by Andy Thompson
Anyone who grew up in Britain during the 1960s and 1970s will be familiar with the lumbering yellow British Telecom Dodge vans that seemed to be everywhere. It was British Telecom's order that prolonged the life of this long serving commercial beyond the day its manufacturers would have liked to put it to rest!
The Dodge ‘Telecom' van started its life in 1960 as the Commer 1500 FC. The new three quarter ton van was designed to give Rootes a presence in the burgeoning small tradesman's market. The PA was developed using as many existing components as possible, clothed in a stylish new body designed by Steel Fisher. The 53 hp 1.5 liter low-compression engine came from the Hillman Minx, the four speed synchromesh gearbox from the Commer Express light van, the front suspension cross member from the Sunbeam Alpine and the front suspension wishbones, back axles, and prop shaft from the Humber Hawk! The door handles came from the Hillman Husky based Commer Cob. The under frame was a flat platform and 16 different body styles were offered direct from the dealer, including a metal sided pick up and a milk float. The van could be ordered with a side loading door and the choice of hinged or sliding passenger doors, and could carry 15 cwt (about one ton).
The 1500 FC featured forward control, an engine located between the driver and passenger, and wipers that parked out of the way under a ledge atop the windscreen. It was the first van in its class to offer a diesel – the Perkins 4-99 1621cc unit which produced 42 hp at 3,600 rpm. It had front independent suspension – a feature that was not to become common on vans until the 1980s! Commer used kingpins rather than ball joints.
One notable feature was that the front track was less than the rear track – front track was 48 inches, rear track 55.5. The wheelbase was 90 inches and overall length 167 inches – about fourteen feet (roughly 32 inches less than the 1971-76 Valiant). These made the Commer very easy to drive in cities, at the cost of stability on high-speed turns.
The first prototypes were built at the Commer works in Dunstable in 1959 and tested extensively in Mexico, Spain, and Kenya. Series One vans had two, later three, chrome strips between the headlamps and a red Commer badge above that along with a grille for the heater and fresh air inlet. The heater was an optional extra – as was the case for most vehicles at this time!
The Series Two arrived in 1961, a single year after the Series One. The engine grew to 1.6 liters and the grille was changed to improve cooling capacity. A simple mesh grille was fitted behind the chrome strips.
In 1962 assembly started in Iran. The range was extended in October 1962 by the 2500 one ton version. This version had stronger suspension, bigger tyres and back brakes and could be distinguished by discreet 2500 badges on the front doors. The basic one-ton (15 cwt) model could be upgraded to carry 18 cwt by specifying commercial grade tyres. By this time 21 different body styles were offered in the UK!
In 1963, toymaker Corgi announced its Corgi Constructor set, inspired by the vast range of Commer body styles. The set consisted of two Commer chassis and four different bodies, and remained in production until 1968. It was a popular Christmas present! Corgi also used the Commer as the basis for a mobile camera van and a Holiday Camp Special while the Matchbox company released a charming pale green milk float version.
The Series Two A arrived in mid-1963, with the name Commer picked out in letters rather than being in a badge. It also had a new grille, placed just above the bumper, made of three chrome strips. The number moved up the front panel to go between the headlamps.
The range was upgraded again in September 1965. All were now available with a three speed Borg Warner automatic transmission and the engine was upgraded to the newly announced 1.7 liter Rootes unit, producing 58 bhp. Diesel buyers also got a new engine – the 1.8 liter Perkins. The new model had a lozenge shaped grille which improved air flow for the larger engines, and had proper indicator lamps below the sidelamps. The range was renamed the PA 1500/2500 series. However, the range had been reduced dramatically to vans, minibuses and chassis cabs. All other body styles now had to be ordered from specialist body builders.
In August 1967, the range was renamed the PB series. Not much else changed apart from the handbrake working on the front wheels and an alternator being used (the alternator had made its world debut on the 1960 Valiant). The range was also offered with a Dodge or Fargo badge in some markets, following the takeover of Rootes by Chrysler. Dodge models were known as K 120, K 140 or K 160 depending on payload, the Fargos as F 120, F 140 or F 160.
The next major change came in January 1970, when the 18cwt option became a model – the 2000 – in its own right. By this time a heater was standard equipment.
A new deluxe cab was introduced at the end of 1970 for the 1971 model year, responding to competition from the Ford Transit and Bedford CF both of which offered far nicer driver environments. The deluxe cab featured tan seat trims, padded dashboard, padded door trims, headlining and a cigarette lighter. The basic cab, like the deluxe, gained a new square shaped instrument and switch binnacle and a steering column lock.
In 1974, the range was renamed the Spacevan, capitalising on the 200 cubic foot of space, more than any of its competitors. The standard engine became a low compression detuned 50 bhp 1.7 liter unit; the previous 58 bhp unit became an option. Overdrive also become optional, but only with the higher powered engine. Commer's only styling change was to enlarge the size of the rear light units, but local and overseas models were starting to increase driver comfort and had newer styling.
In January 1976, Chrysler's British operations were bailed out by the British government. Part of the deal was a commitment to upgrade the Spacevan, which had fallen behind, by 1977. Truck magazine noted that "it's hard to believe [the Spacevan] can compete on equal terms with the [much newer] Transit, CF and Sherpa". Having said that, they praised the Dodge for its brakes and added that "body roll is well restrained." Truck pointed out that while the Dodge had lower performance (top speed of 62 mph compared to 85 for the Sherpa), it also had a much lower price!
In August 1976, the name Dodge was adopted across the board in Britain for the Spacevan, replacing both Commer and Fargo. A temperature gauge was now standard on the Spacevan along with electric windscreen washers and two speed wipers.
In May 1977, a new light van assembly line was installed at the Dunstable plant and in October 1977 the new look Spacevan was unveiled.
The new Spacevan had a new plastic front grille, running the full width of the van. The front bumper was raised and had a gap to admit air to cool the engine. Mechanically, the van was unchanged. Engine and transmission options remained as before although the automatic was dropped in 1978 and the 15 cwt (one-ton) model was dropped, making the 18 cwt standard. In the cab, fascia mounted temperature controls for the heater were used. The Deluxe option was renamed Hi-Line and featured improved sound insulation on the engine cover and cab sides to quiet the fairly noisy van. Doors and seats were trimmed in tobacco colored vinyl, the glove box was lockable and there was provision for a radio. The driver's seat had a reclining back and all seats had hessian patterned inserts. Proper door handles finally replaced the Commer Cob latches. Hi Line models had silver painted bumpers, while standard models were black.
In August 1978, Peugeot took over the whole Chrysler Europe operation; because Peugeot did not have experience with commercial vehicles, they formed Karrier Motors Ltd with Renault Truck Industries. Following that deal, vehicles over 3.5 tonnes were sold by Renault Commercial vehicle dealers, while the little Dodge half-ton (Simca 1100) was sold by Talbot dealers.
In 1980, Dodge (for the Spacevan was still sold as a Dodge truck in the UK) pointed to the 200 cubic feet (5.7 cubic meters) of payload space, and noted that the Post Office had 15,000 operating Spacevans. They noted that there were two versions, the 2000 and 2500, with payloads of 18 cwt and 22 cwt (914 and 1,118 kg); two factory-built light buses on the same basic chassis were also available, as were chassis/cab versions or driveaway front end versions (for approved bodybuilders to convert to pickups, Luton vans, ambulances, etc). Sliding front doors and a side-loading door were available. The wheelbase was 90 inches (229 cm). Three engines were available in 1980: a 1.7 liter four-cylinder gas engine (37 kW/50 hp), a high-compression version of the 1.7 (42 kW/57 hp), and a 1.75 liter four-cylinder diesel (31 kW/41 hp). The sole gearbox advertised was a four-speed synchromesh manual; overdrive was available with the high-compression gas engine.
The Spacevan was supposed to be dropped in late 1981, but a huge contract from the GPO (Post Office) kept it alive for well over a year. The GPO and British Telecom had bought more than 27,000 of the series since 1970. They were also used by the Television Licence Detector unit (with automatic transmissions). The last Spacevan was built on February 17, 1983. It had a long and distinguished career, and had been popular with motor home builders, but lack of investment by Rootes and, later, by Chrysler and Peugeot, had let it fall behind.
Fortunately, those who needed chassis cabs could get a new Dodge 50, well into the 1980s, —even if they wanted it to be electrically powered.