1952 output increased to 40hp, with the D3B, and to prevent lonely journeys, a passenger seat was fitted in early 1953.
Peugeot had previously discontinued the 202, and the 203 was its only passenger vehicle until 1955, when the 403 was launched. This 1468cc engine was then promptly stuck into the van and in August 1955 the D4 was born. Aesthetically, though, the van was pretty much unchanged – apart from two ‘baguette-style’ (what else?) over-riders on the front bumper. Prospective buyers also had the optional extra of a side door for the load area.
Four years later a diesel option became available, this being quite an innovation for the time – Peugeot was, after Mercedes-Benz, the world leader in diesel engines for automobiles and light trucks – and by 1960, the D4B with 55hp petrol engine was released. A few minor exterior changes followed, including fitting of flashing indicator lights. The van came in a range of body types, including basic panel van, minibus, ambulance and horse-box. The minibus was most famously used by the French police – in fact, in the movie Pink Panther, Inspector Clouseau was driven away in one – and the post office, which found the vans useful for transporting mailmen. But by 1965 the D4B had grown long in the tooth and was replaced – this time with the brand-new Peugeot J7.
The French manufacturer wanted a new design that would be practical and reliable – the idea was a sort of cross between a station wagon and a van that would be comfortable but also work as a utility vehicle. The new van retained the original cab-over design, front-wheel drive and all-independent suspension. As far as engines, the options were either a 1.5-litre (1468cc) four-cylinder petrol engine or a 1.9-litre (1816cc) diesel – these being the same engines as used in the 403 and 404 passenger cars.
The van was not exactly a supermodel in the looks department: it had corrugated side panels, a front grille, large windscreen and high windows. But the driving position was both comfortable and ergonomic and the dashboard was more advanced, which made a change from the vans of the period. It had sliding doors and a rear door that opened wide enough to accommodate its payload of between 1400 and 1800kg, depending on the version. Along with its somewhat basic looks, its ride quality was not great and it had a wicked tendency of shaking up its passengers like cooked pasta draining in a colander when pushed a little harder than it liked.
The J7 was available in a number of versions including panel van, minibus, pick-up and pick-up with cab. A longer wheelbase and increased capacities appeared during the first year of production. Initially a 1.6-litre petrol engine and 2.1-litre diesel engine were released and in 1971 a 1.8-litre petrol and 2.3-litre diesel became available. In 1974 the J7 got disc brakes on the front wheels. By the time production ceased in 1980, over 330 000 had rolled out of the Sochaux factory.
But back to my comparison between the J7 and the VW kombi. Sure, the J7 may not have won any beauty contents and most would say that the VW kombi was far more aesthetically pleasing, and – let’s face it – pretty darn sweet and likeable, like a cute little Labrador puppy. The J7, while it could be likened to the vehicular equivalent of a slightly homely ‘pavement special’ that no one wants to adopt, has the underlying cool factor. And furthermore, technically speaking, the VW kombi cannot match it.
Think about this for a second: VW only offered a diesel engine in its kombi from 1981, by which time the Peugeot vans had used them for years. The J7 and its predecessors had front-wheel drive which provided an even, deep and flat loading surface. Sure, VW’s rear engine was quieter for those up front than the somewhat rough-and-ready Peugeot engine, whose noise was only slightly dampened by a simple cover, but this only adds to its quirky charm in my opinion. When my dad spotted the van for the first time, his eyes misted over. “Does it have the gear lever where you have to change gears like this?” he asked while performing a mock gear change with his arm bent backwards, making him resemble an excited orangutan. (The J7’s gear lever is a long stick which is centrally mounted but at arm-length behind the driver, so you are forced to move your arm backwards in an awkward manner to change gears.) Turns out that one of these vans was used as the school bus that ferried him and his friends to school and back when he was a youngster in Israel.
We have been driving this Peugeot van around for a while now, so I can tell you for a fact that it can: transport a double bed across town, fit a massive sleeper couch (that we battled for about an hour just to get out the door of the house) with the greatest of ease, cart three smelly dogs and a (slightly less smelly) child to the park and back and double as a camper van, parked alongside Emmarentia Dam with a couple of deck chairs and a picnic basket. What it cannot do is go fast. At all. A 30km trip across town will seem like an infinite trek through the Gobi Desert; every speed bump feels akin to ascending Mount Kilimanjaro, your ears ring from the din of the straining engine and your nose burns with acrid gearbox fumes.
But what it lacks in looks and performance, it makes up for in the sheer delight it inspires. Take it to a coffee shop in Parkhurst on a Sunday morning and people cannot get enough – they love it. Three Porsche 911s can glide past and all anyone sees is this funny-looking van tootling along. It’s not an investment and you might spend the equivalent of its purchase price on oil. You could probably pick one up fairly cheaply (if you can find one), and it certainly won’t be your retirement policy like a VW split-window might be. But unlike a priceless car that spends its life gathering dust in the basement of some collector somewhere, lest it – gasp – drives through a puddle, this is a car you will not be scared to drive. And you’ll have loads of fun doing it.