Commericials : GPO/BT vans

Carole Nash Classic Insurance Specialists

The installation and maintenance of Britain’s telephone network was originally the responsibility of the Post Office, and as with their purchases of Royal Mail vans, Morris (and later BMC) was traditionally the favoured supplier.

This virtual stranglehold was broken in the 1970s, although BL/Austin Rover continued to supply vans during the 1980s, a decade which saw not only the formation of the privatised BT (formerly British Telecom) but also the sale of ARG’s Freight Rover division, which produced the Sherpa, in preparation for the privatisation of Austin Rover itself. Rover’s final delivery of vans to BT took place in the early 1990s.

Car derived vans

The GPO’s choice of smaller vans for telephones duty closely mirrored those chosen for use as mailvans, with the Minor, Minivan and even the Marina/Ital-based models all making an appearance. However, the Austin Maestro gained far greater acceptance with BT than it did with their former colleagues at the Royal Mail.


Morris Minor


The Minor van formed the mainstay of the GPO’s small van fleet for almost two decades. In fact, it was due almost entirely to the patronage of the Post Office that this van continued in production for as long as it did. As was the case with those supplied for Royal Mail duty, early Telephones examples were fitted with black rubber wings and raised headlamps.

Austin A35


In the early 1960s, the GPO bought two Austin A35 vans for evaluation purposes. This one was kitted out as a Telephones van, while the other one (940 EXU) received the Royal Mail livery. No further A35s were purchased by the GPO.

Minivan

Marina/Ital

With the demise of the Minor and the fact that the Marina wasn’t ready to replace it immediately, the Post Office turned mainly to the Bedford HA for its Telephones van during the 1970s. BL did, however, get consolation orders for 1000 Marina-based vans as Telephone Utilities in 1972/73.

With the end of Bedford HA production in 1982, BT turned to BL for its small telephone utility and leased 2035 Ital ‘440’ models (plus 117 ‘550’ models for use as Radio Investigation Vans) in 1982, 3976 ‘440’ models (plus 34 ‘440’ RI vans) in 1983, and 2,794 ‘575’ models in 1984.


A typical vehicle from the BT’s 1980s deliveries of Ital-based vans, photographed when new in Reading in May 1983.

Austin Maestro

After the Ital, BT moved onto the Austin Maestro City 500 for use as telephone utilities and bought 467 in 1984, 3658 in 1985, 3252 in 1986, 2195 in 1987, 4170 in 1989, 6708 in 1990, and 1,032 in 1991 after which the diesel engined Ford Escort was favoured with BT orders.


This view shows a standard vehicle from the 1986 delivery, photographed in King’s Lynn in May 1990.


This one, photographed at Norwich in July 1989, carries BT Payphones livery.


Some of the Maestros were finished in BT’s reversed livery of dark blue and yellow lettering for Business Systems’ duties. This one, from the 1989 delivery, photographed at Somerton in August 1990.

Land Rover


As with the Royal Mail, Land Rovers were used for those hard-to-get-to areas…

Purpose-built vans

In the GPO days, vans purchased for telecoms use tended to differ from those bought for Royal Mail; thus, this page includes such models as the J2 and its successor the 250JU, but not the Sherpa’s predecessor, the J4. Use of the larger LD was common to both arms, though, and in later years the Sherpa would provide another common thread.


Morris J2


The Morris J2 was bought extensively by Post Office Telephones from 1960 to early 1967. This is a typical J2 in service with Post Office Telephones in London, probably mid-late 1960s.

Morris LD


The Post Office was the largest single buyer of both the LD and its replacement, the EA. This well-used example, dating from 1967, was operated by PO International Telegraph Services.

Morris/BMC 250JU


The GPO’s first order for the Morris 250JU van was a batch of 587 bought for use as 15cwt Telephone Utilities in 1967, some of which can be seen here at the BMC dispatch yard at Adderley Park in 1967 (along with some J4s). Registered NYY 202E to NYY 788E, this first batch of 250JUs carried consecutive serial numbers U233984-U234570.


This view shows NYY 290E (from the above batch) in London SE1, shortly after delivery in July 1967. The writing on the door shows that it was allocated to the TELEPHONE MANAGER CITY AREA, LONDON.

A second batch of 1000 250JUs, this time badged BMC, followed in 1968. They were registered SGW 430F, SLX 1F to SLX 650F and WHV 370G to WHV 718G, with serial nos U241198-U242197 and they had consecutive chassis numbers 4001-5000.

The Post Office then changed its livery for telephone vehicles from green to brilliant yellow, and this livery was carried by the next large batch of BMC 250JUs: a batch of 15cwt Stores Vans, lacking the roof rack and interior racking of the telephone utilities. These were registered WLF 97G to WLF 196G, with serial nos 203065-203164.


WLF 170G from the later batch, pictured at Dundee in June 1970. Note the extra registration plate in the cab for use when towing a trailer.


Sherpa

During the 1970s, British Telecom’s orders for vans in this class were placed almost exclusively with Commer/Dodge. However, a small number of Sherpas Crewbuses were purchased as personnel carriers.

In 1981, BL won an order for 361 Freight-Rover Sherpa 255 chassis cabs to carry demountable bodies for use as 750Kg Utilities. Subsequent years saw delivery of 3033 in 1982 (plus one badged Leyland), 1103 in 1983 (although about seventy were destroyed at a factory before delivery, 3062 in 1984, 2290 in 1985 (later ones badged as 200 series), 1500 in 1986 (200 series) and just 101 in 1987. Thereafter the Ford Transit was preferred.

BL had further success in gaining orders for the heavier 1-tonne Utility, again using the demountable body concept, and leased 20 Freight Rover 350 1-tonne chassis cabs in 1983, 339 Sherpa K4s in 1984, 430 K4s in 1985 and 525 K4s in 1986.


A batch of 36 Leyland Sherpa 240 Personnel Carriers arrived for telephone use in 1976, including this one photographed in Cardiff in August 1980.


One of the 1986 delivery of demountables, photographed in Merthyr in September 1989.


This view shows one of the 1985 delivery in Somerton in March 1992 repainted in the 1991 BT grey livery.


Not all the 750Kg Utilities were demountables and BL secured an order for 193 of these panel van utilities in 1986. This one was photographed at Somerton in September 1990.


Although BT had generally moved to the Ford Transit from 1987, they continued to buy small batches of Sherpas including 27 Freight Rover Sherpa 300 vans with Powered Access Spencer platforms in 1988 and illustrated newly repainted in the 1991 grey livery.


This page was compiled by Declan Berridge, based on information and photographs kindly supplied by Chris Hogan of the Post Office Vehicle Club.

Keith Adams

Keith Adams

Editor and creator AROnline at AROnline
Created www.austin-rover.co.uk in 2001 and built it up to become the world's foremost reference source for all things BMC, Leyland and Rover Group, before renaming it AROnline in 2007.

Is the Editor of the Parkers website and price guide, formerly editor of Classic Car Weekly, and launch editor/creator of Modern Classics magazine. Has contributed to various motoring titles including Octane, Practical Classics, Evo, Honest John, CAR magazine, Autocar, Pistonheads, Diesel Car, Practical Performance Car, Performance French Car, Car Mechanics, Jaguar World Monthly, MG Enthusiast, Modern MINI, Practical Classics, Fifth Gear Website, Radio 4, and the the Motoring Independent...

Likes 'conditionally challenged' motors and taking them on unfeasible adventures all across Europe.
Keith Adams

25 Comments

  1. As a senior manager on the Vehicle Provision group, I was part of the team which reviewed the Maestro van as a replacement for the Va,uuxhall HA van. You will be aware,the HA had been the only vehicle of choice at the time and was only manufactured because BT purchased thousands.
    The Maesro was more expensive, but we considered it to have a more modern image than the HA. I personally made several visits to the Maestro factory as part of the project to BT the vehicle.
    We eventually agreed to introduce it gradually thus allaying any fears of choosing a more expensive option.

    The departure from BT corporate colours to blue vehicles was in response to the Business group Merlin. The colour was originally named Merlin Blue. However, there was one big flaw, as the colour was not given a Ral number, various shads sprang up.

    • Not just the Post Office, British Rail and some local authorities were big customers for the HA into the eighties as the Chevanne was too expensive. However, they were buying a piece of sixties technology that hadn’t moved with the times much, save for the bigger 1256cc Viva HC engine and a heater and cloth seats to make life more bearable for the driver, and handled and drove like it was still 1963. Yet these cheap, fairly reliable vans were still in use by Sheffield Corporation as late as 1988.

      • Wessex Water were still buying HAs into the 1980s. A neighbour who worked for them took delivery of a new V reg HA to replace his M reg Escort Van, that must have been a quite a backwards step.

        • The Co-op used HA vans until the early-mid 1980s.

          My cousin’s husband restored an HA Viva a few years ago & mentioned it was lucky the amount of spares that were available still due to the HA van staying in production, along with parts being carried over to the later Vivas & Chevettes.

        • They were cheap workhorses, but were primitive to drive by the eighties and very basic. Also did they still have the sixties 80 mph speedo, when I’m sure the 1256cc Viva engine could have been capable of more if you were made enough to make an HA go faster than 80 mph?

          • I recall the earlier ones used to have a restrictor sleeve on the cable; I put one in my old HC and I could still never get the bugger to do more than 70, no idea why – I rebuilt enough in my time so it wasn’t a low compression issue. They were my bread and butter as a BT apprentice, passed my test in YMJ628X, 81-302-6728. Rot boxes around the gearbox crossmember though, and let’s not talk about the transverse front spring….

      • 1963 – 1983, the car itself was out of production in 1966, which gave the van a 17 year lifespan over it.

        Are there any other long lived vans that long outlived their car counterparts? Citroen C15 springs to mind, 1984 to 2005, while the Visa was discontinued in 1988, 17 years also.

        The Escort van lived a while longer than the Escort, before being replaced by the Transit Connect.

        • Not quite as long but the Austin A55 Van/truck remained in production until 1973 after the car was discontinued in 1958

        • The Austin A40 based 1/2 ton van lasted until 1973, 15 years longer than the cars.

          Renault kept the Juvaquatre estate / van in production until 1960, almost a decade longer than the saloons.

        • Another BMC long lifer is the Austin A35.. the van being made until about 1968, about ten years after the car. I think Minor vans outlasted the saloons by just year or so, maybe just filling up GPO orders?
          Renault Extra lasted a few years after the demise of the Superfive too, until the Kangoo came along.

    • Paul, so you’re the one responsible for all the rubbish I have driven over the years. Starting with the Bedford HA. Over 40yrs and counting I’ve driven most vehicles from the HA to HGV cable recovery vehicle, Leyland Mastiff heavy cable class 1 vehicle, Cranes/tractors/tracked vehicle trencher. Land Rover with a winch next to your head (don’t ask). Then every installation and mtnce we had/have. I would have loved to have been on the valuation team, but being based in the N.East you have no chance. Southerners only

  2. Not BT related, but of the same era; there is a beautifully restored yellow 1994 Montego van liveried up with British Rail decals in Norfolk. The owner is a train driver for one of the freight companies, so it can often be seen parked up on the old freight platforms on the south side of Norwich station.

  3. Mid sized vans to me kept getting bigger until they got undercut by a new generation of smaller vehicles. When you compare the Minor/A30 to the Marina to the Maestro, that’s a significant leap in size and payload.

    It’s interesting that small vans these days are largely purpose designed (with a small MPV spun off them) rather than a box added to a passenger car, and this applies to even the smallest vans, like the Peugeot Bipper, which to me is like a modern day A30/Minor van, perfect for town use.

      • Yes the Royal Mail now tend to use Peugeot and Fiat vans. Our local Postie uses a Doblo van. In the past I have seen them using Vauxhall Combos.

    • Car derived vans were a UK thing really, as they could keep to car speed limits on M ways and major roads. With European productions it is more economic to make a specific small van for all markets eg: Transit Connect replaced the Escrote van in all markets.

  4. One of the most frightening journeys I ever had was being driven in a well thrashed HA from Newbury to Slough along the A4 on a wet February night. The person driving must have had inbuilt radar because I could’t see a damn thing with the combination of inefficient wipers, skinny tyres and the driving technique of my chauffeur. Fortunately I ended up with a Mk1 Astra instead 🙂

  5. Speaking of car derived vans, and one which fans of a well loved sitcom will recall with affection, were there many corporate buyers for the Reliant Regal van? I’m thinking its low purchase price, lack of rust due to the fibreglass body, and excellent fuel economy and motorcycle tax, must have persuaded some companies to buy a Reliant.

    • Royal Mail had 50 Regal vans as a trial, but they didn’t follow up with any sales. The AA trialled a couple as replacements for their BSA sidecar outfits, but went to Mini vans instead. Small fleets were used by some Electricity boards for meter readers, BOAC had some for internal airport work and Rolls Royce Aero Engines at Derby certainly had some of the sidevalve Regal vans. Later, there were a few fleet buyers for the Robin van, including the RSPCA and I know of a chap who owns a Rialto van that was one of a small fleet owned by the American Embassy in London.

      • When your ambassadorial car is some 15 mpg Cadillac and not the most economical car to drive around London, you can see why the Americans might have chosen a Rialto van for basic duties. Interesting all the same, considering they could have chosen better known Ford Fiesta vans.

  6. One of the more bizarre encounters I have had was in the middle of Austria, about 1992 , somewhere between Waidhofen an der Ybbs and Lunz, when in the middle of nowhere we came across a parked Rialto van and a Spitfire, both Austrian registered

  7. I can remember reading an article in a tabloid in 1991, where an ex pat decided to import his old Reliant Rialto into America and brought some spares so he could repair it himself if it went wrong. He said for all he got some funny looks, most people just wanted to discuss his unusual looking car and the owner said with gas at a dollar a gallon, it cost next to nothing to run and was ideal for city traffic.

    • I’m wondering how he managed to get it registered in the USA due to the stringent regulations, as it would have been under 25 years old in 1991.

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