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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
In part two we look at the Transit’s idiosyncratic engine line-up, and the van’s triumphant UK launch.
 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.
 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.
Transit – the 40 year story or Britain’s best-loved van: Graham Robson. 2004 Haynes Publishing.
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