Any day, on almost any road in Britain, you see them. They are a ubiquitous part of the traffic, painted all the colours of the rainbow, but most commonly, stark white. I’m talking about the Ford Transit, the all-purpose van that was cleverly dubbed ‘Backbone of Britain’ in a 1999 advertising campaign.
Earlier than that, in 1972, the Metropolitan Police, no less, dubbed the Transit as ‘Britain’s most wanted van’. This was because of its rampant popularity as a villains’ getaway vehicle. As the Met revealed in a statement at the time, “Ford Transits are used in 95 per cent of bank raids. With the performance of a car and space for 1.75 tonnes of loot, the Transit is proving the perfect getaway vehicle.” Such notoriety!
But the Transit story goes back further still, to the days of Beatlemania, flower power and mini skirts. The first Transit was originally launched in 1965, and was manufactured in several factories around the world. These included a former aircraft factory near Slough, where wartime Hawker Hurricane fighters had been built. Roomier and better to drive than most of its contemporaries, the Transit quickly took off, and went on to revolutionise the commercial vehicle scene.
Now it has notched up half a century of success. Over 50 years, the Transit has evolved through five generations of vehicle, and notched up sales of over seven million around the world. It is still the only van that has transcended the ranks of commercial vehicles to become a household name. Everyone knows about the Transit. Call a repairman to deal with some ailing domestic appliance, and he’ll probably turn up in one.
Seven years into its early life, the Transit was doing so well that it needed a bigger factory. So from 1972 until a couple of years ago, Transits destined for UK roads were made in Southampton. But production has now moved to Turkey, and the Transit van family has grown to include a compact, front-wheel-drive Transit Tourneo Custom as well as the bigger front-wheel-drive van and full-size rear-wheel-drive models.
‘White van man’ invariably drives a Transit. Why is white the favourite colour for a van? Because it makes the best background for the signwriting it wears, to advertise the owner’s business. But a taste for variety, as well as modern magnetic signs – like the ones on our golden test van – are encouraging a wider range of paint shades, and you now see Transits in a variety of colours.
For the past week I have been gold van woman, driving a special anniversary celebration Transit. In its elevated driving seat, up here at a similar height to the roofs of most cars, I can look white van man in the eye on an equal level. It’s an empowering feeling. In front of me is a dashboard that would look pretty familiar to anyone who has driven a Fiesta, Focus or Mondeo, with a few extra cubbyholes and stowage spaces added to the mix. Plus an extra front seat. There are three seats in a row, for the driver and two passengers alongside.
Driving is a cinch, because this is a well-engineered modern van with a 2.2 litre diesel engine and a six-speed gearbox. So it’s no slouch, is nippy around town and cruises comfortably at 70 mph on a motorway. It has big double-view door mirrors that give you a wide aspect along the sides of the van, and also let you see anything close to it that would otherwise be in a blind spot.
Reversing is a bit of an ordeal though, because there’s no interior rear-view mirror. No point in having one, when there’s no back window to see through. So instead you have to check for anything behind, then reverse gingerly using the side mirrors and the proximity bleeper to warn of anything looming in the way.
From behind the wheel, it’s easy to see why the Transit has been such a resounding half-century success. It’s good to drive, chummy to live with, and can carry a huge load in that big cargo bay behind the cab. No wonder the Transit is still looking in pretty good nick at 50.