This van fan man turned a one-owner Seventies survivor into a custom-cum-canvas and ended up with this period-perfect masterpiece

Words: Dave Smith, photography: Jon Hill

Transits. They work hard, and vans that work hard don’t get much love. Consequently, most of them take early retirement and head off to the knacker’s yard long before they get to be classics. So, if you fancy a proper Seventies custom Transit, and you happen upon a van that’s been cherished since new, well… that’s one of your three wishes gone. It also helps if you know a thing or two about Transits and the van scene in general; saying that the owner ‘happened upon’ this beauty isn’t exactly accurate. In fact, it took him 30 years to get his hands on it!

The man in question is Peter Lee, from Buckinghamshire, a name you might know if you’re into the van scene. “I just love Transits,” says Peter. “I’ve always loved them. I worked on the Transit production line at Langley, near Heathrow, from the late Sixties until they moved production to Southampton in ’71. I’ve run the Transit Van Club for 15 years, I’ve written two books about them and I’m onto the third, and I own six of them!

“I first saw this one in about 1983, in the car park at the NSVA Truck-In. I spoke to the owner, Mr Humber, but he said he’d never sell it. Then, in 2005, I organised an event for Ford: a convoy of 275 Transits all the way down to Southampton. It was a big event, with all the top management and press there, but, at the gathering in Southampton, there was this van again… still with the same owner! He’d owned it all these years, and I finally persuaded him to sell it to me.

“It was a brown and cream 1978 MkII 90, a base model 1.25-tonner, but with every factory option including the Essex V6, which would have been a special SVO order, automatic gearbox, over-riders, opening quarter-lights, the lot. He’d really looked after it, he’d loved it, and it was in excellent condition – it needed nothing, no bodywork, there wasn’t a scratch or a mark on it.

“I stripped it all back to a rolling shell and took the shell off to some friends of mine, Dragon Art in Birmingham. It was rubbed down and sprayed in this Porsche brown metallic, a real Seventies shade. My daughter, Natasha, is an artist and she went up there for a couple of weeks, for a crash course in airbrushing. She airbrushed the whole Motown theme – it’s my other love; I want to be buried in a Transit with Marvin Gaye playing on the radio! We found a load of rare album covers, decided on which pictures we’d use, then over to Tasha who airbrushed the images onto the van. She also designed the stripes from looking at pictures of custom vans – she did a few designs, and we picked one. After that it was back to Dragon Art for four or five coats of lacquer, then home again.

“I rewired the whole van, then we set about refitting it. The V6 engine is very heavy, and there’s no power steering on the MkII. You can retrofit the power steering from a MkIII or IV, but that’s a lot of work. Then I found a brand-new, crate Pinto engine on eBay, so I stored the V6 away and fitted the Pinto to the C3 transmission. It’s a lot lighter, which makes the van a lot easier to steer, especially with the little steering wheel that came off a Seventies Chevy custom van with a new boss.

“I got the velour for the inside from America – you just can’t get the right velour in the UK any more – and got the buttons made as a custom order. My wife, Debi, did all the velour and shag-pile carpeting, so it’s been a real family affair. There was a period air conditioning unit in the back, but it was old and leaky, so I took it out. The woodwork was all done by a friend of mine just down the road, and the velour had to be stuck to the side panels before they were installed, which was tricky. I cut the holes for the porthole windows in the side, which was a very worrisome job that I don’t want to do again – one mistake, and you’ll never get it just right again.

“We fitted the special lights inside, plus the custom cabinets and bed. The MkII dash is a bit drab, so we shaped some plywood to fit, trimmed it, and now it has a DVD player and screen that plays Motown! The leather seats were made in Scotland, then exported to America for custom vans in the Seventies! These were fitted by the van’s first owner, who imported them back. The twin sunroofs are from a Granada, and those side-pipes are genuine period Thrush pipes.

“The wheels were made for a 1980-only Transit that was only sold in Germany: the Clubmobile, by Hymer. Apparently, Ford wanted a lightly customised version of the Transit, and approached Steve Stringer, who had built Raspberry Sheikh, In Transit and others, to design it. They said he had to keep the cost under £1,000, and Steve just couldn’t do it; however, Ford of Europe took it on, and subcontracted the build to Hymer. The result was the Clubmobile, and they wore these wheels. The wheels were supposed to be available in the UK as a Ford part, but thanks to a part numbering cock-up, they never were.

“It was a two and a half year project and, as I say, a real family affair. I’ve been vanning for 35 or 40 years now, run the National Street Van Association for years, and have loads of friends in the USA, so I’m always picking up old accessories and bits. I’ve got 22,000 pieces of van memorabilia now! When Ford are holding a Transit event, they usually come to me…”


1978 Ford Transit 90 Custom

  • Pinto 2.0 petrol engine
  • Weber carburettor
  • C3 automatic’box
  • Thrush sidepipes
  • Portholes!
  • Full custom interior
  • Ford 6.5×14” alloys
  • 205/70R14 BF Goodrich tyres
  • Porsche brown paint
  • All artwork/stripes by Natasha Lee

Thanks to: “Thank to Natasha and Debi. Without them, the project would never have got under way.”