The progress of the phenomenon
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.
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as an overbearing instrument of Big Government, but in reality replaced a huge amount of fragmented, contradictory, and outdated legislation.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.
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  which emerged as a result of the new legislation, and maximized volume while keeping below the 3.5 ton GVW limit.
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.
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.
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.
The only major GT40 loan items were the steering rack and five-speed ZF transaxle . 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.