Ten years on from the end of its UK production, James Godwin tells the story of the design process of the 1986 Ford Transit at the firm’s Dunton facility in Essex.
It was an interesting process – and a tale of inspiration and improving on the best…
Ford Transit: The aerodynamic revolution
Launched in the 1960s the Ford Transit became inspiration for the Leyland Sherpa and just about every other light commercial vehicle. However, the mid-1980s saw a major a change in the icon’s gestation. The aerodynamic van was inspired by the Ford Sierra and Granada, as well as the best of the European and American opposition…
With its windscreen distinctively slanted to match the angle of the bonnet, the Ford Transit featured a simple one box-like design to match those of the recently launched Renault Trafic and Master (below) vans. But did it? Designers are very clever in maintaining an aesthetic balance – the looks – despite challenges from the engineers, accountants, crash legislators or, in this case, Ford’s fleet experts and technicians.
You see that, while the clamshell bonnet line flows up neatly to meet the windscreen, the bonnet’s leading edge follows its own line all in the cause of allowing plenty of access to the engine. Before we discuss that, let’s first cast our eyes over the market landscape.
The market vanscape in the early 1980s
As it stood, Ford’s restyled 1978 Transit design had a commanding hold on the market, taking a 28% share, with the Sherpa languishing at 8%. In 1982, the Sherpa’s K2 facelift introduced a new nose, with a Range Rover-style grille and mildly revised panel work. More significantly, the K2 also benefited from some structural alterations to the still BMC J4-derived rear bodywork, allowing the Sherpa to be offered with a sliding door capable of taking a standard-width pallet.
It was clear that the trend was moving toward the one-box design, with compromises such as the Bedford CF (Opel/Bedford Blitz above) and its 1980s US cousins the GMC Safari and Chevrolet Astro following a more progressive shape than the Sherpa and earlier Transit, with slanted grilles and shorter bonnets. Yet Ford’s research told them that many operators complained of the lack of access to the engine.
However, Fiat and PSA updated the theme with the 1981:
- Fiat Ducato (and – unbelievably – the Alfa Romeo AR6!)
- Citroën C25, Peugeot J5 and Talbot Express
Ford Transit 1986: The brief
For inspiration, Ford’s eye turned to Renault instead. While similar concerns were raised over the front-wheel-drive Renault Trafic and its larger sister, the rear-wheel-drive Master, these were very progressive designs, with wraparound sliding doors on the Master to aid access and cab features such as extra storage for maps, delivery instructions and – probably – that day’s copy of ‘The Currant Bun’. Besides, Ford had plenty of time to improve upon the Renaults as they were launched in 1980, some six years prior to the Ford’s unveiling.
With the competition in mind, Ford’s design brief was to create a van with more space, to be built more profitably and, of course, cleave the air with considerable more aplomb than its predecessor. So, while the early 1980s took its toll on the dear old Sherpa, Designers at Ford’s UK-based Design Centre (Dunton, Essex) busied themselves with sketching, clay shaving and clinicing their future Transit replacement.
While the underpinnings remained, Ford decided to follow the one box layout from the 1980 Renault Trafic and Master. Early forays were rather Citroën-esque and futuristic, complete with split side DLOs (day light openings to you) and half concealed rear wheels. Earlier themes also morphed the original Sierra into a slippier development of Bedford’s theme.
Transit’s designer tricks
The Granada/Scorpio influence
Early ideas were abandoned, for between 1982 and 1985, Ford’s European family aesthetic was developing from the bluff Sierra visage to the Granada/Scorpio’s wraparound face. The Transit followed this, bringing it in line with Ford’s family of cars at a time where Ford of Europe’s design identity was at its most homogeneous.
Rare for a Ford was the clamshell bonnet, which created the illusion of being a one-box shape, with the line running from the header rail down to the bumper.
The actual silhouette a three-quarter-way house between the Bedford CF and a complete ‘one box’. This was to accommodate the general arrangement and give technicians access to the engine while allowing for a more streamlined silhouette. Viewed from above, the Designers had cunningly disguised the long front overhang by chamfering the edges at the headlamps. This useful trick continues to benefit today’s pedestrian friendly protruding snouts.
All in the aerodynamic detail
Short-wheelbase versions benefited from a more modern independent front suspension system, improving the ride quality and handling. Load space also increased, while access and visibility were improved. The rear doors were extended and the rear loading width increased, giving the Transit a wider opening at the back than any van in its class.
For visibility larger door mirrors and a deeper window aperture to accommodate view lines gave the cab area a distinct look, while the low-effort sliding side-doors (allowing users easily load a metre-wide pallet) runner dictated the side with a styling crease. On top of this were 32 door combinations, six axle ratios and options for 12 – 17 interior seats.
All of these were available in any combination when purchased with Ford’s highly customisable custom plan. At the time, this gave the business sector an unprecedented amount of flexibility, which was a major factor in the vehicles’ ultimate success.
Transit 1986: Inside the cab
Inside, the driver was moved towards the front end to allow for more loadspace, and enjoyed a better view thanks to the enlarged screen and side windows. But besides the Granada style instrument surround, with the round ‘are they on or off?!’ micro-switches, eagle-eyed spotters (of which there are far too many to be healthy) will notice carry-over items the similar instruments, pedals, heater box and featureless gearknob.
Two-pedalled versioned featured the same T-bar Cortina style control – another reminder that things beneath were not as modern as hoped.
Under the bonnet, a range of new, multi-valve, aluminium block units were ushered in… oh, hang on. As this is a Ford of yesteryear missive, all we shall say about the engines is that they were mainly the same as those from 1978-85. A selection of five engines was available: 1.6-litre OHC Petrol (Pinto), 1.6-litre OHV Petrol (Kent), 2.0-litre OHC Petrol (Pinto) and the York diesel based 2.5 DI (direct injection).
The biggest news was the five-speed gearbox, which – combined with the slippery bodyshell – drastically reduced fuel consumption.
Larger SVO engines were the venerable 3.0-litre Essex V6 to start off with…..so nothing to write home (or put anything here for that matter) and, of course being a Ford, the Transit’s engine selection showed a steadfast lack of investment. The 2.8-litre V6 (Cologne) was, bizarrely, bypassed and the newer 2.9-litre replaced the Essex in 1989.
To help launch the new van, a ‘Chasseur’ concept was created by Ford’s SVO (Special Vehicle Operations) team to combine a commodious van with a cocooning leather-lined mobile office. This was joined by a neat RS200 Support Vehicle cab and trailer concept. Christened ‘Tug’, this could have made more of a splash were it not for the fact that the rally thoroughbred it was supposed to tow was facing an untimely demise.
Meanwhile, Ford’s product placement gurus thrust the new van (and every other Blue Oval metal for that matter, apart from a blue Rover SD1 SE) into Michael Caine’s action picture, The ~Fourth Protocol. You know the film, where one moment the Transit has wheel covers then the next it doesn’t…
A tale of continuous development
VE6 was a great success, and Ford continued to invest. A subtle facelift in 1991 hid a re-engineering effort underneath, with the fully independent front suspension rolled out across the range, some updated engines and gearboxes while a redesigned floorpan allowed the use of single rear wheels on the LWB derivative, further increasing payload. These models are identifiable by the slightly more rounded front headlamps and larger wheels filling out the wheelarches.
However, the Transit’s competition was catching up. 1991 saw a FWD VW Transporter, showing operators a five-cylinder workhorse if they so choose. The Bedford CF disappeared only to be replaced by the short-lived Midi, a forward control Isuzu. Then GM forged its alliance with Renault Nissan to put its badges on their wares and keep the old Bedford/IBC plant in Luton operational.
Ford retaliated with more car-like features, an oval grille and a new interior with the 1994 Transit. The major facelift (VE83) gave the Transit a new Ford elliptical oval nose to cool a new range of engines, and a new oval frenzy interior available with air conditioning, electric windows and airbags.
Alas, the early 1990s was the time when the Ford family look lost its way. Instead of a common theme, cars such as the Mondeo became amorphous, while old stagers received incongruous nose and tail jobs – the Fiesta’s succeeded, the Scorpio’s and Escort’s did not.
Yet, despite the Transit’s somewhat agricultural powertrain, it retained its best-seller’s reputation. Its replacement in 2000 corrected the mechanical shortcomings while adding a front-wheel-drive option into the equation. The new powertrain was wrapped up in a rather bland American body. Meanwhile. the Sherpa was rechristened twice and then properly overhauled to become the Convoy and Pilot in 1995.
A Worthing-designed Daewoo van eventually replaced the Sherpa design in 2004, following a prolonged gestation. So, the van grew up.
Thanks to Neil Birtley and Mark Finney.