Tuesday May 23, 2017
Before the Ford Transit debut, the UK’s premier light commercial was arguably the Bedford CA. When it launched in March 1952, it was the most advanced van in its class and for the next 20 years would dominate British roads. A Bedford might serve as a minibus for a thrilling school outing to the local shoe polish factory, deliver your milk in the morning and your Evening Standard on the way home from work.
Many of them served as ambulances and Carry On Nurse (one of the best of the series) opens with Fred Griffiths at the wheel of a CAZ, its bell frantically ringing. Then, for those off-duty hours, there were any number of Tonibell ice cream vans or maybe a Bedford camper for a wet weekend on the coast. Several readers will have been overtaken by a CA bakers’ or laundry van where the slide doors open so that the be-quiffed driver could issue some unofficial hand signals to other road users.
Bedford sold around 370,000 CAs over 17 years but their numbers began to markedly diminish during the latter half of the 1970s. However, in their heyday, they were the UK’s premier light commercial and you only have to look at almost any photograph of British roads during the 1950s to see how modern the CA looked in comparison with many of its contemporaries. The semi-forward control layout and independent front suspension were notable features while the three-speed steering column gear change was as easy to operate as that of any Vauxhall car. The Bedford also handled well by the standards of the day and the engine, from the E-Type Wyvern saloon, was very straightforward to maintain.
The CA was sold in van or chassis/cowl form for coachbuilders and the many and various conversions by Martin Walter of Folkestone deserve a section in their own right. The Bedford’s durability meant that it was a very popular vehicle with ambulance services across the country and a 1959 article in Commercial Motor gives an idea of what a CA had to endure – ‘Petrol engines are found to have a life of 80,000 miles and are decarbonized every 20,000 miles. Clutches and steering mechanism require replacing after 70,000 miles, brake facings after 30,000 miles, and road springs after 60,000 miles.’
Over the years, Bedford gave a facelift to the CA. The split windshield was replaced with a single pane and it now offered a choice of wheelbases, petrol or diesel engines and the option of a four-speed transmission. However, the launch of the Transit in October 1965 galvanised Luton into creating a replacement model; the story goes that management was expecting the new Ford van to be an updated version of the Thames 400E but the reality largely took them by surprise.
The CA was replaced by the CF in October 1969 and in recent years the Bedford that was ‘Britain’s best-selling Van – and no wonder!’ has achieved literary and indeed cinematic immortality thanks to Alan Bennett’s The Lady in the Van. As for my favourite Bedford memory, it must be the 1961 comedy A Weekend with Lulu. Not because this justifiably forgotten Bob Monkhouse/Leslie Phillips is a lost classic (trust me, it is not) but the opening scene does feature a CA accompanied by some exceptionally hip 1960s jazz - far out daddio!