Unleashing my inner white van man

30 September 2013

Ford Transit with racing stripes

I’m caught in the throes of moving house at the moment, which is a colossal pain in the backside from almost every angle. Our home is now buried beneath boxes and bubble-wrap, and we’ve barely scratched the surface. My frazzled brain is only gradually grasping the vast amount of stuff we’ve acquired since we last upped sticks a decade ago.

Back then, we squashed everything into a single Luton Transit van. Today, to manage in a single trip, I suspect we’re going to need a pantechnicon the size of the Ark Royal. And yet still I’m persuading myself that we’ll shift it all ourselves. My better half asserts that this is because I’m in denial, unwilling to admit I’m an adult who ought to call in the professionals. And no doubt she also suspects, because she knows me too well, that it’s because I want to drive the van.

Let’s hope she doesn’t catch me perusing the used stock list at Anchor Vans, totting up what kind of white-panelled wonder I could buy instead of throwing cash at a removal firm. That’s right, rather than do what grownups do and sort stuff out, I’m sitting here tapping at my laptop and compiling my top five dream commercial vehicles. Which, I have to admit, all seem to be on the small side and thus no use at all in my current predicament.

Piaggio Ape pickup carrying bales of hay5. Piaggio Ape
Sadly not named in honour of our hairy close relatives with thumbs on their feet, the Piaggio is named after the Italian word for “bee”, pronounced “ah-pay”. No doubt something to do with the noise, given that the three-wheeled Ape is basically a rasping Italian scooter swathed in the ramshackle clothing of a van, pickup or rickshaw.

Produced in various versions since 1948, the Ape is narrow, slow and crude but all the more appealing for that. It can be had in versions with a steering wheel or handlebars, and with engines as small as 50cc. Never a strong seller in the UK, numbers here peaked at just over 300 a decade ago. Among those that I see on the road, most seem to be devoted to the business of selling overpriced coffee.

Daihatsu Midget 24. Daihatsu Midget
The original Midget (not to be confused with insignificant MG sports cars of the same name) was a Japanese counterpart to the Ape, combining a tricycle scooter with a basic body, produced from 1957 to 1972. The name was resurrected in 1996 for a tiny, narrow, four-wheeled kei-car commercial vehicle. With a three-cylinder 660cc engine producing just 30bhp, the Midget was never fast – which didn’t stop it appearing in the PlayStation Gran Turismo game, for those with the patience to nurse it all the way around a lap.

As a commercial vehicle it clearly depended on its qualities as a nippy urban runabout, given that the cargo area was small enough to warrant carrying the spare wheel on the nose. That may explain why, despite all the digital versions sitting in PlayStations around the land, only a handful of Midgets have ever made it to the UK in the metal.

Suzuki Super Carry van3. Bedford Racscal/Suzuki Super Carry
With a mid-engined layout, rear-wheel drive and a live axle to boot, the Bedford Rascal and its Suzuki Super Carry clone promised an entertaining driving experience. Which was certainly the case when I first hired one, to shift a load of rubble, in the early 1990s. Empty, the extremely lightweight little van had more than enough poke from its 970cc engine to get the rear wheels to step smoothly out on a tight roundabout. However, full of broken bricks an hour later, it didn’t so much want to step out as tip over. It was fun, in hindsight at least, and fortunately I didn’t stop to think about frontal crash protection at the time. After all, the crumple zone is that space in front of the seats where you slide your legs.

Once a common sight the length and breadth of Britain, the Rascal is now an endangered species, with only about 500 left in the wild.

Mini Clubvan and Morris Mini Van2. Mini Van
The modern BMW Mini Clubman has spawned a Clubvan edition, aimed at trendy businesses that need to deliver very small things. But for my money the original Austin and Morris Mini vans and pickup trucks are still the business.

The tiny, tinny Mini drove like nothing else and I presume the commercial variants were just as capable of gluing a smile to your face, though alas I’ve only ever driven a Mini saloon. Not ideally suited to moving large objects, the marginally more practical Mini variants were suitable for the kind of tradesman who simply needs to carry tools and the like. And perhaps a very short ladder.

Renault Twizy Cargo1. Renault Twizy Cargo
The extraordinary Renault Twizy Cargo makes the Mini van look like a warehouse on wheels. With a boot best suited to delivering cupcakes one at a time, Renault’s least capacious commercial vehicle is not going to win any prizes for versatility. However, if it means you can put the weird and wonderful Twizy electric runabout through the company books, then that’s OK by me. The normally two-seat electric car sacrifices one pew in pursuit of practicality, but misses by a mile. Utterly pointless but endlessly charming.

What commercial vehicle would you choose, if your spouse would let you get away with it?

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