By September 18, 2012 41 Comments Read More →

Unsung Heroes : Commer/Dodge Spacevan

Mike Humble

The funny looking Commer Spacevan – When did you last see one?

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’.

How most of us will remember the Spacevan – On GPO engineering duties complete with Buzby vinyl on the side.

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.

A later Dodge branded Spacevan on Payphones duties – oh such happier simple times indeed.

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?

Mike Humble

About the Author:

Bus and Coach sales exec in Surrey, South London & Kent Former MG Rover Salesperson, Mechanic and Self Employed Motor Trader with companies including Henlys - Reg Vardy - Stratstone - Evans Halshaw & Phoenix Venture Holdings (retail)

41 Comments on "Unsung Heroes : Commer/Dodge Spacevan"

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  1. Adrian says:

    In its later years, it seemed to find a niche as a campervan conversion much liked by hippies..

  2. Big H Big H says:

    Yup they used to be everywhere!I think they used model designation Commer PB? I would like to know how many were actually bought by private companys. They were pretty dire vans. I remember driving a diesel one (Perkins I think) It was dreadfull. Handled like a pig on stilts,
    A strange notei would like to add! I find to the consternation of most enthusiasts, that the Jag E Type styling is a bit fussy. Especially the way the wheels are tucked under the body. Yes it reminds me of a Commer van!

  3. Jonathan Carling Jonathan Carling says:

    They had such a narrow track compared to the width of the vehicle – worse on camper conversions, with wider coachwork at the back. I wonder what they were like going round corners!

  4. Richard16378 says:

    A builder local to me used an ex-BT one into the 1990s, complete with the roof mounted compartment.

  5. Phil Simpson says:

    Amazingly I don’t recall these being notorious for rolling over as you would expect such a vehicle to do with such a comparatively narrow track.

    Slow performance and limited space would have meant that these were dead in the water following the advent of the Transit in 1965 but the government, in numerous guises, was loyal to the hilt in their choice of vehicle. Remember the police insisting on buying Maestros in the mid-nineties anybody?

  6. MGFmad says:

    I remember as a young child in the early 70′s my friends dad had a motorhome version if this van after trading in his transit motor home, always thought they looked a bit ugly but still liked going out in it!

  7. Mark says:

    I remember our Cub pack hiring a brace of these (Commer version IIRC) in the early 1980′s to transport us from Cambridgeshire to Rydal Hall in the Lake District. It was the most miserable journey of my life, and seemed to go on forever. They only had bench seats (wooden slats) along the sides of the van and no form of restrait to stop you sliding into the cub sitting next to you.

    The Transits that we used in subsequent Scout trips were a revelation in comparison.

  8. Robert Leitch says:

    The Standard Atlas and Morris J2 had the same narrow track and short wheelbase configuration – manouevrability must have been considered more important than stability.

    The 250JU which replaced the J2 and Atlas sorted out the problem with a longer wheelbase and wider tracks, but retained the J2′s rather narrow body.

    The Commer looks to be inspired by Volvo’s 1956 Snabbe light truck – the mad one with the V8 left over from “Philip”, their aborted Kaiser Manhattan clone.

  9. Adrian says:

    Was it a van built on a car chassis? That would account for the bodywork being much wider than the wheels.

  10. Tim Pearson says:

    Another problem was the short wheelbase. I once saw a coachbuilt camper fail to gain traction when trying to reverse up a moderate gradient, as the vast majority of its weight shifted to the front wheels. Not sure if a coachbuilt aluminum body was lighter or heavier than standard steel. Either type must have been lethal if you’d braked hard going downhill with a bend or camber to add interest.

    Wasn’t the narrow track a result of penny-pinching by utiliting a Commer Cob axle, or something similar?

    Its natural competitor was probably the BMC J4, but the dreadful Commer/Dodge still appealed to price-driven groups such as schools and clubs after the J4′s demise. In the late 1970s our school held a sponsored walk to fund a minibus purchase. The proceeds fell well short of a CF or Tranny, so instead the local dealer almost gave us the World’s most undesirable landmark from its stock: a pea green Commer-badged crewbus, several months after the Dodge re-branding. Those park bench seats were torture on a short trip, and worse for longer. And the 35ish mph motorway hills meant it was a very long trip.

  11. Will M says:

    What was the turning circle like, if the front wheels were behind panelling? Would turning hard while hitting a bump cause the wheel to make contact with the body?

    Did Renault sell them as Dodges for a while after they took over the Rootes/Chrysler van and truck operations?

  12. Spyder says:

    Like so many vehicles featured on this site the Commer PB/Spacevan’s biggest crime was living far too long. It may look a little unusual now with its enclosed wheels and narrow track but it’s popularity in the early sixties when introduced proves it was an ideal vehicle for the needs of the times, most would be used for town and city duties so roadholding and top speed would not be top priorities. It was also one of the first light commecials (after VW Type2) to feature a huge range of body types demonstated by the numerous Corgi version that were made. The fact that it was purchased in large quantities over such a long period by the utility companies, post office, and police with there demanding procurement processes proves the Commer must have been reliable and right for the times.

  13. Ken Strachan says:

    According to Wikipedia, the PB suspension came from a Humber car.
    Rolls-Royce Derby used Commer minibuses as an inter-site minibus in the early 1980′s. There were rarely more than three passengers per bus, so they closed the service down.
    #5: Police Maestros: they were largely diesels, and very good cars by then. Probably very cheap, too.

  14. I used to have an ex-BT Dodge version, it was slow and thirsty. Handling wasn’t an issue as you couldn’t get enough speed up to make it dangerous. I fitted a head gasket whilst sat in the drivers seat, most comfortable one I’ ve ever done. I remember that the wipers would bat snow between each other like a slow motion game of ping (pong?) If the suspension was from a Humber luxury wasn’t much to talk about back then.

  15. Jemma says:

    You can have alot more fun with one of these with an engine transplant. The 1592/1725cc engine was available from 66hp to 107hp (H120 tune) and the more powerful ones will drop right in to replace the anaemic low-compression version of the Audax engine (from memory a measly 7:1).
    Find a Humber Sceptre III with a G-series gearbox and you’ll get a nice close ratio 6 speed to go with – assuming of course than the g’box will fit, some modifications might be required.

  16. Chris pryor says:

    I “had” one of these when I was 19. Mine belonged to the school meals service and I delivered dinners from a central kitchen to small village schools.

    Great job – my own company car! But it was a shocker to drive. It drank petrol – in the middle of one of the 70s petrol shortages and bits broke, like the clutch, wheels studs came out when changing a flat etc. I suppose as it was needed 5 days a week there was no time for maintainable.

    Shocking handling although a box back with metal roller shutters and meals for several 100 probably didn’t help.

    As I remember it it did have a good turning circle.

    Chris

  17. Paul says:

    I remember on the way home from school circa 1977 seeing one of these things make an emergency stop when an errant cyclist pulled in front. The rear wheels left the ground then crashed down filling the interior of the van with dust! Later during my British Rail days they had a fleet of these all on S plate. Rumour had it that the vans where originally a consignment destined for Iran. The Iranians took one look at the poor build quality and refused to accept them. BR then supposedly picked them up for next to nothing.

  18. Mark says:

    To say that the handling wasn’t great is an understatement. As a BT trainee, I nearly scared myself to death going round a left-hand corner in the wet and dropping the NSR wheel into a drain cover, what with the rear track being wider than the front. I thought I was a gonner.

    They were ‘optimised’ for 3-abreast seating, and with the gear lever being very close to the dash, I remember frequently cracking my knuckles putting it into 3rd. And then there was the handbrake which I seem to remember was to the right hand side of the driver’s seat. It would nearly castrate you as you got out if you forgot it was there, and on one occasion, catching it thus caused the handbrake cable to snap. Facing downhill.

    My friend drove a (fibre-glass extension) high roof version. Just what it needed, an even higher centre-of-gravity.

    Just being reminded of these vans fills me with emotion. Mainly hate for the flipping things!

    Mark

  19. David Dawson1 says:

    Until I saw this I’d forgotten all about the Commer.

    What a childhood memory – they used to be such a common sight!

  20. hersnab says:

    I still want one though!

  21. Anthony Griffiths says:

    I recall them being used as postbuses – I actually had a postcard of one in various UK locations. I was aged 8 at the time, I should add!

  22. yme402 says:

    How did they manage to do a roadside wheel change on one of these?

  23. francis brett francis brett says:

    Ha Ha i remember TV detector vans werethese old commers!

  24. Ex X Power says:

    Jack it up, the suspension droop will allow enough clearance.

    Great piece, These vans make Sherpas look medern!!!

  25. Big H Big H says:

    There was an early one at the NEC classic car show a couple of years back. It was done out in Rootes livery. I think it was an ex Rootes group rally support vehicle :0

  26. I recall them well, in my eyes they looked kinda neat back then and better than the Bedfords and BMCs they competed against. All this changed when I borrowed our company one to drive about 60 miles up the M5 to collect some special DIY stuff from Brum. Would have been mid 70s. I think the best way to describe it would be pedestrian. Admittedly I was not familar with van driving and the experience is indelibly written in my memory. Progress was dictated by three things. Power/Gearing, Noise, and Wind direction.
    Seemed very low geared (OK around town……but not for M.Ways). To keep moving meant maximum revs, which just made a noisy cab noisier. I recall regular downshifts being needed even when empty on the M.Way. Aerodynamicsof a brick, I dodnt think I have ever driven anything that was more wind affected, gusty head winds felt like hitting a wall. Crosswinds and trucks rushing by were a real adventure. The journey seemed to go on forever, I think touching 50 was a real adventure and limited by noise tolerance, gradients and wind.

    But it did the job and I still think it was the best looker of the time.

  27. Andrew-P AndrewP says:

    Great article.

    So evocative of times past – an era with 3 tv channels, spangles, raleigh choppers and Wimpy bars.

    Give me my Starbucks, smartphone and, If I need a van, a Transit or Vivaro anyday

  28. Charlie Keene says:

    The church I was part of in the 70s had a couple of K reg versions of these as minibuses. To be fair to them they were pretty reliable, and most of us on the youth group had happy memories of them. Yes, they would bunny-hop on heavy braking when empty, and the road holding was naff. One of ours had wider tyres which helped but they did rub on full lock. I remember my first drive of one when I was old enough. I just couldn’t get on with the through-the-floor pedals.

    What relief when the church replaced them with series 2 transits. From the ridiculous to the sublime.

  29. Chip says:

    Eww, I’ve never liked these. They used to freak me out as a kid, because with those half hidden wheels, they scurried around like cockroaches!

  30. Alastair says:

    I have a couple of memories of these vehicles.
    1) As a child I was a keen collector of Corgi toys (I thought they were so much better quality than Dinky). One year my Dad bought me a Corgi Converter Set which was based on the Commer van. There were two chassis/cab units (one white & one red if I remember correctly), then (I think) four alternative backs, a milk float, a pick up, a plain panel van and (I think) an ambulance which could be fitted to either base.
    2) The second memory id from the late 1970′s when I was out in the snow thih my mate in his Hillman Imp Californian. We rounded a corner to find a Yellow British Telecom Commer van planted firmly in the ditch. We stopped to check that the driver wasn’t hurt, but found the van empty. Back into the Imp and around the next corner and we found a Transit ambulance nose down in the ditch! They’d picked up the poor BT employee but only got as far as the next corner before binning it! The ambulance driver made the excuse that the (3 litre V6 & automatic) Transit was difficult to control in these conditions wearing wellingtons!
    Fortunately, enough by-standers turned up and we managed to lift the ambulance out and send them on their way…

  31. Jim says:

    I remember taking a camper conversion of one of these out for a test drive after it had been (bizzarly) taken in as a PX at the Rover dealer I worked in the early 90s. As a student at the time I thought it might make a cheap and fun vehicle to travel round europe. My distinct recollection was that the steering wheel was not mechanically connected to the front wheels and the performance was hopeless (not that you wanted to drive it at any speed with such vague steering). This 5 mile experience made me instantly abandon any thoughts of buying it!

  32. g scot says:

    you can hire one in yorkshire ,the man who runs it makes up new pannels and sutck ,

  33. Chris Baglin says:

    When I was a little boy, maybe 3 or4, there was no profession more glamourous than to work for Post Office Telecommunications, drive a Commer van, and spend my days doing mysterious but technical things in a stripey red and white tent or in holes in the ground.

    I later had experiences of being transported in Commer minibuses- I still remember the noise which was peculiar to that van (and not the Hillman cars that also used that engine). These vans seemed rather dated even by mid 1970s standards, and were not reliable, but I don’t recall them being any more uncomfortable than the rather loud and crashy Mk1 Tranny 1.6 SWB that I also got to ride in- that van was excessively noisy when you consider that unlike the Commer, the engine was not mounted within the passenger envelope. That Tranny wasn’t any faster either, as staff were instructed not to take it above 45mph!

    I wonder if the Spacevan had any commonality with a very similar looking contemporary Peugeot van, so beloved (well, probably not) of the French Gendarmerie?

  34. Glenn Aylett says:

    A red one appears at Dover Eastern Docks in Diamonds Are Forever, the scene where Miss Moneypenny is dressed up as a customs officer. Presumably this is not the mode of transport Bond used to drive from London to Dover.

  35. Mike Frost says:

    Whilst on our annual holiday to Skye back in May, we saw two camper versions of the Spacevan. One a two tone white over yelloe. The other a ‘battleship’ grey. Both on the M6 travelling south. The one appeared to have no trouble cruising in the 60′s.

  36. MARC BOLAN says:

    HAD AN EX BT HIGHTOP YUK

  37. Simon davies says:

    Back in 1983, I was given a ‘new’ Bedford HA van. When I went to pick it up it was leaning to one side, resplendent in a Yeading respray in glorius yellow. The ‘Yeading’ respray was a large BT owned garage facilty nr Heathrow where it was reported that a complete blow over would be internally charged at £80.

    The wheelarches would be sprayed silver, including grass, mud and oil. The entire outside would then be painted yellow, and then the bumpers would be brush painted silver over the yellow overspray..or in the case of the newer Maestro vans, black.

    Anyway, this HA was deathtrap, and luckily I managed to explode the gearbox at around 75mph on the downhill M25 ramp at Reigate.

    So I was given a Commer PB minibus. This was marginally better than the HA.

    The PB Spacevan was a time warp, just like the HA. As discussed earlier, the gearlever used to end up chafing your knuckles on the dashboard when going into 3rd.

    Never do a handbrake turn in a Spacevan – it works on the front wheels.

    We used to race our Itals, HAs and my Spacevan to cafe every morning. The Ital drivers always won, the HAs always got there in time for lunch.

    I remember racing behind another Commer one morning when he slid sideways and just touched the kerb. The van instantly flipped over on its roof, and proceeded to barrel roll across the road. The ladders on the roof bent in the middle, all the glass popped out and there were cable clips everywhere.

    Many Commers ended their days on their roof. Another friend clipped a kerb and nearly tipped over – but by seesawing the wheel managed to get it on all four wheels.

    In the old days (!) overhead telephone wires used to be uninsulated pairs slung across the road. There would be insulator pots on the house and the pole, and a ‘pair’ of wires would be separated by a 3-4″ airspace.

    In high winds these could all get tangled up, causing crossed lines. The prescribed way of dealing with this involved climbing poles dropping wires, relaying them etc etc. one of my colleagues on maintenance had a much quicker way. This would involve the only part of a Spacevan that was worth having. A predecessor of now well known Hope Safe T Bar, BT Commers were fitted with a massive chequerplated step bumper.

    He used to reverse his van into the telegraph pole at speed, causing a massive twang in the wires. A few goes and it was usually sorted, and 10 hours booked.

    The most irritating thing about the Commer was the stink of petrol in the cab, especially just after the engine was turned off. Why anyone would want to restore one of these heaps is beyond me. Even when they were nearly new, 18% of the fleet was off the road with rust problems.

    There was one upside, their round shape made them ideal to paint with a roller. Our local BT workshop used to paint them with one, but always in a different shade of yellow. BT was like that, they couldn’t even buy their own paint in the right colour.

  38. john says:

    I had three of these one a petrol and two diesels over a period of about five years and back then when fuel was a lot cheaper i just loved them , Had a CF2 after which was ok with an opel engine , then in 95 i went and purchased a brand new smily grill tranny and i can only say that yellow tranny was the worst van iv ever bought .Althogh iv had trannys after and now into a movano.

  39. Gervais Sawyer says:

    I am surprised by the negative comments. We drove ours twice round. the clock including many trips to Poland. I am 6’1 and my wife is 5’0 and yet you didn’t have to move the driving seat. The steering was light and precise compared to the Bedford Dormobile that it replaced. Changing engines was no problem at all. Lift off gearbox from beneath and then lift out engine with a crane through the passenger door. Yes, the handbrake worked on the front wheels which gave you a powerful brake even when there was no load in the back. The reason for the narrower track at the front was that when reversing you never got stuck against the kerb. If it hadn’t rusted irreversibly I would have kept it for ever. We put in lots of sound insulation and centre seat (with seat belts) at the front. We also towed a trailer everywhere. Sure if you accelerated hard when on full lock you could lift an inside rear wheel but I find it really difficult to accept that it was unstable at all. For a short while we then had an Austin J4 for which I will never forgive BL. The heaviest steering of any vehicle ever made.

  40. Fred Smith says:

    I was in a rock band in the early 80s and the space van took us everywhere..so many stories but great if unreliable van!

  41. david bendelow says:

    I used to drive one of these for PO Telecommunications in Edinburgh and they were so much better than the Morris JU diesels we had previously

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