Vintage vans: A trip down memory lane

Date: Monday, July 24, 2023   |   Author: Alan Anderson

In a new occasional series, Alan Anderson looks back at past legends starting with Ford’s Transit – what else?

It sounds inconceivable, but there was a time when Transits weren’t plying their trade on our roads – 58 years ago in fact. Before then, vans were strictly working vehicles that drivers had to endure not enjoy thanks to their primitive designs and jail cell interiors. You had to pity folks who had to use them to make a living.

Then along came the Ford Transit and pity turned to envy because, when launched back in 1965, here was a stunning looking van that could not only outperform many family cars but also boasted better comfort and refinement levels. The Transit changed the way manufacturers and operators viewed light commercials, from being strictly a working tool to a valued business partner. Yet, while overall standards have improved beyond recognition over the decades together with the introduction of new rivals, Transit not only remains the best seller, but for many, still the only van worth considering.

Transit – Project Redcap to Ford – came about due to the insistence of Henry Ford II, who was becoming tired of fragmented Ford model line-ups across Europe with many countries doing their own thing. By 1960 he decreed that there had to be more standardisation of models and designs and the Transit was going to set the ball in motion.

At that time, Ford of Britain was marketing the 400E Thames. It had been on the market since 1957 and, being a Ford, sold very successfully despite its major faults which included very poor high-speed handling and a wicked steering shimmy. Driving one could be purgatory and Ford of America was determined that its replacement would set new standards of driver comfort and on-road security.

Transit was a pretty advanced design for the early 1960s thanks to Ford putting past experience of using aircraft stress structures into vehicle design. On the Transit, it also ensured Ford could make a much bigger and wider van than its competitors but not at the expense of weight and payload. Despite bashing British and German heads together, both went their own ways into developing Project Redcap but a bit of healthy competition did the Transit no harm at all.

A V in its bonnet

Launched within a week of each other, in October 1965, the Transit and the revamped Corsair saloon both sported Ford’s all-new range of V configuration power units. While looking a bit lost in the passenger car’s engine bay, the compact V4 suited the snub-nosed van brilliantly and best of all – unlike other vans – enabled a car-like cab to be designed without any intrusion from the engine, which was another reason for Ford’s impressive refinement levels.

And while that V4 unit has been much criticised in Corsairs and Capris since introduction, its gruff, lusty low-rev nature was ideal for commercial use. Two engines were offered, a 1.6hp 63hp tune for the lighter vans and a 75hp 2.0-litre for the heavy duty, twin axle alternatives.

It’s become legendary how fast the development Transits were. Kent Police regularly clocked them at over 90mph in those pre-speed limit days, which was faster than most family cars, such as the new Cortina, could hit. You can imagine the looks on the faces of Mini Cooper drivers , being passed by a mere van – even more so if it was the early Bedford CA-bodied hybrid that Ford used as a camouflage! Add amazingly good handling for its day, and the Transit was a quick conveyance – small wonder then that, according to Transit expert Graham Robson, 95% of all getaways (and 80% of bank jobs) were conducted by crooks in a Transit during the 70s!

There was also enough compartment space to squeeze in the 128hp Zodiac V6 engine to special order requirements (and what a van that made!) but when it came to offering a diesel, Ford hit a problem. The rough V4 was even rougher in experimental diesel format, forcing Ford to opt for the trusty Perkins 4/99 powerplant which was hardly cutting edge even for 1966. However, the long in-line engine meant it wouldn’t fit unless either the front was altered or the engine found half a home in that civilised cab. Ford rejected the latter option out of hand, albeit mostly due to production ease where it was vital that the basic transmission location remained unchanged. Thus, diesel Transits gained a longer nose and a prominent snout remained until the 1978 facelift arrived.

Apart from becoming an instant hit with commerce and criminals, the Transit was also hugely popular with specialist bodybuilders for a massive variety of uses and it’s fair to say that many businesses over the last 60 years have owed their existence to the Transit, which in van, pick-up or chassis cab formats made many light lorries redundant.

To keep the Transit ahead of a rapidly improving van market – not least from Vauxhall Bedford which, after being shocked by the Transit’s prowess, immediately scrapped its planned replacement for the CA to design the all new CF by 1969 – Ford evolved the Transit; front disc brakes, retuned suspension and radial tyres were added before its 1978 facelift while the V4 engine was ditched. By then, options included automatic transmission (complete with a dash-mounted selector) and even four-wheel drive, the latter a special order from Ford’s SVO division.

It was then 20 years before Ford got around to making an all new Transit known as VE6 – and talk about giving buyers what they want! Rather than engineers spouting out radical new ideas, Ford spoke to existing customers, asking them what they needed from a new Transit and the six-year research included going out with typical drivers and noting how many gear changes, U turns and so on were made during a working day.

Successive Transits have seen the design go from strength to strength culminating in the current front-wheel drive Transit Custom, which harks back to the original with its ‘Custom Cab’ badging. And like the original, Transits are still roundly praised for their car-like manners – being just like a giant Focus to drive. With sales approaching the thick end of nine million, so successful is Transit, that if it was a car brand, it would figure in the annual top 10 UK sales list! 

Super van!

The Transit cost roughly the same price as a Ford Anglia when launched, but one that money couldn’t buy was the Supervan, effectively a racing car in a Transit bodyshell that Ford first showed off in 1971, making a different one each decade up to 2000 to highlight a new replacement.

Not that the best-selling Transit needed much publicity, but Supervan certainly grabbed valued column inches in the press and was a real crowd puller when unleashed at special events. Supervan 1 used a mix of GT40 sports car and Formula 1 parts, powered by a 5.0-litre V8! 

Supervan 2 surfaced in May 1984 and this time it was mostly Ford’s own work, albeit with the help of esteemed F1 designer Tony Southgate. It was essentially the canned C100 sports car racer Ford intended to run with a specially styled body and an F1 Cosworth engine. Supervan 3 appeared in 1995 and was the same structure topped by the latest (VE83) Transit body and powered by the latest Cosworth HB F1 engine which Ford said was good for 200mph – 50mph more than the first Supervan!

The Transit was well established by the time the diesel version joined the range in 1966, a year which also saw the Aberfan, Merthyr Tydfil mining disaster, the first televising of the opening of Parliament and England winning the football World Cup. 

The rest, as they say, is history.


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