Life Motoring

Saturday 17 August 2019

From building sites to bank robbers... Ford Transit celebrates 50 years

As Ford's Transit celebrates its 50th birthday our reporter charts the course of this quintessential van

The Transit line-up throughout its 50 year history.
The Transit line-up throughout its 50 year history.

Brian Twomey

It took a long time for the Transit to earn the term 'icon'. Unlike the air-cooled Volkswagen van, which earned iconic status from its use as the transport for starry-eyed hippies and self-discovering road trips, the Transit sat silently on the double-yellow lines of history, hazard warning lights flashing. For five decades, the Transit did the unglamorous and sometimes dangerous work. After 50 years, maybe it is time we gave the old Transit some recognition.

The first product of the creation of Ford of Europe, the Transit was launched in October 1965 to replace the European Taunus Transit and British Thames van. The Transit wasn't the first van to feature an engine mounted forward of the driver but was the first to be purposely designed like a car.

It had car-like styling, car-derived suspension, car-derived engines and it drove like a car. It was cleverly packaged too; the V4 engines were compact, devoting more room to load-carrying. The rear beam axle was a step backwards technically but it was simple and strong.

This breadth of capabilities was appreciated by more than just builders and couriers; the Met Police in London proclaimed that the Transit was used in over 95pc of bank robberies in the mid-seventies and sales soared. The Transit was a hit, capturing 40pc of the light commercial market and being built in the UK, Belgium, Turkey, Holland and New Zealand where it even gained a straight-six petrol engine.

Granada-powered V6 versions were used by police forces while mini-bus, pick-ups, crew-cabs, short and long wheelbases, along with different roof heights, gave buyers an unparalleled choice.

The Perkins diesel engine was unpopular and was replaced by Ford's own York-diesel for 1974.

1978 saw the new Mk2 Transit introduced. The inline Pinto engine replaced the old V4 and the styling was smartened up to reflect the changing tastes of the time, but the Transit still came with the widest choices of any commercial vehicle range in terms of engines and body styles, with a Europe-wide dealer network aimed at making the Transit the easiest commercial to buy and own.

Occasionally, a Transit was even bought for conversion into a leisure vehicle, a fact not lost on Ford when it produced the Clubmobil complete with alloy wheels, captain's chairs, pile carpeting, overhead cam engines and power steering. Sadly, only 200 were sold.

1986 saw the most radical departure. Aerodynamics played a big part in the first all-new Transit in over 20 years. The new body shape gave improved aerodynamics, better refinement and some street cred. The engines were broadly carried over unchanged, though.

A mild facelift in 1991 was followed by a major redesign in 1994 that found features like electric windows and airbags making their way into the van drivers' world.

The fourth-generation Transit was launched in 2000 and was perhaps the most comprehensive redesign ever.

As well as strong safety features and greater focus on the environment, this new socially responsible Transit also because the first to feature a five-cylinder engine, the first to have an automatic gearbox specifically designed for it and the first to have a spin-off, the smaller Transit Connect.

This was also the first Transit to be built and sold in China. Sadly, it was also the last Transit model to be built in the Southampton plant, which closed in 2013.

The current Transit and fifth generation now comes in three distinct sizes: Transit, Transit Custom and Transit Connect. Not only does it feature a bewildering array of engine and body options but is now the first Transit to sell globally, replacing the E-Series in North America.

It carries the hopes and aspirations of a whole new generation of small businesses and budding musicians for another generation.

If ever a vehicle has earned the term 'iconic', than this must surely be it.

Ten things to know about the Ford Transit

1) The Ford Transit was launched in 1965 and it became an instant success due partly to the wide variety of body styles on offer.

2) It could have been launched as the 'V-Series' but a last-minute decision saw it adopt the Transit name, which had first appeared on the German FK van in 1960 when that model became known as the Taunus Transit.

3) The fourth generation of the Transit was both front- and all-wheel drive for the first time.

4) The Transit was the first van to have the option of a side-loading door complete with a step.

5) To demonstrate the durability of its new diesel engine, two Ford Transits drove flat-out for a week non-stop at the high-speed Monza race circuit in 1972, breaking three world-endurance records, including 16,000km at an average speed of 118.583 kmh.

6) It was a Mark IV generation Transit that appeared in Top Gear in 2005, when German race driver Sabine Schmitz attempted to drive it around the Nürburgring in under 10 minutes, matching Jeremy Clarkson's time in a turbo diesel Jaguar S-Type.

7) The last Transit left the Southampton facility in the UK in July 2013, with main production moved to Turkey.

8) As part of a small manufacturing programme, some 1,745 Transit models were produced at the Cork Marina facility during the late 1960s.

9) In 2006, Ford created the ultimate people mover in the shape of this one-off stretch limousine called the Transit XXL. Sitting at 7.4 metres long the XXL has four sliding side doors, plus seven leather-trimmed Captain's chairs with lots of legroom and a personal video screen for each of the passengers.

10) Over 125,000 Transits have been sold in Ireland over the course of those five decades.

Sunday Independent

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