In the second part of our Transit story, we look at its unusual power units and the impact the van made on the British market following its October 1965 launch.
Ruggedness and simplicity were at the heart of the Project Redcap’s engineering, but the engines used to power the Transit were strangely at odds with these design principles. The choice of power was a foregone conclusion – Ford’s European operations had been guided to meet their over-1600cc needs with a range of 60 degree V4 and V6 engines for use in passenger cars and light commercial vehicles.
The decision is possibly understandable given the popularity of V8 engines in the USA, but the V-configuration made a far weaker case with half the number of cylinders. Despite this, Ford’s European satellites were producing two different V4s by the end of 1965, with German production exclusively using the V-configuration, while the largest capacity(1) British in-line four was the 1500cc version of the versatile, stretchable and tuneable ohv engine first seen in the 1959 Anglia 105E, with V4s covering the 1.7 to 2.0 litre range.
Köln had led the V4 way with their Taunus P4, in production since 1962, largely developed in the USA as the Cardinal sub-compact. The British Essex V4 was first seen in the upgraded Corsair a month before the Transit’s October 1965 launch. The UK engine was larger and heavier than its German counterpart, although still only 17.5 inches long, including ancillaries.
It is possible that the German Hummer and English Essex did not have any parts in common, yet they shared distinctive and unusual design features. Each connecting rod had its own crankpin (big-end bearing), unlike the majority of V8 engines which have paired opposing con-rods on a shared bearing. The 60° vee angle resulted in inferior balance to an in-line four, and a power-sapping contra-rotating balance shaft was employed to mitigate the characteristic vibration and harshness.
Some Genk-built Transits had V4s as small as 1.3 litres, with the range topping out at 1699cc. British vans had the Essex V4 in 1663cc and 1993cc capacities, first seen in the upgraded Corsair a month before the Transit’s October 1965 launch.
Ford V4s of both nationalities were monstrously oversquare in their cylinder proportions. In purely architectural terms, this is the proper way to design a V-configuration engine as it allows bearings to be as wide as possible, but it limits potential for low-speed torque, desirable in a load-carrying vehicle. The British engines had a bore diameter of 93.66mm, with the two capacities achieved by varying stroke lengths. The Taunus V4s as used in the Transit had bore diameters of 84 and 90mm.(2)
The Essex engines had bowl-in-piston combustion chambers and flat-faced cylinder heads, a feature claimed to improve fuel efficiency, although this was never a strong suit of hard-driven, fully loaded early petrol Transits. Where the UK Transit easily surpassed its rivals was in power, quoted as 73bhp for the 1.7 and 85.5bhp for the 2.0. These are gross figures, as customarily reported by Ford at the time. Net equivalents are 63 and 74.5 bhp respectively, still impressive by class standards.
The Langley and Genk-built vans were visually almost identical, but as the two production bases were to use their own powertrains, German engines and gearboxes were sent to Aveley for installation in prototypes, which were then delivered to Cologne for testing. There is a remarkable anecdote about a team of British engineers visiting Cologne months after the expensively developed and produced prototypes had been delivered, and finding them unused – either the Germans had total faith in British engineering ability, or they had disengaged from the process.
Both V4 engines had V6 counterparts, the German version debuting in the 1965 Taunus 20M with a 2.0 litre capacity. It was not officially offered in in a Transit until 1989. The British Essex V6 arrived in early 1966 in the Zephyr / Zodiac MkIV. 2.5 and 3.0 litre capacities were available, and the engine was far better regarded than the cars it first powered, or its four cylinder siblings. Many years would pass before it became a production line option for the Transit, but within months of its launch, Ford’s Special Vehicle Operations were fitting it to vans and chassis destined for a broad range of special purposes applications.
Diesel-powered light vans were relatively rare in the mid ‘60s and for many years after, which probably explains why development of a compression-ignition Essex V4 was abandoned after two prototypes were built. In its place, Ford of Britain opted for the 1622cc Perkins 4/99 engine, already used by Bedford and Commer, and replaced within a year by the more powerful 1760cc 4/108. The matter of power is relative here; the 4/99 delivered 39.5 net bhp, its bigger-capacity replacement managed 49bhp. Ford of Germany did not offer a diesel Transit until 1972.
As the Perkins engines were in-line fours, they would not fit in the space allowed for the V4, which was only 17.5 inches long. Production considerations precluded moving the engine back into the driver’s compartment, so an extended nose was designed, with a new bonnet and grille panel. Known internally as the pig’s snout, the longer and higher nose integrated well with the overall design, and even gave the frontal appearance a rather macho presence belying the sub-50bhp outputs of the Perkins engines. Of course the diesel nose also allowed room for the 3.0 litre Essex V6, with all its potential for fun and function..
The engineers at Aveley devised a Transit-specific gearbox based on readily available internal parts in a LHD Zephyr casing which was so well suited to its purpose that it was used in Transits for over 25 years.
The Transit’s October 1965 UK launch was positively triumphal – we should have expected nothing less, as Ford’s marketing department already had a formidable reputation. The word had already gone round that the new van would be quite exceptional, but it was a £542 entry level price which grabbed the headlines. A substantial launch stock had been built up from early August, and 15,300 Transits were produced before 1965 year end. Production at Langley, Berkshire in 1966 was 38,600.
In the UK, Ford’s new van so surpassed its ancient rivals in spaciousness, performance, driver safety and comfort that it could have not just led the market – which it did – but utterly wiped out the competition. The sole salvation of its BMC, Commer, and Bedford rivals was the loyalty of nationalized industry and central government department fleets, many of whom saw Ford as not quite British.
Local authorities, vigorously courted on the attraction of the Transit’s extraordinary versatility, were keen purchasers, and police forces loved the vans. So did their customers: the Transit’s combination of space and pace made them the ideal accessory to all manner of felonies.
Success breeds success, and the UK’s major corporates and conglomerates clamoured to have Transits on their fleet, recognising the value of their modern and distinctive go-ahead image to their brands, in marked contrast to Ford’s dreary and dated rivals.
(1) With the notable exception of the Zephyr Mk III’s moribund 1703cc in line four which continued until the arrival of the Mark IV in early 1966.
(2) Notwithstanding the German V4’s tighter dimensions, it was possible by re-coring, to achieve a 96mm bore size – 6mm larger than the production maximum of 90mm. The large-bore blocks were mainly supplied to a certain loyal Swedish customer for use in competition engines.