Fanfare for the Common Van (Part 2) – Power and Glory

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.

Image: Ford of Britain

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)

Ford Essex V4. Image: Ford of Britain

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 Glory


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.

Image: Ford of Britain

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.

12 thoughts on “Fanfare for the Common Van (Part 2) – Power and Glory”

  1. Good morning Robertas. This is proving to be a really fascinating story, thank you. I’ve always wondered about Ford of Europe’s fixation with V4 engines. Given the company’s ruthlessly pragmatic and practical approach to all aspects of design and engineering, did nobody point out that an inline-four was simply an easier and cheaper format to engineer?

    I remember at the time of launch that the V4 in the Transit was justified by the need for a short nose, but the modification needed to accommodate the inline diesel was not at all problematic.

    Finally, I was really surprised to read that diesel engines weren’t the default choice in vans in the 1960’s. I suppose petrol was still relatively cheap in those days, so the advantages in fuel consumption weren’t that compelling and small diesel engines were still rather crude devices, and noisy in a forward-control van where you sat either side of it.

    1. If I remember correctly the Essex parallel valve/Heron head design was a result of the planned diesel version, just as the extraordinarily large diameters of its main bearings which gave trouble when the engines were revving higher.

      Commercial diesel engines were direct injection designs that were completely unsuited to the use in passenger cars or light vans because of its agriculatural manners. And an indirect injection unit with little power that had to be driven flat out most of the time wasn’t that much more frugal than a petrol engine.
      I remember that Ford was declared mad when they introduced the first direct injection engine in the Transit, a first in the market.

    2. In the 70s diesels only made sense for city driving, like taxis or local deliveries, because of their meagre power output. For any remotely long-distance deliveries you had to have petrol power. When I started visiting Ireland , it was in a SWB 2-litre automatic Transit. Happy days !

    3. Thanks both. I knew DTW’s expert commentariat would know the answer to the diesel conundrum!

    4. Whatever else they were, those early direct injection Transits were certainly not refined – as they aged, you could hear them coming a long way off…

    5. Daniel, the “pig’s snout” gets a brief mention, as you’ve probably guessed there will be more on this story later. The additional projection is a mere four inches (100mm), yet it could accommodate longer in-line engines than the Perkins 4.108.

    6. The Aussies put a Falcon straight-6 in the “pig snout” Transit.

  2. The Transit was surely the first “Ford” van to be introduced. Its’ predecessor was badged as a “Thames”, and previous vans were badged as “Fordson”, which I found very confusing as a child.
    Similarly, Vauxhall vans were “Bedford” and Hillman vans were “Commer”.

    1. Initially Fordson was the brand name which Ford applied to its agricultural tractors; its commercial road vehicles (vans & trucks) remained Fords but in the immediate post-war era they became, in the UK, Fordsons until the Transit arrived.
      The case of Vauxhall & Bedford is rather different: Vauxhall was an established English manufacturer of cars purchased by General Motors, who also sold their own Chevrolet commercials (small lorries & buses) in the UK – these they subsequently branded Bedford, applying the name in due course to light vans based on Vauxhall cars as well as all lorries, buses & coaches.
      Finally, the Rootes Group of companies included car manufacturer Hillman and commercial vehicle manufacturer Commer (both long established but previously independent firms). Like The General, Rootes chose to brand car-based light vans as Commers (and some slightly larger Commers as Karriers – just to confuse you further!)

  3. Always double check….. the first Ford road vehicle in the UK marketed as a Fordson was the BBE 2-tonner in 1933 – a range which included a rather smart integral van in the so-called streamline style of the era. This anorak is making my head hurt….

    1. I remember the Thames Trader launch, but the BBE was before my time….

  4. Was under the impression the development of the V4s was partially the result of Ford HQ’s decree for both their European divisions to produce similar V-angle engines as the V8, even though Ford UK itself apparently had no desire to produce the Cardinal or a Cardinal derived model and in fact sought to go in the opposite direction with the more conventional Cortina.

    In retrospect apart from expediently being used to develop the V6s, the V4’s were an unnecessary distraction pushed on Ford’s European divisions from higher up that arguably delayed a more organic formation of Ford Europe (ideally involving a more integrated V6 akin to GM Europe’s Viva/Kadett OHV).

    Speaking of the stillborn Essex V6 diesel project, also heard of Ford contemplating using dieselized Kent based pre-LT engines in some of their cars instead of just for marine use.

    Unfortunate that nobody rebuffed Ford HQ on the request for them to produce V4s and call them out for not having the guts to build the Cardinal in the US as originally intended, which came at the expense of Ford Germany’s Anglia / Kadett A sized project that was to feature Glas style OHC engines. It also prevented Ford UK from developing a more useful 1.6-2.0 inline-4 resembling a pre-Pinto upscaled Kent/Crossflow, IMO the displacements on the Cosworth BDA Series (in 1599-1975cc form), Ford LT/Lynx/Endura-D diesels (in 1608-1753cc form) as well as the 1650-1753cc+ Crossflow enlargements give a rough indication of what could have been.

    The original Transit was very successful despite and not because of the V4s.

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