Thursday June 7, 2018
How many of you remember this TV licensing warning from 1977 -
There is the stern voice-over from Edward Judd, the idea that watching Columbo is to be utterly condemned - and that blue-grey Commer. From the end of the 1950s until the late 1980s, you were almost guaranteed to encounter the commercial vehicle that resembled an inverted soap dish. Several diaries used them as floats, they were a ubiquitous delivery van, police forces used them as Black Marias but their primary customer was public utility bodies. In 1966 alone the GPO placed a £400,000 order for 600 Commers that were to be used by Post Office Telephones and here is a 1969 vintage detector van in all of its glory -
When the Commer FC 1500 was introduced in 1960 it was the Rootes Group alternative to the BMC J4, the BedfordCA, the Thames 400E and the Standard Atlas. Much of the running gear was familiar; the four-speed transmission was from the out-going Commer Express, and the 1,494cc engine was from the Audax-series Hillman Minx. What was new was the forward control van body plus independent front suspension and a track that was considerably narrower at the front than at the rear were notable features. There was also a choice of 16 body styles, with the brochure’s air-brushed illustrations featuring some suspiciously short passengers in an airport minibus plus the regulation jolly milkman.
One year later the Series II FC gained a 1.6-litre engine, and 1962 saw the introduction of the 2500 with upgraded suspension. By late 1965 there was a new badge of “PA 1500/2500" a 1,725cc or a Perkins 1,8 litre diesel engine and the very unusual option of automatic transmission - but the introduction of the new rival from Langley did make the Commer look faintly dated. It was not just that the Transit’s appearance seemed more indicative of the mid-1960s, it also drove better – the PA was not renowned for its handling characteristics – and it was more straightforward for both a fleet and a private operator to maintain. The Rootes van was undeniably spacious, but when faced with the prospect of using a crane to crane to extract the motor via the front passenger door it is understandable why the Ford Transit was greeted with relief in many quarters.
The Commer continued to be updated, with the 1967 PB facelift and in 1971 the De Luxe even offered a cigarette lighter and hazard warning lamps as standard. Three years later there was a new name – “Spacevan”. By the summer of 1976, the marque identity was now Dodge and the equipment list now included a water temperature gauge, electric windscreen washers and two-speed wipers. Such luxuries helped to distract from a sub 65-mph top speed.
1977 saw the range gain a new black radiator grille, but this highlighted rather than minimised that famously unglamorous appearance. However, it continued to be popular with government bodies and in 1977 Commercial Motor magazine reported on a £1.25m Post Office order for 1,185 Dodges. Nor did the Peugeot takeover of Chrysler UK in 1978 immediately bring about the demise of the Spacevan and in the following year a further 2,546 were converted for British Telecom use. Those of us of a certain age will always associate the yellow commercials with Bernard Cribbins voicing the Buzby campaign https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jwz8seTgmOM, and it was BT’s requirements that meant the final Spacevan left the production line as recently as 1983.
Few of the FC series now remain in use, and the preserved examples are a fascinating example of a commercial vehicle that spanned the generations. They were last built in an age of early home computers and home video recorders but made their bow when a new Commer mobile shop really could be marketed with the words ‘Housewives welcome the chance of shopping at their own front doors’…