Hagerty’s Top Ten Unexceptional Vans

by Andrew Roberts
24 February 2016 4 min read
Hagerty’s Top Ten Unexceptional Vans
The ubiquitous Ford Transit.

In their heyday, these light commercial vehicles would have been as totally and utterly unexceptional as dinner for two at the Golden Egg or watching the weather forecast on Southern Television. Now some of them are rarer than a Bugatti Royale, albeit considerably more practical…

Bedford CA

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Between 1952 and 1969 this was the van of choice for any tradesman who favoured Gene Vincent hairstyles, Woodbines and driving at 50 mph with the sliding doors open. Popular with dairies, as the Dormobile camper, an ambulance and a ‘Tonibell’ ice cream van (complete with a model cow on the roof) the Bedford offered a certain sense of style and quite agreeable handling thanks to its independent front suspension. Immortalized in the classic Peter Sellers film The Wrong Arm of the Law – ‘Do me a favour, it’s falling apart!’


A top speed of 63 mph, an engine mounted between the front seats and steering often recalled by retired police officers and postmen as ‘somewhat imprecise’ – the J4 could be best described as ‘utilitarian transport’. The fact that it was variously badged as an Austin, a Morris, a BMC and an Austin-Morris hints at the corporate chaos that was the British Motor Corporation/British Leyland but despite being rendered an anachronism overnight by the Transit, production continued until 1974 in the UK and 1989 in Spain. In Black Maria guise the J4 was granted instant fame by the Abbey Road front cover and Withnail & I – ‘Get in the back of the van!’

Commer FC/PB/Spacevan

There were few vehicles more grimly official than a Commer FC, be it in the guise of TV Detector Van, transport of a Post Office telephone engineer or simply as a school minibus on a thrilling education visit to the local power station. For 23 years the FC was an essential, if fairly unglamorous, part of British life and the fact that its front track was 7 1/2 inches less than the rear made it highly manoeuvrable in towns. One drawback was if the engine ever needed major attention this could involve firstly removing the front seats and windscreen and then employing a crane to lift the motor through the nearside front door…

Ford Transit Mk.1

‘Formerly ubiquitous’ rather than ‘unexceptional’, it is sometimes difficult to imagine the impact that the Transit made on the commercial vehicle world in 1965. It was not just that the new Ford was extremely good looking in a mid-Atlantic fashion, it was also cleverly designed, versatile and, best of all from the delivery worker’s perspective, the Transit was more enjoyable to drive than many cars. The nation’s bakers, butchers and grocers all immediately took to the Ford Transit – not to mention the occasional armed robber…

Bedford CF

For a panel van that remained in production for an awfully long time – 1969-1987 – the CF is in danger of being almost completely forgotten. For years, it was second only to the Ford Transit in terms of popularity with the nation’s tradesmen and there was even an electric version – a world’s first. Yet whilst the van from Langley and Southampton went on to become a genuine motoring icon, Luton’s offering remains undervalued – a cruel fate for such an exceptionally unexceptional vehicle.

Bedford Chevanne

40 years ago, General Motors launched the light commercial that would bring excitement to the world of market gardeners, jobbing roofers and television delivery man – the Bedford Chevanne. The frontal treatment looked positively dynamic, the interior was not uncomfortable by the standards of the day and it was rather nice to drive. The Chevanne was ideal for anyone who needed a light runabout and who believed that their staff should enjoy the luxury of plaid cloth upholstery.

Ford 400E Thames

Anyone who grew up in Gosport, Plymouth or Portsmouth will probably recall the Ford as so many of them were used by the Royal Navy as ambulances. Alternatively, you might have vague nightmares about a holiday in a Thames based motor caravan, one involving rain, arguments and Dentist on the Job being screened in the camp cinema every evening.  Now completely overshadowed by its successor, the 400E was not unstylish – ‘just think how good YOUR trading title will look on that sleek, sliding side panel!’ promised Dagenham and it also starred in possibly the finest promotional film in advertising history –

Bedford HA

For the fleet manager who regarded the Chevanne as possibly the most decadent van in the history of motoring, there was the Bedford HA. Launched in 1963 as the commercial version of the original Vauxhall Viva, the HA remained a mainstay of British Rail’s road fleet and various public utility bodies for the next two decades. Martin Walter also offered a ‘Bedford Beagle’ estate conversion that enjoyed tremendous popularity with woodwork teachers across the land as well as serving as an extremely low-speed police patrol car.

Commer Walk-Thru

For many years, Britons had their parcels, Sunblest bread, and laundry delivered by the Walk-Thru. The design, as the name would suggest, allowed the operator to walk unimpeded from the drivers seat, and the Rootes Group boasted that the engine was designed to cope with continuous stop-start work in urban traffic. There was also the cost advantage – a van with a factory built walk through body was could save a trader over £100 over a coach-built model -and in rural areas it was not uncommon to see the Commer used as a mobile shop stacked to roof with tins of Frey Bentos corned beef and John West red salmon.

Ford Fiesta Mk.1

For a long time, the idea of a FWD van on British roads meant a Mini, a Renault 4 or a Simca 1100. Then in 1978 Ford introduced the Fiesta which further developed the idea that light commercial vehicles did not have to be about as fun as a wet weekend in Southampton. Ford cleverly marketed the van in ‘L’ specification meaning that the cabin was practical without being especially Spartan and if the payload was limited, the Fiesta was still ideal for transporting flowers, pizzas and, in one especially awful episode of The Professionals, international hitmen.

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  • West Sussex says:

    I have one of the last Bedford chevannes on the road. Used for work daily. The only 1977 model still road legal.

  • Lancashire says:

    Probably the similar type of van of that period with the very worst survival rate is the Standard Atlas Van (and Pick-up). The basic mistake by Standard Triumph was to offer a van with a very capacious body and then fit it with a 948cc engine!! If they could have dictated that buyers only use it for "around town" deliveries of fairly light bulky items it might have had some success. But owners filled them with bags of cement and headed off for jobs "in the hills". They simply failed to give adequate main road performance and fell to pieces under such treatment — aided by poor build quality!!

  • Yorkshire North Riding says:

    A group of us scooter-scrambling enthusiasts (yes, off-road Lambrettas!) used to hire Ford 400E Thames vans to get from SE London to Guildford for race meetings. One event I picked up the van, and thought it was distinctly lacking in guts — but we drove to Guildford and back, just a bit slower than usual. It wasn't until I came to put the car into reverse with the steering column change, that we discovered that Ford had upgraded the 3-speed box to 4-speed… we'd done 150-odd miles in third gear! Petrol consumption was lousy.

  • South Coast says:

    You do not mention the most unexeptional of all – the BMC J2. In the mid Sixties (before transferring to Transits) our light haulage company ran J2's and J4's. With diesel engines neither were able to run against anything of a headwind at more than 40MPH !!

  • buckie,scotland says:

    was it not the bedford cf van whose front wheels had a tendancy to fall of hence ambulance drivers refused to drive them

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