Ford Transit Mk I/II

One of the ongoing memories of Communist Poland is that of the shopping experiences. Family members would take it in turns to spend the morning queueing outside the local Spolem shop (a co-operative) to buy whatever it was the shop had in stock that day. Such were the conditions of a shortage economy; people worked and had money, but there was simply nothing to buy except mustard and vinegar. Lots and lots of vinegar, which is why Poles are often so sour about the past. Whatever stamps you had available (like ration cards of the war years) would be used up when they could be, meaning one would stumble home with 24 bars of soap, swapping them with other people in your apartment block for toilet rolls, toothpaste, or whatever had trickled into the consumer supply line over the past month. This also explains why Poles drink so much herbal tea. Under Communism, proper tea is theft. Baddum tish.

So if you did want something other than potatoes and tinned ham, a chain of cash-only stores, called Pewex (a ridiculous acronym of Przedsiębiorstwo Eksportu Wewnętrznego -Internal Export Company) were established by the state bank, for two reasons. One, to appease the increasingly irate populace with access to Coca-cola, jeans and aftershave, whilst also removing foreign currency from circulation. All goods had to be bought with Dollars or German Marks; both illegal at the time, which meant that the bank exchanged those currencies for, effectively, Pevex vouchers.
So in those horrific martial-law days of the Eighties, there would simply be no need for any sort of man-and-van shenannigans. The total produce of Poland was being shipped off to the West to pay off the exorbitant loans the country took out in the Seventies, and therefore goods vans, local supplies and your typical delivery driver dealings were completely redundant.

This should play out as providing the stark contrast needed to understand why Poland never developed the Ford Transit, and why seeing a single Western van, let alone two, is a remarkable event. Yes, the Soviet overlords had deemed it necessary to build vans in the 1960s like the FSD Nysa and FSR Zuk, but even when new those vans were horrendously dated in comparison to Ford's finest. There simply wasn't the entrepreneurial drive (in the legal sense, at least) for a small businessman to require a tough, dependable van to shuttle goods around all day, and certainly not at the levels of ease and comfort that the Transit afforded.

It all started in the mid 60s, when the two Fords of Britain and Germany realized, belatedly, that they had been competing not only with Opel and Rootes but also with themselves, on a number of markets, and especially the commercial. Most vans of this time were, like the Polish equivalents, little more than boxy cubes with an engine up front, resulting in sluggish performance, wallowing vomit-inducing bodyroll under load and a rattly, if not deafening, cabin experience. The Ford Thames, the Transit's precursor, was as guilty of this as all the rest, and thus it was that the prodigal son, Henry Ford 2nd, combined the forces of Britain and Germany to make an all-new model that would push the entire genre forward. Thus it was that, in 1965, the all new Ford Transit rolled simultaneously out of factories in Britain and Germany, straight out to the buyers who between them had placed 3.6million pounds-worth of pre-orders. A phenomenal debut by anyone's standards.

This is waxing lyrical, of course, because it's just a van. Or rather, it's THE van. Transits are the vans that all others compare themselves to; they're the benchmark to which the Bedford CF (or Blitz; Opel cottoned on to the UK/Germany blend idea too, eventually) and Leyland Sherpa could only aspire to. The snub-nosed bonnet was a marked departure from the flat-front (VW Camper style) glazed boxes of the '50s, and made a distinctively American impression on the market, which lent an air of glamour to the proceedings. Add to that Fords insistence on comfort as well as practicality, and you find not just engines taken from Ford's car department, but seats, and soft suspension, bolted onto a ladder chassis and leaving, rear of the cab, a low platform that can be utilized into countless possibilities.

Overall, 18 different bodyshells of the Mk I and II Transits were made available, from flat-bed pickups to cavernous Luton box vans capable of moving a five-year-plan's worth of goods. And with production averaging out at a million units a decade, they really shouldn't be as scarce as they seem to be. Yet wandering around Warsaw's pre-war trade district, the sight of these pig-nosed beasts still comes as a shock. In this case, it was stumbling across two examples from the beginning and end of thier era; A stubbier-nosed late '60s piggish Mk I minibus sits around the corner from a mid '80s long-snouted plasticated long-wheel-base Mk II panel-van. Despite the vast differences in body style, panel shape and facial features, these two generations are effectively the same van, operating with the same underpinnings and moulded around that intrinsic principle of Transits - "I want to cram as much stuff in the back as possible."

And cram they did, until the seams burst. Transits were workhorses, and despite being popular, never endeared themselves in a cutesy sense in the way that the vile Volkswagen T2 did. A popular quoted statistic is that more bank robberies involved Transits than any other vehicle, leaving many to a fate of ending up a burnt-out shell on an industrial estate somewhere. They were battered, abused and worn-out, ending up as diesel-smeared hulks left rotting on back roads or smashed up in banger races. Their time came to an end in 1986, when the far more common wedge-nosed Transit muscled in to take over the reigns, advancing the concept of stuff-lugging even further. Look carefully at the photos and you can even see one cheekily in the background.

I even had a camper version of the Mark I Transit for a few weeks. More body filler than actual body, the V4 engine up front was enough to crawl me up and down the South Downs of England at a steady 70mph, thirty years after it had been first built. It was stolen and crushed a month later (the police giving me little sympathy, what with it not being taxed or insured, but still, it was parked on private land), and I still get fond memories of that bus driver's position and the massive fibreglass shell on the back.

These days, like the Pevex vouchers, their tradable value is relatively worthless, but check out those chrome wingtop mirrors on the MkI. Contemporary vans simply weren't that stylish, and if you can make a van glamorous, you must be doing something right.