Fanfare for the Common Van (Part 4) – New City, New Heart

The Transit hits its stride.

Image: Ford of Britain

Let us move on to 1972, a momentous year for the Transit in the UK and Europe. Despite a house move, British production reached a new high at just over 55,000 units. Genk managed 37,000. Rival manufacturers had yet to follow Bedford’s example with a serious Transit challenger, although British Leyland were, shall we say, working on it.[1] The Toyota Hi-Ace had recently arrived in the UK, finding favour with small businesses and motor-caravanners, but was not selling in the sort of numbers which would concern Ford.

From 1972 the British Transit had a new home. The former Briggs Motor Bodies facility at Swaythling, a northern suburb of Southampton, had produced Transit bodies from 1965. In a logical move, Ford invested £5 million to introduce full assembly lines at the site, increasing production capacity to a potential 75,000 per year, and freeing space at the Langley truck plant.

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Also in 1972 the pig’s snout had a new incumbent, with the introduction of the York engine, Ford’s all-new, home-grown 2360cc indirect injection diesel slant-four with Ricardo Mk.Vb combustion chambers, in low rating (54bhp) and high rating (61bhp) forms. The all-iron, naturally aspirated pushrod engines with moderately oversquare (93.67mm / 3.68in, 85.58mm / 3.36in) proportions were unadventurous in their engineering, but closed the performance gap between the diesel and petrol options. A six cylinder 3540cc York was also produced, but only for heavier vehicles than the Transit.

In April 1972 the York option cost £155 over the 1.7 litre V4 in low rating form, and another £15 for the high rating engine. The entry level price for a basic van was around £900. Six months earlier the Perkins 4.108 had been offered at £145 extra over the base engine.

On the road and heavily laden, the torquey 2.4 litre had ground-covering ability easily matching the 2.0 litre V4. The acceptability of the new engine, and rapidly rising fuel costs resulting from geo-politically driven energy crises over the decade ensured that the York engine production facility in Dagenham was soon working at its full 50-60,000 unit annual capacity. The new engines also gave the territories served by the Genk factory their first sniff of heavy oil in their Transits.

Given its sales success, and the march it stole so effortlessly over its rivals, the Ford Transit might have appeared to be The Perfect Van. It wasn’t. Flaws and fallibilities were not hard to find.

Ford may have invented the acronym NVH – Noise, Vibration and Harshness- but the Transit had all three, in pallet-loads. An undamped metal box on wheels is inevitably resonant, but the inherently rough 60° V4 made matters worse.

Ford Essex V4. Image: Ford of Britain

The Essex V4, for all its packaging virtues, was ill-suited to life in a commercial vehicle. Its massively oversquare proportions militated against low-end torque, so had to be worked hard to compensate. Fuel efficiency was poor compared with rivals, and the pre-1972 Perkins diesel alternative was expensive and delivered feeble performance. The Essex engine was also prone to head gasket failure (and it had two of them), premature wear of the balance shaft bearings, and crankshaft bearing failures.

To this litany can be added the notorious fibre-composite timing gear which had been specified in the cause of refinement, but was prone to catastrophic failure as the bowl-in-piston head’s geometry resulted in ‘interference’ – valves and pistons colliding – if the camshaft drive system disintegrated.

In 1975, Essex V4 engine production was rationalised, dropping the 1663cc short stroke version. To fill its place, Ford UK’s engineers pulled off a minor miracle by redesigning the Transit’s engine compartment bulkhead to incorporate a recess which allowed fitment of the 1.6 litre Kent in-line four, without recourse to the pig’s snout, and keeping to the holy writ that the gearbox could not be moved back.[2]

The newcomer was not a complete success. Despite being slightly squarer in its proportions than the 64cc larger V4, and around 65lb lighter, the Kent engine demanded an ultra-low 5.8:1 rear axle ratio to compensate for its woeful shortage of low-end torque. In its Transit application, the giant-killing little engine was just too hard-worked to deliver the fuel economy and refinement benefits which might have been expected.[3]

In October 1975 the Transit reached its tenth anniversary, with its UK market leadership unchallenged. The magic million was some time away, achieved on 15 September 1976 with a Southampton built LHD minibus destined for Nigeria.

Image: Auto Express

Ford had paid attention to what operators required, and delivered it through a process of evolutionary development. By 1974, earnest efforts had begun on an all-new, and very different looking replacement, codenamed “Triton”. However, even mighty Ford could be blown off course by the crosswinds of a turbulent decade, and the Transit’s development would soon follow a rather different flight plan.

[1] In the early ‘70s, British Leyland had a Transit-like van proposal codenamed CV154 at an advanced stage of design development. However the cost of tooling was beyond the firm’s means and instead a low-cost design (CV306) was cobbled together from adapted J4 and 250JU parts and anything suitable from the passenger car range. It was launched in 1974 as The Leyland Van from Austin-Morris, and renamed Sherpa within a year. The oddly appealing product’s strengths were cheapness, simplicity, and being narrow enough to go where a Transit wouldn’t fit. The basic design went through four facelifts, numerous engine changes, and three different manufacturer ownerships before British production ended in 2006.

Leyland CV154 prototype. Image: The Car Factoids

[2] Except for the Australians, who immediately hated the V4 in their first Transits, domestically assembled from 1970. From 1973 onwards the body and chassis were adapted to accommodate the Falcon’s 3277cc straight-six in a Bedford CF-like arrangement, intruding partly into the driving compartment. The early generation Transits were never strong sellers in Australia. Annual production never exceeded much more than 1800 units, and ended in 1982 with Mazda-sourced vans taking the European designed vans’ place.

[3] If you were a big enough fleet customer, you could opt for a down-rated 2 litre V4. Peak power was reduced by inserting restrictors into the inlet manifold, and a smaller-throated carburettor, but torque was less affected. The carefully calibrated low output V4s were reported to consume far less fuel than the overworked 1600cc in-line engines.

9 thoughts on “Fanfare for the Common Van (Part 4) – New City, New Heart”

  1. This is a really great story, thank you, Robertas. I hadn’t realised that the Kent inline-four was fitted in the flat-fronted Transit and had assumed that the pig’s snout front was used for all inline engines, so that’s today’s fact of the day for me.

    As a teenager I spent my summers in the 1970’s working on building sites in the West of Ireland and have happy memories of being a passenger in (hard-used and slightly decrepit) Transit vans and pick-ups. The noise in the cab really was cacophonous! The combination of mechanical, road and wind noise, combined with a symphony of rattles and creaks, was deafening, but great fun.

  2. In 1979 or so a friend bought a new Triumph T140 motorcycle and to bring it home the importer gave us his Transit for the forty or so kilometres of the trip back home. The Transit had a high roof, twin rear wheels and a short rear axle but no radio – the owner’s comment was ‘it’s making enough of its own radio’. The drive through the hilly countryside was impressively noisy with a top speed of around 90 kph but usable acceleration.

  3. My fact for the day is the Leyland CV154 – I was completely unaware of it.

    A bit of a nerdy question (apologies) – do you have the torque figures for the York engines, Robertas? I ask, as the bhp figures look low by today’s standards, but these must have been compensated for by reasonable torque.

    Great series, by the way.

    1. Power of an engine is calculated roughly as a multiplication of torque by revolutions.
      If an engine doesn’t have much power that’s the result of the fact that it doesn’t have much torque (or that it doesn’t rev high). Naturally aspirated Diesels are typically weak on power because they can’t produce much torque without emitting tons of soot.

    2. Charles – I didn’t want to bog down the narrative with too many facts and figures, but here’s a cut-out-and-keep guide to the various engines used in Ford of Britain Transits up to 1976:

      BHP and Torque figures quoted are net, to the best of my knowledge. They also varied slightly during the lives of the engine owing to “continuous improvement” and changing measurement criteria.
      I couldn’t find any net output figures for the Kent engine in the Transit application.

      A couple of interesting points – to me at least:

      That Perkins diesel may not have been up to the job, but the people in Peterborough clearly knew what they were doing, given how much better specific outputs the 4.108 manages than the far newer York diesel.
      The high rating York cost £15 more than the low rating variant in 1972. What would possess anyone to go for the lower power engine?
      It’s also notable that the York and Essex engines have the same bore dimension. Did Ford have a load of pistons left over from the aborted Essex V4 diesel project?

    3. That’s kind of you – thank you, Robertas. Those figures convert to around 115 Nm to 125 Nm for the diesels. Not much different from the petrol engines.

      I suppose the theory was that the lower rated engines may have had (very) theoretical fuel consumption advantages, or perhaps lower tax? I had a look at a brochure and it didn’t appear to quote fuel economy figures, which seems amazing, these days. They just said economy was ‘excellent’. Ahem.

      Service intervals appear to have been 6,000 miles. Modern drivetrains have come a very long way.

  4. Ford Europe’s engines seem to have been a persistent source of complaint for quite literally decades, up to the mid nineties at least. Leaving aside for a moment reliability issues on the Essex V4 (and some of the other families), NVH issues and lacklustre performance seem to have been especially problematic. Was this a question of priorities? (How much more expensive is a “good” engine to make than a poor one?) Or lack of technical resource or leadership? Or did they just not care while sales were strong, which I suppose might be a highly reasonable view if their focus were on Return On Investment?

    1. The engines were a bit of a mixed bunch, and even the better ones didn’t quite live up to their reputation.

      We have to remember that for their small engine, Ford of Britain only crawled out of the side-valve swamp in 1959, and the 1980 CVH was Ford of Europe’s first series production engine to feature an alloy cylinder head.

      The GM-inspired in-line Zephyr four and six were well-regarded in their time, and the 105E / crossflow / Kent became an object of idolatry for flat earth Ford-ists. For the rest of us, they were thirsty, short of torque, and poor on durability. At least Ford had a good exchange scheme.

      Like everything Ford made, cost cutting was a major driver, but they did ‘value engineering’ better than most rivals who occasionally ruined an engine by making savings in the wrong places.

      Generally Ford of Britain’s engine designers were at their best when when the end product was uncomplicated, based on industry ‘best practice’, and designed to be easy and forgiving to manufacture. The Essex V4 must have been anathema to them, and it shows in the result.

  5. Did not know the 4/6-cylinder Ford Zephyr engine was GM-inspired (as in Bedford e.g. 2nd gen Chevy Straight-6)? Ford UK could have stretched it out a bit more before replacing it with the Essex V6 and (in place of the Essex V4), an enlarged Kent/Crossflow that is essentially a production version of the South African AX Block (that was reputedly strengthened as part of an unbuilt Diesel project) yet with the approximate displacement range of the 1.7-2.0 Cosworth BDB-BDG engines (heard of enlarged AX Block engines being able to reach about 1997cc).

    One thing that is not quite clear regarding the CV154 prototype would be whether it was originally planned to share parts from other upcoming models that were ditched on grounds of cost, similar to their original ideas for the Marina that was said to be planned to be feature more sophisticated MacPherson Struts front suspension amongst other things. It is difficult to believe CV154 was not planned to use parts from other BL models.

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