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See Homepage. This page: A site visitor recalls his experiences of vans in the 1960s.

Memories of British vans.

My thanks to Alvis-enthusiast Nick Simpson for the following wonderful memories of the vans he encountered, while at work in the 1960s. Many now-classic vans such as the Morris PV and J2, plus the Ford E83W, receive a mention in what is a very interesting read.

Reminiscences of light delivery vans fifty years ago; the early 1960s..

At this time I worked in the transport departments of two large firms of launderers and dry-cleaners in Yorkshire. They were growing businesses and they covered some very rural areas. We took over a number of firms in that period, and as a result we sometimes 'inherited' vans that we would not normally purchase for the standard fleet. Depending on age and condition, they were retained for a year or so as they were liveried for their regular customers.
In one accession we got four old Morris PVs dating back to the 1940s - they were tough, basic austerity jobs and un-burstable too although they always carried extra water as the cooling systems overheated on long hills when fully loaded. It was the timber frames of the bodies that started moving at the joints that finished them in the end - it sometimes required one of the van boys to push on the top at the rear sides with a broom to square-up the back doors' aperture so the doors would close; you were in deep trouble if it happened out in the middle of nowhere with no one to assist - the experienced PV drivers always carried a ball of twine. In the workshops we fitted the back doors with supplementary door-bolts top and bottom added to the push/pull rods to try to keep them closed as the vehicle swayed on corners.
A sudden traffic-stop in summertime in a PV, with the heavy sliding cab doors open and unsecured when making hand signals (no direction indicators), was a sure formula for a badly bruised arm or worse. It was rumoured that long-term drivers of Morris PVs could be identified by a 'flat' on each side of their right arm! The Works nurse gave short-shrift and had no sympathy for anyone who came to her for that injury as the doors were equipped with security catches! It was inadvisable to leave the driver's door fastened back in city traffic, because on parcel collection duties some of the load could be jettisoned through the open front door in an emergency stop situation and, boy, didn't you look an idiot re-loading soiled laundry? If you were unlucky and both doors were open, the deluge could exit from both sides and really stop the traffic; the bundles could burst open and red-faced, one had to endure the ribald comments of the waiting drivers and hoping the Bobby didn't appear and have you for an insecure load. The Morris PVs were good, reliable vehicles and with the correct ignition timing, could be persuaded to 50 mph but the din was unbelievable!
We had two Ford E83Ws, one with what was known at the time as a 'Gown' body that I seem to remember being panelled with fibre-board. This was a one-off coach-built extra tall vehicle with a large 'Luton' top at the front, and front to back hanging rails for full length garments on hangers; the body was constructed on the chassis/cab version. This was an oddball vehicle in the fleet, seriously under-braked, over-bodied and under-powered and I'm sorry to say no-one liked that particular poor old Thames although its little ten-horse engine was thrashed mercilessly uphill and down dale without complaint.
Ford E83W van
Examples of Ford E83W van.
One day a driver overdid-it downhill; a harmonic couple was generated that developed into an unrecoverable shimmy and it flung itself on its side onto a snowy pavement by the Quarry Hill flats in Leeds, sliding into a very large cast iron ex-tramcar lamp post. The entire vehicle was unpicked leaving the bemused and unhurt driver sat in the middle of a pile of clothing and body panels.
The E83W engines were absolutely un-burstable and took no end of punishment; they lasted about 24000 miles by which time they smoked, used oil and crankcase back-pressure blew open the oil filler-cap causing nasty smelt fumes. The pistons/rings/bores were always worn and we never wasted time stripping them - we whipped the units out and fitted Ford factory exchange reconditioned engines (I think they were about Thirty Quid at the time!). We had competitions and could remove one of those motors in 20 minutes or so and another 50 minutes would have the replacement in and running provided there were no other issues. Another E83W had the standard factory metal body and that drove much better although it rusted away at an amazing rate.
Vans were rarely supplied with passenger seats in those days - the fixed extra seat was an expensive extra and not tolerated, so the van-boys had to ride on a box with a cushion. (This was before seat belts were even thought of). The E83W engine and transmission was offset towards the left side enabling the driving position to be placed further forward, cleverly increasing the payload. Two curiosities resulted from this design; the starting handle aperture was offset in the radiator grille and there was a reduced footwell for a passenger's feet on the left side. It was said that there were left steering models for the export market where the offset rear axle was simply fitted upside-down and the engine moved to the right? Seems unlikely although I remember on one vehicle that was in for an accident repair; the only replacement radiator grille we could get quickly was supplied with two starting handle apertures, one each side of the centre bar!
The Morris PVs were replaced with Morris LDs and they were superior with a better performance, better handling and, luck of the gods - a heater! The bodies still had some wood parts but they were improved considerably. We inherited a couple of Morris J2s - they were OK and easy to use, but the four-speed column gear-changes were terrible for an inexperienced driver; it was too easy to select reverse when 'singling-it' into first to hold it on the clutch at a traffic light on a hill; if reverse had accidentally been selected, one had to be lightning-quick on the brakes to avoid a power reverse into a vehicle behind! I was assisting one of our drivers one evening and while doing a three-point turn, he 'missed' his first gear and rolled back to rest against a concrete lamp post that had been well-rotted by the street dogs. The lamp keeled over slowly but surely, retarded by the concrete reinforcing rods; the illuminated top part went through the bedroom window of the house behind and a burly and very angry shift-worker appeared at the window in the altogether - he took a bit of placating.
Morris LD van
Example of a Morris LD van.
The J2s were very hardy and long-lived - we converted one with a proprietary floor gear change that ran alongside the engine cover inside - a huge improvement - almost like a racing change with the lever just under the steering wheel rim, but even that became a bit vague after a while because the mechanism still had to use the Austin external column-change links on the side of the 'box. The nicest BMCs at that time were the little J4s that came later - like driving a car with comfortable front suspension, a cracking heater, proper floor gear change - only problem with them was the front springs sagged and shockers wore quite rapidly, so they would bounce up and down at stops and almost tip on their noses in a hard stop situation when empty.
Sometime about 1962/3 we moved to Ford 400E Thames forward control vans with three speed column gear changes. They used a version of the Consul engine. They seemed to be the first vans designed with driver appeal in mind; access in and out was good without sliding doors and the gear change was excellent for its type and they were really quick vehicles provided the ignition advance was working properly, otherwise they could be sluggards; a common fault with them. They were all-steel, with no back door issues and we always had them with the extra side-loading door - so easy to use. They were a bit light at the back and would rotate rather easily in bad conditions if you had too much throttle on. All makes of column-change vans developed noisy first gears as they were only equipped with synchromesh on the upper ratios and the drivers tended to bang them into first with a crunch in spite of the facility to use the synchromesh of second or third to stop the box before engagement.
Then we took over a firm with split-screen Volkswagen vans - they were excellent, comfortable and so much more refined and fun to drive - not to do with speed, they were not at all fast - it was to do with the smoothness, driving position and silence with the engine behind the load. In the workshop we could get the motor out of one of those in about half an hour at overhaul time with clever use of the workshop lift and a trolley jack, for which we made-up an adaptor to fit the motor snugly and it wheeled out from underneath.
We inherited a Standard 10hp(?) Van from somewhere - there was no radiator grille - just a huge, open air-intake at the front; sometimes it would stick in reverse gear - the less said, the better about that one - it was past its best and was soon moved on. We got a big contract at an American air base for laundering airman's 'fatigues', a sort of working khaki uniform. The loads were very heavy and we added two much larger Commers; BF or Superpoises? not sure if that was the right name - this would be 1963 or 4 - our first diesel vehicles - they were terribly slow starters from cold in northern winters; holding the heater plugs on we sometimes cranked them over for up to ten minutes before they fired up in massive clouds of white smoke. They were of all-steel construction and were very hardy and economical on fuel, although the engine noise and rattles were awful when running with no load. The slightly smaller petrol-engined versions were nicer to drive - I think they had a version of the Humber Hawk engine - very smooth and happy to drive.
Then we had a couple of Commer (PB?) with the rounded fronts - they were not bad, but the 400E Ford was always the faster vehicle and the favourite of the drivers. The last fleet accessions before I moved on were Commer Walk-Thrus - the roundsmen liked them for the easy access with an armful of stuff - I don't remember driving them - maybe the same mechanics as the Superpoises?
Best regards, Nick Simpson.
What a fantastic write-up, thanks for that Nick. Many more experiences of vans and cars in years gone by can be found in the Motoring Memories section. If you have similar tales to tell, please get in touch.

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