Fleet News

Special feature: Ford Transit

A MOMENTOUS event occurred at Ford’s van plant in Southampton last week when the five millionth Ford Transit rolled off the production line.

Britain’s transport press were there to cheer, all the Ford top brass were present to give interviews and cricketing legend Mike Gatting turned up to be handed the keys to the vehicle. Ford had decided to donate it to the Lords’ Taverners’ Fund, cricket’s official charity, which provides minibuses for disabled children.

Few of the Ford employees who helped build the first Transits in 1965 could have dreamed then that in 2005 the word ‘Transit’ would have entered the English dictionary as a generic term for ‘van’ and that an updated version of that first hardy contender would still be firmly heading the LCV van sales chart in Britain.

Ford of Europe chairman Lewis Booth summed up Transit’s success.

He said: ‘It’s rare to find products that become so much part of society that you can’t imagine what life was like without them. One of these products is the Ford Transit.

‘All over the world, the Transit has become a valued employee and a trusted colleague, taking cargo to customers, children to school, workmen to work and patients to hospital. Over these 40 years, we at Ford have felt privileged that our customers have chosen us to represent their businesses and get the job done.’

Behind the wheel 1965-style

IT is a little known fact that the original Ford Transit that rolled off the production line in 1965 with a 1.7-litre petrol engine was one of the first vehicles to come with air-conditioning as standard. The technology was simple and the adjustments were infinitely variable.

To operate it, the driver slid back the door and hooked it open – et voila! As much cool air as you want.

They were heady days back in 1965. Seatbelts were virtually unknown, brakes only stopped you if you jumped on the pedal really hard and as for in-car entertainment, you just opened your lungs and blasted out a few verses of Men of Harlech when you got bored.

The Transit was a huge leap forward over the existing vans on the road at the time and I well remember driving one of the early models and being impressed with its comfort and handling.

But step out of a fifth-generation Transit and into a 1965 model, as I did at Ford’s invitation last week, and it will soon become apparent just how far vehicle design and technology has advanced. Ford has lovingly kept a fleet of old models on the road over the years and they are no museum pieces.

Ford managing director Paul Thomas himself drove one of the vehicles from the Dagenham headquarters to the event in Southampton and reported that it was running as sweet as a nut. But any professional van driver today would have to be a masochist to want a return to the vehicle of the ’60s.

Slam those sliding doors too hard and they end up off their hinges and lying in the road. Don’t slam them hard enough and they ping back again. The seats are rather curious. No headrests, of course, and you sink right down in them in a swathe of foam rubber.

Firing the engine up was a surprise as this motor purred sweetly. It’s a petrol variant, of course, and the engineers at Dagenham obviously spend a lot of time lovingly tending it.

Gear-changing is an interesting experience. Nowadays, a driver might ponder on which of his six gears to use. With this model, the question is: will I actually find a gear at all? It’s a hit-and-miss affair, with the four-foot long lever resembling the proverbial spoon in a pudding basin.

On the road, the Transit doesn’t handle badly for its age – until you want to stop. Slowing down has the driver’s emotions ranging from mild concern to sheer terror depending on the amount of deceleration required.

And with no power steering, parking sees the driver showing off his best grimaces as he wrestles with the wheel, which at times seems most disinclined to budge.

After a 10-minute drive in the 1965 Transit I concluded that, much as I enjoyed the nostalgic experience, I have no wish to repeat it.

A brief history of a commercial vehicle legend in the making

  • 1965 – Bill Batty changes the name of Ford’s new van from V-series to Transit. First ever Transit comes down the line at Langley, Berks, on August 9
  • 1971 - Appearance modernised with the introduction of a more car-like grille
  • 1972 - Introduction of first small high-speed diesel, called the York. It came in two power ratings, 55bhp and 62bhp
  • 1974 - Introduction of a new 1,000 kg payload model based on LWB bodyshell
  • 1976 - New top-weight model takes Transit’s gvw to 3.5 tonnes
  • 1978 - Major styling change. Stubby bonnet now more streamlined and more fuel-efficient engines introduced
  • 1985 - Two millionth Transit produced
  • 1986 - All-new Transit introduced
  • 1995 - Driver comfort improved by a restyled cab interior
  • 1996 - First Transit 17-seat minibus
  • 2000 - All-new model produced at Genk in Belgium. Industry first with FWD and RWD configurations built on a common platform
  • 2001 – Transit voted Van of the Year
  • 2002 – New common-rail turbodiesel engine, Duratorq TDCi, becomes available.
  • 2003 – Transit Connect is voted Inter-national Pan-European Van of the Year
  • 2005 - Five millionth Ford Transit built

    ‘Transit will never be beaten’

    FORTY years from now, the Ford Transit will still be topping the light commercial vehicle van sales charts.

    That was the bold prediction of Gary Whittam, director of commercial vehicles for Ford of Britain, in an exclusive interview with Fleet News.

    Whittam said: ‘Transit is still the number one seller after 40 years and has a 30% share of the market now. No other van maker has above a 9% share.’

    But he warned that, although Ford had no intention of losing market share, the company would have no problem turning away business that was not profitable. He said: ‘It costs us lot of money to produce all the technological advances we have brought in and these have to be paid for. We have already walked away from some serious fleet business because it was not profitable and we aren’t afraid to do so again.’

    So what will the van of the future have that today’s Transit does not offer?

    Whittam said: ‘We are already class-leading in offering ABS brakes and drivers’ airbags as standard and we will offer standard traction control if that is the way the market is going. We will not be left behind in the technology stakes.’

    Whittam also predicts an increase in the future in satellite navigation and black box technology built in at the production stage, along with air conditioning and bulkheads to provide a safer and cooler environment for drivers. He said: ‘Air conditioning is not just a nice thing to have any more – it is a major health and safety addition that will keep drivers safe.’

    Industry talk is that a facelifted Transit is due next year and, although Whittam declined to speculate on this, he said: ‘Any new product we bring out will have all the technology and innovations to keep us ahead of the market.’

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