WHEN talk comes to Ford vans these days the word Transit immediately springs to mind.
But there was most definitely vibrant van life from Ford before the birth of the Transit, as was proved by the Thames 400e which was launched in 1957 and lasted until 1965 with a total of 187,000 built.
In the mid-1950s the van market was big business and Ford was definitely not one of the front-runners.
The model on offer at the time was the old Fordson of 1938, a workhorse well past its shelf life.
So Ford decided that its van for the next generation was to be an entirely modern forward control type, utilising the thencurrent Consul four-cylinder engine on an outrigger chassis.
A wheelbase of 84 inches was agreed, which could accommodate a van body of 180 cubic feet capacity, After some discussion, independent front suspension was sanctioned.
The 400e featured a three-speed gearbox with column change and drove the marque into a new age.
The design proved amazingly versatile and was later enhanced with the option of a Perkins diesel engine and the choice of a fourth gear if desired.
From January 1963 an improved version of the 1,703cc engine was introduced for the range being uprated to 55bhp in low compression form, while for premium petrol users a high compression head was offered which gave this unit an output of 58bhp.
The model quickly met with widespread approval, and passenger transport use was soon being catered for with the availability of an 8/10 seater estate car derivative, and a 12-seat minibus based on the 15 cwt model.
The success of the estate car variant was such that it later became available in a De Luxe configuration, complete with chrome plated overriders for its front bumper, chrome side mouldings and window trims, and dual exterior mirrors.
In March 1965, when the D series trucks were introduced, all commercial vehicle models took the Ford name so the 400e then appeared with a Ford nameplate instead of Thames on the front panel.
In many ways the 400e was just as versatile as the later Transit with models being completed as milk floats, ambulances, flat trucks, mobile shops and many more configurations.
Another virtue of the vehicle was its engine size which was onsiderably larger than its contemporaries and was well suited to the considerable weight of some of the caravan conversions.
For convenience a higher roof line was needed, although some conversions used the elevating or folding extensions to minimise travelling height and cost.
In this sense the 400e was one of the pioneers of the motor caravan trend in the UK.
It remains, in my view one of the under-estimated commercials ofBritish automotive history.