by Andy Thompson
Anyone who grew up in Britain during the 1960s and 1970s will be familiar with the big 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 way back in 1960 as a Commer. It was launched in January by the Rootes Group 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, covered by such competitors as the Austin/Morris J2, the Bedford CA, the Ford Thames 400E and the Standard Atlas.
In classic Rootes fashion, the PA was developed using as many existing components as possible, clothed in a stylish new body shell designed by Cowley-based pressed Steel Fisher. The 53bhp 1494cc low compression engine came from the Hillman Minx, the four speed synchromesh gearbox from the Commer Express light van, the front suspension crossmember 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 your local Commer dealer! These included a metal sided pick up and a milk float. The van, which could be ordered with aside loading door and the choice of hinged or sliding passenger doors, could carry 15 cwt (around 750 kg).
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 option – the Perkins 4-99 1621cc unit which produced 42 bhp at 3,600 rpm. It had front independent suspension too – a feature that was not to become common place on vans until the nineteen eighties! The Commers 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 wheel base was 90 inches and overall length 167 inches – about fourteen feet. All of which made the Commer very easy to drive in cities although at speed on corners it was not the most stable of vehicles.
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 of course – as was the case for most British vehicles at this time!
The Series Two arrived in 1961. The engine grew to 1592cc and the grille style 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 15cwt model could be upgraded to carry 18 cwt by specifying commercial grade tyres.
By this time 21 different body styles were offered! In 1963, Corgi, the Welsh toy manufacturer, announced its Corgi Constructor set, inspired by the vast range of body styles offered by the Commer. The set consisted of two Commer chassis and four different bodies. Pick up, van, milk float and minibus body styles were available and the set 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 had the name Commer was picked out in letters rather than being incorporated into a badge. It also had a new grille, placed just above the bumper. The grille was made up of three chrome strips. The number place moved further up the front panel to a place 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 uprated to the newly announced 1725cc Rootes unit, producing 58 bhp. Diesel buyers also got a new engine – the 1752cc Perkins 4.108 . Externally, the new model could be recognised by a lozenge shaped grille which improved air flow for the larger engines. Proper indicators lamps were fitted 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 the dynamo being ditchedin favour of an alternator. The range was also offered with a Dodge or Fargo badge in some markets, following the formal take over of Rootes by the American Chrysler company. The 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 gained, like the deluxe, 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 offered by the van which was more than any of its competitors. The standard engine became a low compression detuned 50 bhp 1725 unit; the previous 58 bhp unit became an optional extra. Overdrive joined the options list however, although only available with the higher powered engine. By this time, the Commer was really beginning to look its age, especially up against the Bedford CF and Leyland’s new Sherpa. Commer’s only styling change was to enlarge the size of the rear light units!
Overseas models were sneaking into the market too, with much higher levels of driver comfort – including the forward control Toyota Hi-Ace.
In January 1976, Chrysler’s British operations were bailed out by the British government. Part of the investment deal was a commitment by Chrysler to uprate the Spacevan by 1977. The Spacevan was starting to fall behind the competition, a consequence of a lack of major product development. Truck magasine pitted a Spacevan against the Transit, CF, Sherpa and VW Transporter in early 1977 and noted that: “it’s hard to believe it can compete on equal terms with the later Transit, CF and Sherpa”. Having said that, they praised the Dodge for its brakes and added that although it looked unsafe on the twisty bits: “body roll is well restrained.” Truck did point out that while the Dodge may be behind the others on performance (top speed of 62 mph compared to 85 for the Sherpa), so too was it behind them on price!
In August 1976, the name Dodge was adopted across the board by all commercials sold by Chrysler in Britain. 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 in it to allow air to cool the engine. Mechanically, the van was unchanged although the 1500 15cwt model was axed. Engine and transmission options remained as before although the automatic option was dropped in 1978. The biggest changes were to the cab. All gained facia mounted temperature controls for the heater although direction of air still relied upon a hooked piece of bar connected directly to the flaps under the dash!
A new Hi-Line trim option replaced the deluxe and featured improved sound insulation on the engine cover and cab sides to quieten what was a noisy place to spend a working day. Doors and seats were trimmed in tobacco coloured vinyl, the glove box was lockable and there was provision for built in radio. The driver’s seat had a reclining back and all seats had hessian patterned inserts. Outside proper door handles replaced the long running Commer Cob latches. Hi Line models had silver painted bumpers, standard models were black.
In August 1978, Peugeot took over the whole Chrysler Europe operation, including the commercial vehicle plants in Britain and Spain. Peugeot were not that interested in commercials and in January 1981 with Renault Truck Industries formed Karrier Motors Ltd. Under the deal, all vehicles over 3.5 tonnes were sold by Renault Commercial vehicle dealers. The little Dodge half ton range (previously the Simca 1100) was left with Talbot dealerships.
The Spacevan had been due to go out of production in late 1981 but a huge contract from the GPO kept it alive for well over a year. The GPO and British Telecom between them had bought more than 27,000 of the series since 1970; the Television Licence Detector unit also used Spacevans fitted with automatic transmissions.
The last Spacevan was built on February 17, 1983. It was replaced (within PSA) by the Talbot Express, built in Italy as part of a joint venture between Fiat and Peugeot-Citroen. The van was sold under Peugeot, Citroen, Fiat and Alfa Romeo badges.
The Spacevan had a long and distinguished career. It was especially popular with motor home builders.
Rootes Group cars including Singer, Sunbeam, Hillman, Humber, SIMCA, Chrysler Europe, and more!