A fond look back at the Ford Transit
I ’m not proud of what I’m about to tell you, but when my old DJ mates and I get together we recall it with much mirth.
Let me set the scene. Back in the day we had a Ford Transit van and in it we carried the paraphernalia of a mobile disco hither and thither across East Anglia. There were disco decks, speakers, lights and - long before the age when a DJ could put thousands of tunes in his pocket on a tiny memory stick - lots of hefty record boxes.
By the time we acquired it, the ‘Tranny’, as we affectionately called it, had already seen sterling service with a well-known security firm and as such, had a small oval window set at the top of one of the van’s sides. This, we assumed, was to spy on possible assailants when large sums of money were transferred. It held little purpose for us - unless heavily ‘tooled’ thieves were about to rob us of the latest T. Rex single!
When empty of gear the van had a cavernous load space and, despite us having a very comfortable coach seat installed in the front, it was huge fun to ride in the back sitting on the metal floor.
Do put this down to the recklessness of youth, because the general sliding about became known as the ‘Tranny Slalom’.
If three or four of us were in the back, the driver would endeavour to turn late into bends, seek out a rare undulating route around these parts and, when empty roads permitted, would feel the need to test the brakes.
This advanced version of the ‘Tranny Slalom’ had a brave soul standing up and trying to maintain his balance. I’m sure we succumbed to the odd bruise, but in the end, all we can recall as we sit around now with a beer, is hysterical laughter. It probably stretched a law back then and would surely break one now. Sorry Officer!
We loved the Transit. Not only was it perfect for a mobile disco, it was a nice van to ride in. When Ford launched it in 1965 it was different from what went before, offering car-like comfort for the driver and front passengers.
However, a motoring writer who test-drove it at the time
maintained that the Transit would never catch on because it was just a bit too wide for the domestic driveways of the plumbers, electricians and builders it was aiming at.
Much to the on-going stress of my mother, it just squeezed between the gateposts on our driveway with an inch to spare on each side. I became quite adept at reversing it in. She was also worried what the neighbours would think as the large van rather dwarfed the drive, garage and front garden.
Transits caught on quickly and very soon were everywhere on our roads, establishing themselves as an efficient and stylish workhorse. The transverse engine saved space and was in front of the driver. Up until then, most vans had the engine pretty much beside the driver.
As a mobile disco, we’d stepped up from a Bedford CA van which was noisy, as the driver and passengers sat either side of the engine compartment. In fact, we only had to remove a sloping panel between us to see it! We could certainly hear it and smell it.
In praise of the Transit
Thanks to Peter Lee who runs the main Transit enthusiasts’ website, I’ve delved back into its history and it was Henry Ford Junior who had the vision to build one van for the whole European market.
Up to that point, Ford in Germany was making a van and so was Ford in the UK. They were virtually competing. Until the first Transit rolled off the production line for sale in 1965, Ford had invested some eight or so years getting it right. It went to great lengths, spending months watching builders load and unload stuff from lorries and vans. Researchers went around with milk delivery people noting what would make their life easier. In short, the research was thorough and more to the point, not rushed.
Panels of any sort don’t take kindly to being propped at an angle, so one of the first things to be insisted on was the van had to be big enough and wide enough for a builder to lay a sheet of something eight-feet-by-four-feet flat on the floor.
Peter says Ford engineers used to bomb up and down the A2 in Kent with the prototypes, piling on the test miles to check for any flaws. In the end, they handed over an embryonic Transit van to some motoring journalists who took it out but came back complaining of a thunderous roar coming from the back of the vehicle. Puzzled, the Transit boffins couldn’t replicate the problem. They invited the journos back at Ford’s expense and off they went again, this time monitored. A warm day had meant they had opened the sliding doors and once up to speed the
noise appeared. It was simply the air rushing into the van and having no means of escaping so the side panels were vibrating and rumbling in just the way a sound effects man would create thunder. So, three small vents were cut into the back panel on either side – problem solved. That’s how thorough the development was!
Peter has 10 - yes, 10 - Transits of his own! He has one of the oldest Mk 1s from 1965 and just loves driving them. He remembers them coming out, as his Dad ran one of the largest Ford dealerships in the country and would bring all sorts of vehicles home to try out. Peter then went on to work on the Transit production line at Langley.
He takes his vans to motor shows and says he should make a video booth for people to record their Transit stories - he’s heard loads.
When Ford launched it in 1965 it was different from what went before, offering carlike comfort for the driver and front passengers.
He knows of some Scouts who took a trip round Europe in one, found themselves on the Blue Peter TV programme then, emboldened by their fame, went off to Australia in a Transit – and made it there and back!
It was the favoured transport for budding bands before they had chart hits and could afford tour buses, so Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Tich crammed themselves into a Transit, as did The Small Faces, Elton John and Jools Holland on the way to building their pop careers.
Transits have been converted into all sorts – Dormobiles, ambulances, ice cream vans and it’s pretty certain most of what we consume has found its way to us thanks to a Transit, at some time.
Peter says his attachment to them is largely around the fact the Transit has provided for his family. It’s how he’s earned his living, put food on the table and a roof over his head. He’s still earning it with a splendid book and another coming out soon.
All I know is, I’d still love to have my Transit – but these days, don’t ask me to stand in the back!
Ford Transit, Fifty Years by Peter Lee.
David Clayton fondly remembers his Transit van.
The Ford Transit club’s display at an exhibition at the NEC earlier this year.
The Ford Transit club shows off its love of the van.
David Clayton and his mobile disco friends with the DJ equipment they used to carry in the back of the Ford Transit.
The iconic Ford Transit.