WEEKLY CAR DIARY – FORD GETAWAY VANS

A job for Friday driving Jaguars was cancelled at the last minute which meant this week was Ford Van Week (as officially designated by me):-
Tuesday: Ford Transit, Corby, Northamptonshire to Croydon, Surrey
Wednesday: Ford Transit Custom, Thurleigh, Bedfordshire to somewhere near the end of the runway at London Heathrow Airport
So what’s the difference between a plain “Transit” and a “Transit Custom”? Well, we all know what a Ford Transit is, don’t we? It started life as a getaway vehicle for villains in TV’s The Sweeney *. Careering around wasteland pursued by Detective Inspector Jack Regan and Detective Sergeant George Carter in their Ford Consul GT, the dim-witted thieves would finally pile out of their Mark 1 Transit once they realised they had driven into a dead end. There ensued the inevitable punch up because, of course, British police traditionally don’t carry guns. By the way, what’s the difference between a British police officer and an American one?:-
American cop (unholstering his impressive weapon and loosing off several rounds): BANG, BANG, BANG! Pause. “Stop or I’ll shoot”.
British bobby: “STOP!” Pause. “Or I’ll, erm, er, … say stop again … and blow my whistle.”
Regan and Carter
“Guv’nor, I ffought we wasn’t meant to ‘ave guns.” “Shut it George, they’re water pistols.” Ahem, just to prove me wrong…… Regan (l) and Carter (r) carrying what look strangely like guns. Actually, in 1975, clause 254, subparagraph e of Flying Squad regulations allowed guns to be carried on alternate Shrove Tuesdays. Jack and George were off to have pancakes after this shoot. Film shoot, that is.

Transit Mk 1
The Mark 1 Ford Transit. Loved by builders, plumbers, fledgling rock bands and TV bank robbers alike…

Sweeney Ford Consul
… and frequently pursued by Regan and Carter’s Ford Consul 3000 GT. On wasteland, you’ll note. Iconic shot from The Sweeney’s opening title sequence.
Actually, British police haven’t always had to resort to politely asking criminals to stop. Back in the day, the chain smoking, beer swilling police officers of the Flying Squad (for which the Cockney rhyming slang is Sweeney Todd, hence “The Sweeney”) could outrun and catch any criminal fleeing from a battered Transit van. All criminals were obviously either club-footed or chronically asthmatic (or both) in 1970’s London. Then, DI Regan and DS Carter would simply wade in and beat the living daylights out of the unfortunate villains who were left wondering why they hadn’t been given a Mk. II Jag like the baddies in the previous episode. Any complaints by the villains about excessively violent treatment would be met with a growled “Shut it” from Jack Regan and that was the end of the matter – no Police Complaints Commission in those days. The criminals were then carted off to the nearest barber’s shop to be chopped up and reappear on the streets of London as meat pies.

So that’s the Ford Transit, produced in successive, similarly sized iterations ever since it was road tested by TV villains. Until now that is. What most of us think of as a Ford Transit is now the “Ford Transit Custom“. And a plain “Ford Transit” is now a Very Big Thing. To add to the confusion, there are two more types of Transit van: the teeny tiny, Transit Courier (Fiesta sized) and the lower middle order Transit Connect (Citroen Berlingo/Fiat Doblo competitor but with a less stupid name). I have delivered many Transit Connects with the first few masquerading as Star Wars X-wing fighters. In fact, the two vehicles I have driven the most since starting this driving work are probably the Transit Connect and the Bentley Continental GT. How bizarre is that? OK, well I think it’s bizarre.
For the record (I’m sure you’re all really interested), my favourite Transit is the plain Ford Transit. Which, in case I have confused you, is the Very Big Thing. Why? Because it has a much more settled ride than the Custom and it’s BIG. Love it. You get that real King of the Road feeling and a craving for Yorkie bars. The traditionally sized Transit Custom still has a proper van driving position and is quiet and refined but does pitch and buck quite a lot on anything other than smooth tarmac. The Transit Connect is absolutely fine to drive and is more like a large car but that’s its downfall in my eyes – if I’m going to drive a van I want it to have that commanding, high up driving position which I also happen to find very comfortable (more comfortable than any car). I never driven the smallest Transit Courier but I’m sure I would still prefer its biggest brother.
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Tuesday’s Very Big Thing. This is the plain “Ford Transit”. It’s a Transit, Jim, but not as we know it.
One last word: we used to own a Transit. For eight years. And it too was a getaway vehicle of sorts. This was the camper van we bought after our VW-based Autosleeper Trident camper with its exploding toilet was stolen. It was a traditional sized Transit (a Transit was a Transit in 2004) and served us extremely well. But since I rambled on about motor caravans and camper vans in my last post, I’ll probably bore you with our adventures in the Transit another time.
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Our Transit camper van on a beautiful beach in Ireland in 2004. In the height of Summer. Bit crowded, isn’t it?! The Transit was very much our getaway vehicle.
Colin
* The Sweeney was a ground breaking, hard-edged British police television series made between 1975 and 1978 starring John Thaw as Detective Inspector Jack Regan and Dennis Waterman as Detective Sergeant George Carter. Fortunately, the opening music had no words so Dennis Waterman couldn’t sing the theme tune (a later speciality of his). John Thaw went on to star as the much more cultured, classical music loving Inspector Morse. In reality (something I touch on occasionally), the Mark 1 Transit was born ten years before the first episode of The Sweeney.
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NEW MOTORHOMES & OLD CAMPER VANS

In addition to my trip to the moon (which is in Cornwall by the way), I had another grand day out last week but I wasn’t paid for this other one. My wife and I ventured forth to the Motorhome & Caravan Show at the National Exhibition Centre, Birmingham. Still nostalgic about the two motor caravans we owned over a period of twelve years (but not so fussed about exploding toilets), we are beginning to yearn for another motorised home on wheels. So off to the NEC we went to see what we couldn’t afford (just about everything there!). What an amazing sea of wheeled white boxes confronted us in the NEC’s massive halls. White boxes (with some colourful exceptions) of every size and price – every price, that is, above about £40,000! It’s a fairly safe bet we won’t buy brand new but it was good going to the show to see how things have moved on since we bought our last van in 2004. Also, it was just plain good fun jumping into, and having a nose around, all the different motor caravans on offer. A bit like going to a show home on a new housing development, even if you have no intention of buying. Admit it, I bet many of you have done that … or been tempted at least.

In addition to all the shiny new white stuff, there was a corner dedicated to shiny old Volkswagen campers. Thought they would provide a more interesting pictorial enhancement to this post than the modern vans. The white and green VW (above) was of particular interest. Externally, it was identical to the split windscreen camper my family had when I was a kid – it was even the same year (1967). However, ours had an elevating roof and the cooker was attached to the inside of one of the side doors. Compared to a modern day motor caravan, our old “splittie” was primitive; no fridge, heater, toilet or shower, just the cooker, a tiny sink with hand-pumped cold water and four beds (two of those in the rising roof). Our van had a party trick though. A fan mounted on the ceiling of the cab blew air into the rear of the van when travelling – together with clouds of small black flies. It was years before I realised that baguettes were not the French equivalent of currant buns. Yet this trundling tin can (1500cc and about 50hp) supported a family of four on a two week adventure through France to Spain and back, not once but twice in the early seventies. One of those summer escapades included a trip over the Pyrenees via the little principality of Andorra. Quite scary. The van had many other practical uses too, like transporting half the Cub Scout football team. Had we had two vans my Cub team would have beaten the Brownies more often; five of us against eleven of the little brown devils just wasn’t fair. There  were other holidays in the UK too and numerous weekends away until the arrival of a little brother prompted the sale of the camper van (we called it a camping car back then) and the purchase of a large frame tent. Not quite the same.

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And what sort of motor caravan are we interested in now? One thing we have decided is that any new purchase will be bigger than our two old vans (both four berth vans less than 4.9m in length) because we need extra comfort now we are the wrong side of fifty. But we would still want something relatively compact (less than 6m). Beyond that, things get a bit uncertain. Do we want a coachbuilt (original van cab with bigger fibreglass body grafted on the back, more space) or another van conversion (a van with its original metal body, narrower than a coachbuilt which would aid manoeuvring and driving, particularly on narrow country roads)? How many belted travel seats would we want? How many berths do we need (our son is beyond family holidays now, not too sure about our daughter)? Would we feel obliged to give a naff, cutesy name? Could we keep it on our driveway or would it be more sensible to store it at the local farm when not in use? Could we marry off our daughter? All these questions and more….. At the end of our trip to the enormous NEC show, one white box began to look much like another but we came away with a few ideas. Any purchase is not likely to occur until next year but you will be sure to hear about it if we do take the plunge!

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Colin

RED WARTS KILL ENGLISH FURRY TOADS (… OR CAMPING IN THE COTSWOLDS)

Last weekend, we went camping in the Cotswolds – under canvas as we don’t have a camper van or an exploding toilet these days. We were joined by some very old friends (meaning we have known them a very long time, not that they are totally ancient) and a very cute four-legged mop with a death wish. Chewing through a mains hook-up cable is a potentially quick route to a shocking end but you will be pleased to know that Harley the Cockapoo’s misdemeanour was spotted in the nick of time.

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“Wot me? Wasn’t me. Honest.” Harley the Cockapoo

The venue for the weekend was a field behind the Greedy Goose pub in Oxfordshire, about five miles from Moreton-in-Marsh. First impressions were not great. A row of dilapidated, algae-covered caravans down one edge of the field, no hot water in the toilets (which were the pub’s main loos) and only two showers which opened directly onto the pub’s car park (but just so there’s no misunderstanding, there was a door to each shower). Add to that, the sky was a threatening shade of battleship and we just managed to get our tent up before a depressing drizzle set in. Our two lots of friends were not so lucky and there was no let up in the drizzle for most of the evening.

So, all a bit of a disaster then? No, not a bit of it – we had a brilliant time with loads of laughs. We spent the drizzly Friday evening in the pub (which we had planned to do anyway) having a very good meal and after that, the weather got better and better. Despite the limited facilities, the campsite was absolutely fine; we had a good space to put our three tents in a circle triangle cosy sort of three sided square with one of the campsite’s wooden picnic tables in the middle. Plus it was dirt cheap – £10 a night for the two of us with electricity (despite Harley’s best efforts)! None of us bothered having a shower, instead we relied on the smoke from Saturday evening’s barbecue to mask anything unpleasant and as we all smelt the same anyway, who cares? In any event, there was actually only one operational shower because nobody wanted to share the other one with the resident family of house martins nesting in one corner of the ceiling. I knew they were house martins by their distinctive song which you could hear at precisely 6pm as you walked to the pub: “##It’s ha-ppy hour again … I think I might be happy if I wasn’t out with them ….##”. *

The lesson here is that company is far more important than your surroundings. We had just as much fun on this basic campsite as we would have done on a five-star site or even in a five-star hotel (where making your own bacon and fried egg sandwiches and dribbling yolk down the inside of your sleeve may be frowned upon). In the evenings, as well as catching up on news and sharing remarkable facts about Sandi Toksvig and flatulence, a few silly games were played, one of which involved coming up with random/bizarre/silly newspaper headlines** (“red warts” and “furry toads” may have cropped up here). Also, being in the countryside away from any light pollution, we were able to spot shooting stars as the Perseid meteor shower peaked on Saturday night.

During the day on Saturday, we visited Batsford Aboretum and Chastleton House and Garden, both within a short drive of the campsite. Batsford Arboretum is a sloping expanse covered in trees (obviously!) and paths with some ornamental landscaping thrown in. It is part of a large estate (the long straight drive up to the Arboretum is a clue) and there is still a grand old house there but this is private. The Arboretum is a pleasant and calm place to wander and there is a large garden centre and café/restaurant too.

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Batsford Arboretum and ……
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…. more Batsford

Chastleton House (National Trust) is fascinating. A Jacobean country house in typical honey-coloured Cotswold stone, complete with church and gardens, nestling in a secluded spot in the Oxfordshire countryside. The house was built between 1607 and 1612 by a wealthy wool merchant. The family became increasingly impoverished over the centuries so it has remained largely unchanged, unlike a lot of stately homes which were often enlarged and improved with the times. When the National Trust took it over, they decided to preserve it (warts, cracks, cobwebs and all) rather than restore it. Charming, picturesque and, inside, it has a real sense of age. You can even enjoy tea and cake in the graveyard; we did.

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Chastleton House
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A peaceful corner at Chastleton aka my attempt at an arty door photo. Why do doors make an interesting subject for photos? Discuss.
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Never seen melted topiary before. Looks like Chastleton may have had a visit from Salvador Dali.
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Doves were obviously much bigger in the 1600s. Judging by the size of Chastleton’s dovecote, they must have been about the size of turkeys.

Colin

* I actually have no idea whether or not they were house martins but it’s entirely plausible. Anyway, there was never a pop group called The Swallows or The Swifts who had a hit called “Happy Hour”, so house martins it is.

** The Headline Game. Give everyone a pen and a bit of paper, come up with six letters at random (we used a random letter sequence generator on a smart phone) and then everyone has to think of a six word newspaper headline using the random six letters as the first letter of each word (and in the order the six letters were chosen). Obviously, the sillier the headline the better (especially after a glass of wine) unless you consider yourself a mature person in which case this game (and probably a large portion of my blog) may not be for you. So, the letters SFTGBS are chosen: “Scottish Fish Take Balmoral Guards By Surprise” or maybe BPBHFE: “Brighton Promoted, Blackpool Have Flasher Ejected”. With reference to the title of this post, you have probably guessed that one six letter combination we had was RWKEFT. When everyone has come up with a headline, you read them out in turn, hopefully have a good giggle and then choose another six letter combination and do it all over again. For each round, you can even choose categories, e.g. celebrities, current affairs, sport, animals. Have fun.

CAMPER VAN MEMORIES AND EXPLODING TOILETS

Back in May, I eulogised about the VW Transporter Kombi and finished with the question, is the VW Transporter Kombi the ultimate family transport? Well, in my experience…… not quite. You see from 1999 to 2004, we owned a VW camper van – a 1995 Autosleeper Trident based on a VW Transporter T4 (the current generation Transporter is the T6). This is another reason why I have come to enjoy driving vans so much. It has been interesting comparing modern T6s (of which I have now driven a few) and our old T4. With its non-turbo, 2.4 litre five cylinder diesel engine and a mighty 78hp, our old van was on the slow side and noise levels meant that travelling at anything over 60mph (100kph) was a trial. The modern VW Transporter is a dream by comparison. The purchase of our camper van was the fulfilment of an ambition fuelled by my fond childhood memories of French holidays in the van my parents bought in the late 1960’s. A classic 1967 VW Type 2 split screen camper with green lower bodywork and off-white above. What would that be worth today??! It was a Canterbury-Pitt conversion for those interested.
When we first bought our Autosleeper Trident in October 1999, our two kids were about 3 years old and 18 months old and we soon found out that, for a family with young children, the benefits of a camper van were many. A VW Transporter is not much bigger than a large MPV so it can be used as a normal car every day of the week. However, on days out a camper van becomes a civilised changing room (for nappies as well as clothes!), wash room, café, toilet and of course, bedroom. The versatility doesn’t end there. When you can no longer avoid doing those jobs around the house and garden, there is plenty of space for junk to go to the tip or for purchases from the DIY store or, worse still, IKEA.
Van May 2002
Our Autosleeper Trident. Somewhere in Suffolk in 2002.
Over the four summers we had it, our van took us on a tour around Devon and Cornwall, to the French Alps, to Cornwall again(!) and then to the mountains of northern Spain (via the two-night ferry crossing from Portsmouth to Bilbao) and back through the length of France. In addition, there were numerous cheap weekends away including our very first night camping in the van in … Sandringham (so, it was a truly nostalgic return in June this year). The beauty of a camper van holiday is that you can do as much or as little preparation and research as you like before you go. For a foreign holiday, just book the ferry or simply turn up at the Channel Tunnel and off you go (but don’t forget travel and breakdown insurance and any necessary legal requirements for motoring abroad!). If you wish, you can make up or change your itinerary as you go. If you come across a place you really like – well, just stay a few nights and enjoy it. Freedom is the word that springs to mind.
Van July 2001
France 2001 returning from northern Spain
The disadvantages of a camper van are very few but we (or rather my wife) did discover one hazard of having a mobile toilet. If anyone is familiar with Porta-Potties they will know that the waste is contained in a sealed (and airtight) tank which forms the bottom half of the toilet. On our summer holiday in the French Alps, we had descended from a lofty summit when one child decided they needed to avail themselves of our portable convenience quite urgently. No problem. We just pulled over in a lay-by and my wife sat small child on the Porta-Potti. Once finished, the product of this call of nature sat on the sliding lid of the waste tank. In accordance with Porta-Potti protocol, my wife started to open this lid …. suddenly there was a loud “PHHSHHHT” from the toilet followed by a loud “URRGH!” from my wife…… Now, I know I really should not have laughed (nor indeed failed to have recovered from my helpless convulsions in order to help clear up the mess) but only the most serious-minded, cheerless soul would deny that an exploding toilet and a faceful of wee (provided it’s someone else’s face) is pure comedy gold. Of course, we had used the Porta-Potti (and closed the airtight waste tank) some time earlier at the top of the mountain where the air pressure is lower. Now, down in the valley, where the air pressure was greater …. well, let’s not get too scientific.
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These happen to be Spanish mountains (the Picos de Europa) but be careful with your Porta-Potti whichever mountain range you explore! Our van is amongst the trees.
In addition to all the pleasure (and laughs) we got from our van, there was also another benefit. In terms of overall cost, it was the cheapest vehicle we have ever owned. Insurance was cheap (through specialist motor caravan insurers), fuel consumption was comparable to a petrol-engined family car at the time and servicing costs were similar to a car. And the biggest cost of owning a motor vehicle – depreciation – was spectacularly good because these vehicles hold their value really well (especially the combination of a VW base vehicle and conversion by a top converter such as Autosleeper). Sadly, our van was stolen off our driveway and never recovered but the payout we received from the insurance company meant that depreciation cost us less then £500 a year. Even in 2004, that was not bad for all that fun and cheap holidays!
Happily, that was not the end of our camper van ownership. The VW was replaced by a Ford Transit-based camper which we managed to keep hold of for eight years.
Colin