07 August 2008
Peter Lee has become well-known among van owners for whom they have become more than a means of getting themselves and their goods or tools from A to B. He also has a large collection of models, which includes – you’ve guessed it – lots of Ford Transits. Mike Forbes went to see them. ...
You could say that becoming a fan of the Ford Transit was inevitable for Peter. He worked ‘on the line’ building them until the Langley factory, near Slough, was closed and production moved to Southampton. Peter didn’t want to move to the south coast and, after a while working with a van dealer, he bought a Transit of his own and spent a year living in it, while fruit-picking in Spain.
This was when his friends started calling him ‘Transit Man’. They also bought him model Transits to put on his dashboard, which is where the collection started. Peter now has all sorts of model vans, although he has avoided Volkswagens. He says there would just be too many to collect, which is quite something for a man with something like 20,000 models in his loft...
He says he has often been tempted by other things, but the Transit is his first love. Having said that, considering it’s the best-selling van in the world, there have been comparitively few model Transits and Peter says they make up little more than 5% of his collection. There are many others, including Morris Minors, Bedford CAs, American Ford Econolines and lots of custom vans.
This is another of Peter’s passions. He discovered custom vans through ‘Hot Rod’ magazine. He says: “When you’re young, you want to jazz things up – big engines, wide wheels...” He is a member of the National Street Van Association, 35 years old this year, spending weekends away, in Holland and the USA, as well as in the UK. And yes, he has a customised Transit, big engine, wide wheels, leather interior and a fancy paint job...
Alongside it sits what Peter believes to be the very oldest Transit still in existence, in the process of restoration, to rival Ford’s own GEC-liveried vehicle. Peter is also currently custodian of the first Transit-based HCB-Angus fire engine, built for the Pirelli works in Southampton, which is to be restored by a member of the Transit Van Club, which Peter runs.
There are 600 members of the Transit Van Club world-wide, as well as over 5,000 members of the online forum. With the club, Peter has a close relationship with Ford, which he says has been very supportive. He helps the company, as at the recent Commercial Vehicle Show, with enquiries about the history – and often about models.
There are more models of the latest Mk 7 van but, considering the popularity of the real thing, it has not inspired model manufacturers as might be expected. For example, there are only two diecast models of the 1978 ‘square-nosed’ version, the Corgi Toys and Corgi Juniors versions – and then only as a pick-up or breakdown truck...
And the Transit is a ‘world vehicle’, although it has its roots in Britain and Europe. As well as being built at Southampton, there is a huge ‘state-of-the-art’ factory in Turkey, not to mention Russian and Chinese production partnerships. The Transit used to be built in Germany and Belgium, too. Last month’s was the best sales figure ever, with a six month waiting list and vans built to order. From next July, the Transit will be sold in the USA, replacing the Econoline, which has been the archetypal van in the States for 40 years.
In the mid-1960s, the Transit changed van drivers’ lives, putting together the best features of the then current models with the big addition of car-like comfort, decent seats, dashboard, heater and so on. No wonder it became so popular, as it did all the jobs for which it was intended excellently as well.
Peter says he feels the Transit has followed him around through life. He ran a fleet of them when he had a building company in London, before selling out and moving to rural Buckinghamshire. He built his house with a purpose-built toy room in the loft. His wife and daughters are very supportive of his hobby, always looking out for new models when on holiday. They have made lots of friends all over the world through the vans and models, too. Peter says the internet brought a boom in recent years, with many unknown models appearing all over the place – which is partly why he has 20,000...
Peter’s collection contains many rarities. This is partly through the contacts he has made with both the real vans and the models, and partly because he has put a lot of effort into finding different models which are not readily available.
He says it is easy to keep up with new releases, but he takes most pleasure in seeking out different older models, which is far more difficult.
As well as the standard issue models, Peter has many specials, like the Matchbox and Corgi-based Code 3 Adtrucks, finished in the UK, and Colorcomp from the USA. There have been a significant number of Transit models in special colour schemes commissioned by Ford to commemorate different milestones in the van’s production history. These include models made by Britains, Schabak, Corgi, Matchbox and others. Many of these come is special packaging, while further interest is added to standard models when they appear on different blister cards for specific markets. Peter has a surprising number of Matchbox, Corgi Junior and Hot Wheels models, which are not only finished in different liveries, but are also on special blister cards, some of which can be very attractive. Some of the Corgi Juniors were also supplied to retailers in some countries in special trade boxes, which are particularly rare and add yet another aspect to the collection.
There are two old glass-topped shop counters in Peter’s loft, obtained when a toy shop closed. One of these contains between 20 and 30 different A-Team vans in a multitude of scales. There is also a similar display of Scooby Doo-related models, which show the changes to the vans used over time.
Among the largest models in Peter’s collection are a blow-moulded Transit, dating back to his time in Spain, plus many different plastic, tinplate and diecast models, like the Bedford CAs – made by Fun Ho in New Zealand to commemorate the company’s return to diecasting. The plastic models include a number of interesting ‘copies’ of well-known diecast models, but often with a difference, like the Thames 400E, obviously based on the Corgi ‘Airborne’ motor caravan, but incoporating the window bars of the Commer ‘Police’ van...
Other models of this predecessor of the Transit include the smaller-scale Matchbox, Fun Ho and Minix plastic models from Tri-ang, including three as a load on a Hornby Railways wagon. Peter also has some excellent conversions of the Corgi Airborne to a standard 400E van, including models of several colourful examples owned by members of the National Street Van Association.
Peter has got hold of a number of pre-production models, including a larger-scale Matchbox plastic kit which was not proceeded with, the 4:1 resin of the Corgi Junior, plus a number of models from Dinky, Matchbox and Corgi which were never added to the ranges. The Dinky Transit appeared in many guises, with some of the Falck Zonen ambulance and fire vehicles the rarest. The model was to have been made in Co-op and Wonderloaf liveries for these companies, but they were never proceeded with. Similarly, the Matchbox Kingsize Transit appeared in the catalogue in a couple of colour schemes which never entered the range.
There are many different versions of models like the Corgi Juniors and Matchbox custom vans, as well as the larger-scale Chevy van from Corgi, including the ‘Vanishing Point’ and ‘Bee Gees’ versions, which were not proceeeded with. Causing more pressure on space are the many remote-controlled models which Peter has not been able to resist adding to his collection.
He admits to running out of space now, having to rearrange showcases when he obtains another version of a particular model. With so many, it is surprising that he knows what he has and where to find it, but providing a display at a show a few years back prompted Peter to record what he has in his collection.
You might meet Peter at the occasional toy fair – as well as the many rallies he attends over the summer months – at which he will be thinning out the doubles and unwanted models he has bought, for example at auctions, in order to acquire the particular models he wanted. However, he will admit that he visits the toyfairs more in the hope of finding something new and interesting to add to the collection...
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