Arguably the pioneer of the commercial vehicle and the self-proclaimed ‘Backbone of Britain’, the Ford Transit has been with us for 50 years now and has spawned both five different generations and a number of spin-off models in those five decades of production.
In Britain, the Transit is everywhere and has been the benchmark for its rivals since its inception in 1965 when it became the go-to vehicle for small and large businesses alike. To celebrate its accomplishments, we’ve done a brief history of the Ford Transit to document its beginnings and its most important moments in its 50 years.
Creation of an icon – October, 1965
Ford knew in the mid-60s that it had to replace the Thames 400E with something bigger, more versatile and far more useful. Enter the Transit; co-developed by Ford of Britain and Ford of Germany, the van was originally conceived in Ford’s Langley factory, a location once used to build Spitfires in World War II.
The Bedford CA had been the commercial vehicle to beat at that stage, and Ford decided that by using its American heritage to inspire a distinctive design for the Transit, as well as creating something overall more flexible, it would be able to overcome the Bedford’s dominance.
Another masterstroke that benefitted the Transit was the use of short V4 engines that allowed the van to offer much more loading room, thanks to the engine being able to fit up front as opposed to the conventional mid-engined approach of the Transit’s contemporaries. A range of various model types, including panel van, pick-up and minibus forms also helped the Transit gain fans quickly.
Just seven years into the Transit’s life, sales for the van reached one million units sold, with the milestone example exported to Nigeria in the form of a 2.0-litre minibus.
The second generation Ford Transit entered into the market in 1978 and really helped the model gain momentum against its rivals, thanks mainly to an more up-to-date design and direct injection engines. Ford’s custom plan also offered a tremendous amount of customisation for users, enabling businesses and individuals alike to spec out their perfect Transit and in July 1985 saw the two millionth model leave the production line.
Ford’s plant in Southampton had now become the base of operations for the Transit, while factories in Turkey and the Netherlands had also helped the cause for the continental market. The Southampton plant had been in Ford’s ownership since 1953 and had helped the American firm solidify its operations in Britain.
In 1986, Ford launched the third iteration of the Transit and even started production as far a field as Vietnam, with the demand for the van and its many variations constantly growing.
Making big steps
The end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st saw Ford revolutionise its range of vehicles, with the likes of the Focus and the Ka offering models that set new precedences in their respective markets. The fourth generation of the Transit was no different.
It was perhaps the biggest redesign of the van so far and gained mainstream use of both front- and all-wheel drive for the first time after being developed by Ford America, a feature that no doubt helped it be crowned International Van of the Year 2001.
Meanwhile, further advancement in engine technology saw the Transit share the Duratorq turbo diesel with the Mondeo and Jaguar X-type. The fourth generation Transit was also the first to spawn a derivative: the Transit Connect. Although having no engineering in common with the van, it said a lot to have the smaller commercial vehicle borrow the Transit moniker to help it get some immediate attention.
Ford branched out even further with the fourth Transit, with production now operating in no less than six territories including Belarus, Russia and eventually China. The five millionth Transit left the Southampton plant in 2005 and was subsequently donated to a UK charity.
A certain appearance on the BBC Top Gear at the hands of Nurburgring specialist Sabine Schmitz saw the Transit gain further popularity, with the racer try to beat Jeremy Clarkson’s sub 10-minute lap time done in a Jaguar S-type. The attempt resulted in a lap time of 10min 8sec, but was arguably a far more valiant effort than the presenter’s in the Jag.
Leaving Southampton and looking to the future
In a sad but necessary turn of events, production of the Transit ceased at the plant in Southampton, resulting in redundancies and early retirements; however, some did find new roles at Ford’s other plants in the UK, including a new £12million distribution centre at Southampton Docks.
The last Transit left the Southampton facility in July 2013, with main production now moving to Turkey which would oversee the launch of the fifth and current Transit model.
Today, the Transit name graces the metalwork of four Ford models: the Transit, Transit Custom, Transit Connect and Transit Courier. Each brings a vast amount of usability to the fore and is possibly the most comprehensive collection of commercial vehicles on offer.
Meanwhile, the new Transit is bigger and better than it ever has been and can now be found on all continents thanks to its US launch in 2013, with production for North America also heading to Missouri to boot as part of the OneFord global endeavour that will also see the new Mustang enter all markets for the first time.
Despite being a commercial vehicle, the Transit is Ford’s third best-selling model behind the Fiesta and Focus, but perhaps more impressive is that it holds a market share of nearly 35 per cent and sells over four-times more than its next four rivals combined. That pretty much says it all for the Transit.