Why a Ford Transit is, in fact, driving nirvana
Hear me out ok, but this is gonna be hella car-enthusiast-y.
I have a favourite road. I think many people who enjoy driving have a favourite road, that one sinew of tarmac that stretches out over the land, weaving a tapestry for all time. For me, that road is the A507 from Baldock to Buntingford. I learned to drive on that road in a Nissan Pixo with my Grandfather in the passenger seat. We take that road to get from home to Stansted airport for holidays. It also forms part of my journey from home to the polo club (#flex). I drive that road a fair amount and have driven it in a multitude of vehicles, my OG Nissan Pixo, the Suzuki Jimny, the Hilux and today a long wheelbase flatbed Ford Transit (350 L4 if anyone is still reading).
The Transit, especially the behemoth that is the LWB does not lend itself to precision or enthusiastic driving. Over 6.5 meters of Transit, a wieldy beast does not make. Powered by a 2.0l turbo-diesel with drive going to the rear through a six-speed gearbox the way that it gathers speed can best be described as staccato. First gear is incredibly short, which makes sense given that it is designed to run at up to 3500 kgs gross weight and with only 167 bhp and 240lb.ft of torque on tap, it needs a low gear to get things moving. Once going however the gearbox has the same throw as a Fiesta and has a fairly positive shift action. Gears slot home well and mean you can keep building momentum as you go, even if it means keeping the throttle pinned. Unladed this engine works fine in the Transit, but as soon as you start loading it down its performance takes a brutal kicking. 6th gear is fine on level ground but as soon as you encounter an incline you find yourself downshifting to fifth.
No fog lights, black bumpers, this really is a pauper spec Transit, but it is an honest thrill to drive.
Speaking of downshifts, if you enjoy a good heel-toe move on the downshifts, forget about it. Even with my ginormous feet, the pedal box in the Transit is spaced out for the Elephant man wearing steel toe caps. My size twelves wobble about in the open when trying to blip the throttle, unaided by the brake pedal being so high compared to the throttle. You have to really be applying pressure to the middle pedal to get it to the same locale as the throttle to dance about on them like Aryton Senna. But otherwise, the driving position is comfortable, with the seat easily adjustable and firm, if a little flat. The wheel rearranges for reach and rake meaning it is quite easy to find a sweet spot for many miles of driving. The high view from the captain's chair affords good sightlines of the road ahead meaning that when you want to play, you can at least see where you're going and what is coming the other way. But that is not the point of this missive. I didn't want to sit down and write a review about a three-year-old van. I wanted to explain why, even in a van, you can find driving nirvana. And for that, we go back to the beginning. The A507.
The A507 is a twisty bugger that writhes and bucks over the rolling hills of the east of England. It climbs, crests, and drops like the best Wales or Scotland has to offer. Its turns are tight, unsighted and of changing camber, you pick a line on entry and wrestle to hold it, feeding out the wheel as the bend opens, and you apply the throttle, feeling the car push through the bend. I've driven the road a lot, I know how tight the bends are, where tractors will jump out at you from, where the off-camber sections are, and which bumps on corner entry will unsettle a lesser driver. And today, with the road empty, and the Transit laden only by a small box of lifting equipment we set off to tackle the A507.
Because of the van's lack of power, and a turbo that you can feel kick in from a low RPM corner, you need to know where to open the throttle in anticipation of the boost and power arriving, like a rally car from the '80s you need to be thinking ahead. The tarmac was soft and warm, the tyres too, so the grip was there and it turns out that you can really lean on the front end of the van, turn it in, apply more lock and it shrugs its weight over and tucks in with surprising aplomb. You begin to take liberties with braking points, loading the fronts more and more, but still, the van turns in and behaves far better than you'd expect. There isn't enough power to unstick the rears on dry tarmac, but you can feel the rear axle tense as the power arrives and the dynamics of the chassis move from the front to the rear as the firm suspension loads with minimal squat and you hear the muted whoosh of the turbo huffing its hardest to generate an ounce of torque. Your eyes begin to track up the road further and further ahead, looking for that drain that sticks out and always bucks the Jimny off-line, you can see over the hedges and know its clear to take a slightly wider entry to a turn, trying to heel-toe and failing as you scrub off speed and shift down to third, before slipping the clutch to build RPM and boost before the gruff note of the diesel 4-pot buzz furiously as it spins up on the downhill from the bend. The road drops into the dip and you feel the suspension compress, the chassis flex and the engine load up for the climb out the other side. And it goes on, and on, you find an ounce of joy in each perfected shift, every corner exit where you feel the peak of the power arrive as you finally straighten the wheel and the hedges go blurry once more. It feels distinctly rewarding, those wearisome hours of "practice" paying off. You can't help but crack a grin, a grin of enjoyment behind the wheel of a diesel van.
Yes, it would be more fun in an MX-5 (the cliche) or indeed any small, light, rear-drive roadster. Something more communicative, and nimble than a giant sodding van, but surely that is what being a petrolhead is about, finding those moments of passion in those moments of dullness. That sliver of gold in the everyday mire of diesel vans. One day I will drive the A507 in something that doesn't lean like a drunkard, thrown out of a Wetherspoons, something with a throttle response like a whippet and not a fat labrador. But until that time comes, I shall enjoy hustling the big while elephant through that corridor of green.
I'm sorry if this has been a bit more wordy and ethereal than my usual utterings, normal service of quizzes and moaning will be resumed shortly.