The Ford Transit has turned fifty, which means a piece of mobile popular culture has celebrated a significant birthday.
The Transit name is still a piece of verbal shorthand for the white van and all the positive, and less positive, connotations that go with it. Allegedly, the van was going to be called the V-Series, but when a prototype was delivered for managers to evaluate, it arrived with a sticker with the word ‘Transit.’ Somebody had a light bulb moment and the name was changed.
These days there are actually four distinct vehicles wearing Transit badges, from little vans of the sort beloved of florists to a hulking, 2 tonne shed-on-wheels with a big, snouty grille which nobody could call beautiful, but is apparently the result of the Transit being sold in America for the first time. It seems our US cousins like ‘aggressive’ styling in their commercials and pick-ups. This allegedly caused some eye rolling from the Transit’s European designers, but hasn’t stopped the thing from being a big hit on both sides of the pond. The Chinese are getting used to it as well, as the Transit is now built in China too.
Sadly it’s no longer built here. It was the last vehicle Ford actually made in Britain. Millions of Transits were made in Slough and more recently Southampton, but now they come from Turkey, although a lot of the engineering that goes into them takes place at Ford’s research and development facility in Dunton Green, Essex, and the diesel engines that power them are built up the road at Dagenham.
The original, 1965 Transit was rather more parochial, although its inspiration was to some extent American. It was wider than most vans then sold in Britain. To make them more compact these often had engines and seats sitting directly over the front axles, which wasn’t great for crash protection and made for nodding dog rides and in the case of the Transit’s predecessor, the Ford Thames, mixed ability cornering skills.
The Transit had a conventional; snub nosed bonnet and engines ahead of the driver. Ford claimed that it drove like a car. In fact it was rather better than some of the ghastlier offerings of the time, and with a high driving position was actually fun. It came from an era when Ford seemed to do no wrong, selling populist motoring icons like the Escort, Cortina and Capri. They’re all long gone, but the Transit has remained.
By way of celebration, Ford got together Transits dating back to 1965 and invited journalists to whizz them round a short proving ground at Dunton Green. In the company of some earnest German van writers I climbed into the oldest Transit, with its metal dash, single instrument and sliding side doors. Costing £542, options included seat belt mounts. That’s right, the mounts as well as the belts were extra. Its lumpy, vocal old V4, 1,600cc petrol engine could wind it up to 73mph, the huge steering wheel required a lot of twirling, the four-speed gearbox, with its walking stick-like lever, was surprisingly positive, and the drum brakes distinctly antique, but it had a get-in-and-drive-it user friendliness that was a hallmark of the Transit. I also drove a late 1970s upgrade of this vehicle with a 2.0 engine, brakes that worked properly, and a dashboard that looked as if it had been designed with a set square. That one wouldn’t have trouble in modern traffic.
Finally, I stepped into a new, 2 tonne model. With a 2.2 diesel and front-drive, it was a very different animal, and with a range starting at not far shy of £21k had a dash and interior that was distinctly posh. The handbrake was still huge, but the wand gear lever had gone, replaced by a neat little control sprouting from the dash. And yes it felt like a big car. So, after half a century, it’s business as usual.