The van that launched a thousand vans - the history of the Ford Transit

The Ford Transit has been a staple on our roads for over 50 years now.

It’s the van. The van that you imagine if someone said to you ‘picture a van.’ The Hoover of the van world.

The first Transit was officially launched 1965, but it has roots that go back even further to the 50s, when Ford Cologne released the Taunus Transit. It had a 1.3L engine and was similar to the Volkswagen Transporter.

The Taunus Transit was a success story – and it was the success of this van that inspired Ford to launch the van we know and love today.

The Transit has only grown in popularity through its lifetime, with Ford managing to keep up with the times through some major upgrades, additional tech and some choice facelifts.

In fact, the Ford Transit and the Ford Transit Custom are the two best-selling vans so far this year.

But just why is the Transit so enduring, why is it such a popular van lease, and what makes it iconic?

New Ford Transit line-up

Ford Transit: An icon

It’s no real secret that the controversial ‘white van man’ term stems from the Ford Transit. 

But the real explanation behind the colour is very simple. The Transit was launched in a time pre-air con, and the lighter colour helped to keep driver’s cooler for longer.

The Ford Transit has since transcended this stereotype to become the go-to van for both business and personal use, with more choice across its range than nearly every other van manufacturer on the market.

It forms the backbone of the UK LCV sector, enabling businesses up and down the country to keep working, knowing that they can rely on the Transit to get them where they need to be, with all the cargo they need to bring.

From the initial Mark I and Mark II vans, the Transit is now available in four different models, varying wheelbase lengths and heights, and in a variety of different conversions.

The Transit has even been turned into ice cream vans, police vans, milk floats and minibuses.

If you need a van, there will definitely be a Transit that meets your needs.

Ford Transit timeline

1965 Ford Transit

1965: The dawn of the Transit era

The Ford Transit Mark I first rolled off the production line in 1965, with no idea that it was about to change the LCV world.

It surprised would-be buyers by giving passengers more room to stretch out than its rivals, with a squared-off body that nodded towards the brand's American heritage.

The Ford Transit is a wholly British van though. The 1965 model was initially manufactured in Berkshire before demand outstripped supply, and a new plant was opened in Southampton.

The first Transit cost just £560, and was available with several engines and in several different configurations, including minibuses, pick-up trucks, panel vans and crew vans.

The amount of choice on offer was a novelty for UK buyers, making the Transit stand out among rivals for some time.

1978 Ford Transit

1978: The first facelift

Just 12 years after the Transit first hit our roads, the Ford Transit Mark II was released, with some design changes and a lot of extra engineering work.

It was also much more comfortable inside – something that has now become a dealbreaker for a lot of van buyers. The Transit Mark II was one of the first vans to look beyond just how much stuff it could carry, and instead focused on the most important piece of cargo: the driver.

The engineering updates at this time also made the Transit more reliable and a lot safer, while automatic transmission was available for the first time. The first ‘fast’ Transit was also created by sticking a V6 engine into selected models.

1988 Ford Transit Minibus

1986: The second generation

The first-generation Ford Transit was kicking around for over 20 years with just the one facelift, with is a testament to its enduring popularity.

And there really weren’t that many changes made for the second-generation.

The biggest mechanical change was made to the suspension, which increased the comfort of this already driver-comfort-focused van, while Ford also replaced the V6 engines with a 2.9L diesel option.

The most obvious change for the second-gen Transit was the design.

Ford changed around the angle of the windscreen so it matched the slant of the bonnet, and the simplistic boxy design made it stand out. Modern Transit’s still have an air of the 80s van about them, proving that a timeless design will always endure over following style trends.

A 1994 facelift also introduced electric windows (for the first time on a van), air conditioning, central locking and airbags.

With its improved spaciousness and levels of comfort, the second-gen Ford Transit became not just a reliable, hard-wearing workhorse, but also proved to be a handy and practical van for private use.

2003 Ford Transit

2000: The modern Transit

The 2000s Transit was much more akin to the van we know today, though, like its forebears, it did not deviate massively from the blueprint Ford had set back in the 60s.

However, Ford’s success in the car world meant that the third-generation Transit became more carlike in performance, drive and comfort than it ever had been before. Ford also used the diesel engine from the Ford Mondeo to improve fuel economy, so a van capable of heavy lifting could also get 90mpg.

It also had two roof heights to choose from, as well as a choice between either front- or rear-wheel-drive.

The third-generation Transit was a runaway best-seller, thanks in part to its mechanical upgrades and improvement in creature comforts, but also because Ford – always ahead of the curve – introduced a sporty version that favoured aesthetics.

And in 2005, the five millionth Transit ever made rolled off the production line.

2016 Ford Transit

2014: Bigger and better than ever

The Transit just keeps on getting better.

The fourth-generation, launched nearly a decade ago now, improved on the previous vans by adding larger loading bays, a choice of three wheelbase lengths, and additional height options. It was all about giving you choice and convenience – and it delivered.

Ford also added a double-cab model for this generation, with the ability to carry seven people with up to 10.6m3 of flexible load space.

But more than just updating the Transit, Ford added the one-tonne Transit Custom to the Transit line-up and the LCV market once again changed forever.

The Transit range now consists of the baby Courier, the Connect, the Custom and the OG Transit, offering the same reliability and versatility in pretty much any sized package you could dream of. 

There aren’t many other competitors who could say the same.

Ford E-Transit

The future of the Ford Transit

The Ford Transit isn’t going anywhere any time soon.

In keeping with the times, by 2024 Ford aims to have released an electric variant of the big Transit, the Transit Courier and the Transit Custom.

With the 2030 petrol and diesel ban looming over us all, getting ahead of the curve now will set Ford in good stead to continue setting the bar high for the LCV market. There’s no doubt that these three new electric vans will be some of the most popular on the market, combining Ford’s leading tech with a whacking great battery.

The full-size Ford E-Transit is already available to lease, and comes equipped with a 68kWh battery for a claimed range of 196 miles. For a large van, this is very good news, and it’ll be more than enough for most businesses to easily get through the day on a single charge.

And for urban van drivers, the introduction of the E-Transit Courier and the E-Transit Custom will be welcome news, allowing businesses to bypass many of the congestion charges that bigger cities are now implementing, as well as future proofing the company for when sales of new petrol and diesel vans do cease.

And with the Ford E-Transit Custom allegedly having a claimed range of around 236 miles, we’re predicting big things for the future of this little van.

Ready to lease your own Ford Transit?

Beth Twigg

Beth Twigg

Beth is our Content and Paid Media Specialist, tasked with creating great articles to keep you both entertained and informed. She has two years previous experience, but has been writing and scribbling for much longer.