The history of the Ford Transit
‘Transit’ is one of those brand names that is so well-known throughout the UK and beyond that many people seem to use it when referring to any kind of van at all. Like Hoover and Coke, Transit is a product which has become synonymous with its kind; a true national treasure, this humble workhorse has passed into our lexicon to an extent that most vehicles could only dream of.
With the Ford Transit now well over 50 years old, we thought it was high time to take a brief look at the Ford Transit’s history and how it has evolved over the years, as well as why the latest models are even more impressive than any which have gone before them.
We started off by talking to an authority on the subject: Peter Lee founded the Transit Van Club in 2005, a group for dedicated Transit enthusiasts which now has over 1,800 members who are committed to saving rare models and promoting the newest ones.
Peter (who kindly provided most of the images used here) explains the Transit’s enduring appeal, from the point of view of an expert who has seen it develop from its very beginnings: “Having worked for Ford on the line building Transits, owned a company with a fleet of Transits and had a hobby for over 45 years revolving around Transits, the question I always get asked is “why Transit?" The answer is that it has always been there for me and never let me down.
“Also, Transit is a winner and everyone loves a winner. It has been the top-selling van in the UK for 52 years, and in Europe for a lot of those years, plus is now the best-selling van in the world. 60 years ago, when Henry Ford Junior first put the Transit project in place, he gambled that it would work. He was right - it did work.
“The only difference is the first engineers designed a wheelbarrow that has today turned into a spaceship! Fit for purpose, made to work, designed to fit any tradesman’s needs and everyone’s friend. A true winner. There is only one Transit - or should I say eight million? And eight million people can't be wrong.”
Read on to discover more about the Ford Transit generations and how it has evolved over the years.
Although it is known as something of a British institution, fans of the Transit may be surprised to learn that it actually has its roots in Germany!
The closest things to Ford Transits for sale from 1953 right up to 1965 were called the ‘Taunus Transit’, with a typical model pictured above.
Although the Taunus may now be largely forgotten, it was well loved by European drivers at the time who were not used to owning a vehicle with such impressive storage space, and the van – made in Cologne – had an important role to play in the development of the Transit we all know and love today.
It was in 1965 that production of the vehicle we recognise as being similar to the modern-day Transit began. This spacious van offered passengers a wide body and its square shell design attracted customers from across the UK.
Although the old Ford Transit appeared very American, the vehicle was initially built in Berkshire. However, demand for the Mark I Transit soon outstripped supply capacity at the factory, so UK assembly was moved to Southampton, where it would remain right up until 2013.
The Mark II Transit was launched in 1978, boasting both significant cosmetic and engineering improvements. Providing greater comfort and reliability than its predecessor ensured that the future of the Transit – and its popularity among all kinds of customers – would be safe for many decades to come.
It was a mark of the Transit’s consistent appeal that it was not massively overhauled for more than 20 years; even when the ‘second generation’ of the van finally arrived in the mid-‘80s, all the qualities which made it a big seller to begin with – durability, versatility, longevity and great value for money – were still central to this most loved of commercial vehicles, with changes to the suspension improving the overall handling of the vehicle.
The second generation was when the exterior of the Transit was modified to look much more like the standard version we tend to see on the roads today. The most significant of alterations to its appearance came with the introduction of a new bodyshell which changed the slope of the bonnet so that it was at roughly the same angle as the windscreen (as can be seen in the model pictured above).
In 1994, a facelift introduced some of the modern features which we now take for granted but which came as something of a revelation at the time, such as electric windows, airbags, central locking and air conditioning. Some minor changes to the Transit’s design, such as the rounding of the headlamps perfected the appearance, changes which would soon be wheeled out across all models of the van.
The Transit Hallmark was launched in 1995 to celebrate the 30th anniversary of what was by now already something of a British legend.
Only 600 units of the Hallmark were produced, so consider yourself lucky if you ever had the opportunity to drive this extremely rare model!
Rapid advances in engineering technology meant that, when it was launched in 2000, the most noticeable feature of the ‘third generation’ Transit was how much it drove like a car. A top speed of 90MPH and a diesel engine which was also used on the Ford Mondeo are just two examples of the many ways in which the van was becoming more efficient and easier to control, while also remaining as suitable for ‘heavy lifting’ work as ever.
Ford also launched two options regarding the height of the vehicle, with a high and medium option available. In addition to improving the air conditioning, central locking and airbags, the Transit became more comfortable for its owners, making this one of the most popular options for commercial van drivers.
These car-like credentials were further demonstrated when a facelift in 2006 included the launch of a Transit ‘Sport Van’, which boasted alloy wheels and racing stripes – two features which surely would have been unimaginable to the Transit owners of the 1960s!
The ‘fourth generation’ of the Transit, which was launched at the North American International Auto Show in 2013, would be all but unrecognisable to the owners of the first models who proudly drove their new vans away from forecourts over 50 years ago.
The Transit is now so much more than the one-size-fits-all van it once was. The many different variations on the model which now exist – including the Courier, Custom and Connect (the latter of which is pictured above) – represent a wealth of choice for drivers who are looking for their perfect four-wheeled companion, whether they are just moving house or running a business.
Whatever your needs, there can be no doubt that the Ford Transits of today will be able to meet them. With more than half a century of motoring heritage to its name, this legendary vehicle is sure to continue being used by countless people around the world for many years to come.