Ford Transit celebrates its 50th birthday - but why is the 'backbone of Britain' always white?

Five decades later, the Ford Transit is something of an icon and has – for better or worse – become forever associated with the phrase 'white van man'

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Indy Lifestyle Online

When the first Ford Transit van rolled off the production line at a former Hurricane fighter factory in Berkshire 50 years ago today, it cost an affordable £560. But at least one critic thought that the future “backbone of Britain” would never catch on.

It was, according to the first motoring journalist to test it, far too wide for the narrow driveways of the nation’s plumbers, electricians and builders.

Five decades later, the Ford Transit is something of an icon and has – for better or worse – become forever associated with the phrase “white van man”. It has also attracted something of a cult following.

“The wonder of the Transit van was that it wasn’t just a van, but a way for the working man to earn his crust and keep a roof over his head,” said Peter Lee, the founder of the Transit Van Club and owner of 13 Ford vans, including just one of three 1965 Mk 1 vans in existence. “People love it because it made fortunes and built businesses, and over the past 50 years it has transformed from a fairly basic van to an office on wheels that’s as comfortable as most cars. I don’t drive anything else.”

Back in 1965, as it is now, the Transit was not a glamorous, fast or particularly distinctive way of moving stuff around. But according to Mr Lee and fellow admirers, it was years ahead of the primitive post-war vans that dominated Britain’s roads.

Transit-2.jpg
Model of Ford Transit van in blue

Nonetheless, not even Mr Lee could have predicted the Transit’s longevity. More than eight million vehicles have been sold worldwide as the Transit established itself as the workhorse of every garage band, tradesman and delivery man.

“I’m the first to admit I’m obsessed. I have a barn for my Transit vans and a special temperature-controlled room for my 25,000 pieces of Transit memorabilia, which includes every brochure dating back to 1965,” Mr Lee said. “But I’m not alone. The club has 1,500 members, and between us we own more than 6,000 vans ranging from mini-buses to milk floats and prison vans.”

Like many Transit fans, Mr Lee, 65, whose collection includes 18,000 diecast models, fell in love with the boxy van when he worked at the Langley plant in Berkshire in 1969.

“We have doctors, consultants and all sorts in the club,” said Mr Lee, who lived in the back of a Transit during his “hippie” phase travelling though Europe in the early 1970s. “But in honesty, most of our members had a working relationship with the Transit. Many still turn up to our meetings in the van they still work in. We all bed down in the back of our vans – bringing a caravan isn’t the done thing.”

Back in the 1960s, not everyone was immediately impressed with the Transit. When Alan Bunting, now 78, was asked to review it for Motor Transport magazine, he initially thought it would be a flop, considering it far too wide for most 1960s tradesmen to fit down their drives.

“It was unlike any van that had been available in the UK before. I was completely wrong about the width though,” he told The Independent on Sunday. “What I do remember is how refined it felt at the time, but that was by 1960s standards and Ford has done a fantastic job of updating it since then.”

Despite the advances, the Transit is still the archetype for the ubiquitous white van. Why white? People often think it’s because a white paint job made the vehicle stand out or because it was cheap. In fact, the colour was chosen by Ford designer Arthur Molyneaux who realised that white was the perfect colour to keep drivers cool in the days before air conditioning, Mr Lee explained.

The white van ethos that followed wasn’t so welcome, said Mr Bunting. “The Transit played a big part in establishing the white van culture, which we all know has pretty detrimental overtones of cowboy builders driving dangerously in a van with no name on the side. That’s part of our culture, but we can’t blame it on the van.”

The Transit wasn’t just popular with tradesmen though. Famously, the Mk1 became the getaway vehicle of choice for bank robbers in the 1960s who wanted a large, relatively quick mode of transport to escape the scene of the crime.

Despite the chequered reputation, Ford is proud of the van and is keen to stress how “vital” it has been to the economy. Andy Barratt, the head of Ford in the UK, said: “Van-dependent businesses contributed £120bn to the UK economy in 2014 and the Ford Transit has been the choice for most over the past 50 years.”

It’s true that the Transit is essential to many workers: 600,000 of the utilitarian vans are now built globally each year. Local production ceased in 2013 when the Ford Transit plant at Southampton closed.

“I wonder how many people who buy or rent a Ford Transit today realise it is no longer technically a British institution,” said Mr Bunting. “It’s a shame really.”

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