At the 2013 Detroit auto show, one famous name was consigned to history: the Ford E-Series, aka the Econoline. Its replacement is another famous name: the Transit. Yes, the Transit is well known and well loved -- although not necessarily by Americans.
But in Europe and the United Kingdom -- as well as places like Turkey, China, and Vietnam -- the word "Transit" is virtually synonymous with "van." More than six million Transits have been put to work, carrying out the essential transportation tasks of small and large businesses alike. Within months of its 1965 launch, Transit-based buses made regular crossings of the Peruvian Andes at elevations above 13,000 feet.
Once young British musicians started following The Beatles' example of forming bands and doing gigs, the Transit quickly became equipment hauler, people mover, and occasional love nest. It has been a common sight in the parking lots of motorway service areas in the middle of the night -- some band coming back from playing in a far-flung place, and stopping off for sausages, fried eggs, and chips (that's English for fries) washed down with stained mugs of hot, strong tea. Thinking about it, this van probably deserves a Grammy lifetime achievement award for services to popular music.
Some have been more eulogistic. Writing for a magazine called New Society in 1970, art historian and architecture critic Professor Reyner Banham proclaimed: "Bury a Transit for posterity. Seriously -- if anthropologists and archaeologists continue to insist on evaluating civilizations by their artifacts, we deserve to be remembered by the Ford Transit."
The Transit caught on fast and strong for several reasons. It was a Ford and there are Ford dealers in every major town, even in some minor towns. So finding spare parts was easy, an essential consideration for keeping a workhorse on the road, even one as robust as this. The van was also a breeze for most maintenance jobs. The engine was accessible and any decent mechanics (amateur and professional) knew his way around a Ford.
There was a wide range of variants, topped and tailed by the short-wheelbase four-wheeler and the long-wheelbase six-wheeler. Payloads ranged from 1345 to 3930 pounds.
Sliding doors were available for the cab and the cargo section, while slam doors or tailgates were options for the rear. And where previous vans used to house their engine in the cabin (usually between the two front seats), this one had a separate engine bay out front, cutting down on noise and heat.
The Transit name was already being used in Germany: the 1960 Ford Taunus Transit, a beautiful van with an almost Art Deco look. But having one commercial vehicle built in Germany and another in England (called the Thames) didn't make good business sense. So Henry Ford II told the two operations to pool their resources.
This was the first time separate Ford entities had worked together. An American engineer headed up the team and a lot of the designing was done in Detroit. The result was a vehicle that took styling cues from American cars of the time. Many British Ford cars of that era also had American influences.
Development took place in the days when Ford of Britain had no extensive test facilities. Before a speed limit of 70 mph was introduced, engineers would carry out high-speed runs on public roads in the middle of the night. Sometimes the local police would stop them to ask how things were going.
Although there was an earlier Transit, this collaborative effort is considered the Mark I. It launched the same year as the Mustang. The Porsche 911 also came into being around then. While ponycar and sports car enthusiasts had plenty to celebrate, so did the plumbers, electricians, and carpenters of this world. Well, the Old World.
Actually, so did many people who didn't earn quite such an honest living. Being "Britain's Most Wanted Van" wasn't always a good thing. In the 1970s, a spokesperson for London's Metropolitan Police Force once pointed out that "Ford Transits are used in 95 percent of bank raids. With the performance of a car and space for 1.75 tonnes (1.93 U.S. tons) of loot, the Transit is proving to be the perfect getaway vehicle." You know you have a winner when your van is relied upon to keep one step ahead of the cops.
Initially, the English version of the Tranny (as it was affectionately nicknamed) was built in an old facility that used to make World War II fighter planes (the Hawker Hurricane), but it soon outgrew that plant. In mainland Europe, the van was produced in Belgium and the Netherlands.
Four-wheel-drive conversions incorporated Ford Bronco hardware. These have served with the British military, mountain rescue teams, and utility workers who need to reach otherwise inaccessible spots with vanloads of equipment -- especially useful when a snowstorm causes power outages.
Over the decades, the Transit has become ever more sophisticated. The current model offers many features enjoyed by car drivers, including satellite navigation, lane departure warning, and a backup camera, as well as a tranquil cab and super-comfortable seats.
Now the time has come for the United States to experience the Transit and perhaps clasp it close to the nation's metaphorical breast in the same way the rest of the world has. But if you see an unmarked one speeding away from a bank, it might be worth calling the police.
Written by Colin Ryan