It has flown, floated, raced, toured, topped the charts, been adored by celebs, loved by gangsters…and sat outside your house.
So famous it’s got its own (very long) Wikipedia entry, it has single-handedly changed the UK for the better, spawned a whole new class of society, and is even now busily taking over and transforming the entire world.
It is the Ford Transit Van. And, unbelievably, it is 50 years old this month.
It is the vehicle whose four wheels and distinctive shape (though there have actually been four variations of it) set Small Business Britain free, that liberated the free enterprise spirit of the country that had been shackled for too long.
Whether used by the Post Office for your parcels, or to bring the plumber to repair a leak, there can barely be a home in Britain it hasn’t been parked outside at some time.
No surprise, then, that just last week it was officially declared Number One best-selling van of all time by the motoring bible Parkers.
Its relative affordability, its ability to wriggle its way through traffic like a car while carrying significant amounts of cargo, was a godsend to the one-man operator needing maximum freedom and flexibility to build his business.
If only running a business was as uncomplicated as running and driving a Ford Transit!
As many of its drivers have said forcibly, of course – so much so that White Van Men, the drivers of the ubiquitous Transit, are now a significant political force in the country, that politicians ignore at their peril.
The lessons of self-reliability, initiative, honesty, enterprise and adaptability learnt at the steering wheel of the Transit, and earning a living based around its flexibility, have become a benchmark of what those drivers expect and now demand from government and society for themselves and their families.
A very British triumph
When you think about it, the Ford Transit – 2.5 million of them sold in the UK alone over the last 50 years – could have been the brainchild of Margaret Thatcher.
Though Ford is, of course, American owned, this world-beater vehicle was entirely a British baby. The progeny of the splendid Ford 400E (my very first motor was its little brother, a racing red Ford 100E!), it was completely rethought and redesigned, then first produced, from a former Hurricane fighter factory in Berkshire. It cost just £560. Now manufactured either in Spain or Turkey, it will set you back at least £21,125.
To White Van Men (and Women!) everywhere, it is plainly worth it – last year, according to the Department of Transport, these titans of traffic covered an awe-inspiring 46.3 billion miles on UK roads, up a hefty 6.3 per cent on the previous 12 months.
It is the ultimate go-anywhere, do-anything vehicle. The word ‘Transit’ has actually been its patented name since birth in 1965, but of course its impact on the motor industry has been so massive it has become slang for an entire genre of motor cargo transport vehicles. So successful that it’s even spawned a little sister, the Tourneo mini-bus, based entirely on the Transit.
As I said at the start, they’ve even been adapted to fly – stuntman Steve Matthews used top speed and a ramp to ‘fly’ over 15 cars in 1985 – to float like a boat, and to race round the famous Nürburgring F1 track in Germany for Jeremy Clarkson and Top Gear in 2005.
Scotland Yard once declared the Ford Transit the perfect getaway car for enterprising thieves – apparently they are the perfect size to carry enough robbers to nick enough swag and still be able to roar off into the night!
The van has been photographed with various movie stars and sportsmen – Michael Caine and boxer Henry Cooper to name but two – and featured in many, many films and TV shows.
Originally marketed just in the UK and Germany, as it proved a sure-fire success it spread quickly throughout Europe, eventually cracked the US and is now even a roaring success in the massive Chinese market. It is estimated to have sold 8.5 million worldwide.
But it is as the backbone of Britain’s small traders that it has truly and justifiably become a genuine icon of motoring.
There is, of course, a Ford Transit Van Club. It was founded by White Van Man Peter Lee. Well, White Vans Man, actually, because he owns 13, including one of only three known 1965 Mk 1 vans still in existence.
He summed up its appeal perfectly when he explained, ‘The Transit has built businesses from scratch, and made fortunes. The wonder of the Transit is that it isn’t just a “van”, but a way for the working man to earn his crust and keep a roof over his family’s head. That’s why people love it, and have loved it for 50 years.’
He’s right. Happy Birthday, Ford Transit! Here’s to the next half-century.
- Guest blogger Neil Wallis, media commentator and former newspaper editor
Image: Art Konovalov/ Shutterstock.com