VINTAGE FRIDAY: When Overnight News Came In The Back Of Six-Wheeled 100MPH Citroën CXs
A friend of mine, a man who worked as a transcontinental truck driver in the ‘80s and ‘90s, often tells me a story of an unusual Citroën he encountered one night on a French Autoroute. The vehicle appeared to be based on a Citroën CX, but not one of any standard production variety, the most obvious indicators of this being an additional axle underneath its elongated, elevated roof line, and the fact that its flanks were emblazoned with the words “SERVICE DE PRESSE.”
It overtook him handily at more than a 100mph, hurtling by fast and close enough to shake his 40-ton Scania 141. From the first time he told me about the experience, I had to know more about this Frankenstein monster of mail delivery; where was it going that night at that speed? Who was driving it?
Infrastructure of Information
We say it often: from our current moment it can be hard to imagine what it would be like to lose all the access we have now: to each other, to information in general. The instantaneous nature of the Internet has spoiled us and is changing us. How quickly we’ve forgotten the infrastructure of information before milliseconds separated it from our keystrokes. Today that infrastructure is invisible in the form of wireless signals and below-ground fibre optic cables.
In medieval times, if you wanted to transmit some piece of information you would send a rider on horseback bearing a handwritten message or a memorized one. Think Paul Revere but on minimum wage and carrying poorly written love poems back and forth for a day job.
Newspapers streamlined the distribution of information when they became common household reading and snout-swatting material, but they were still hampered by one fundamental issue: physically transporting them from the presses to the retailers across the cities and towns. Despite the many technological advances of the 20th century, newspapers still presented this logistical problem.
With global stock market trading taking off in earnest in the 1970s, publications like the London-based Financial Times found huge demand for their papers all over Continental Europe for their reportage on stock prices and news of big mergers and bankruptcies and the like. This information had a sell-by date of course, and it needed to be in the hands of those making (or at least willing to pay for news of) big decisions in the business world within one working day.
Nowadays, the paper is sent electronically and printed locally in the area it’s being sold in. This is why I can walk into a newsagent’s in London and buy a copy of The Irish Times and read the same articles at the same time as my colleagues in Dublin will, despite some of these stories having happened mere hours earlier.
Right, back to the Citroën. To use again the Financial Times as an example, in the ‘70s their European edition was printed in Frankfurt, and it needed to be on the shelves in Rome by the following morning. That meant those bundles of news had to travel 1,200km overnight laden with tons of paper. That is 12 hours of driving at the speed limit according to Google Maps today—even with modern trucks, most would never make it on time.
Enter a French man with a French solution. Pierre Tissier, recognizing the adaptability of Citroën’s front-wheel drive DS and CX chassis, began chopping and extending these cars and adding an extra axle. Et voilà, he had a vehicle capable of carrying a metric ton of newspapers at, and often exceeding, motorway speeds.
It should be noted that many of Tissier’s creations had more exciting functions than newspaper deliveries alone though, and he had already done some gorgeous utility conversions with the DS already. The versatility and variety of CX and DS conversions is something we’re going to cover in a separate article. For example, below is one of the Tissier-converted Citroën CXs carrying a film crew’s helicopter at the Paris-Dakar Rally, a few of his DS creations, and other converted-utility CXs including a mobile bar.
While not as glamorous as carrying a helicopter or ferrying Citroën race cars about, these transcontinental paper delivery vehicles provided a valuable service. It may be a stretch, but in a way they were the Internet before it existed, or at least a distinct step in the timeline of information distribution.
All in a night’s work
Keen to discover more about their history and what it might be like to drive one, I contacted Phil Collins (don’t start) who, as far as we can tell, is the only person to own a six-wheeled Citroën CX in the UK, which he uses to tow a caravan he built from a Piper Comanche aircraft. A story for another day. Bill maintains a website detailing his adventures with his bizarre French shuttle, so he seemed like someone to get in touch with.
I asked Phil what he knew about the job of these mail couriers in period:
“Obviously I don’t have any experience running a newspaper, and my information comes from the Internet mainly. But, I was approached by a Dutchman a few years ago at a car show, who told me he used to deliver back in the 1980s. He told me they would load up with newspapers at 11pm in Amsterdam, and he had to drive them to the South of France for delivery in time for morning; he would then sleep in the back after moving the papers, and then drive back to Amsterdam. And did the trip three times per week!”
Let us consider the journey Phil’s Dutch friend is describing, taking the South of France to mean Marseilles. Amsterdam to Marseilles is a distance of 1,234km, 766mi. Let’s say your average French newsagent opens at 7am (and you probably have more than one to visit). That leaves you eight hours to cover that distance if you load up at 11 the night prior, meaning your average speed needs to be 154km/h or 96mph.
Now that might not seem like a lot, but consider this journey isn’t happening from the front seat of a GT car. We’re talking speeds around 100mph in a hacked up diesel Citroën with an extra axle and a thousands of pounds of newspapers in the back with the ink still drying. Eight hours on the way down, likely more on the slower drive home. Three times a week. This was earning a living doing solitary Cannonball Run sprints in a mail truck.
In addition to the online photo resources, Phil also kindly supplied me with some clippings from a March 1983 magazine article by the late Russel Bulgin that follows a typical day for a Hollander S.A. driver. It may require some zooming in to read, but if you’re interested in learning more this is another perspective. In the article, Bulgin details the pressures felt by a press driver in a Citroën CX, describing among other things: the implications of a mere 15-minute delay, and the frantic scrambling to get moving again after each drop-off or checkpoint.
Routine Race Against Time
We feel there was something very noble about this job, a routine race against time to ensure the world could stay informed. These high-mileage men were the 20th century embodiment of the horseback riders battling the elements to bring news from the frontline. Is that hyperbolic? Only if driving a triple-axle made out of a passenger car through a snowstorm as fast as possible with a ton of weight in the back is a relaxing drive!
Huge thanks to Phil Collins at www.thejoyofcx.co.uk, who was more than happy to answer my questions and went to great lengths to dig out old articles and photographs. Additional images sourced from the community at www.lacitroencx.com