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Known for unearthing rare vans, Peter Lee struck (bronze) gold when he came across this Transit Clubmobil prototype in need of a complete rebuild.

transit clubmobil

Back in the early ’80s, with a massive rise in sales of Econoline day-vans in the States, Ford of Europe, (in association with German motorhome manufacturer, Hymer) built and sold a custom Transit van, based on the newly-released Mk2 version of its best-selling commercial. These were known as the Transit Clubmobil and featured huge and strangely-shaped side windows, a custom metallic paintjob, one-off Ronal alloys and a luxurious velour and shagpile interior with captain’s seats. Some 150 of the Transit Clubmobil were made, and they were sold all over mainland Europe. Today only 25 are known to have survived, making them a rare sight. 

Peter Lee from Buckinghamshire — founder of the Transit Van Club, collector of all things Transit, author of Ford Transit: Fifty Years and the man who Ford turns to when it needs to know about the history of these commercials — owns this metallic bronze example of a Transit Clubmobil, but it isn’t one of those 25 known survivors. This is the 26th, in right-hand-drive form and with a far higher level of spec than the production vehicles, because it’s the prototype van, produced by legendary customiser and design engineer, Steve Stringer for Ford to assess the concept. Peter takes up the story…

Customs official

“Steve Stringer had been working with Ford for a number of years in the ’70s producing one-off custom vans for motorshows and as displays for various dealerships. INTransit, The Raspberry Sheik, Dusty Rose and Quicksilver are legendary vans in the custom vehicle scene. When the idea came up at management levels for a day-van to rival the US’s Econolines, Steve was the obvious choice as designer. The brief was to come up with a luxurious version of the new Mk2 Transit for under £1000, hence the plan was known as Project 995.

“Within a few months — Steve was always given tiny deadlines on these projects — three prototypes had been built. These went way beyond the luxurious tag, with custom paint, huge slabs of tinted glass all round, multiple shades of brown inside with full seating, tables and even air conditioning. And behind the up-and-over rear door, things got even better with a craftsman-built cabinet and bar in place. 

“But, as amazing as the prototypes were, that £995 budget had been smashed, and even with compromises Ford could not get the figures down to anything lower than £1200 per van — too much and the plan was shelved… Or it would have been, had not Michael Kranefuss, Ford Germany’s Director of Special Vehicle Operations spotted one the vans at the Brussels’ Motorshow and fallen in love with the cruiser van plan. Michael put in place the partnership between Hymer and Ford to build the Clubmobils, which were assembled and custom-painted by Ford at the Genk factory and then kitted-out by Hymer with the glass, seats and carpeting. Sadly, for cost reasons, the production vehicles didn’t feature the rear
bar area!” 

Mind the gaps

Peter, who is, without doubt, the world’s biggest authority on the Transit van, has known the whereabouts of his prototype vehicle for more than 20 years. But as is so often the case with these unique vehicles, there are gaps in its history between the initial fame and its subsequent rediscovery. 

“All three of the prototypes were paraded around Europe in the late ’70s at shows and dealers,” Peter says. “I’ve even got a picture of a young Jeremy Clarkson sat in mine from an early edition of Top Gear. Michael Kranefuss has also confirmed that my van was the one sent to Hymer for assessment on the Clubmobil project, but after that little is known of its location until a friend bought it over 20 years ago. As far as I know, the second and third
vans went over to Europe, with one being used as a luxury shuttle bus for guests at a hotel in Holland.”

“Sadly, by the time my friend got hold of this van it had already deteriorated badly. As a prototype, it probably wasn’t as weatherproof as a production van would have been anyway, and apparently the water-filled air-con unit used to slop out all over the floor too, which couldn’t have helped!” 

Ten years of asking and gentle, but persistent, persuasion were needed by Peter before he could wrestle the van off his friend, and even once he had his prize it would be another five years before a restoration would take place. While getting hold of all the panels, standard Transit trim and mechanicals wasn’t a problem — Peter has sheds and sheds full of spares he’s collected over the years — recreating the interior and the custom touches would be a bit trickier.

transit clubmobil

“Tracking down the original materiel for the seats and the coverings that lined the walls and roof led us to America in the end.” Peter reports, “and it was a major task to hunt down the correct shagpile carpet!”

Saving the shell

transit clubmobil

The first stage of the restoration was to tackle the very rotten bodywork. “If it had been any other Mk2, the rust would have been terminal,” Peter says. But giving up wasn’t an option in this case, so new floors, inner and outer sills, door-steps and pillars, most of the front and rear panels and much more new metal was slowly put in place to restructure the van.

“For the paintwork I went to a friend in Norfolk called Ian Budd,” Peter adds, “mainly because he was the man who the original coats on the van when it was built in 1978. Not that I had any other plan, but Ian insisted he should do the work, which was a one-off metallic bronze, with the stripes in brown and silver sprayed on, too.” 

“The upholstery, recreated to as-exact-as-we-can-get, using photographs, is all down to my wife, Deborah’s brilliant skills,” Peter adds, “and although I was a builder before retirement, I wasn’t confident enough to tackle refabricating the panelling and bar area at the back so a professional joiner and furniture maker built that for me.” 

http://www.transitvanclub.co.uk

With an engine and autobox rebuild for the 2-litre Pinto and three-speed, new brakes, suspension and steering components plus any trim pieces that weren’t 100 per cent replaced from Peter’s vast hoard, the Transit Clubmobil was completed in approximately two years and has been amazing show crowds at events ever since. “It’s even been over to the Ford factory at Cologne and the testing grounds at Lommel in Germany,” Peter says. “It’s great to see the reaction the van gets wherever it goes.” 

Words Marc Stretton

Photos Adrian Brannan

 

See more photos and read the full spec from the original feature in the November 2017 issue

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