Wednesday August 9, 2017
In those distant days before the introduction of the Transit in 1965, a remote time when listening to Adam Faith’s records was regarded as evidence of mild decadence, the van of choice for many a builder, grocer or jobbing gardener was the Ford Thames 400E. These were part of the British motoring landscape for around two decades but circa 1980 they seemed to vanish from the roads, and today you are more likely to see one in The Italian Job than encounter one in the metal.
And, as virtually any Ford enthusiast will tell you, the 400E represented a major step forward for Dagenham when it was launched in November 1957. The engine was the Consul’s 1,703cc unit, which meant a very reasonable top speed by light commercial standards and the transmission was a three-speed box with a column lever and synchromesh on second and top gears. The front suspension was via coil springs and there was a ‘forward control’ driving position, although the 400E’s engine compartment occupied rather a lot of space. This also meant that the new Thames was not the quietest of vehicles but at least you might not have to specify the optional heater, such was the warmth that the power plant generated. The Thames was also fitted with the dreaded vacuum-operated windscreen wipers that also afflicted British Ford cars of that era.
But these were minor details in a van with styling overtones of the US Ford Econoline, as the 400E looked as contemporary as a new concrete and glass shopping precinct. ‘Towards quicker profits’ claimed the brochures and for any business wishing to promote themselves as an up-to-the-minute organisation, a new Thames was the ideal option and 400E delivery vans were used by Whitbread, HMV, Weetabix and Rank Xerox to name but a few organisations. The Thames boasted an excellent turning circle, which was a major advantage in urban traffic or making deliveries in narrow streets.
As the 400E was based on a ladder chassis this made it the ideal base for any number of specialist conversions, from gown vans and mobile shops to fire appliances and ice cream van. Herbert Lomas bodied ambulances served with the armed forces while Martin Walter offered a variety of mini buses. The ‘Utilabrake Farmer’s Model’ had ‘2 longitudinal wooden seats with PVC backrests’, practical if not exactly the last word in comfort, while the ‘Utilabus PSV’ had a heater and a first aid kit as standard. And for holidays, there was any number of motor caravan conversions; indeed, a 400E camper still appears completely at home in Swanage.
1962 saw the option of the four-speed gearbox from the new Zephyr Mk. III and the last 400Es lost their Thames badges just prior to their replacement by the Transit in October 1965. As compared with its famous – iconic – successor, the 400E enjoys a far lower profile and the survival rate of the 187,000 units is very low but it was as important to the history of Ford GB as the Zodiac Mk. II or the Anglia 105E. As the publicity put it - ‘Just think how good YOUR trading title would look on that sleek, shining side panel!’