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.
Crew and minibus options were another favourite.
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.
It’s probably about 8 to 10 years since I last saw one regularly and that was a camper van that happened to be parked on a regular route of mine. As always, rust ate most of them up. The early ones used the early Series Minx rear lights plonked somewhat incongruously on their rears; the later, larger rectangular units looked more van-like. Here’s two more at Newquay in the Summer of 1975:
The early tail lights are Minx the later are from the Hillman Hunter. The whole van was built from Minx parts nothing else was used.
I love these the look of these vans, the Commer/Austin versions at least. I’ve never seen or heard of the modern face Dodge version. Looks like it’s from the Argentinian school of automotive longevity. Do you still have licence detector vans?
Yes, we do, though I don’t think I’ve ever seen one.
This link from the TY Licensing Webster gives little away….
Thanks for the link Roger.
We got the modern face Dodge versions new in New Zealand Don; still the odd one around.
We might have got them here, but I’ve never seen one till Roger’s piece.
Another great article Roger! I have never seen one of the pickup versions as per the advertisement and Corgi model pictures, but I do have a memory of seeing a picture of a ‘bare chassis’ (or platform) with nothing behind the cab, for sale to ice-cream van builders or the like.
Did BT use other vans at the time (apart from Morris Minors!) such as the Transit or BL Sherpa, or were they particularly keen on the Spacevan for some reason?
I don’t think the Dodge version would have been sold here, I would have to check if they were assembled from CKD kits at Port Melbourne (it is less likely they were imported fully built-up) in which case they could well have had stocks of the Commer version on hand for a couple of years after the change in the UK.
I didn’t realise they were built for so long – there is a fair chance they were the last Rootes vehicles built! Not counting the Paykan in Iran that is.
As an aside, the 1997 Holden Commodore wagon was shaped by the space requirements of Telstra (the Australian equivalent of BT), who then proceeded to buy Falcon wagons because the Holden’s IRS couldn’t cope with the weight they had to carry.
Nice write up again Roger. These were ubiquitous when I was growing up in the late 70s and early 80s.
One of my favourite records when I was around 15 had one on the sleeve.
Interesting to read about a van I vaguely remember from my early youth but knew nothing about.
In Europe vans with a flat front and the engine between the seats have completely vanished by now. The reason: crash safety regulations. Look at the latest generation of vans (all sizes), think away the sloping front and you’ve got a van with a short nose.
Developing new vans is very expensive, hence all the joint-ventures between the automakers in the van market. An example: the Fiat Scudo. That very same van is also sold as Peugeot Expert, Citroën Jumpy (there’s that stupid name again) and Toyota ProAce. We might see a Ram version of it through FCA, that would make five of them.
Toyota still builds the ‘cab-over’ Hiace, the H200 model debuted in 2004 with acceptable if not brilliant crash safety; predictably poor to marginal outcomes for feet and lower legs. I gather the rationale was the shorter wheelbase gave greater maneuverability. I have to say I would prefer a different van!
Both the HiAce and the Dyna (a light truck) are no longer available here.
This is the Toyota ProAce a.k.a. the Fiat, Peugeot and Citroën I mentioned.
They can sell it in the US too, as a Ram ProMasterCityPlusUrban, or something like that. Still better than Citroën Jumpy though….
Used to see loads of them daily,I last saw a navy blue one a couple of years ago at a classic moto cross race with a Greeves moto cross bike on a trailer
A highly versatile van I had never seen nor heard about until now. Perhaps I have seen them in movies or television shows, but nothing rings a bell at this time.
Despite my normally not being a van enthusiast, I would enjoy taking one of this for a drive.
Watch it roll on a tight corner!
The Japanese used to come up with some strange names, but the French are quickly surpassing them. Isn’t there a model of the Peugeot Expert called the Teepee? Or am I thinking of a Citroen?
Interesting that there was a Dodge “minivan” years before they appeared as passenger vans in the U.S.
The Tepee is based on the Peugeot Partner van. I went to the Dutch Peugeot website and it’s presented as a Peugeot Partner Tepee. It’s a compact MPV.
The Peugeot Partner is the same van as a Citroën Berlingo. Compact vans, smaller than the ones I mentioned above.
Great article – watching quite a bit of UK TV in the 60/70s, I was always fascinated by these types of commercial vehicles – they are just so different from what were used to seeing in the US.
Very interesting, as I am another who had never heard of these. I certainly had no idea that a Dodge van of any sort was ever made in the UK. Now I know better.
When I first saw this, I immediately thought of the Dodge van at the other extreme. Familial resemblance?
What’s the date of this Dodge, JP?
The Spacevan was a Rootes, pre Chrysler design, from the the 1950s, so the family link is not exact, but there is a definite resemblance. The Dodge A100 is in there too, of course
I was joking, but there are some similarities. The Dodge Travco motorhome dates from the mid 1960s. The later ones had full wheel cutouts, but the early ones had more of a resemblance to the Commer.
Paul did a piece on the Dodge Travco here. https://www.curbsideclassic.com/curbside-classics-american/curbside-classic-travco-motorhome-the-granddaddy-of-the-motorhome-name-and-genre/
I’ve always liked forward control (COE) vans. This Dodge Spacevan has a better looking front end than our American Dodge Vans. I only hope its brakes work like they’re supposed to.
Monty Python had a sketch mentioning a Cat Detector Van, which could pinpoint a purr at 20 yards (or whatever).
A Faraday Cage is an obvious countermeasure against such vehicles. You’d think the British might be more aware of this invention named after their brilliant countryman. Did BBC educational programming mention this subject? RF shielding, which I assume TVs have always had, is vital to prevent interference among devices; this is why Radio Shack had to redesign their TRS-80 to comply with FCC requirements.
Nice write up Roger there used to be thousands of those vans on the road in NZ the post office here bought them by the ship load and the previous Express van which is pure Hillman Minx NO Hawk parts are used, same with the Commer Van it uses Minx and Superminx mechanicals, Alpine front axle? thats from the Minx range too, Oddly enough there was a government issue stripper Minx built here for Post office use too all trim was deleted to save money like the Commer a rare find nowdays though some camper conversions belong to club members and I do know of two Vans locally though they are not on the road.
In the US I think the best know example was the Corgi Film crew van, which was a fun model because the camera platform could be mounted on the front bumper and the roof rack as well as the rear bumper as shown.
They still weren’t that common outside BT since when I visited London in the 80s the vans were overwhelmingly Transits, Bedfords, and Sherpas with the occasional VW.
I had the same, along with a Hertz-branded Dinky Ford Transit. As popular as they became, I can’t remember a die-cast of an American van until Corgi did a Chevy van in the late 70s.
I remember an episode of The Young Ones where they were trying to avoid the TV van.
Wouldn’t a farraday cage interfere with reception and block the screen?
Not if the antenna was outside the cage, & it’s passive. But I don’t know how much energy escapes the CRT front.
Vladymir Zworykin invented the CRT, under David Sarnoff’s leadership at RCA.
That TV detector van is quite odd. Is that legislation still in effect? And is it one licence per TV, or per household? I do wonder exactly how it worked…and how it distinguished a TV from a computer monitor. Or how it would detect the various devices today that could be used as a TV–projectors, LCD/LED displays, plasma displays…
One licence per household covering all devices used for watching broadcast television, even if you never watch a BBC channel
Catch up watching on-line does not require a licence but live on-line does.
There is a current debate about either extending the licence fee to those with catch-up capability only or ditching it entirely and funding the BBC by some other means, which would almost certainly be the end of decent TV without commercial breaks.
Chris, it’s highly doubtful the detector vans had anything more than a tea kettle in them. The thinking behind the legislation is that if public TV was funded by taxation its output would be influenced by the govt of the day, however they just influence it by threatening to reduce the TV licence fee.
There are people employed by tv licensing authorities to come to your home and threaten you but they actually have little to no authority, you can just tell them to piss off. A lot of people in Scotland have recently cancelled their licences and there has been much discussion of this.
I have no TV licence, although I own a TV. I am not breaking the law however, as I do do not have an aerial cable and cannot receive live broadcasts.
I’m all for user fees, like roads financed by fuel taxes, but that BBC fee makes no sense to me because it’s not practically enforceable (except by humbug like those vans). It might be if TV wasn’t wireless, which is increasingly the case these days.
Same system in Austria (for either radios or TVs or both) and in Israel. Just another form of taxation. Here (Austria) they come and knock on your door but you are not obliged to open (they don’t have police powers). Once you open the door they can come and check. And since the advent of streaming, if you have a computer, you have to pay the radio fees anyway (very little, € 14.50 per quarter). I don’t mind because I listen to FM 4 which plays a lot of stuff I like.
Over on Hemmings Daily we got the knives out for this good and proper.They were awful.
Ahh Roger, I love these. Such a feature of my childhood. Even as a toddler in the early 80s I think I realised they were of another time, along with another British Telecom favourite, the Bedford HA. It was only years later I realised there was a Vauxhall car version of that. I would love a Commer camper.
Another excellent article, Roger. I experienced one of these in my day. It was in the winter of ’71/’72, in Anchorage, Alaska, where I lived at the time. I was a sophomore in high school, and worked part time at a small consignment used car lot. A man and his family had moved from Australia to Anchorage, and brought their Commer camper. He consigned it with us to sell. I don’t know (or don’t recall) the actual history of it, but I do remember it was a left hand drive, and someone had transplanted a 273 Chrysler V8 in place of the original engine. We did not sell it for him, as I recall there were very few interested parties, if any. He eventually came and retrieved it, and I don’t know what ever became of it. And, as it turned out his son and I were school friends, but it took us awhile to put it together that his dad was the one who owned the Commer. That is the only one I ever recall seeing in the metal.
That thing is weird. But I have always liked vans with the engine between the front seats. That’s the way American vans were built for decades. The engine cover was not wasted space. it could be used for all kinds of things. Just look at some ’70s American conversion vans, if there are any left.
Although Chrysler never imported the Spacevan or its predecessors in the US, Dodge UK did produce a version of the US Dodge van as a chassis cab known as the Dodge 50 Series. Similar in concept to the US Dodge Kary Van, but without the body installed, they were popular with utilities and goverment organizations. Check out that funky, Rover SD1-esq dashbaord:
I notice it still doesn’t have much of an engine cover. The ’70s Chevy vans I drove at work had a huge engine cover. I used it as everything from a desk to a table at lunch time.
I was aware of the Commer version but never knew the Dodge brand was used in the UK except on US Dodges, though I knew the Chrysler name was used on the Hillman and Simca follow-ons. This was an interesting addition to the badge-engineering discussions about the Cimarron earlier this week.
Dodge – before Chrysler took over Rootes – produced its own line of trucks in Kew in the UK. Most of them did not look like the US product and were almost always diesel engined. Production continued for a while even after the take over, so you had Commer-based Dodges and Kew-based Dodges. The COE ones I posted below shared their cab with Leyland and Albion.
There was also this Spanish line of big Dodge trucks, formerly known as Barreiros. From what I’ve read these were relatively popular in the UK too.
… and that’s the later COE model.
It gets more confusing, because there were also Spanish Dodges, Aussie Dodges and Israeli Dodges looking unlike anything offered in the US…
British built Dodges were sold in some markets as Fargo Kew.
Nice article, which gives a good overview of a quirky UK van.
I used to drive a Post Office Engineering Commer 2500. Nice and powerfull, but handling was pretty sloppy. Braking hard unladen could result in the rear wheels lifting off the ground (I have seen this in action). Rumour has it that the origonal vans had a rear wheel handbrake, but they tended to slide down hills when parked so the handbrake was moved to the front wheels.
As usual with UK vehicles rot used to kick in and a favourite place was the jacking points and the rear floor corners.
I then moved on to the Dodge Spacevan. The 1750 engine was under powered, especially on motorways or in a head wind.
As they had the old Humber suspension the bearings used to seize and were really hard to remove. GPO mechanics kept these well greased just in case.