Ford Special Vehicle Preparations— February 2007
Wednesday, February 28, 2007
What Van? was given directions, however — on the strict understanding that we memorised them and ate the fax before we set out — and it was worth making the journey.
If you spend a fair old chunk of your life equipping innocent-looking vans with police cells and fitting cars with everything required — short of firearms — by the local constabulary's armed response unit, then you're unlikely to welcome nosey parkers. That's why Ford insists that the precise location of its Special Vehicle Preparations (SVP) operation, on an obscure industrial estate in Essex, is kept firmly under wraps.
Set up in 1996, SVP works for fire services and ambulance fleets as well as for the boys and girls in blue, and its output includes around 250 light commercial conversions annually. “They typically have a working life of from five to seven years,” says Blue Light direct sales manager, Terry Adams.
The conversions don't come cheap. “A nine-seater Transit police support unit may have £19,000 worth of work done to it,” he says. Measures taken are likely to include the fitting of an anti-bandit shield to the windscreen, additional protection for the radiator to ensure it isn't damaged by flying missiles, straps to keep body armour and riot shields in place so that they are readily available if needed, and an air conditioning system.
The roof can be reinforced in case somebody not best friends with the police tries to drop something onto it — a broken TV off a second floor balcony, for instance — and tough polycarbonate can be used in the side windows instead of glass.
Unfortunately it scratches, and if the scratches are bad enough it can become difficult for officers to see out. As a consequence some forces prefer to retain the glass but have it coated with an anti-shatter film.
“We've got a real one-stop-shop facility here,” Adams enthuses. “Requirements can vary a lot from one police force to another, but we can do pretty much anything.”
Contrary to popular belief the engine won't be chipped to provide extra muscle and the brakes won't be beefed up either. “However, the vans we work on are usually the more powerful models,” he says.
Some vans are fitted with cells with space for from one to six people depending on whether they're in a Transit Connect or a Transit. They're used to transport miscreants such as football hooligans and shop lifters to the local cop shop.
The hefty mesh grille that separates them from the area where the police officers sit is backed by firmly-secured transparent sheeting to ensure that prisoners aren't able to vomit over the officers or spit at them.
“Not only is spitting unpleasant, it can also transmit Hepatitis B,” Adams says; and spitting on somebody can be classed as an assault. The sheeting also stops prisoners getting their fingers through the mesh.
Sitting in one of these cells — they're designed to be hosed out — and watching the door being slammed shut behind you isn't a pleasant experience. There's a complete absence of creature comforts and the cell is cramped. Even people of average height can't stand up.
Nor is there anything that can be prised off and used as a weapon, which explains why seat belts aren't fitted.
The lack of room is deliberate. The less they have, the less likely the occupants are to start throwing punches at each other, and the trip to the police station is usually only a short one. Two of the seats in the police area of the vehicle often face rearwards so that prisoners can be watched at all times.
While the prisoners don't get seat belts, the officers in the front of the vehicle accompanying them do. “What's more, all the vehicles tend to be fitted with driver and front passenger airbags, and curtain airbags too; anything that will enhance safety,” he says.
Most of the Transits converted are front-wheel drive because they have a lower loading height than their rear-drive counterparts. “That makes it easier to get the… er… non-compliant on board,” Adams remarks.
SVP turns out versions of Transit and Transit Connect for use by police dog handlers. “A vehicle may have anywhere from two to six kennels,” he says. “Each kennel will have a floor and sides coated with grp for ease of cleaning, an extractor fan, emergency escape hatches for the dogs and a box for any equipment that's being carried.”
Villains can decide to escape from the clutches of the law by taking off across fields or through woodland. “So rural forces have already expressed interest in the 4x4 Transit,” says Adams.
The 4x4 Ranger pick-up with a four-door double cab and a load area hard-top might have a role to play too. What's more, SVP regularly works on Land Rovers; the Solihull-based company has been owned by Ford for many years.
Another of SVP's specialities is the covert observation vehicle. Fitted with concealed cameras, it allows the police inside to keep an eye on rogues.
So next time you're wandering down your local high street, take a closer look at that anonymous-looking Ford parked outside the town's leading night club. Maybe some of the people going in and out aren't quite as blameless as they look; and maybe they're being watched.