Home » I Drove The World’s Best Van And It Was Awesome And Terrible

I Drove The World’s Best Van And It Was Awesome And Terrible

Transit Van Adrian Tspv
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I’m too much of a butterfly to be fully in the tank for any one car brand in particular. I can pick out something I like, or at least find interesting from most companies, but being able to reel off chassis codes or options lists to the point of being avoided in polite company is not something that really interests me, and people have enough reasons to avoid me anyway.  I do love hearing about what model years the Aztek had a HUD available, but part of being a car designer is not getting too blinkered about the broader strokes of car culture and the industry at large.  However, because of my background and where I’m from, like it or not one manufacturer has managed to stamp a part number deep within the core of my being: Ford.

The blue oval is woven through the blue-collar fabric of British life. East London and the southern parts of the UK in particular are Ford country. There’s been a sprawling Ford plant just to the east of London in Dagenham, Essex for nearly a century. As a wide-eyed youngster being driven past, I remember being wowed by the huge Ford sign towering over thousands of rows of freshly minted new cars in the seventies. Although Dagenham is still there as an engine plant, vehicle production has long since been offshored. The carcass of Ford operations in the UK is scattered over the rest of Essex: Motorsport at Boreham, no more. Advanced Vehicle Operations at Aveley, long gone. Only the Dunton Campus remains, splitting design and engineering responsibilities with Merkenich in Germany.

Vidframe Min Top
Vidframe Min Bottom

Ford UK and Ford Germany, previously separate autonomous entities, were shotgunned into an unwilling marriage by Detroit to create Ford of Europe in 1967. The first official fruit of this union was the Mk I Escort of 1968, but in true working class style they had already produced an offspring out of wedlock three years earlier in 1965 – the Transit van. With nine versions across four distinct model generations, since its introduction to North America in 2014 the Transit has become the second best-selling van of all time behind only the Volkswagen Transporter. Up and down the UK and now across the world, the humble Transit has been taking care of business for nearly six decades.

A Bit Of Transit History

The new-for-1965 Transit was a revolution in two ways. First it chucked the cabover orthodoxy into the trash. Instead of squeezing goods and powerplant into one cube like existing vans, it placed the engine and gearbox in front of the cube, freeing up more space for cargo. Secondly, it beefed up the underpinning passenger-vehicle mechanicals for better performance and car-like handling. No longer would drivers carrying a full load feel like a hippo attempting to use stilts. Stubby V4 engines purloined from the road car range meant there was no intrusion into the interior space, increasing comfort. If you want to understand why rationalization was needed between the two European Ford divisions, British versions of the Transit used the Essex V4 and German versions the Cologne V4, two completely different engine families.

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Image Ford Heritage Vault

Available in a mind-boggling array of commercial configurations for just about any honest job you can think of, the Transit’s combination of speed and payload also made it perfect for less honest jobs. In 1972 a spokesperson for London’s Metropolitan Police said that “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 to be the perfect getaway vehicle …”

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Get Your Trousers On, You’re Nicked

Andy Laybourne has owned this rare Transit for just over four years. He has a job I can’t tell you about, but it involves fixing things with his hands, and as such he was well equipped to work on this. Andy’s four-wheel drive Transit isn’t fast, but speed is not required to get away from His Majesty’s Constabulary. Simply crunch the secondary gear levers into 4-Low and drive over them. The Transit’s popularity meant customers with specialist requirements were soon demanding go-anywhere conversions. In the UK most of these were done by County, but over on the mainland Renault four-wheel drive specialists SINPAR got together with their German distributor and Ford dealer Rau, to create the SIRA Transit in 1982. This 1984 Rau Mk II long wheelbase began life in Germany as a fire engine, equipped with a 2.0 liter straight four Pinto engine. In low-compression Transit form, this engine made all of 86bhp, making it a prime candidate for my ‘how the fuck does that move?’ file, but after this example came to the UK in the early 2010s the petrol engine was pulled out, and a 2.5-liter turbo diesel from a later Mk V Transit plumbed in. With a variable geometry turbo from a Mondeo, Andy reckons it’s now making about 125bhp.

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Before (here) and after (below).

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A later five-speed box has replaced the original four-speed unit, which in true Euro Ford plug-and-play fashion only needed the fabrication of a new mount to fit it into the engine bay. This transmits power to a transfer box with two speed ranges (slow and slower). Suspended from leaf springs front and rear are live axles with freewheeling hubs attached to Land Rover spindles up front. Don’t let this Transit’s aggressive ride height fool you though: axle articulation hasn’t been increased over the standard van. The Rau is more about access to difficult-to-reach areas than it is hardcore off-roading.

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Handling the classic Ford grey plastic-covered key and jumping behind the wheel of the Transit is like a therapy cheat code – the sticking plaster of time ruthlessly yanked off to expose forty-year-old memories. Crank the motor into life and the long gear lever wobbles in tune with the vibrations from the diesel motor, giving the van a straight-down-to-business feel. Moving away this Transit feels unstoppable, and it probably is given the chunky tires and gearing that could pull a house down. These later five-speed Ford boxes were never as click-clacky as the old four speeds, the imprecision not helped by the sheer length of the gear lever but I didn’t fumble too many shifts. First or third to pull away it’s all academic here. It’s not fast by any definition of the word, but does squirt through its short gearing well on the boost. I kept thinking it wasn’t really that slow, but then realized the speedo increments are in kilometers, not miles per hour.

Free Lita Guv’nor!

Earlier poking around under the bonnet revealed a disturbing lack of hydraulic plumbing, leaving me expecting to pop a new hernia steering this big old bus. Somewhere in the past, one of the previous owners thankfully fitted an electronic power steering kit. Spinning the thin-rimmed, deeply-dished tri-spoke wheel requires little effort, but transmits only the vaguest perception of what the front wheels are actually up to. Broach the heady heights of about fifty miles per hour and the aggressive tread of the tires will add another ingredient to the din – an operatic aria layered over the noise of the motor and whine of the drivetrain. Andy says after about an hour at this sort of speed the tires also start getting a bit warm and squirmy, adding another element of directional jeopardy in addition to the Transit’s tendency to wander to the right if you’re not paying attention.

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Although it might look like it should be hauling a priceless piece of motorsport history from the Ford heritage fleet to a wax jacket enthusiast event, appearances can be deceiving. The period Triplex livery and color scheme exists because Andy’s brother-in-law is chairman of the Classic Touring Car Racing Club, and campaigns a Gerry Marshall replica FREE LITA GUV’NOR (say this loudly in your best Hardigree in Oliver! cockernee accent) Capri. The Transit was the tow rig for this circuit bruiser until the logistics of the whole thing proved a bit awkward.  Andy got his talented hands on it about four years ago and apart from the paint job did all the restoration work himself, and he’s done an incredible job.

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Inside Andy has bolted in seats from – irony alert – a Volkswagen T5. These means seats for your getaway driver and two goons up front, and seats for two more armed goons amidships. The rear bench, which converts into a bed Andy made himself. It will sleep and feed five, perfect for the away days it’s now used for. There’s a small pull-out kitchenette round the back, the top-hinged tailgate providing a useful shelter from the British summer when you’re trying to fry-up a British breakfast trackside. Despite no longer hauling a race car this Transit is used daily, taking Andy to work although he still has a few improvements to make to remedy two classic Euro Ford failings: rust and the lack of brakes. He wants to fit fiberglass front fenders to prevent regular tin-worm eradication sessions, and some four-piston calipers to help the Transit come to a halt. It does have brakes, but in all honestly you’re better off at the moment cramming it into first and holding on.

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The fast Ford scene in the UK is frankly full of wankers. These people drove the price of a bloody Escort RS Turbo to nearly three-quarters of a million pounds. This scene tax is why I bought a Ferrari instead of one my favorite cars. Generation X-ers from my part of the world upon whom life has smiled now have the money to be extremely fussy about having the best examples of the marque, but Andy’s Transit drives a coach and horses through all that nonsense. It’s unique and more used, and just as much fun. It’s been a fire engine, a working van and it’s been invited to Goodwood. And it’s still out there earning a living, just being the best Transit it can be for Andy and his family. He still uses it for regular van-type jobs, filling it up with crap in-between daily driver duties and taking it to shows.

Getting away from Goodwood or getting away from banks, the Transit has been doing it all for sixty years. If Andy’s Transit is any example, here’s to the next sixty.

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BigThingsComin
BigThingsComin
26 days ago

Did I miss it in the article? What model year is this van?

BigThingsComin
BigThingsComin
25 days ago
Reply to  Adrian Clarke

Thanks!

Strangek
Strangek
26 days ago

Great article Adrian, I love stories like these!

DadBod
DadBod
26 days ago

Great story man, I have no idea who Gerry Marshall is but it doesn’t matter.

Jim Galbraith
Jim Galbraith
22 days ago
Reply to  DadBod

Big Gerry was The Man in his era of saloon racing, quite an extrovert. He’s worth looking up on YouTube, maybe driving “Big Bertha” or better still “Baby Bertha”

W124
W124
26 days ago

I´d love to read something about Taunus Transit. Those are very charming little vans, and also very fun to drive! At least around the town, not so much on the highway I guess, I have driven one only at lower speeds.

Jakob K's Garage
Jakob K's Garage
26 days ago

A really nice and honest story, thanks a lot 🙂

I was also born in the 70ies, and I can’t think of any car uglier than the pig snout Transit! And the sad 80ies facelift, where they just put a generic 80ies black plastic front on the same old 60ies body just makes me sad.

So for the van part of my life, I went with the archaic VW T1, T2 and T3, which were eye pleasing, but drove quite bad. Even a big and slow diesel Mercedes “Bremer Transporter” drove much better than all those.
The T4, when it finally arrived in the 90ies was great! So I am thinking of getting another one of those now they are old too. It hasn’t got much of the vintage “soul” of the rear engined ones, so prices haven’t gone totally bananas on those (yet..)

W124
W124
26 days ago

I think the pig snout is (almost) pretty! At least it is sympathetic. I know one carpenter / old building restorer who uses a pig snout as his working van through the year, very fitting for the business.

Grey alien in a beige sedan
Grey alien in a beige sedan
26 days ago

Why was an old turbo diesel swapped in there? Wondering why they didn’t pull a 5.0 from an old Mustang and use that.

W124
W124
26 days ago

Because they aren’t Murican.

Dangerous_Daveo
Dangerous_Daveo
26 days ago

Do the front tyres rub on this one?

ADDvanced
ADDvanced
27 days ago

Way cool. With a mild body lift to fit larger tires, awd, and all terrains, the capability of the vehicle just jumps up such a huge margin. Things that tend to be ‘hardcore offroading’ also tend to be utter shit on the freeway, so there’s always a balance. Lifted 4wd vans are awesome for so many ways, but they tradeoff is they all drive sorta terrible.

I’d really like to do an adventure on those crazy big tired Icelandic econolines built for hardcore winter expeditions. Those are some of the coolest rigs on the planet imho.

SonOfLP500
SonOfLP500
27 days ago

I remember being overawed by the Dagenham plant on the few occasions we drove past it on the A13 in the 1970s (I’m from Sahf-East London, so it was outside our regular patch), then totally gobsmacked by the scale of the place when I went to work there for a few months in the engine plant in 1979/80: in its heyday, it was the biggest manufacturing plant in Europe. I get a touch of the (Ford oval) blues thinking that it is almost entirely gone now.

SonOfLP500
SonOfLP500
27 days ago
Reply to  Adrian Clarke

Go for it, I want to read that piece!
A quick look on Google Satellite seems to confirm that a lot of the factory buildings are still there, the jetty, too. I wonder if the Ford passenger ferry to Belvedere still operates?

Mr Sarcastic
Mr Sarcastic
28 days ago

First love the look of Europe Transit vans over the ugly transit we originally got here. Second doesn’t Dagenham sound like a great substitute for curse words? It would certainly class up some of the vulgar posts here. But mainly can we see the list of best selling vans? Does it include minivans? Those Dodge/Chrysler van created a brand new vehicle. Are they counted together or separate? Also the Ford Econoline/E Series has been around over 60 years offering 150 to 450, ambulances, service vans, box vans I have to wonder if a late Comer could have caught up?

Drad
Drad
27 days ago
Reply to  Mr Sarcastic

Let me introduce you to the Toyota Hiace. The workhorse of Africa, Asia, Australia, & the Pacific. I know in Australia and New Zealand the Hiace outsells the next best seller (Hyundai Staria and Ford Transit respectively) by 2:1 sometimes 3:1.

MikeInTheWoods
MikeInTheWoods
28 days ago

A most excellent read with my Saturday morning coffee. I have a soft spot for vans. We traveled through 26 states back in 2010 with our kids in a VW Eurovan with a roof top tent attached to the roof rack. I had noticed the pop top model Eurovans were very expensive so I bought this unheard of thing called a roof top tent. Now they are everywhere. Ours has moved on, but I still see the van in action in the city near where I sold it.

Morgan Thomas
Morgan Thomas
29 days ago

I unreasonably lust after that.

It reminds me way too much of the ambulance I was going to buy before a loss of job meant I had to let it slip through my fingers.
Not just any normal ambulance – it was a 1960s International AB120 4×4 6-stretcher ex Royal Australian Air Force ambulance. Being designed to carry 6 casualties on stretchers stacked 3 high on each side, it had a van body on the back tall enough to stand upright inside – perfect for a compact camper conversion.
In a list of vehicles I have nearly bought but missed out on (and still regret) it would be in the top 2.

Laurence Rogers
Laurence Rogers
23 days ago
Reply to  Morgan Thomas

My dad had a Dodge D5N Ambulance before I was born, and it was dearly missed after it was sold.

The only examples I’ve come across were too far gone to bother with, sadly.

Lizardman in a human suit
Lizardman in a human suit
29 days ago

“and people have enough reasons to avoid me anyway.”

Isn’t that a good thing?

Edit: and I commented before reading. Um folks, let’s not piss off Uncle Goth. He knows a “fixer” who is “good with his hands” and has a “job he can’t talk about.” That sounds ominous. I’m gonna go hide now.

Last edited 29 days ago by Lizardman in a human suit
DadBod
DadBod
26 days ago

The CIA calls it “wet work”

notoriousDUG
notoriousDUG
29 days ago

That van makes me feel weird in my bathing suit area.

No Kids, Just Bikes
No Kids, Just Bikes
29 days ago

I never needed the 4×4 my converted DHL E-250 offered in Colorado, but goddamn was it cool. Dudes beveraging in ski hill parking lots LOVED a 4×4 van. Ladies didn’t seem to care.

Lizardman in a human suit
Lizardman in a human suit
29 days ago

Ladies give van guys the side eye. Wonder why?

Stacks
Stacks
29 days ago

Goddamn I love a good van. A plumber I used to work with had a whole fleet of ~2000 Econolines each with a Quigley conversion and a lift, in perfect dark green metallic paint. That was 20-something years ago and I still think of them in jealousy once in a while.

Canopysaurus
Canopysaurus
29 days ago

Sic transit Transit.

Jack Trade
Jack Trade
29 days ago

I’m gen-X myself, and a big Ford fan.

State-side, by the mid-’80s when I started to really get into cars, Ford seemed to me the domestic that was really making an effort across the board; its designs seemed fresh and futuristic or at least “Euro-inspired,” and it seemed cognizant that the Asian competition was here to stay, so let’s try to compete. In particular, Ford’s interiors then seemed relatively harmonious and thought-out…dare I say driver-centered, even.

GM on the other hand was putting out a ton of stuff that was mostly mediocre in one way or the other, relying on an “I’ve always bought a Chevy” attitude among its buyers, and Chrysler was a huge question mark, would it even be around in a few years’ time?

Ford seemed to have a bright future back then, and despite all its many problem episodes since, it still seems that way to me.

Jack Trade
Jack Trade
29 days ago
Reply to  Adrian Clarke

It can’t be overstated how much of a design change it was to our eyes compared with our Charlie’s Angels-era Ford stuff. Night and day.

Isis
Isis
29 days ago
Reply to  Jack Trade

I’ve come full circle back to Ford. Rode in an 86 Escort as a kid, which became my brother’s first car, which he taught me to drive a clutch in. Then I went the way of Hondas and Acuras and then onto Subarus. Did a stint with a Caddy I still have and then after a couple of beaters, I daily a Raptor now. Facing job prospects with longer commutes and possibly (eek) parking garages, I’m shopping for Fiesta ST’s. . . I like Ford. They seem to stay relevant.

Jack Trade
Jack Trade
29 days ago
Reply to  Isis

Even its at-the-time misses seem relevant to me – like how the Lightning and the Mach-E are both good attempts to get to the future in a practical way. I appreciate that.

VanGuy
VanGuy
29 days ago

Manual diesel van? What a combo. In the U.S. that’d be a flying unicorn. Guessing it’s not so weird there.

Vans are cool and that one’s no exception. Nice paint job.

Lotsofchops
Lotsofchops
29 days ago
Reply to  VanGuy

And a dualie! How many rare checkboxes can one vehicle tick, honestly.

Mantis Toboggan, MD
Mantis Toboggan, MD
28 days ago
Reply to  VanGuy

The oddest van I’ve seen, Corvairs aside, was an 8 door Express in a junkyard. Had double side doors on both the passenger and driver’s sides. It looked factory but I’ve never figured out what the purpose was. It didn’t have a lift or other mobility features to transport handicapped people and that was the best explanation I could come up with.

VanGuy
VanGuy
28 days ago

Those are actually quite common. I don’t know the exact range of years, but those were available from the factory (at least for passenger configurations, not sure about cargo) for some years, in the aughts I believe.

Last edited 28 days ago by VanGuy
A. Barth
A. Barth
29 days ago

That is a nice engine compartment – not flash but very tidy.

Maymar
Maymar
29 days ago

Gerry Marshall replica … Capri”

I got really confused for a second that the guy who directed Pretty Woman raced cars in the UK on the side, which I guess would help explain the handles on rails, my brothers read Road & Track stuff, but no, he was Garry.

Urban Runabout
Urban Runabout
29 days ago
Reply to  Maymar

I figured Garry Marshall would have a DeSoto or a Lotus.

Jim Stock
Jim Stock
29 days ago

I want one!

TOSSABL
TOSSABL
29 days ago

Came off the roof, jumped in my E350 van (lifted & 4wd by Quigley) for a break, then saw this. 🙂

VanGuy
VanGuy
29 days ago
Reply to  TOSSABL

Quigley conversion? You have time for reading publications for peasants like The Autopian?

(I kid…I’ve shopped for conversion vans long enough that I recall them being listed for 30k-40k used even 10 years ago. I shudder to think of what they cost new.)

TOSSABL
TOSSABL
29 days ago
Reply to  VanGuy

This has 217k on it, but a newer engine & transmission. Been toying with putting a bid in when they decide to sell it (likely this year)
I don’t even know what I should bid (sealed bids—and nice newer vans with good LSs have gone for under $2k).

I don’t need it—and it only gets 8-9mpg—but it would make a killer camper

VanGuy
VanGuy
29 days ago
Reply to  TOSSABL

I’m assuming you mean cargo vans and/or unfinished project vans, because damn. If I could find conversion vans near me in good condition for under ~$5k I’d be sooooo happy. You know, aside from the twice a year they do appear 1-2 hours away from me and sell instantly.

TOSSABL
TOSSABL
29 days ago
Reply to  VanGuy

Cargo: well-used. And, my standards are low, so ‘nice’ means fully functional mechanically, but cargo floor, shelving, & driver’s seat definitely have seen use. We’re a big national company, so they don’t want shabby billboards driving around. Honestly, they’ve only kept this one so long because we couldn’t get an affordable replacement during the pandemic. I heard it’s going away this year sometime. I’ll miss the V8 and commanding view

TOSSABL
TOSSABL
29 days ago
Reply to  VanGuy

Uh, ‘my’ —as in work van. We bought it to service HVAC at mountain cell site locations

No Kids, Just Bikes
No Kids, Just Bikes
29 days ago
Reply to  VanGuy

I bought an Advanced 4×4 (company in Utah) converted DHL van in Aspen for around $5k about 7-8 years ago. You have to hunt and hunt for them, but you can find the occasional deal. I did plenty of BLM camping in it and found I never needed the extra driven wheels, and the conversion I had changed the front suspension from coils to leaf springs. Driving it was a bummer, so I sold it and got a 2wd van. Much better, but now I have no interest in camping.

Andrea Petersen
Andrea Petersen
29 days ago
Reply to  TOSSABL

My brain quickly went to the family Quigley van as well, but this is significantly cooler.

TOSSABL
TOSSABL
29 days ago

Way, way cooler. My brain about melted when I saw what looked like an old panel van from the beltline up grafted onto a more modern one. Then, I focused and avidly read.

Viking Longcar
Viking Longcar
29 days ago

Great story.

Matt Hardigree
Matt Hardigree
29 days ago

FREE LITA GUVNAH! Is what I’ll be saying all day now, thanks.

Fred Flintstone
Fred Flintstone
29 days ago
Reply to  Adrian Clarke

DAHN THE KURSALL

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