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Remember Ford’s Outrageous, Over-Powered Transit Supervans?

With screaming racing-derived V-8 engines, these boxy supercars defied all logic.

You could hear a Supervan long before you could see it. A screaming V-8 thumped the eardrums, but what eventually barreled into view was not a sleek race car but a massive, boxy…van? These custom creations were essentially pure race cars stuffed inside Ford Transit van (or vanlike silhouette) bodies, with outrageous performance.

Wildly popular as demonstration vehicles, these Transit Supervans were intended to raise the profile of Ford's workaday commercial van line. And that they did. They also seared into collective memory the spectacle of a huge van doing seemingly impossible things on a racetrack.

While the utilitarian Ford Transit has only been sold here in the U.S. for a few years, as a competitor to the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter, this van has deep roots in the U.K. The MkI went on sale in 1965, and the current Transit is actually the fourth-generation model. But the Supervans' appeal is universal. Follow along as we trace the lineage of this incredible series of vans:

MkI Ford Transit Supervan

The first Supervan was possibly the boldest. Underneath the stock steel Transit body lurked most of the running gear of a legitimate Ford GT40, a state-of-the-art race car that just a few years before had spanked Ferrari at Le Mans. There wasn't a damn thing under this Transit's hood, but out back a Ford V-8 with all the goodies took up a good bit of the van's useable cargo area. The 5.0-liter small block featured Gurney-Westlake heads and made 435 horsepower thanks to a quartet of Webers, and delivered power through a five-speed ZF transaxle.

Those GT40 bits meant that the Transit Supervan had astonishing performance, considering the state of things in April 1971 . It'd knock off the 0-to-60-mph sprint in seven seconds flat, hit 100 mph in 21.6, and topped out somewhere north of 150 mph if you had the nerve. Contemporary footage shows an almost ludicrous amount of roll, squat, and dive as the driver absolutely sends it in the promotional footage from the era we included above. It'd even lift an inside front wheel in hard transitions. In other words, it looks like an absolute riot to drive, and it certainly was to watch.

Supervan 2

As the highest levels of motorsport evolved, so too did the Supervan's followup, dubbed Supervan 2. This one didn't bother with the Transit's heavy steel body, instead adopting a shell made out of a laundry list of high-tech materials—fiberglass, Kevlar, nomex-reinforced plastic, and carbon fiber—that resembled a slightly cut-down MkII Transit. Low, mean-looking, with very 1980s lower bodywork and a huge chin spoiler, the second Supervan debuted in 1984. The aluminum honeycomb chassis was provided by a failed Ford Group C race car, the C100, which had intended to do battle with the all-conquering Porsche 956. As if that Ford race car needed to fall any farther from grace, its powerful 3.9-liter Cosworth V-8 was harvested for the Supervan. Ford claimed it makes 590 horsepower at a wild 9,500 rpm.

When testing at Silverstone the Supervan 2 streaked down the straight with its V-8 running at 9,300 RPM, which means the silhouette van achieved a remarkable 174 mph. Eventually, in 1994, Supervan 2 became SuperVan 3, being rebuilt with a new body and new running gear. More on that below. Sadly, that means the SuperVan 2 no longer exists in its original form.

SuperVan 3

While the previous Supervans had come towards the end of that generation's life, the new SuperVan 3 appeared as a rebuild of the previous van and added a jaunty capital V in the middle of its name. The bodywork was updated, at least up front (the rear still looked a lot like the Supervan 2). Things were updated underneath, too, with the Cosworth DFL replaced by a newer Cosworth HB V-8, a 3.5-liter unit that made 630 to 700 horsepower depending on trim. The HB saw use in Formula 1, even powering some of Ayrton Senna's McLaren MP4/8 cars in 1993. You can say that the heart of the SuperVan 3, as originally built, was the stuff of legend.

Later on, perhaps realizing that the F1-sourced engine was a bit much for most who'd want to drive the SuperVan 3 (journalists and VIPs, among others), the HB V-8 was swapped out for a more practical Ford-Cosworth Pro Sports 3000 V-6 which made a comparatively measly 260 horsepower. Surely part of this is due to the staggering expense of keeping a full race motor running properly; the V-6 is based on a street motor, so its service intervals are less daunting. That said, even the downsized engine sounds the business, and could propel the SuperVan 3 to 150 mph.

 

 

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