The Ford Transit Story
Terry Acreman | On 27, Feb 2013
In another revealing feature Terry Acreman looks back at the history of the famous van behind many a successful motorhome.
The Transit followed on from the successful, if somewhat unattractive forward control Thames 400E, which by this date was well past its best. With the Thames engine mounted between the front seats, the Transit was a major leap forward being easier to service, had a larger load area, and was considerably faster as well as more versatile, becoming a hit overnight possibly due to its many derivatives in short or long wheelbase from launch.
Germany though had already used the Transit badge previously on the Taunus van, its effort to counter the remarkable success of the Volkswagen Transporter. Until now Ford UK and Ford Germany had acted totally independently, two different markets, cultures and to Ford USA chiefs a vast waste of resources. Transit was to be collaboration and marketed throughout the European market, from the design stage onwards.
Independent front suspension of the Thames was ditched in favour of the virtually indestructible beam axle, and the petrol engine a tested V4 from the Corsair and Zephyr with an alternator replacing the basic dynamo. The complete package was unveiled to the public in October 1965 (with the lowest basic price at £542) being built at the new Genk (Belgium) assembly plant and a former aircraft factory, Langley in the UK that used to build Spitfire and Hurricane fighter aircraft. The short stroke V4 with its crossflow cylinder head coming from the famous Dagenham plant, a short-term fix was the optional underpowered Perkins diesel unit. Ford of Europe emerged from this initial venture just two years later.
Its competitors at this time were the somewhat dated BMC J series, Commer PB and the market leading Bedford CA, all of which were used extensively by motorcaravan manufacturers at the time. Ford ahead of the game, and always at the forefront of exposure had supplied motorcaravan manufacturers with the ladder chassis early, and within a week of its official launch Martin Walter – Dormobile, Canterbury and Coachwork Conversions had the all-new Transit’s on display for the Earls Court Motor Show.
Cheshire coachbuilders J.H.Jennings unveiled their first true motorcaravan in 1964, but had been in the wheelwright cum coachbuilding business for two centuries. The formation of ERF trucks (part of the Foden family) had played a major part in the company’s success; the cabs and bodywork supplied by Jennings were of the highest quality. Given the name Roadranger, the first traditionally built aluminium skin over hardwood frame motorcaravan had Austin 152 underpinnings.
Hand built furniture of the highest quality, in veneered oak included a rear toilet compartment, sectioned cab to caravan and water heater. Large aluminium framed side windows (with louvered centre section for ventilation) shed light into this plush interior with its deep pile carpet and of course Venetian blinds. Some say it was the Rolls Royce of motorcaravans with a price tag new at £2,393. Entry to this luxury home from home was via a central rear door, with drop down window and roller blind not unlike a train carriage. Neat touch was the flush fitting folding rear step.
The body building division of ERF later bought out Jennings and the ERF Roadranger first appeared in 1973, and can easily be distinguished by the large bulbous overcab moulding replacing the curved one-piece GRP of the earlier model. The nearside rear entrance door is another easily distinguishing feature of the two. Overdrive and automatic transmission were options on the Transit Custom 130 – 25cwt chassis.
Into the 70’s Transit was made available to the emergency services with the 3-litre Essex V6 from the Zodiac or sporty Capri, and the first of the three ultra fast ‘Supervans’ was born – realistically all racing cars with a Transit overcoat! The Peterborough Perkins replaced by Fords long awaited 2.4-litre York oil burning engine after years of testing and millions of pounds. Front disc brakes and overhead camshaft engines followed by the time the production topped one million. Outgrowing its UK production facilities a move to the truck cab building plant at Swaything, Southampton – another ex-aircraft factory, where it’s remained ever since. And its here in 1978 that the revamped more aerodynamic Transit MkII arrived. Black plastic grille incorporating square headlamps, a redesigned interior, suspension and all OHC (overhead camshaft) engines were the order of the day.
By this time the Bedford CA has given over to the all-new CF, Sherpa had replaced the J series and the Commer was now a Dodge Spacevan. Coachbuilt Sprite was a forerunner to Autohomes successful van conversion and coachbuilt range including the Highwayman, Travelhome and Motorhome
The Transit wasn’t overlooked by the ‘Custom’ boys, indeed Ford itself commissioned several special from Star Vans of Bedford including ‘ In Transit’ and ‘Raspberry Sheik’ that featured in the dailies with page three girls sexily draped over the large luxurious interior. Here too Walkers, noted until then for double cab and tippers along with the Suntrekker demountable formed the ‘Cruiser Van Company’ offering US day-van style and custom paintwork using UK base vehicles from their Gammons Lane, Watford works.
By now conversions included the Auto-Sleeper Flair, Legend, Frisky and Amethyst, Adventura, Avalon, Car Camper, Coachwork Conversions Freedom, Cooper Inca, Cotswold Concorde, Ci Autohome, Landliner and Wayfarer, plus the earlier Sprite, Canterbury Sunhome and Savannah, Lyndon and the Dormobile Explorer to name just a few. For this was a prolific time for motorhome convertors
Dormobile were as always keen to convert on as many base vehicles as possible, the Explorer followed on from the earlier Transit based Enterprise, and was first shown along with the smaller Escort based Elba at the 1968 Motor Show. Earlier models featured the up and over tailgate but twin opening doors later became an option. The traditional candy striped, large side hinged elevating roof that greatly added to available interior space topped all. This time, the moulding continuing forward over the cab forming a useful luggage rack. While inside behind the four forward facing seats, the caravan units were manufactured in glassfibre, the companies ‘Dormatic’ seating rearranging to form beds at nightfall.
Many smaller converters were unable to survive the market downturn combined with power strikes, fuel rationing and spiralling costs including base vehicles of the mid 1970’s. It was at this time of redundancies and cut backs that Dormobiles up market coachbuilt again used the Deauville monica. True the restructured company was surviving (just) by producing mini-buses rather than campers. The all-new slab sided coachbuilt (aluminium exterior, Styrofoam insulation core and plywood interior) was available on Sherpa, CF as well as Transit. Entrance door was in the rear panel; dinette to offside rear opposite sink and cooker but woodgrain Melamine finish was used for its interior cabinetwork. Not so up market after all, but washroom, water heater, fresh water tank, refrigerator and optional catalytic gas heater did make it an extremely useable motorhome with two double beds available.
Mid 80’s, when the Bedford CF shrunk into the Midi, the dominant Transit was given a new direct injection DI diesel powerplant in time for the two millionth rolling off the production lines. January 1986 a brand new Transit emerged into the daylight, its continued success saw the truck side of the business sold to Iveco. Evolution had seen the latest Transit’s bonnet and windscreen form a single wind cheating line giving better visibility to the driver, who also benefited from a totally new dashboard. MacPherson struts held the front up (only the bigger models retained the beam axle) and rack-and-pinion steering gave a nimble car like drive, combined with 2.5DI turbo diesel engine this new model required a doubling of production to supply orders.
New conversions included the Texan from Pampas, Nomadic Wheels known now as Murvi, Cruisecamp Alto Sport, Buccaneer Caravel and Holdsworth Future.
Fords friendly looking oval grille was one of the updates in late 1994, powerful twin overhead camshaft 2-litre petrol (this was the end of the V6) and airbags and air-conditioning became an option, new facia and three point seatbelts were standard. This was to be my last home (or self-build) conversion, based on a ‘Special Edition’ Hallmark sporting metallic paintwork, colour coded bumpers and alloy wheels amongst other goodies I just couldn’t resist. Though watching Stan Brown of Sherwood Roofs cutting off my three day old roof to transplant a GRP hightop was not a nice sight – I had only just paid for it! Later having the roof colour coded at a local paintshop outside the booth over a weekend, I set about designing and constructing a luxury two-berth interior.
Surplus hardwood door surrounds (purchased from O’Leary) dictated the number and size of the overhead lockers, kitchen cupboards, wardrobe and bathroom doors, while a sliding square tube frame was welded for the extending inward facing settee and matching forward facing second passenger seat. The, now swivelling seats and new seat foams were expertly trimmed by Barry at Regal in my own sourced material, with contrast piping. Exterior wise it resembled a Devon Discovery while inside the best points of the long lasting best seller from Auto-Sleeper were adapted, other that the cooker/oven and fridge were placed across the rear. This gave a ‘U’ shape kitchen; reasonable size bathroom and the fridge and gas bottle compartment were easily serviced from the opening rear doors on which the spare wheel was mounted. Moving the spare gave up room to fit an underslung wastewater tank complimenting the onboard fresh tank from CAK.
Duetto from Auto-Sleepers (£25,949 1996) on a long wheelbase Transit Kombi with its rear kitchen layout and long forward lounge incorporating the swivelled passenger and drivers seats may well have been their all time best selling van, but I found out that Ford looking to re-enter the market had to sell the LWB idea to the Trevelyan family business. Luckily they later agreed!
The untimely death visionary MD Iain MacPherson may or may not have been why the banks pulled the plug on Autohomes, the Autohomes name was later sold to Elddis in 1992 and Iain’s widow and others formed Herald Motorhomes at the Poole factory premises using the Transit as base. An all coachbuilt range comprised Aragon, Templar, Valencia and Esquire featuring quality inside and out with super smooth lines of the distinctive overcab mouldings.
Bought out by Compass in late 1995 but still retaining their own brand name, production was moved north, Compass and Herald retaining enough character of their own marque – where the Compass Drifter had four layouts the new Herald Insignia had only two.
Others of note on the Transit base around this time – Auto-Sleeper Flair, Legend, Amethyst and Excelsior featuring the superb monocoque body, Cruise Campers Altro and Stratus, Devon Discovery, Leisuredrive Oasis and Occasion, Murvi Meteor plus the hitop Frontier and Travelhome from Autohomes now in its Mk V guise. The Duetto may well have been a best-selling van conversion for the Willersey factory, but when repeated on the later version Transit using only the medium wheelbase that changed everything. No Transit base vehicle is now in the range offered by Britain’s longest converter.
But Tamworth based Horizons Unlimited, originally established to service and repair caravans have long since converted solely Transits (only recently venturing onto other base vehicles) into stunning van conversions, and its new bold look with prominent grille and striking headlamps only added to their best selling Camaro on short wheelbase costing £21,495, the long wheel base Orizzonte £22,700 in 1999.
Turkey became a production plant in it own right, previously only assembling kits, followed by production in some form in Poland, Portugal and even China, where Isuzu or Mitsubishi engines and parts were adapted. It was this time that Ford aired its ‘Backbone of Britain’ advertising campaign, surely the Ducato, Boxer, Sprinter and Trafic didn’t worry them! The outcome a near identical bodyshell that could be front or rear wheel drive (never before offered) featuring a transverse mounted 2.3-litre 16-valve double overhead camshaft petrol or Duratorq 2.4-litre 16-valve diesel engine. Other guises were available dependant on drive and wheelbase. Guismos like cup holders, mobile phone mounts and copious storage for paraphernalia. The smiley grille gave way to the honeycomb but as a UK base for motorhomes the Transit sadly lost favour.
It takes time to design a vehicle and this time it was to bring the Transit into the twenty-first century – and it was stateside headquarters that took on the challenge with key staff from Europe. Millions were spent on Southampton, Kocaeli in Turkey re-equipped while Genk in Belgium was to concentrate on the Mondeo family saloon. With three wheelbases, body cube heights and four load lengths the task was never going to be easy. The five millionth Transit was built at Southampton in July 2005 and one year later the seventh generation Transit was launched at the Commercial Vehicle Show at Birmingham’s NEC (and I was there on the front row to report for MHM readers) sporting a bold new style – a million miles from the original.
By its 45th birthday in 2010 the global market had taken a downturn, Transit remains on top but jobs were lost in the UK and Turkey became the ‘lead’ production factory as well as producing the smaller Transit Connect van range. Although there was a Transit for very market, Connect launched in 2002 plugged a sizable hole left after the demise of the Escort van.
European manufacturers still love the Transit, offering as it does a reliable, serviced anywhere in Europe base for their entry-level coachbuilt ranges. Check out the award winning Chausson Flash and Welcome ranges, Ci Auto-Roller, Globecar and Westfalia vans and best of all the Trigano Tribute designed for the UK and built at the Grimsby Auto-Trail factory alongside its flagship models. Tribute’s six-model range, built on MWB or LWB Transit chassis using state of the art manufacturing techniques offers traditional overcab and now two low-line coachbuilts. T-715 featuring the increasingly popular French fixed bed design. Base now utilises the Euro V compliant 2.2 TDCi engine providing 115 or 140bhp through a six-speed manual transmission dependant on model, and the sales and awards are rolling in!
Like Ford’s iconic cars from the early side-valve Popular and Anglia, Consul, Zephyr and Zodiac, Cortina, Mondeo and Escort, to the present Fiesta and Focus the Transit too has been the best selling light commercial vehicle since its launch day (that’s 47 years – save you working it out) and yes, over ninety per cent produced were white!
As for the recent worldwide launch of the Transit Custom recently reported in M&C (the Custom badge being used on the first Transit) with production beginning in the last quarter of this year, I’ll let you and possibly time decide the outcome…