Curbside Classic: A Louisvillian Goes To Amsterdam – The Story Of The Mighty Ford Transcontinental

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In the early seventies, Trans-European road transportation was a booming business and to get the job done you needed a heavy long-distance truck. The UK-based American truckmakers, Ford and GM, naturally wanted a slice of the pie. The only problem was that neither of them had a heavy long distance truck in their Euro-portfolio, both could only offer light and medium sized short distance trucks.

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Bedford, GM’s truck division in the UK, developed a whole new range of big trucks, resulting in the TM-series in 1974. Ford chose this route: Take a Louisville chassis, a big Cummins engine, a Fuller gearbox, axles from Rockwell and finally a steel cab from French truckmaker Berliet. Then ship those components to the Ford plant in Amsterdam to put them all nicely together. And then you come up with a perfect name: The Ford Transcontinental. That name was spot-on, since driving all the way to Africa and the Middle-East was also part of long-distance hauling in those days.

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The Transcontinental was introduced in 1975. It was heavy-duty, powerful and for the era, the ride was very comfortable. The drivers really loved it; the whole package was simply ahead of its time. The cab was suspended on four coil springs with hydraulic dampers and an anti-roll bar at the front of the cab. The seats, of course were also suspended.

Photo 3-8The Berliet truckmodel that donated its cab. Less “King of the Road” than the Ford though.

And that cab was also tall; by far the tallest factory truck cab on the market. In order to house the big Cummins, the cab was mounted high on the frame, the only way was up ! Therefore it was much taller than the contemporary Berliet long distance truckmodel that donated its cab.

Photo 4-8Close-up of the dashboard.

Power was between 290 and 350 hp, GVW ratings anywhere between 74,000 and 110,000 lbs. Euro-countries had their own weight regulations. Fifty metric tonnes (circa 110,000 lbs) for a rig with six axles was fully legal in the Netherlands, while absolutely verboten in Germany, for example.

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Complimenting the high quality heavy-duty frame and powertrain was a comfortable ride and cab. And despite all that, the Transcontinental never even came close to the success Ford had hoped for. There are several minor and major reasons for the paltry 8,735 units built over its 1975 to 1984 lifespan.

Photo 6That’s a big Cummins alright. As you can see the gear lever and its linkages stay in position when the cab is tilted.            You can also see the rear cab suspension.

It was heavy-duty alright, but even without the duty it was still too heavy for some countries, especially the UK and its low legal GVW ratings. Also, fuel consumption was high and a substantial portion of the engines used a lot of oil. I already mentioned that the cab came from France and we’re talking the seventies here… so the cab rusted like there was no tomorrow, owing to its horrible lack of rust proofing.

Photo 7That’s a healthy climb after a greasy meal at the Truck Stop.

The more major reasons it failed were these: Ford Europe and its dealerships had absolutely zero experience in selling, servicing and repairing heavy long distance trucks; that requires many years to perfect.  And last but certainly not least: there was no vertical integration of in-house components, completely the opposite of how mainstream truck makers from Continental Europe work, and what their clientele expects. When you bought a Scania for example, the chassis, cab, engine, gearbox and axles were designed, engineered and built by Scania. And every single Scania importer and dealership throughout Europe would then know all ins and outs of the whole truck, from front bumper to tail lights.

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I’ve read that only one percent of the Transcontinentals survived. Most of them got scrapped for their precious high-quality components, which were valued more than the sum of the truck’s parts.  The truck was right, it arrived at the right time and the drivers loved it. What a shame it didn’t succeed. In 1986 Ford sold its entire Euro-heavy truck division to Iveco (Fiat). If you want to see a whole truckload of Transcontinentals in company colors you can have a look here.

20071027-063 Vrachtwagen RAI-border

 

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