Someone with a sense of humour keeps souping up Ford's Transits. So, why aren't they for sale yet?
Why aren’t hot vans as common as muck, like lampposts or Fiat 500s with ‘powered by fairydust’ stickers on the boot? No, really. Especially Ford hot vans. Think about it: the Blue Oval has perpetually done a fine line in go-faster shopping cars, and the Transit is Britain’s most-bought van. Like the word ‘hoover’ or ‘Sellotape’ it’s pretty much interchangeable with the product itself. And anyone who’s even witnessed one rapidly filling their rear-view mirror will attest that they’re very often in a rush.
Words: Ollie Kew / Photography: Oli Tennant
I guess it’s because with a modern diesel engine, a Ford Transit is quick enough to intimidate most civilian vehicles out of its way, and it costs the self-employed tradesman-about-town pennies to run. Today, let’s visit a parallel universe. One where the performance car was not spliced with the humble family run-around to create the hot hatchback. What if the Golf GTI had never been invented? And instead, the go-to quick useful box-on-wheels was… a van. With loads of power.
Ford’s in the process of cooking up a new take on the recipe: a Transit Courier powered by the 200hp three-cylinder rocket from the stellar Fiesta ST. Today it’s been covertly transported to Ford’s top secret test track in Basildon, Essex, just off the A127. If you pass McDonalds on your left, you’ve gone too far.
TG has been granted exclusive access to the compound for a fact-finding mission. Our objective is to discover if the ‘Transit ST’ is worthy of bona fide Fast Ford status. But we need a mood board. Some four-wheeled context. And that comes in the form of Ford’s previous attempts to bestow the ‘performance commercial vehicle’ on the world.
Before we get to those, resplendent in look-at-me liveries, I’ll just move this humdrum Transit Connect carelessly left on the test circuit and g-o-o-o-d LORD that’s fast. This grey example on its suspiciously tarty snowflake-ish wheels is in fact powered by the heart of the old Focus ST. That means it has a 2.0-litre turbocharged engine with 247bhp, which was enough to make the last hot Focus more unruly than a toddler who’d been force-fed M&Ms and espresso. It was a torque-steering, turbo-lagging, hard-drinking lout of a car. Fun for a blast, but getting it to behave on a back road was like politely asking the well-oiled football fan seated in front if they wouldn’t mind watching their language ever so slightly.
Clearly, what Ford should have done from the outset was make a Transit Connect ST instead. Because this thing is a doddle. There’s almost no grabbing or wriggling of the steering wheel as the turbo comes online, and when it’s boosting hard and the clever engine noise boombox is doing its best impression of the old five-cylinder Focus ST, this thing’s properly warbly. And quick. Deeply fast. Smart gearchange too, and there hasn’t been a carbon gearknob as tasteful as this one since the optional one in the Porsche Carrera GT. A great start then. Vans can be just as quick and even more precise than a hot hatchback.
Let’s trip back in time to 2004 now. A world before YouTube, a world where ‘twitter’ was a noise that birds made. Ford had, the year previous, finished production of one of the most outrageous hot hatchbacks of the new millennium: the mk1 Focus RS.
What a car. Only available in blue. Vastly re-engineered from the (brilliant) standard Focus. Good for 212bhp, 229lb ft, and so fighty on a badly surfaced road it’d dislocate both your shoulders if the tyre pressures were a fraction out of whack. One of the most handsome hot hatches ever made, and inside, one of the least tasteful.
And you can see where this is going, can’t you. The ‘what if we…’ itch needed scratching at Ford, and what they came up with was a combination of Ford’s baddest hot hatch and its smallest van. The Transit X-press. Mmm, just admire the mid-Noughtiesness of those graphics.
What makes this one-off special is the quality of the fit and finish. The attention to detail is Pagani spec – if Pagani had a budget of a tenner and only Microsoft ClipArt to work with.
Still, fifteen years ago we were more innocent. We drooled at fully flocked dashboards, fawned over bare metal steering wheels with red nitrous buttons (only kidding, that’s the horn) and the idea of white leather Recaro bucket seats mounted high enough to require an oxygen supply filled a teenage boy’s tortured dreams. This isn’t a van. It’s a character from TOWIE, with a gear lever.
So, it’s a touch gaudy, but it’s a heck of a sleeper to drive. It barely makes any noise to signal the intent. Twist the normal key, prod the green starter button and there’s… almost no sound at all. The gearchange is a touch baulky. So off you go, in first gear, and very little happens. At some point, the boost gauge will wake up, there’ll be a distant hiss from the turbo, and the X-Press rushes forward like a giant electromagnet’s just been switched on ahead of it. It’s uncanny. No real drama, no sign of impending speed, then bang – you’re somewhere else, instantly. Wheelspin and torque-steer aren’t an issue. So there we are. A souped-up van can be not just rapid and well-mannered, but east to drive and subtle. So long as you avoid white leather seats.
Armed with these findings, I’m prepared to sample what Ford reckons a modern, 2019-spec Transit ST should be, but the top secret facility just off the A127 has one more version to profer. The maddest, baddest, most dangerous-to-know van ever made. Yes, the actual Supervan is here.
This thing started out life in the 1980s as a seven-eighths scale fibreglass replica of a Transit with a Formula One V8 in the back. Since then it’s been tweaked visually to look like the Mk3 Transit, and having grown tired of karting out a full F1 team every time they wanted to start their oddball toy, Ford swapped the engine. It’s now running a supercharged 2.9-litre V6 from a Ford prototype racecar. Good for about 300bhp, it drives the rear tyres through a five-speed Hewland racing gearbox, has about eight ounces of weight to shift, and is the loudest thing on Earth. “You’ll need earplugs,” Trevor told me. Trevor’s a Ford stalwart and keeps Supervan running.
“FEAR SLUGS? NO, THEY’RE HARMLESS”
The only thing it shares with a 1990-ish Transit are the headlights, but don’t imagine Ford slung the driver in as low as they did the engine. The two bucket seats live right in the middle of the cabin, with pedals up on a shelf by your knees and the steering wheel bullying its way into the middle of the room. On the dash, no radio, no red-top newspaper. Just switches for the ignition, the low and high-pressure fuel pumps, and then the starter-button that wakes the dead.
This van is not like the others. It’s a psychopath. I’ve driven cars before that I’ve chickened out of accelerating in because they’re too fast, or have so little traction, But this is the first thing I’ve driven that I’ve bottled pressing the gas because it’s just too. Damn. LOUD. The V6 BRRRRAAAAP is sharp and rude and interferes with vital organs. Ford’s done well to keep this thing running all these years – it should have shouted itself into a heap of bits decades ago.
Yes, I did regret wearing that jumper. Sweated so much it’s only fit for an action figure now.
Supervan 3 is a madman. Get used to the engine cackle and there’s the sheer speed to contend with – this thing is fast. BMW M3-fast, but with the added complication of changing gear with knife-edge precision while hunched into a laid-back rugby scrum contortion. The brake pedal is the full racecar special – it’s totally solid, and needs proper meat-head pressure to rein the bloody thing in.
The steering kicks back furiously. The whole chassis bounces over the test track’s shifting concrete sections. Yes, I did regret wearing that jumper. Sweated so much it’s only fit for an action figure now.
Lesson learned. Yes, it is possible to make a passable sporting van. It’s also possible to make a van into a racing car, or a racing car that’s got all the drawbacks of a van and none of the practicality. I’m glad – honoured – to have driven or should that be ‘survived’ Supervan 3, but honestly, never, ever again. But I’m still convinced Ford’s onto something with the ST-powered commercial vehicle plot. Time to see what a brand new rocket-van is like. Just as soon as my ears have stopped bleeding.