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A spotter's guide to the Ford Transit

About the author

Chris Pollitt is an award-winning automotive word-wrangler, editor of the website Not 2 Grand and a keen collector of crappy old cars.

A spotter's guide to the Ford Transit

The Ford Transit is the van that changed the world. Before it, vans were slow, they could carry very little weight and they were horrid to drive. The Transit, however, had none of those traits. It was positively fast, it could carry massive amounts of weight and it was a joy to drive.

Plus, Ford made it available in literally millions of different configurations of the years, meaning there has and always will be a Transit suited to any job. This is the king of vans, the daddy, the – as Ford quite rightly says – backbone of Britain. 

Introduced in 1965, the Transit has gone through five generations with the occasional facelift thrown in for good measure. Here’s everything you need to know to be able to spot which one is which.

The Mk1 Transit

The Mk1 Transit 

Built from 1965 to 1977

The first Transit took over from the slow, clattery, mid-engined 400E and by comparison it was something of a rocket ship. That was thanks to the 1.7 or 2.0 V4 engine fitted in most models (though a Perkins diesel was available along with a 3.0 V6 petrol too).

The first Transit also borrowed a lot of its mechanical components from Ford’s car range of the time. And in turn, the Transit drove like a one, making it a refreshing and obvious choice over rival vans.

Then of course there were the body options: long wheelbase, short wheelbase, high top, tipper, chassis, the Transit could be anything!

To spot one, you’re looking for very American styling. Obviously, you’re looking for that familiar van shape, but it’s details like the framed, round headlights in peaked wings and the front of the nose, the tall, thin rear lights, round front indicators and chrome on the bumpers and light surrounds that show you it’s a Mk1. 

Transit fact: The Mk1 drove so well it was a favoured getaway van for criminals. They could bag the loot AND outrun the Police in a 3.0 V6 Transit! 

The Mk2 Transit

The Mk2 Transit

Built from 1977 to 1986

The Mk2 was internally known as the transit 1978 ½, but to you and me it’s the Mk2. The body remained largely the same, as did the mechanicals underneath.

However, the engines changed, with the most notable shift being to the Pinto petrol engine, again, taken from the car line-up of the time. It was a tough engine and came fitted to the Transit in 1.6 and 2.0 guise. And if you’re wondering how tough, the 2.0 would go on to be the foundation of the mighty Cosworth YBT. 

The looks also changed, but mostly up-front. The stylised American look was binned in favour of a more rounded design, the lights, indicators and grille becoming one unit.

Early models had round headlights within the new plastic face, while later models had square items. The interior changed, too, becoming more functional and plastic, making it more hard-wearing for the man on the move. 

Transit fact: There was a line of very special Transits, named Supervan. Built as one offs, they started with the Mk1 complete with a 400bhp GT40 engine, then the MK2 with a Cosworth DFL engine before the Mk3 with the Cosworth HB.

The Mk3 Transit

The Mk3 Transit

Built from 1986 to 2003

The Mk3 was an all-new design, and became boxier, but with even more practicality. Again, it was available in a range of configurations.

You could have a camper, a pickup, a drop-side, a long wheelbase, a Luton, a tipper, a beavertail, a minibus, the list just went on and on. The 1.6 Pinto was binned, leaving just the 2.0.

Though there was a 2.9 V6 and the trusty Essex 3.0 V6 and of course, the old faithful 2.5DI diesel. 

To spot one, you’re looking for a standard boxy van, but with a very Sierra-esque front end on it. Big headlights with big amber indicators. Early models had a straight front grille, but for the ’94 facelift, this changed to a ‘smiley’ grille, with a large oval aperture.

The dashboard was also freshened up and made more rounded and stylish for the facelift, rather than the angular grey mass it was before. 

Transit fact: For the 30th anniversary of the Transit in 1995 Ford released a limited-edition model called the Transit Hallmark. Six hundred were made and were available in three colours with 200 being made in each.  

The Mk4 Transit

The Mk4 Transit 

Built from 2000 to 2014

The Fourth Transit was an all-new design, and took styling influenced from Ford’s ‘New Edge’ philosophy of the time. The lines were cleaner-cut and as such, the fourth Transit looked more premium.

Always good when you’re trying to show your business off in best light. It was also the first Transit to be offered with front-wheel drive, which in turn meant a big increase in rear load space, as well as a lower floor.

The engines also improved for the better, most notably with the inclusion of high-pressure common rail diesel, which offered pace and torque as well as class-leading economy. 

To spot a fourth-generation Transit, you’re looking a van with clean, sharp lines, the headlights and indicators became one unit, while the grill went from the smiley face to a more rugged rectangular shape.

Black detailing around the windows both front and side also helped to blend al the shapes together.  The facelifted 2006 version had taller headlights, and the grille and front bumper became one unit.

Transit fact: In Ford’s heritage Collection there is a fourth-generation Transit that has been converted into a rally support van, complete with WRC Martini livery!

The Mk5 Transit

The Mk5 Transit

Built from 2013 to present

Arguably the most stylish of al the Transits, the current generation is a proper looker. Vans are no longer seen as tools for a job, they need to have bit of presence and visual appeal, and the fifth-gen certainly has that in spades. As well as being able to carry spades, and cement, and wheelbarrows, and bricks. You get the idea.

Again, it’s available in front-wheel drive or wheel drive and in more configurations than you can possibly imagine. There’s also a sports version in the form of the M Sport Transit, which is built in conjunction with the same people who screw the World Rally Cars together. The same van can be found working on the rally events, too, so it’s not just a badge! 

To spot one, you’re looking for angular, tall headlights, a distinct swage line down either side, and more allowance for the odd curve here or there in body.

Its face fits in with the current Ford model range, you really can see elements of the Fiesta, the Focus and the Mondeo in this, unifying the Ford brand and give the Transit a very upmarket image. 

Transit fact: Guy Martin converted his own Transit van to run at an average speed of 150mph on closed course in America. Imagine if your plumber could do that! 

  • Our Mk5 Transit manual is out soon!