Fanfare for the Common Van – Part 1

We look at Ford’s most enduring European product, the clever and versatile van which not only became an instant best-seller, but shaped the future of Ford’s operations across the entire continent.

Image: Ford of Britain

Henry Ford II’s whole life had been turbulent, and he never shied from aggressive intervention. Hank the Deuce had been President and CEO of the Ford Motor Company from 1945, and by the late 1950s was becoming increasingly troubled by the fragmented nature of the firm’s European operations. Viewed from Dearborn, the absurdity and inefficiency of two factories less than 500 kilometres apart designing and producing separate, unrelated ranges of vehicles with few, if any parts in common could no longer be sustained.

Through the 1950s the situation was accepted as both operations delivered worthwhile profits, but the 1960s had scarcely begun before the opportunity to bang British and German heads together presented itself.

After a decade of expansion and astute product planning, Ford of Britain was emphatically the strongest performer. In 1960 the German division’s production was 8.5% of the national total, just over half of the share their GM-owned rival Opel had achieved, and substantially surpassed by the troubled Borgward Group. Ford of Britain’s passenger car sales surpassed Vauxhall’s, and better things were still to come before the sixties were much older.

The German Ford cars were designed with the tastes and expectations of Northern Europe and Scandinavia in mind, while the British designs targeted not only the domestic market, but Australia, New Zealand, and Southern and Eastern Africa. In Europe, German and British Fords competed in the same dealerships.

From 1961 HFII translated his worry into action, imposing his will with a one van policy for Europe. The light commercial vehicle sector was the perfect case for treatment. Neither Köln nor Dagenham had class-leading products, and both were based on sets of major components which soon to be replaced.

The British Thames 400E was introduced in 1957, the German Taunus Transit had been around four years longer. Both used in-line four cylinder petrol engines scheduled to be phased out by the mid-1960s. Apart from all of this, vans carried less emotional baggage than passenger cars, which were often perceived as embodying some sort of national identity. In early 1960s Europe, vans were working tools, items of plant, not national treasures, nor cultural phenomena.

Ford of Britain were working on a Thames 800E to replace their existing 400E, but the Common Van plan, soon named Project Redcap, was a clean sheet project led by American engineer Ed Baumgartner, as lead product planner.

Although officially a joint British / German project, Ford UK had leadership of the project, an arrangement which continued on Transit development until the mid-1990s (V184/5). Engineering operations were based at Aveley, styling at Dagenham.

There were onerous cultural and functional differences between the Dagenham and Köln operations. The management structure in the German satellite was rigid, formal, and hierarchical, whereas Ford of Britain had a more vertical and flexible management structure.

Two different measurement systems were used, but this seems to have been less of a problem than Germany’s strange adherence to six volt electrics. Ford of Britain had a policy of keeping as much component production in-house as possible, as exemplified by the takeover of Briggs Motor Bodies British factories in 1953. Ford of Germany relied heavily on outside suppliers, and at the time of Project Redcap’s commencement had no in-house coachwork and pressing facilities.

The Transit’s antecedents were no better than adequate, and not class leaders.

The ‘operators’ of this Thames 400E fitted it with a Zephyr 6 engine, effectively one and a half times the standard fitment. Image: Bonhams

Introduced in 1957, the neatly styled Thames 400E was outsold by its decade-old Bedford rival and was deficient in carrying capacity.  Its Consul-derived independent front suspension had an unwelcome reputation for fragility.

Image: Ford-Werke Köln

The Taunus Transit, first sold in 1953 did not make a persuasive case against its competitors and was something of an orphan product, as Ford Germany had abandoned all other commercial vehicle production in 1961. Their FK medium-sized truck operations had never recovered from their disastrous venture of using Gräf & Stift developed two stroke diesel V4s and V6s[1] in the mid ‘50s.

Both were powered by in-line four cylinder engines scheduled for replacement by the shorter V4s on which Ford had staked their European middle-market future. Therein lies the key to the Transit’s semi-forward control morphology. Giving the van a short, but car-like nose – 17% of the SWB Transit’s length – rather than a flat front was scarcely revolutionary as the 1952 Bedford CA had a snub nose, yet BMC, Standard-Triumph and Rootes followed the extreme box-on-wheels orthodoxy.

The Transit’s designers located the conveniently short V4 in a position which followed passenger car practice, almost completely ahead of the front axle centreline, separated from the driving compartment by a vertical bulkhead.

If the van’s dimensions had followed the accepted British van footprint it would have been deficient in space, and cubic footage sold vans. Rather than making the Transit long and narrow, the designers chose to make it 10% wider than its 69-70” wide competitors, mostly dating back to the previous decade.[2]

There was some unease about whether this would be acceptable to customers whose vans operated within tightly-planned pre-motorisation city streets, but Ford’s worries were unfounded. The Transit’s wide loadspace was well suited to palleted goods and sheet building material, as mechanical handling and modular building construction became prevalent. On the road, particularly the rapidly growing motorway network, the powerful engines, wide track and long wheelbases delivered an aptitude beyond the ability of the Transit’s narrow-tracked mid and rear engined rivals.

Chassis design at Aveley was led by American engineer Chris Cope who based the design on the 1960 Falcon-based Econoline.

Image: fav-cars

That van was in appearance, and the evolution of its engineering, the link between the Thames 400E and the Transit. The Thames was based around Consul saloon mechanical components in a box-section steel frame with the unstressed panel van body supported on three full width outriggers.

Thames 400e chassis. All that lithium can’t be good for you. Image: Ford of Britain

The Econoline had a unitary body, but like the Thames had its engine in a mid-front location beneath the driving compartment, and had a very short – 90” – wheelbase.

The Econoline’s gift to the Transit was its dead beam front axle, on longitudinal leaf springs set well inboard.  Some time before the Thames 400E’s independent front suspension had been deemed a failure, on grounds of being prone to failure without any compensating dynamic benefits.

Ford Econoline

From 1962 on, the beam axle was affirmed as part of the Project Redcap specification. Without the inhibition of wishbones the beam axle allowed a tighter turning circle, compensating for the wide track and long wheelbase. It wasn’t perfect, but it was an informed engineering compromise which worked.

There is something of the spirit of the Model T in the first-generation Transit, with simplicity, robustness, and versatility taking precedence over cutting-edge engineering.

Image: Ford of Britain

The adoption of the Transit name was a piece of fortuitous happenstance. V-Series had been the notional name for the Common Van, but nobody had any great enthusiasm for the designation. Ford of Britain’s Chairman Bill Batty was on a visit to Cologne, and spotted a pre-production van which had been informally fitted with a Transit badge from its outgoing predecessor. It looked right, and made sense in English as well as German, and, indeed most western European languages, dead and alive.

Sic Transit erat nomine.

The body-on-frame Thames was expensive to produce, so a unitary body was the inevitable choice for the V-Series panel vans. Even before Ford re-defined the notion of a versatile LCV platform, the customers expected the option of chassis-cab and chassis-cowl formats to accommodate third party bodywork or special purpose equipment. This normally entailed fully separate ladder frame or backbone chassis designs.

An ingenious alternative was devised by Dennis Roberts, a British Ford engineer with a background in airframe design. Roberts’ design used the same top-hat section longitudinal rails for all chassis types, but for the non-unitary structures a second top-hat section was welded to the flanges which would otherwise be closed by the floorpan. Along with cross-members and Y-form bracing, the design provided a sturdy and versatile platform which could be accommodated on the same production lines as the monocoque van.

Image: Ford of Britain

Although the product was pan-European, styling was a Transatlantic process with outline proposals sent from Dagenham to Dearborn, where full sized clay bucks were constructed and returned to Essex where external details were finalized by the British design team at Dagenham.

Image: Ford of Britain

It is possibly surprising to discover that the truck-like visage, with its high mounted headlamps and pressed and punched white painted grille, were late-stage British additions. The Transit’s bold visual presence – more akin to large trucks and even tractors – was notably different from its British rivals – meek-faced street furniture subservient to their operators’ livery.

A meek-faced piece of street furniture subservient to its operator’s’ livery Image: British Motor Corporation

In part two we look at the Transit’s idiosyncratic engine line-up, and the van’s triumphant UK launch.

[1] Designed by Professor Dr. Hans List, the ‘L’ in AVL. Ford might have done better to ask Hans Last, who would probably have known somebody in the Borgward-Werke drawing office able to smuggle out some useful blueprints for a dependable engine.

[2] Only the Commer PB and Morris J4 were introduced as late as 1960. Just before British Leyland came into being, BMH introduced the comically awful 250JU, a reconfigured version of the 1956 Morris J2/Austin 152 with a slanted version of the B series engine in a mid-underfloor location. The only evidence of Transit influence in the cartoonish-faced van was that the J2’s independent coil-spring front suspension was ditched in favour of a forward located beam axle on longitudinal leaf springs.

250JU underside. Image: BLMC

Reference Sources:

Transit – the 40 year story or Britain’s best-loved van: Graham Robson. 2004 Haynes Publishing.
The Commercial Motor Archive:

11 thoughts on “Fanfare for the Common Van – Part 1”

  1. That was a great morning read, Robertas. I have very fond memories of a Mk1 Transit. The Transit was owned by my dad’s company and my brother and I were thrilled on the few occasions he drove us to kindergarden or school in it. Usually we walked, same as other kids or went on our bikes. Being driven to school in a van was somewhat unusual.

    I still remember the van vividly. It was dark blue with white bumpers. The interior was white sheet metal with black plastic seats. It ran on liquified petroleum gas, so in the back was a tank that somewhat compromised the loading space.

    Looking forward to the next installment.

  2. I’ll never forget the Transit with the sticker ‘if driven properly please report stolen’

  3. At its launch, still in the pre-crumple zone era, the Transit seemed to me to be a step backwards in that its bonnet and set back cab reduced the payload volume significantly in comparison with its competitors. But then I drove one – and what a revelation! Instead of the bucking broncho ride of its predecessor/BMC J2 & J4/Standard Atlas/etc here was a machine that encouraged press-on driving with a vengeance. White van man had arrived (although for the moment he was more commonly pale blue van van). And the payload area was actually pretty good – I hired one (in Derby) to go to the Reliant factory at Tamworth to pick up a replacement chassis for my Reliant Regal Mk5 which fitted neatly between the wheelboxes, bulkhead and rear doors. The return journey on winding roads was accomplished with more than one bend taken with power full on and a touch of opposite lock (if it worked for Fangio…..)

    Looking forward to the next bits, Robertas.

  4. Good morning Robertas. What a great subject for a DTW series! I would be surprised if the Transit is not the most commercially significant Ford of Europe product ever.

    I always liked the neat appearance of the 400E, but it certainly looked a bit ‘delicate’ for a commercial vehicle, certainly compared with the Transit, which looked perfectly suited to the role.

    Looking forward to the next instalment.

  5. A really fascinating article (and great title) – thank you, Robertas. What must those 2-stroke V4 and V6 diesels have sounded like?

    Like many here, I have numerous memories of transits – from builders’ vans to school buses (plus their notable appearances in the ‘70s TV programme “The Sweeney”, of course).

    Here are a couple of adverts from the Ford Heritage site – one for the Thames (jokey and ‘50s in flavour) and one for the Transit (much more serious). The V8 Rallycross Transit looks like a laugh. I see that Transits were available with automatic transmission – I would have thought that was unusual.

    Ford really was on a roll in the late ‘60s. Incidentally, I looked up the models launched around that time and was reminded that Harris Mann (of Allegro fame) was involved in the Escort and Capri.

    1. Comparing the two films, it feels like a lot more than eleven years had passed between the one advertising the Thames and the one advertising the Transit! I have to admit I enjoyed the one for the Thames much more – am I the only one who thought the violinist looked suspiciously like William Gladstone?
      The credits sent me off looking up Cy Laurie and his band. I hadn’t heard of him before but probably should have. It’s interesting that even in period he was regarded as a leading exponent of trad jazz:

      To be fair, I can’t think of anything remotely be-bop about a Thames van, but the advertisement is charming nonetheless.
      I agree with Charles that the Rallycross Transit looks fun – but I think the driver must have been seriously brave. At least he was wearing a lid! I notice Sabine Schmitz wasn’t in the Top Gear segment, which makes me wonder did they shoot the in-cab video separately from going for a time (if they ever actually went for a time!)

    2. On the automatic option matter, the received wisdom is that it wasn’t taken up in big numbers, but enough to make Ford’s deal with Borg-Warner worth the bother. In April 1970 it was a £80 extra – available on everything except the 30 and 35 cwt diesels. In context, it should be noted the 14 cwt van was a tax-free £685, the 18 cwt £28 extra.

      BMC, Commer, and Bedford offered automatics even in the pre-Transit days – this was a time when many people came to driving in middle-age and found a clutch and gears daunting. Some fleet customers chose them too; in the ’70s the South of Scotland Electricity Board specified automatic for their Transits and CFs not for the convenience of their drivers, but because these Old Testament automatics paid for themselves in avoidance of clutch replacements and gearbox repairs.

  6. Remarkble product, the Transit. None of the other vans come remotely near to it in terms of identity and personality. I give a small cheer whenever I see one. This is based in part on one happy day driving one. It was comfortable, easy to drive, smooth and above all, felt utterly unburstable. For a few weeks I ran a Tourneo Connect which had the same qualities. I fell in love with it immediately. I wouldn´t have any problems with running one (with some seats in the back) as an ordinary car. 100% usefull, 0% bad.

  7. Great piece and fantastic title. Did you really mean ‘whereas Ford of Britain had a more _vertical_ and flexible management structure’?
    To me _vertical_ would be more suited to the German management structure of those times, as opposed to horizontal – but the confusion might be mine.

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