The first in a line of automotive aneurysms that we secretly adore.
In the words of the well known song: “breaker breaker… it looks like we’ve got ourselves a Convoy”
Today, the white van man has the social acceptance of an Estate Agent or unfair reputation of being as subtle and discreet as pulling up floorboards. But how exactly do you transport the agent’s flyers… or indeed collect three dozen floorboards from Great Mills? That’s right… in a van of course, but there is no stipulation on its colour. If you take a stroll to your nearest Mercedes Benz or Ford Commercial dealer and have a close look at their wares, your common or garden current light commercial is bristling with technology. You’ll find fancy modern stuff like blue teeth, ABS, MP3, EBD and a whole raft of driver easing or safety related abbreviations on top of the standard 8mm ply lining – it’s a far far cry from vans of old.
The PC brigade have started taking over the world of bum-crack showing van drivers. Oh for sure it’s still almost expected to have the upper dashboard still displaying three weeks’ worth of sun bleached Daily Sport and empty Embassy packets but those trusted polystyrene cups that once doubled as an ashtray when the drink went cold are now recyclable paper. It’s also no longer acceptable to have a six inch woodscrew poking out of the cab bulkhead ply to hang your Hi-Viz jacket or takeaway lunch – not that it would be any form of hazard in the event of a serious accident eh kids? But joking aside, a van is pretty much as modern as a car these days, even if the nut that holds the steering wheel… isn’t.
2006 marked a sad time in the world of commercial vehicles as we lost one of the simplest, basic, uncomplicated boxes on wheels – a van so basic that it never even offered ventilated brake discs or frivolities like an independent front suspension. Only what you needed like four doors and lots of space inside. It was veritable tribute to British Motor heritage too with a smattering of interior fixtures and fittings from vehicles as dreadful as the Maxi to as ghastly as an early Maestro. Even the pedals looked familiar… straight from your Grandfathers harvest gold Marina. Yet it was styled by the same design team who gave us the Raleigh Chopper, the Bond Bug, Scimitar GT/E and the handsome looking Leyland T45 – Ogle Design.
There had been a previous design brief dictating an aerodynamic shape and possibly front wheel drive for a new van to replace the Sherpa. But ownership issues following the sale of Freight Rover to DAF, the following collapse of Leyland DAF and management buy-out to create LDV somewhat altered future events. Letchworth based Ogle had already worked on these vans before through B.L. It was they who had created the revised Sherpa for Freight Rover back in 1984 so the company had a good working relationship with Freight Rover. It made common sense to continue the working partnership into the newly formed LDV company, but the eventual outcome was nothing like it should have been and remains a sad disappointment to the now retired head stylist to this day.
It goes without saying that the Convoy and its smaller sibling – the Pilot are re-worked Freight Rover Sherpa 200 & 400 series vans. Ogle , headed by their Managing Director and stylist Tom Karen were given the task of redesigning the range into something more befitting the `90s and beyond. An elaborate swooping style idea called “Project Bulldog” was put before the new independent LDV board, but after some careful thinking they baulked at the idea on cost grounds. Ogle were then asked to try again, only this time using as much of the existing metalwork as possible. Want to know what the new van really should have looked like? Think Vauxhall Vivaro or Renault Master, Ogle sold their original design to the GM/Renault van alliance.
The outcome was the LDV Pilot and Convoy – simple restyles of the outgoing 2/400 van range. If you look closely at the grille you can see the Karen cue of sausage like patterns, a feature than was more than prevalent on his T45 Leyland project some years earlier. The same bought in Peugeot EN55 or ET70 engines were under the bonnet, the same gearboxes and axles too. But even though the vans were so obviously like your Granny wearing Nike Airmax trainers, they were well received and reasonably well respected vehicles. On the inside you were treated to a cacophony of British Leyland heritage too with parts from many an obsolete car.
Heater controls from the Montego, dashboard vents and column sticks from the Rover 800 and window winders from a Mini Metro. So proud of this were LDV that the Rover column sticks were actually boasted about in early sales brochure material. But if you think about it, that makes sense especially if you employed a ham fisted driver – if anything broke inside the cab, you sent the fitter down the scrap yard. And it’s this that made the Convoy so popular – it was basic, it was functional and it was reliable. The warranty and back up was better than anything else on the market too. Its VAN AID programme was backed up by the whole dealer network 24/7 that on the whole included a huge number of DAF Truck dealers and the parts availability was just as impressive.
half the time we could diagnose a van breakdown over the telephone just by what a driver had said, send a fitter up the road and have them back on their way soon after – Royal Mail Engineering
They were dirt cheap to buy as well making it a no brain decision. If you wanted an all singing all dancing techno nightmare that came with a premium to buy and fix, you bought a VW LT or Merc Sprinter. On the other hand, if all you wanted was a cube on wheels with all the modernity of post box, LDV had just the thing waiting for you. Staying with post, Royal Mail bought them in thousands and not just because they were cheap either. I once spoke to a Royal Mail workshop foreman who said they were the only vans that took the constant use and abuse they threw at them. They had tried the Iveco Daily, Transit and others besides… but the GPO adored them.
The man in question told me: “half the time we could diagnose a breakdown over the telephone just by what a driver had said, send a fitter up the road and have them back on their way soon after”. Even if an issue was more serious, the almost Meccano like construction meant that suspension or drivetrain surgery could be done cheaply and easily during a night shift. He added: “all we ever kept on the shelf parts-wise were gear levers, brakes, clutches, filters and common bits that snapped or fell off, everything else was available over the phone – we loved `em”. LDV even supplied a fully type approved mini-bus for school or private hire use – the first van manufacturer to offer this straight out of the factory and their in-house body plant could build you anything from an Ambulance to an AA breakdown unit.
But as time moved on, the Convoy stood still and very little was done to modernise the product with the exception of more efficient drivelines bought in from Ford. Some shaky business ventures with Nissan, Daewoo and finally GAZ of Russia saw the end of the Convoy and Pilot with the replacement Maxus van powered by a truly horrendous Italian sourced VM engine. The Maxus looked much more modern and larger than the Convoy, but it was poor in terms of quality and it lacked that basic charm and ruggedness the company was known for. The business fell into foreign hands and was slowly asset stripped. Owing to the epic global recession sales slipped and LDV started to take on water and slowly sink into the dead pool of defunct British automotive names. Like so many crippled UK and Swedish companies, the products ended up magically appearing in Chinese ownership!
They are getting rare now and Borris has banned them from London owing to the new emission rules. They now seem to be in the hands of fruit and veg men and mobile hippy homes are made from former ambulances. But for what it was worth, the Convoy excelled at everything it was designed to do – hump and shift loads with simplicity and cost effectiveness.
RIP LDV Convoy – A decade of simplistic charm 1996 – 2006