Fanfare for the Common Van (Part 5): Long at Last

We conclude our Transitory aria.

Image: Ford Netherlands

In 1974, Ford at last gave serious consideration to a Transit replacement, instigating “Project Triton” by employing a French consultancy to produce studies for a new van to go on sale towards the end of the decade. The timing was inauspicious, in the midst of a global oil crisis and industrial and political turmoil in the UK.

Within the narrower confines of Ford of Britain, development of the strategically important Cargo medium sized truck range was running behind programme and over budget. Integration of the German and British operations was proceeding rapidly with priority for all resources going to the Fiesta supermini, the most expensive project in the history of the Ford Motor Company.

As Transit demand remained strong, it was decided to postpone the complete renewal, and address an impending engineering priority in combination with refreshing the vans’ appearance outside and inside.

V4 engine production was coming to an end in the UK and Germany as the SOHC T88 (informally known as the Pinto) in-line four was finally to take over the two engines’ remaining tasks, the most onerous being powering the all-conquering Transit van.

The T88 did not enter its new role with glowing references. First appearing in the 1970 Cortina Mark.3, its problems with premature valve-gear wear in Britain’s hardest-working car were well-known by the mid-seventies.

For Transit use, positive lubrication using a spray bar acting on the valvegear was introduced, and top-end components were nitrided to improve durability. Operator diffidence towards the OHC engine was also allayed by the continuation of the 1.6 litre Kent for lighter duty vans.

Image: Ford of Europe

Ford of Britain’s Transit design chief Graham Symonds and his team took on the task of shaping a longer nose to accommodate the in-line engine, creating a design which was masterly in its unobtrusiveness. Something similar had already appeared with the 1973 A-series medium truck[1], which used some Transit pressings, but Symonds and his team had started afresh and melded old and new so well that the original van body and its new front end could have been designed as one.

The 112mm longer nose rendered the pig’s snout redundant and could accommodate the Kent, T88 and York in line fours, Essex and Cologne V6s, and, by the same artifice as previously, the Geelong-built 4.1 litre straight six for the 3000 or so facelifted Australian Transits which were produced until 1981.

Image: Ford Netherlands

The new front end design included a particularly neat trick whereby the grille, front valance and bumper could be easily unbolted to allow unrestricted access to the engine.

Externally, the 1978½ Transit, on sale from March 1978, was unchanged rearward of the front bulkhead from the 1965 original apart from tail-light clusters and badgework. A new cab interior design enhanced safety and comfort, and the simple combined speedometer, fuel, and temperature gauge instrument was replaced with a far more modern array of dials, lights, and switches adapted from the passenger car range.

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Within Ford of Britain the long-nose Transit is remembered with great affection. Its development righted some known weaknesses, and left the van’s many strengths well alone. The V4s were gone – the earlier Transits had been successful vans despite, rather than because of those engines. The T88 was not much better – both it and the V4 were far too oversquare for a torque-hungry load-carrying vehicle and had combustion chambers designed for ease and cheapness of manufacture rather than fuel efficiency.

By 1978½, it mattered less.  The tide was turning towards diesel power as geopolitical tensions pushed up fuel prices. Ford had led the way, and were not content to sit still following the success of the York engine. Sales figures vindicated Ford’s judgement; after an uncomfortable drop in transitionary and turbulent 1978, 1979 Transit production reached new heights at Southampton and Genk.

Image: Ford Netherlands

It is appropriate at this stage of the story to take a sideways glance at the 1974-onwards European vanscape. Not before time, the major European manufacturers had recognised the scale and profit potential of the LCV sector, and from the mid-70s delivered their Transit challengers:

Citroën C35 Image:

Citroën C35 / Fiat 242:  1974-92.  A product of the 1968-1973 Pardevi accord, rather than the later Sevel partnership. A tall, short-nosed heavy duty van with a platform chassis and complicated longitudinal engine / front wheel drive powertrain.  Despite its production longevity, it never sold particularly well outside its manufacturers’ home markets.


Volkswagen LT Series: 1975-91 (First Generation). Unapologetic box-on-wheels to challenge the heavier duty Transits and Mercedes Benz T2 Düsseldorf Transporter. For VW, it was revolutionary in its conventionality with front/mid mounted-water cooled Audi and Perkins engines[2] and rear wheel drive.

Image: Daimler AG

Mercedes Benz TN: 1977-95.  Tall, short-nosed rear wheel drive LCV family replacing aged Tempo and Hanomag legacy vehicles.  Bremen-Sebaldsbrück was once again producing decent vans.[3]


Volkswagen T3 Transporter: 1979-90. All-new body and chassis, but still rear-engined, air-cooled and with no diesel engine option.[4] Sold well on loyalty rather than logic.

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Renault Trafic and Master:  1980-2001, 1980-97 (First Generation). Futuristic LCV family replacing the ancient Estafette and Super Goélette. Ingeniously engineered to accommodate transverse and longitudinal front wheel drive powertrains, as well as rear and four wheel drive. A wide range of engines was offered – the longitudinal engined Trafics even got a pig’s snout of sorts.  Widely admired at the time of its launch, hugely influential, and several generations later still among Groupe Renault’s most enduring and commercially successful product families.

Alfa Romeo AR6 Image:
Alfa Romeo AR6 Image:

Fiat Ducato / Peugeot J5:  1981-93 (First Generation). The Sevel van. Its names were legion, also sold as a Citroën, Talbot and Alfa Romeo. Transit-like in its profile and dimensions, but with transverse petrol and diesel engines and front – or four-wheel drive. Progenitor of a formidable dynasty.

Image: Vauxhall Motor Company

Bedford / Opel / Vauxhall Midi:  1985-1994. Luton-built Isuzu WFR which overlapped the Bedford CF2 by three years until the older van’s demise in 1988. A horrible van whose only saving grace was its indestructible Japanese powertrain, it presented a poor challenge to the Transit and the new generation of vans from European manufacturers, and was dropped in 1994 unreplaced. In 1997 a rebadged Renault Trafic was offered as the Vauxhall / Opel Arena, commencing a successful arrangement which continued until 2018.

In little more than ten years, Europe’s light commercial vehicle landscape had been re-shaped. 37 years on, the products have matured, but the established order has hardly changed.

One more significant development took place before the first generation Transit was replaced, over twenty years since its launch.

Ford DI diesel engine. Image: Ford of Europe

Ford had been ahead of its rivals with the introduction of the big capacity York diesel in 1972, and in 1984 the company maintained technological leadership with its DI replacement, its codename signifying direct injection, a feature unique in its size class. Capacity was increased by 136cc to 2496cc, power increased by 6bhp to 68bhp, and fuel consumption reduced by up to 25%. Although every component of the DI had changed from its discontinued predecessor, it was built on the York engine lines at Dagenham at a massively increased capacity of 150,000 per year.

As 1985 drew to a close, so passed the worldly glory of the first generation Transit.

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This series also comes to its close, but a few words on the second generation VE6 Transit are appropriate.

As stated earlier, the chisel-nosed design had its beginnings in the 1974 Project Triton but research and development began seriously six years before its launch in early 1986. The chisel nose design is thought to have been a design fundamental long before the Renault Trafic and Master were revealed. Some very extreme ideas were proposed – this was the Sierra and Scorpio era – but the end outcome was advanced yet acceptable, to apply Loewy’s dictum.

The positive reception and commercial success of the 1980 Renault duo must have steadied the nerves of the designers working on a product so different in appearance from the talismanic original.

Appearances in this case deceived, at least in some areas. Despite a generous £400 million development and tooling budget, the original 1965 platform was carried over to VE6, albeit in a heavily reworked form, and the engine range was as before, with British vans even retaining the option of the Essex V6, whose tooling had been long since exiled to South Africa.

Image: Heynes

Beneath the rejuvenated low-drag (Cd = 0.37) styling, a cleverly designed MacPherson strut independent front suspension featured on low-GVW versions, and interior comfort and safety was greatly improved. Even when challenged by markedly improved competitors, first generation Transit demand had never slipped, but with the arrival of the new model in 1986 sales surged to new heights, peaking at 160,000 per annum in years of strong economic growth. Although the legendary van is usually regarded as a British success story, Genk production exceeded Langley’s and latterly Southampton’s in most years.

County Tractors in the UK and SIRA in Germany produced officially approved and supported four wheel drive conversions of the first generation Transits. Image: Ford of Britain

A closing thought. Has there ever been a mass-produced vehicle with such universality of utility as the original Ford Transit? It had the size, strength and versatility to serve almost every terrestrial human endeavour, from burials to bank robberies, exploration to extractive industry, as well as the numerous quotidian activities which support and enrich human existence everywhere it was available.

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[1] The 1973 A Series was a normal control medium truck range fitting between the Transit and the D Series forward control lorries. It had a fully separate chassis, and was powered by Essex V4 and V6 petrol engines, and the York diesel in four and six cylinder forms.

Whereas the Transit answered every question asked of it, the A Series was the answer to a question nobody asked. It never met sales expectations and production ended in 1983.

[2] The four cylinder Audi and Perkins engines were eventually replaced by 2.4 litre EA 827-derived in-line sixes in petrol and diesel versions.

[3] A friend who ran a van hire and leasing business in the mid ’80s took a dim view of the batch of Mercedes-Benz TNs on the fleet. They had a horrifying propensity to rust and high parts prices, and in his view had no advantages over the Ford Transits which formed the majority of the fleet. Some Sherpas and Renault Trafics also featured, they were well enough liked, but were bought mainly because they were available to fleet buyers at far lower prices than the class-leading Transit.

[4] Diesel power arrived in 1982, by the expedient of installing an EA827 in-line four horizontally in the place normally occupied by the air cooled flat four. In the same year water cooling came to the petrol Transporters with the arrival of the flat-four Wasserboxer engine.

14 thoughts on “Fanfare for the Common Van (Part 5): Long at Last”

  1. The VW Typ 2 T3 was available with a 1.6 diesel producing all of 50 PS from 1981. This version managed 100 kph with wind from behind and going downhill on a vertical slope. T3 also got the WBX water boxer engines with up tpo 112 PS from 1982. Both diesel and WBX are recognisable by their front radiator grille

  2. Good morning Robertas. This has been a great series on a highly significant vehicle. Transit vans were (and still are) such a fixture in our automotive landscape that they pass almost unnoticed, but are certainly deserving of our attention.

    The facelift to create the “Mk2” was indeed masterful, although they subsequently messed it up a little with a slightly heavy-handed deeper sloping front grille introduced a couple of years before the second-generation model was launched:

    I had completely forgotten about the A-Series. I remember seeing them back in the day and recognising that they used the Transit cab. It was good looking, and the wider front wheelbase was nicely incorporated with those flared wheel arches. The front end design, while different, was clearly influential on the Transit facelift.

  3. Thanks for posting this insight in the Transit, Robertas. As far as the Transit’s competition was concerned: If I remember correctly the FWD Renault Master had the lowest floor of all LCV’s at the time

  4. A really enjoyable series about something so common on our streets and yet about which I have never bothered to learn very much. For example, I had assumed that the VE6 really was all new, whereas it clearly wasn’t from what you have written. I do recall the kerfuffle caused by the Trafic when it was introduced – looking at it now, it resembles a supersized Espace, does it not?

  5. Here’s the longitudinal-engined Renault Trafic with Renault’s take on the ‘pig’s snout’:

    Rudimentary, but it worked.

    1. There was an earlier example of pig’s-nosery when Chausson, owners of the Chenard & Walcker business, fitted the C&W CPV van with the Peugeot 202’s four cylinder engine some time in the late 1940s. This engine replaced a far shorter two-stroke parallel twin, hence the need for the “nez de cochon”.

      The front wheel drive C&W van, which originated in 1940, was subsumed into the Peugeot range as the D3 in 1950 and was lightly facelifted as the D4 in 1955. It was re-engined several times, and an 1816cc Indenor diesel was offered from 1959.

      The series was discontinued in 1965, replaced by the much bigger J7, also front wheel drive.

  6. Thank you, Robertas. I’m sorry that this particular series has come to an end – I really enjoyed it and I hope there are more in future.

    Looking at the various vans, it’s funny what one takes in without really noticing it consciously. I’ve seen a few Ford A-Series vans, but just assumed that they were American Transits which had been imported.

    I agree with S.V. regarding the Trafic – it does have an air of the Espace about it.

    I have to admit to really liking the looks (at least) of the Mercedes-Benz T1 series. It seemed to complement the passenger car range. Some family friends were green-grocers and had a Mercedes-Benz coupé and a T1 van to go with it, which I thought was cool at the time.

    Here’s a short film about its predecessor, the L-Series, demonstrating the roles it can take on. Coal delivery, anyone?

  7. Robertas, what a great series, as others have said. It’s interesting that Ford had the same impact on North American van design a couple of years later, with the 1969 launch of the completely revised Econoline. Ford, GM and Chrysler had entered the small van market in the early-mid 60s with very similar cab-over models, all borrowing heavily from their makers’ compact cars. (I’m not forgetting GM’s first attempt, the rear-engined Corvair Greenbrier, now a bit of a cult vehicle but a commercial failure). These were not, I suspect, as dire as many of the Transit’s forebearers, but were not heavy-duty enough for the work they were asked to do.

    The 1969 Econoline changed all that. The strategy for the new van borrowed heavily from the earlier Transit (although there is nothing physically in common between the two). The engine was moved forward under a short hood, the van was enlarged significantly and made stouter, losing its Ford Falcon genes in the process and the styling, highly derivative of the first Transit, was much more contemporary. It was a huge success, and both GM and Chrysler rushed similar designs to market in 1970 and 1971, respectively.

    The North American epilogue, however, is wildly different. Once the North American manufacturers launched these new vans in the beginning of the 70s, development essentially ceased. Sure, there was tinkering and styling refreshes, but there was no Renault Traffic to shake the market up once again, and the now-E-Series stayed in production until 2015 (although you can still buy a cutaway chassis today), finally replaced by…the Ford Transit!

    1. Hi Peter. Thanks for mentioning the Corvair Greenbrier. I was vaguely aware of it, but had forgotten what a fabulously stylish thing it was:

      It looks like it was aimed primarily at the leisure market and the VW Type 2 campervan and not intended to be a serious working vehicle.

    2. The unibody 1969 Econoline lasted through 1974. The 1975 body-on-frame redesign featured a longer snout which increased its visual resemblance to the unibody Transit, but it was structurally more similar to the F-Series pickups.

  8. Of all the vans Robertas mentioned, the odd one out is the Bedford Midi. It was far too narrow to compete, more than 10″ (250mm) narrower than the second-generation Transit. I guess that is because of its Japanese (Isuzu) origins, where width is a factor in taxation class. In that respect, it’s similar to the contemporary Toyota Hi-Ace van and reminds me of an earlier generation of British and European vans:

  9. Over here in Norway, i got the impression that the second generation transit was a bit of a letdown.
    They all seemed to rust/fall apart even faster then the competition, and the Toyota Hiace and VW transporter quickly took over the market.
    The current Transit custom seems quite popular, but then again, the market was left up for grabs after the Hiace was pulled due to no longer being able to meet emissions.
    Many a tear was shed that day, and its a shame the current Toyota offering is a lowly french rebadge.

    Always had a soft spot for the Mercedes TN – there were quite a few around when i grew up, and they seemed to live forever – a true agricultural tool.

  10. Is it known how compact the 2.4-litre petrol and diesel sixes were in the Volkswagen LT Series?

    The Isuzu WFR / Fargo based Midi makes one interested to see what the original plans at Bedford/Vauxhall were concerning the planned CG Euro later the GM World Van Programme to replace the Bedford CF, before it temporarily morphed into a proposed joint venture with Leyland as a replacement for both the CF and the Sherpa prior to itself being cancelled.

  11. Nice series on the Transit, always so ubiquitous both when I lived in England and on subsequent trips.

    Ford in the USA’s original 1961 Econoline van was similar to the Transit. Sort of a modified unit body taken from the Falcon, but outfitted with beam axles and leaf springs front and rear. But it was forward control like a VW bus. The 1969 second generation was a separate chassis with pickup truck independent front suspension, called Twin I-Beam. I’m sure the Transit was and remained a more efficient load carrier, but I do wonder if it was as rugged as this later US van, which are like cockroaches.

    So far as engines go, you’ll have to persuade me that long stroke engines have anything to do with low speed torque production if the displacement is the same. To say so is to repeat the longest-standing old-wives’ tale of decades, and nothing to do with engineering. For a given cubic capacity cylinder, if you lengthen the stoke, the piston area exactly compensates. The GM V6 petrol truck engines of the early 1960s were very short stroke, yet produced maximum torque at 1400 rpm, and were known as torque monsters. It’s all in the tuning, cam lifts, overlap, etc. An engine is a thermodynamic device that doesn’t run at zero rpm, where most people think of torque as just the product of lever length or piston stroke. Just as in direct current versus alternating current electricity where common circuit elements react completely differently depending on their excitation, so does a rotating engine differ from a static one. And a non-turbo diesel engine of the same displacement as a petrol engine has less torque given equally competent engineering. LJKS used to bemoan this fact constantly because he hated diesels. Just as do I, but for personal allergenic reasons.

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