Fanfare for the Common Van – (Part 3)

The progress of the phenomenon

Image: Ford of Britain

By the beginning of 1968, one in three medium sized vans sold in the UK was a Transit, and Ford could easily have increased this number had there been more production capacity at Langley. In just over two years their share of the market sector had increased by 64% compared with that of the preceding Thames 400E. Ford’s description of their vehicle as a phenomenon was hard to dispute, also claiming that it had become “the most wanted vehicle in Europe”.

Ford’s success in the sector was won with hard work and inspired thinking. Their product had class-leading power and loadspace, seemingly infinite versatility, and a rugged build able to withstand conditions far more demanding than city streets.

Comfort and driver appeal were important features of the formula, as evinced by the Custom equipment package; upmarket Cirrus seat trim, a padded dashboard (with imitation wood facings in later versions), chrome-plated bumpers, dual horns, coat-hooks and the van-man’s dream – a standard-fit heater and demister.

Image: Ford of Britain

As the 1960s drew to a close, commercial transport in Britain entered a new era with the implementation of the Transport Act  of 1968. This was an enormous, wide-ranging piece of legislation covering not only road haulage, but also bus operators, railways, inland waterways and ferries.

With many new statutory obligations on vehicle operators, and a presumption that passenger transport would be operated by state enterprises and local authorities, it appeared as an overbearing instrument of Big Government, but in reality replaced a huge amount of fragmented, contradictory, and outdated legislation.

Commercial vehicle operators faced far stricter regulation: operators had to be licensed, their vehicles required annual testing after three years, and maximum driving hours for goods drivers were set, recorded by compulsory tachographs.

Image: Ford of Britain

However, the new laws did not apply to light goods vehicles, defined as having a Gross Vehicle Weight below 3.5 tons, or an unladen weight below 1½ tons. Such vehicles were exempt from all forms of licensing except Road Tax, and could be driven by anyone with a car driving licence.

All vehicles in the Transit’s class would benefit from the reshaped rules, but the Ford had firmly established itself as the favourite of owner-drivers and small businesses. Its versatile and generously sized chassis was also uniquely suited to the new breed of lightweight Spacevan type bodies [1] which emerged as a result of the new legislation, and maximized volume while keeping below the 3.5 ton GVW limit.

Image: Ford of Britain

In November 1969, the Transit faced its first serious rival, GM-owned Bedford’s CF. The neatly-styled Luton-built competitor was similarly broad in the beam, and offered a choice of 106” and 126” wheelbases. It is said that when GM’s British satellite became aware of what Ford were set to launch in October 1965, they abandoned their planned CA replacement, and raised their ambitions to produce a serious Transit-beater.

Image: conceptbunny.com

The resulting design was no Transit clone. In some ways the CF bettered the Ford; the relatively new in-line Vauxhall OHC petrol engines were notably more robust, but were inconveniently located partly within the driving compartment. A 2.5 litre Perkins 4.154 diesel was available in the LWB versions. The Bedford had independent front suspension, a refinement not offered on any Transit until 1986.

The CF was well received, and slipped easily into a strong second place in the UK van sales charts. Transit production continued its inexorable rise – helped by new legislation, the market was big enough for both of them.

For the 1971 model year the Transit received its first conspicuous facelift, with the distinctive slotted grillework and bold lettering replaced with an oblong pressed metal intake as characterful as a 1970s storage heater, and standard-issue F  O  R  D chrome lettering.

Not that the rather apologetic new physiognomy made the least difference to the Transit’s market dominance – there were compensating improvements including cabin ventilation, improved seats, and more compliant suspension for the low-payload versions.

Image: Ford of Britain.

Although the British Essex V4 was near-moribund as a passenger car engine at this time, the Transit application benefited from changes to improve efficiency and durability, mostly shared with the improved V6 being readied for the Consul / Granada. Inlet porting was re-shaped, the bowl-in-piston combustion chamber design was refined, and the troublesome fibre-composite camshaft drive gear was replaced with a steel type, but still with fibre teeth.

The Transit improvements were significant and worthwhile, but self-effacing in their presentation. Surely aware of the teaching of Matthew 5:15, the Ford marketing machine commissioned an actual and virtual vehicle to put the upgraded vans firmly in the public eye.

The Supervan was often idly described as a GT40 with a Transit body on top, but the project, which was sub-contracted to Essex specialist Terry Drury Racing, was a concoction of parts best suited to making a stormingly fast Transit for demonstration runs at motor sport events and garnering all-important column inches in both the general and specialist media.

Ford’s Truck Sales Promotions department’s brief had been to fit a 289ci Windsor V8 where the V4 would normally go, with brakes and suspension upgraded to cope. The racing engineers instead proposed a mid-engined configuration, using a tubular spaceframe chassis with all-round independent suspension following the conventional racing car practice of the time.

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The only major GT40 loan items were the steering rack and five-speed ZF transaxle [2]. The engine was a five litre full-race Gurney-Eagle unit based on the four-bolt 289 V8. The rest was a mixture of highly specialized components – Lockheed CanAm brakes – and stock parts including Jaguar XJ6 suspension uprights. The body planted atop the spacefame was deceptively standard, but for fashionable and necessary extended wheel arches accommodating 15” diameter x 15” width Revolution aluminium alloy wheels and 15.00/15 racing tyres.

Motor sport and high performance were central to Ford of Britain’s reputation from the 1960s and for decades to follow, and its all-pervading power was used to sell even the most basic and functional vehicles. In the early ‘70s young men born at the end of the second big baby boom didn’t just follow and spectate at F1, rallying, rallycross and drag racing, they were participants at heart every time they took to the streets in Escort 1100s, Cortina 1300s or 18cwt Transits.

The Supervan project probably cost the price of a tiny number of prime-time TV advertising slots, but made a powerful and memorable impression. Ford clearly thought the exercise worthwhile as further, even more extreme, Transit Supervans have appeared in the years which followed.

(1) BMC and Rootes had met this requirement before with the LD and EA, and Commer Walk-Thru, heavier and more specialised vehicles sharing few parts with their lighter-duty vans.

(2) The sought-after transaxle was the first Supervan’s downfall. Once it was plundered for a GT 40 rebuild the rest of the van was unceremoniously scrapped.

16 thoughts on “Fanfare for the Common Van – (Part 3)”

  1. Great stuff, Robertas. “…an oblong pressed metal intake as characterful as a 1970s storage heater.” made me laugh! Actually, I always thought the first ‘flatnose’ front end was a bit fussy, and the revised treatment more appropriate to a commercial vehicle.

    For those who are, like me, not familiar with Matthew 5:15, here it is:

    “Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house.”

  2. Very interesting, as ever – thank you. I had forgotten about the Transport Act – it shows how things have changed.

    Here’s a short film about the Supervan (apparently beginning in a showroom in Leicester). The Supervan was quick, with performance, if not handling, fairly similar to that of a GT40: 0 – 100 kmh / 60 mph in 7 seconds, a top speed of 240 kmh / 150 mph and a quarter-mile time of 14 seconds. It sounds amazingly noisy – putting a V8 in a metal box and revving hard would have that effect.

  3. I thought the ’71 air intake was more car-like and a great improvement on the original, but my favourite was the last of the ’90s second generation, the “smiley-face” Transit.

  4. It seems that the ’71 Transit air intake seems to have some fans. Maybe I was won over by the ‘Tonka Toy’ character of the original – it’s very much a truck front end, with no reference to contemporary Ford passenger cars.

    Perhaps the facelift was for the benefit of the mainland – mainly north western – Europeans whose vehicles at the time were more mild-mannered in their visual presentation.

    1. Becoming aware (as a kid) of Transits in the late seventies, the facelifted grille was the ‘normal one’ for me. The original one does actually look a bit fussy for continental eyes, but the white paint is charming (and a little old fashioned as well).

  5. It’s interesting that the model used for the interior photo has an automatic gearbox. Did any rival offer this? Did Ford sell many?

    1. I don’t think they sold many. I was told that the one I had was ‘special order’ from Germany (?) and it took so long to arrive that my cousin/boss tried to cancel the order, and he was then given a heavy discount to ensure he took it.
      That photo sure brings back memories, seeing the shifter sticking out of the dash. I’m a bit miffed that I never got the fake wood trim…

    2. Just about all Ford’s UK rivals offered automatic in their medium-sized vans in the ’60s and ’70s, with the possible exception of the Standard Atlas / Leyland 15/20.

      This was the era of middle-aged new drivers who found a clutch and gears daunting, so just about every 1500cc upwards powertrain had an automatic option.

      The clutchless option in vans eased stop-start town work – the Metropolitan Police’s BMC J4 fleet was usually fitted with Borg-Warner 35 boxes. Some fleet operators also favoured the Borg Warner transmission as it was designed with a very high load and torque capacity, so was far more durable than gearboxes and clutches intended for saloon cars, which were prone to failure in heavily-laden and hard driven goods vehicles.

      In April 1970 the B-W 35 was an £80 option on all Transits (except the 35cwt diesel). The cheapest van cost £685 plus another £22 for factory-applied paint.

  6. With the Australian Transits being equipped with Ford’s 3.3-4.1-litre Straight-6 engines that were some 34kg lighter compared to the Windsor V8 (depending on how accurate the weight for both engines is at 385lbs and 460lbs respectively), how feasible would it have been to fit the Windsor V8 at the front (in detuned low-compression commercial spec) for a prospective production model (like the Sherpa V8) as opposed to the mid-engined layout of the SuperVan one-off?

    Read some have done a few Transit V8 conversions over the past few decades, though nothing about what such conversions would have entailed.

    1. In the Bedford CF’s case, it was likely to have been the recipient of the stillborn Slant Four derived V8 petrol and diesel engines alongside the diesel Slant Four had all three reached production.

    2. Here’s one with 2.0 OHC engine in full Group B1 trim and 187 kph top speed:

    3. If you haven’t seen it, look up Skid Factory CF Bedford Barra swap for a 4.0 dohc turbo Falcon engine… Recently had an engine upgrade to the tune of about 1500hp!

      The engine is set back quite a bit compared with a standard Bedford, let alone a Transit!

      Interesting series of articles, eg I hadn’t seen the Supervan chassis but it makes sense that it was more than just a modified standard van. I don’t think I’ve ever driven a Transit, but have quite a few other vans from Mitsubishi L300 Express to Iveco Daily. I know some markets will still have them, but it’s taken until 2 years ago for the last cab-over van to disappear from the Australian market, and the Transit played a decent part in pushing that.

    4. Dave

      Was that Transit a limited production special edition or an aftermarket conversion?

      John H

      Have vaguely seen that Bedford CF conversion. Also that Rover/Buick, Holden and Chevy V8s have found that way into other CF’s engine bays.

      It is not the performance that is interesting, rather that the CF and Transit’s appeal could have been further expanded had both followed the example of the Sherpa V8 (even if a case could be made that the largest engines the Transit could take were the Essex/Cologne V6 and Straight-6 units at best, the latter not being too far off the Windsor V8 in terms of weight).

  7. Robertas thank you for this fascinating and evocative series, many memories rekindled.

    I was hoping you might touch on the CF van. It was very neatly styled but as you mentioned compromised by the intrusion of the engine into the driving compartment.

    When I was younger three of us took a trip from Manchester to Llandysul for a canoeing event. Three young lads in the family business CF van meant we were pressing on (not me, too young at that point). Until we reached a turn followed by a narrow bridge. We made the turn, the passage of the bridge was given extra flourish with a 360 degree spin bouncing off at least one of the walls as we went.

    The driver’s Dad was not best pleased, even more so since it broke down on the way back and needed some sort of patching to the fuel system to get us home.

    Not too long after I found myself a passenger in another CF, this one a motor home, three lads in a van again – can you guess? This time it was a roundabout entered far too enthusiastically. The plan was to continue on the A55, the roundabout was negotiated in a series of fish tail slides and ever increasing opposite lock. We did emerge onto our intended exit but facing the wrong way. The frantic braking was not enough to prevent the family’s pride and joy sliding across the carriageway heading sideways into the kerb, there was enough momentum left to tip the van onto its side so we all emerged from the door upwards tank commander style.

    With the van righted we walked to a nearby scrapyard to pick up a couple of replacement wheels – the originals had at least 1″ of slope now built in from the kerb impact. New wheels fitted the journey was continued but only for as long as it took to realise that a straight line could only be maintained by pulling on the steering wheel at maximum strength to counteract the new self uncentring suspension geometry.

    The ride back in the driver’s Dad’s car – summoned to pick us up, and I am glad to this day that I did not have to make that call – was notable for a distinct lack of conversation.

    Sorry to hijack your excellent article, there were a few Transits around at the time of the CF adventures but perhaps they attracted a more careful set of drivers. Although I do recall nearly coming to grief driving a Transit minibus in Spain a few years later – probably the van saved my blushes, even with the less sophisticated suspension. Maybe it’s simply that the Transit brakes were better!

  8. Rick – no need to apologise. Other vans are available, and will receive honourable – or otherwise – mention in due course.

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