After decades as the ugly sister of the automotive world, vans have suddenly become stylish, chic and attractive to look at. Vehicles are now becoming available which wouldn’t look amiss at Henley Regatta or outside The Ritz.
Cast your mind back to 1999 and remember for a while what large commercial vehicles looked like then. Most were ugly square boxes, which appeared to have been designed by a group of students using a set of Duplo bricks.
To be fair, most van fleet operators don’t give a damn what their vans look like – they are more interested in front end prices and running costs – but then again, a little bit of panache surely can’t cost much, can it?
Then in 2001, a van appeared on the scene that was to change things forever. I well remember when our freelance writer Maurice Glover first clapped eyes on the Renault Trafic and its twin brother, the Vauxhall Vivaro, at a press preview.
He was so amazed at its unusual appearance that he called me from the venue on his mobile phone and was already giving rave reviews to the van’s bold stance without even driving it.
‘You’ve never seen anything like it,’ he told me. ‘It’s just, well, amazing.’
Thus the scene was set for a brave new world in which vehicle manufacturers would invest the same time and effort in making vans look stylish and chic as they do with their cars.
In 2003, Mercedes-Benz joined the fray with the new Vito van which, if anything, eclipsed the Trafic/Vivaro’s looks and raised the style stakes to dizzying new heights. Fast-forward to March 2005 and we find our own home-grown effort from LDV, in the form of the Maxus, breaking cover and once again the combined might of Her Majesty’s commercial vehicle press went into overdrive finding adjectives to compliment its grace and style.
But that was all just a trickle – 2006 is about to see the floodgates opening as the various manufacturers vie with each other to see who can top the league in the elegance and flair stakes.
Have you seen pictures of the new Ford Transit yet? What a difference from the dowdy old model on sale at present. Gone is that stodgy old front end, replaced by a smart set of Transit Connect style slash-cut headlamps, creased bonnet lines and sleek wide-mouthed grille.
Or what about the new Mercedes-Benz Sprinter? It seems to have followed the Maxus with a new snub-nosed bonnet and looks 10 times better than the old model.
Meanwhile Volkswagen seems to be taking its own road. Its replacement Transporter and Caddy models both look sturdy and brutish – although that doesn’t seem to have harmed the firm as sales rose a spectacular 10% in the UK last year.
And the LT replacement, the Crafter, has so far received less than complimentary remarks from most of the motoring press for its front end, which bears more than a passing resemblance to a basking shark. But whatever you think about VW’s efforts, at least the firm has got the industry talking about looks – something that would have been unthinkable a few years ago.
So with an array of vans on offer that scream ‘style’, the big question is: will white van man change to suit his new vehicles? Will our archetypal beer-gutted, fag-smoking, greasy fry-up guzzling male oik now take up membership of his nearest gym, don white shirt and tie for work and start frequenting Pret a Manger at lunchtime?
Well, maybe we are expecting too much, but it just goes to show how much the commercial vehicle world is changing as the third millennium unfolds.
Eventually, white van man will be tamed, domesticated and educated. It will be a long road, but putting him in nice clean, refined vehicles which he’ll be proud to drive can’t do any harm.