Working Class Hero


All Images Influx/James Lipman

Remember Ford’s late-nineties ‘backbone of Britain’ TV advert for the Transit, set to Slade’s ‘Coz I Luv U?’ The advertising industry isn’t generally noted for correcting social wrongs, but on this occasion it at least tried.

The Transit is a Lennonite working class hero; its shapes burned into our collective motoring memory, its longevity and dominance such that it is one of those rare vehicles whose name becomes shorthand for its entire vehicle type.

Your newspaper, fresh food, money, parcels and prisoners are moved by Transit. But despite the fact that over six million have been made since 1965 and – for British readers – that it’s the last Ford still to be made in the UK, it hasn’t acquired the position in popular culture that the pick-up truck – and in particular Ford’s best-selling Ford’s F-series – has in the United States.

Maybe it’s because we don’t buy them for personal use. But maybe we should. It’s not hard to dislike Transits when your experience of them is limited to having one sitting an inch off your rear bumper at 80mph, or having your washing-machine repair man show up half a day late in one or, if female, being verbally molested from the polystyrene-cup-and-Sun infested cab of one.

But have you driven one lately? They’re good to drive. Properly good to drive, putting the driver first in a way a lot of passenger cars don’t bother to. Apart from the expected lofty driving position you get vast wing mirrors that make backing up easier than in something way smaller, an infinitely adjustable driver’s seat, enough cupholders to keep Rab C. Nesbit lubricated on a long trip, and a bin or hole or cubby seemingly telepathically placed to receive everything you ever need to stow.

The driving dynamics have always been better than the average van, accounting for the Transit’s huge popularity with 1970s armed robbers. But it took a huge step forward with the all-new version of the van in 2000, in which Ford’s talismanic global product chief Richard Parry-Jones took a personal interest. He thought it should drive as well as the then-brilliant Focus, and it did. It was so good that, as a young road tester on a car magazine, I lined up all its rivals at Castle Combe race track and alongside touring car driver Phil Bennett set lap times in each. The editors thought the pictures of vans going sideways through The Esses in torrential rain looked irresponsible, and canned the story. They were entirely right, of course. But the Transit aced the lot.

Top Gear had a similar idea a bit later, racing a Transit against a diesel Jaguar S-Type around the Nurburgring. Clarkson was in the Jag, ‘Ring racer Sabine Schmidt in the van. The Jag won by a few seconds, and would have won by far more had the drivers been of equal talent. But the extraordinary thing was that the Transit went around in a shade over ten minutes; very quick for 154 corners and nearly 13 miles of ‘green hell’. And the van was largely standard: a rare combination of big diesel engine, rear drive and the shortest, lightest body, sold in small numbers to foundries and other businesses that need to move small but very heavy dies and presses.

Not that quick Transits are anything new. There have been three generations of ‘Supervan’. The joke seems a bit obvious; take a slow-moving work-horse and double the speed, Benny Hill-style. But you can’t doubt Ford’s commitment. The first, built in the early seventies, had a Le Mans-spec GT40 V8 engine and running gear, and the next two had Formula One engines. And when TWR was developing the Jaguar XJ220 they bolted its drivetrain into a Transit, which had a conveniently similar wheelbase, and sent it out to run durability tests on the public road. Only the roof-mounted air intakes and XJ220 wheels gave it away. Late-eighties Oxfordshire drivers must have thought they were having hallucinations.

The Transit has made some screen appearances; arguably its finest moment comes in the 1987 film version of Freddy Forsyth’s Fourth Protocol, in which Michael Caine uses an MI5-issue Transit to save East Anglia from a Russian Pierce Brosnan with an atomic bomb. You’ll also see it in re-runs of the The Sweeney and The Professionals and The Bill, operating on both sides of the law. Still, we haven’t given it the credit, or the place in our motoring hearts, that it deserves. But, dear Transit, as Noddy Holder sang in that ad, I still like the things you do.