King of the road: a short history of the Ford Transit

Exploring the history of the most successful commercial vehicle family of all time


It’s 1965. The Beatles are enjoying their tenth consecutive number one with We Can Work It Out. The Sound of Music is playing to packed cinemas around the country. Winston Churchill is given a state funeral, and Muhammad Ali takes just one minute and 44 seconds to end Sonny Liston’s attempt to reclaim his boxing world championship title, a moment captured by one of the most iconic sporting images of all time.

Meanwhile, in Langley, Berkshire, another historic moment was being made as the first of a new-style commercial vehicle rolled off a Ford production line.

A replacement to Ford’s popular Thames 400E, this bigger van would soon become the vehicle of choice for local builders and plumbers to companies operating across the UK; all requiring robust and reliable vans with more useable space with which to ply their trades.

The term Transit has long since passed into popular usage as a generic term (similar to Hoover for vacuum cleaners and Jacuzzi for hot tubs) describing all medium-sized panel vans, much to the irritation of rival manufacturers. Indeed, Ford, realising the power of the branding decided several years ago to use the Transit name as a prefix for all its van models.

The Ford Transit remains the UK’s best-selling van, a position it has held for 52 years. Indeed, last year Ford enjoyed record sales with its Transit-led light commercial family accounting for a third of all new vans sold in the UK.

To celebrate the imminent debut of the latest Ford Transit Custom model – the most popular commercial vehicle in the UK – as well as upcoming new model launches for the entry-level Transit Connect and Transit Courier models, The Van Expert celebrates a true automotive legend.

  • The original Ford Transit in 1965
  • Versatility has been a key feature of the Ford Transit from the very beginning
  • Restored 1965 Ford Transit in 2010

How was the Ford Transit born?

In the early 1960s, Ford needed a new medium-size panel van to sell across Europe. It previously had two similarly-sized vans, with no common components. One was made by Ford in Britain and the other by Ford Germany, and they competed with one another; often in the same showrooms.

Britain won the design competition to build the new model, which would lift its name from the Ford Taunus Transit; a van with the distinction of using Ford’s best and worst van names!

What made the Transit so different?

In the 1950s and early 1960s, rudimentary light commercial technology meant vans could only carry light loads. If loaded to capacity, they could become difficult and dangerous to drive and impossible to manoeuvre, so heavier loads tended to be carried by bigger (and hence more expensive) trucks. What differentiated the Transit was the clean slate approach encouraged by top man Henry Ford II. With a canny eye on economies of scale, Henry II wanted a single medium-sized van design which could be sold throughout Europe and eventually the world. A guiding principle that holds true to this day.

Acknowledging its importance to the booming building trade, a fundamental part of the new design was to have a load bay big and flat enough to carry a load of 8x4ft plasterboards. A useful innovation on the first model was a side-loading door. No wonder it sold like hot bricks!

How many Transit generations are there?

Believe it or not, just four all-new models in over 50 years!

A mark of the first generation’s enduring success was that it stayed in production, albeit with modifications (including a major facelift in 1978), until 1986!

Longevity has proved to be the name of the game for Transit, which is why Ford invests heavily in new models. The all-new Mark II was suitably radical. It had a much shorter bonnet which meant more cabin space and a larger cargo bay. Facelifted in 1995, it was eventually replaced by the Mark III in 1997, which in turn ran until 2013.

The Mark IV has been with us since then and broke from tradition by having two distinct body styles: the mid-size one-tonne Transit Custom (with a spin-off passenger version called the Tourneo) and full-size two-tonne Transit, both with interiors and styling cues straight out of the Ford Focus.

Over the years, the Transit family has been extended to include the compact Courier and small Connect, which together now account for around 25% of all Transit sales.

  • Ford-Custom-Transit

Where can I buy a new Transit?

In 2015, to mark the 50th birthday of the Transit, the Blue Oval unveiled a new dedicated network of Ford Transit Centres across the UK. Previously, vans were pretty much sold alongside Ford’s car line-up.

The move saw 105 newly-branded specialist centres open their doors to business customers, offering more flexible and extended servicing hours to help minimise vehicle downtime.

Who buys Transits?

The Transit remains the backbone of major fleets, including national delivery companies and utility operators.

Also, following the financial crisis of 2009, demand for Transits grew as new small businesses launched in construction trades such as painting, plastering and plumbing; pretty much the same workhorse demanding buyers that embraced the Transit when it was first launched.

What’s next for the Ford Transit?

This month sees the launch of an updated Transit Custom, the biggest-selling commercial vehicle in the UK.

Spring 2018 also sees the debut of new versions of the popular small Transit Connect and compact Transit Courier models, and Ford has recently announced plans to refresh the entire Ford Transit family by the middle of 2019. 

Ford Transit fun facts

  • The first Transit models were built in Langley (near Slough), Berkshire, in a former aircraft factory used to build Hurricanes during World War Two
  • The Transit has remained in continuous production since 1965 across just four generations, becoming the most popular commercial vehicle of all time
  • In 1972, the Metropolitan Police said the Transit was used in 95% of bank robberies as it had car-like getaway performance and stowage space for 1.75 tonnes of loot.
  • The Mark III Transit had the distinction of sharing a Duratorq diesel engine with the Jaguar X-Type, although you would not have found that information in a Jaguar brochure!
  • In 2002, the new Ford Transit Connect – based on the Focus platform – replaced the van versions of the Fiesta and Escort
  • By the time the Transit reached 50 in 2015, Ford had sold enough units to circle the world
  • The grand total of Ford Transit sales is now in excess of 9 million units
  • According to Ford, a new Transit has been bought every 180 seconds of its lifetime
  • Since 2004, all European Transits have been built in Turkey with production having moved over the years from Langley to Southampton and then to Genk in Belgium.
  • The Ford Transit has its own fan club at transitvanclub.co.uk
  • More Ford news, reviews, features and offers at The Van Expert
  • Metropolitan Police marked Ford Transit PHEV van (The Van Expert)
Curtis Hutchinson
Curtis Hutchinson
Curtis Hutchinson is a member of the Guild of Motoring Writers and has been a senior motoring journalist for over 25 years. He has written extensively about the automotive industry as editor of both Company Car and Motor Trader where he won the coveted Newspress Business Publication of the Year Award. His work also appears in Fleet World and Fleet World International. In 2016 he was part of the founding team behind the relaunched London Motor Show.

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