Where is the best place to place the engine in a van? Ahead of the cab, using up useful length? At the rear, taking height out of the load bay? Or how about putting it under the cab between the seats, saving length but adding cab noise. And then keeping the front track narrow for maneuverability, and to facilitate sliding front doors for easy access and extreme ventilation. Commer tried this formula, in 1960, with an enduring and distinctive design.
Commer, officially founded in 1905 as the Commercial Car Company, was owned by Humber in 1926 and then, with Humber, became part of the Rootes Group in 1931. The company was based at Luton, in the same town as Vauxhall, and was Rootes’s commercial vehicle business right up to the Chrysler takeover and, in 1978, the Peugeot takeover of Chrysler Europe. The strength of the company was always in lower gross weight, higher production volume vehicles that competed with similar Ford, BMC and Bedford (part of GM’s Vauxhall business) products, rather than with the heavy trucks from Scammell, Foden or Leyland.
The company is probably best known for its vans, and “FC”, known later as the PA and PB series, and later still and forever as the Dodge Spacevan, is probably its best remembered name. It was used for many years by the British Post Office, known as the General Post Office or GPO, for telecommunication infrastructure maintenance duties. Alongside the organisation’s Morris Minor vans, these vans kept the telephone system working; indeed, at one time the GPO had a fleet of over 15,000 of them.
But, first a bit of history, largely because of this great photo that Hugo90 has put on the Cohort. The predecessor to the Commer FC was the Commer Express Delivery van, based around Hillman Minx and Humber Hawk components. A 1390 cc four-cylinder was working pretty hard with 100 cu ft and a payload of close to half a ton, even in the late 1950s.
The FC (for forward control, the English term for cab-over) van was a fairly predictable and typical assembly of available Rootes components – the engine and gearbox were from the Hillman Minx; the gearbox from the half-ton Commer Express van; the rear axle and some of the front suspension came from the Humber Hawk; and the front crossmember from the Sunbeam Alpine. The Rootes parts bin was happily raided for many minor parts as well, as you’d expect.
The original van had a 1.5-litre, four-cylinder engine linked to a four-speed gearbox, and could probably get to 60 mph. The narrow front track, traceable to the Humber Hawk, aided manoeuvrability by keeping the turning circle compact and allowing reversing and turning away from a curbside parking spot easier. Also, because of its origin, the independent suspension was unusual in this sector at the time. Ford’s Transit did not get independent suspension until 1986, for example. Braking was by drums all-around, and the handbrake worked on the front drums.
But this van’s true defining feature was its underfloor engine and the consequent forward control configuration. All in, the van was fourteen feet long and had a wheelbase of 90 inches, with a cargo capacity for 200 cu ft, making it a compact way of offering such volume.
The configuration was used elsewhere, of course – both BMC and Ford offered it in the UK, with the BMC J4 and the Ford Thames vans, respectively. France had similar vehicles as well, such as the incomparable Citroen H van, the Renault Estafette, and Peugeot D4, but in each case with front-wheel drive. Germany, of course, trended towards rear-engined vehicles in this class, and the US had a full range of similarly configured, though no doubt larger, vehicles.
One issue with the layout was access to the engine. In theory, to remove the engine, the front subframe and suspension had to be removed. However, ingenious workshops soon discovered that by removing the seats and windscreen, the engine could be lifted up and out of the cab through the passenger door.
Initially, the van was badged as the Commer FC1500 and had a payload of 1680 lb or 15 cwt (or hundredweight equivalent to 112 lb; 20 to a British ton) in the classic British Imperial units. Later models went as heavy as a ton, and were known as the 2500.
In 1961, Commer went to a series 2, with a 1.6-litre Hillman Minx engine and revised front grille and number plate arrangement. From 1965, it was named the PA series, which featured the Hillman Super Minx 1725 cc engine and some interior upgrades. An alternator and front-wheel parking brake denoted the 1967 PB series, and following the Chrysler takeover of Rootes, the van was marketed in some territories under both the Dodge and Fargo brands.
Chrysler invested in Rootes’s and Simca’s car ranges, adding cars such as the Hillman Avenger and Chrysler 180. The Dodge name was utilised for commercial vehicles, as Dodge were still assembling some trucks in the UK, and was amalgamated with Rootes’ Commer and Karrier brand heavier trucks, at the Karrier factory in Dunstable factory, close to Luton.
By 1970, it was looking like last year’s offering. The Ford Transit and Bedford CF had moved the game on in the UK, and even BLMC was gearing up to replace the venerable BMC J4, along with the related-under-the-skin Sherpa. Chrysler responded with a refresh of the 1960 original, still with the Commer nameplate. A 58 bhp engine was available, along with a new interior with luxuries like a cigarette lighter, some padding and a steering column lock. In 1974, building on the volume within the dumpy shape, the Spacevan name was adopted, with the option of overdrive or a 50 bhp low-compression engine for straitened times. A 40 bhp Perkins diesel was also available.
But by 1976, the Spacevan was perhaps the least of Chrysler Europe’s issues in Britain. The aging model range, lack of new model investment in Britain and the fuel crisis had caught up with the old Rootes Group. Just two years after BLMC was bought out by the Government as the only alternative to final failure and break up, the UK Government made substantial grant support available to Chrysler to sustain the UK business–a total of £160MM (around £1 billion now) against the alternatives proposed by Chrysler:liquidation, or that the company be given to the UK Government.
This money went to various good causes within Chrysler UK – the Hillman Avenger was substantially revised to become the Chrysler Avenger, the Hillman Imp was pensioned off and replaced by a cut down and rebodied derivative of the Avenger sold as the Chrysler Sunbeam, and the main Coventry facility was adapted to build (or assemble, really) the new French Simca 1307/8 as the Chrysler Alpine. And the Dodge Spacevan was born.
All markets now got a Dodge, with a bold and contemporary grille, revised interior, improved sound insulation and provision for a radio. The GPO, now named British Telecommunications and separated from the mail service, went into buying mode. Over 27,000 were purchased by the one organisation between 1970 and 1982.
Price was undoubtedly a factor in this choice, as well as the van’s compact size and space, its sliding door option and the flexibility of all of its configurations. Corgi made this model set, based on two chassis and range of bodies, for every 8-year-old to become a vehicle builder, but it only scratched the surface.
The Spacevan and its predecessors were long time favourites of mobile home converters but in the 1960s, the range varied from milk floats to ambulances and everything in between.
As we know, in 1978 Chrysler bailed right out of Europe entirely, selling all of Chrysler Europe to Peugeot, which promptly sold the heavier (over 3.5 tons) trucks operation to Renault; the Spacevan was built until 1983, existing to the end on orders from the BT. Indeed, BT obtained a stay of execution for it by placing a large order in 1982, when Peugeot had finally expected to let it die.
The feature van is a great example of something that would be seen on every British High Street almost every day, and was advertised recently on the British auction site car-from-uk.com, an interesting history and trading site covering cars and vans not just for the UK or just-for-UK buyers and sellers.
Another familiar use was by the TV Licence Detector people: a van equipped with the necessary electronic magic to detect televisions being operated without licences. Yes, the British public have to buy a licence to have a television, and the revenue is used to fund the BBC. And jolly good value it is, too. In theory, the electronic equipment within the van could detect a TV operating, and match the location to a database of addresses lacking a licence. At least, that is what they told us – no one has ever publicly stated how they work, and the rumour is that it may have been just a deterrence-and-enforcement tool.
Ultimately, the Spacevan (a late name, but an enduring one) is a classic example of how conceptually different design alone cannot meet and beat the might of convention, in this case the Ford Transit or Leyland Sherpa, if it is not backed with marketing muscle, and enough capability through its difference to overcome any conservatism or other reluctance on the part of users. Add in little long term development and some fundamental weaknesses (e.g., stability, maintenance costs, no long wheelbase options and little power), and the result is as predictable as rain on a cricket match.