Unsung Heroes : Commer/Dodge Spacevan
Once upon a time, life was so much simpler wasn’t it? You got your electric from the electric board, your gas from the gas board and yes… you guessed it, your water from the water board. Some of you may still remember a time when possessing a telephone was something of a luxury and having to wait until after 6.00 before you would dare call your mates to ask if they wanted an evening playing Atari after school.
I can just about remember our house getting the phone put in, and I can still remember the model my parents chose – a round dial affair with curly flex in concord blue – we were Darlington 59207. The day the GPO came round was almost like a Royal Visit with my mum dressed in her finest overseeing the installation of said appliance, almost treating the whole affair like the second coming of Christ.
It coincided with a school holiday I remember well, and shortly after ‘switching off the television set to go and do something less boring instead’ (as Why Don’t You used to tell us) the rat a tat tat at the door confirmed that the GPO Telecommunications Dept had arrived. A petrol head even as a very small child, I was more interested in the van they had arrived in, rather the monumental excitement of having a telephone installed.
The van in question was the ubiquitous Dodge Spacevan, you know the type, with its body seemingly much wider than the wheels. Originally introduced way back in 1960 as a Commer, these funny looking vans were the chosen packhorse for most of the public utility firms, eventually earning a non official title of ‘The Telecom Van’.
Once, it seemed they were everywhere be it parked up near railway sidings as a BR crewbus or even parked up down your street on TV detector van duties with a pair of fed up men sipping coffee from a flask whilst filling out their Vernons coupons. Powered by a Rootes-sourced 1500cc (latterly enlarged to 1725) engine and transmission, they were also quite a popular camper van conversion too.
Early versions were prone to engine failure partly due to such a poor top speed that could only just reach 70mp/h, this lead to the larger engine option and the fitting of an electrically operated overdrive device similar to the MGB. The later power units were nothing more than a low compression de-tuned version of the Hillman Hunter unit, but the compact design of the cab lead to major servicing problems.
In order to squeeze every inch of available space from the bodywork, the engine was placed under the floor between the two front seats, routine servicing would be done via a hatch in the floor simply enough, but major attention wasn’t easy. To remove the engine the whole front suspension and subframe needed to be dropped to gain access, but the GPO/BT found that engine changes could be done much quicker by removing the windscreen and front seats, then lifting the engine through the nearside door using a hydraulic engine crane. The vans also tended to be hard on the front brakes and wheel bearings in arduous service, while the lever arm dampers lasted around six months if they were lucky.
Following the Rootes group being absorbed in to Chrysler in the 70s, the American concern then sold this division to the PSA group and so the title changed again to Dodge. Amazingly, the spacevan lumbered on until 1983 having never being a threat to the Ford Transit or Bedford CF. Once seemingly everywhere and now just a fond memory of a simple British van in a much simpler era when Buzby told us all to make someone happy with a phone call…
Just make sure its after 6.00pm though – its cheap rate then don’t you know?