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To the untrained eye, David Cowen’s Mk1 Escort van may appear to simply be a sympathetic restoration. But to those in the know, that purposeful stance over Lotus steels is a clue to something really quite entertaining.

Backbone of Britain. That’s the tagline the marketing men applied to the Transit back in the 1990s, making clear the point that during the inception or maintenance of pretty much any event in your day-to-day life, there was a Ford van involved somewhere along the line. Builders, removals, shop deliveries, parcels and post, these vehicles are interwoven into everything we see and do; go and stand by the side of your nearest road and you’ll almost certainly see a Tranny within a couple of minutes. And this sweeps back way beyond the scope of the Transit, into the realm of its predecessor, the Thames 400E, and of course into the jurisdiction of the smaller load-lugger: the 307E. This was a solid, dependable little workhorse, ever eager to roll up the proverbial sleeves and keep the country ticking with its vital capacity to shift stuff about throughout the 1960s.

When the Mk1 Escort arrived to replace the Anglia, it wasn’t long before a van variant arrived (in early ’68), and it didn’t just carry over the plucky spirit and usefulness of the 307E — it even pinched its rear doors. From that point on, right up until the Mk2 arrived in 1975, Mk1 Escort vans were everywhere on Britain’s roads, getting all the useful stuff done, making sure the wheels of commerce and infrastructure kept turning. And even then, the Mk2 van was essentially a Mk1 with a new nose.

So it follows that the Mk1 Escort van is a vehicle worth saving. When David Cowen found the one you see here, missing most of its front end and rusting through in all sorts of places, all he saw was a great big bundle of potential. “We have a collection of Fords, including Mk1, Mk2 and Mk3 Fiestas, Escorts, Capris, plus more modern Focus RSs, and we felt that we needed something completely different,” he reasons. “Besides, we use vans for work, so…” That sounds like a pretty rational thought process, it would surely have been churlish to snub the beleaguered load-lugger.

Family ties  

There’s a genetic precedent to this collection, this hasn’t all come out of nowhere: David’s dad has always been a Ford man, and over the years he’s had all sorts of Cortinas, Capris, Escorts and Granadas of various generations. Interestingly, his dad before him was a Vauxhall man, so there was clearly a switch flicked somewhere, but we’re feeling the benefit of that here and can only be grateful for it. Just look at the gleaming results!

There was, it goes without saying, rather a lot of work involved in turning the van from crumbling hulk to show-stopper. “It was bought through a friend of a friend,” David recalls. “Our good friend, Ken Wishart in Torphichen, West Lothian, introduced us to a guy named Brian Hume who had owned the van since 1997; there had been five owners before him. It was kept in a lock-up in Balerno, Edinburgh, and when we turned up to see it for the first time it was a rolling shell — no engine, gearbox or interior — and had to be trailered away. There were no front wings, or slam panel or front panel, and it also had a homemade big tunnel, which was very rough.”

The potential was obvious however, so David snapped it up and immediately transferred it to the safe pair of hands that is Trevor at Highway Hell Hotrods in Dechmont, West Lothian. This was back in June 2014, and the brief for the restoration was to get it done right rather than done fast.

“The rear valance under the back doors was rotten so we replaced that,” says David. “Both rear quarters, inner and outer, were replaced, although the back doors and roof were perfect! The inside boot floor and arches needed minor repairs, the front chassis rails were also replaced, and the underneath was all covered in Black Schutz so the van was completely blasted.”

The to-do list continued to grow; with new-old-stock Mexico front wings fitted, the rear arches then receiving a lip to match, and the damaged bonnet was replaced with a NOS item. Then came the new slam panel and front panel, but David was pleased to note that the inner front wings, strut tops and heater bowl were all good, as were the floorpans. The ropey old tunnel was cut out, and the correct one reinstated. And with the bodywork finally perfected — a four-year endeavour, all-in — the original Marine Blue was replaced by Anthracite Grey, an old VW Beetle shade.

New and old

“Everything on the van is either new, new-old-stock, or restored,” David assures us. “All of the chromework, for example, was zinc-plated by Derby Plating, as was every single nut and bolt through the rebuild. We’ve got all new window glass here — aside from in the rear doors, as they’re all-original — and new lights all round, new grille, new mirrors, the works.”

escort van

The interior has enjoyed a thorough rejuvenation too, with a fresh set of carpets joined by Contour Clubman seats trimmed in black Betacloth and leather with adjustable headrests, as well as new doorcards and a tidy boot carpet. And if you’ve spotted the RS2000 dash, Springalex steering wheel, harnesses and bias pedal box and think that might all be a bit overblown for a humble 8cwt van, you can rest assured that the asthmatic factory Crossflow motor is long-gone.

escort van

“It’s running a freshly built 2.1 Pinto on twin 45s,” David tells us. “There’s a big-valve head and Kent cams over a 205 block, with a Radtec alloy radiator, electronic ignition, RS2000 sump, and the race battery and the electric Facet fuel pump are mounted behind the seats. Oh, and there’s the Harris Performance exhaust manifold running into a full 3 inch stainless system, so it makes all the right noises.” 

The upshot of all this is an estimated 170-180 bhp, which is enough to get those groceries delivered at 21st Century speeds. There’s an LSD hidden between the beautifully refurbished rear Lotus steels, and the entire chassis has been transmogrified from its commercial roots into something far racier— we’re talking Wilwood four-pot brakes, Bilstein coil-overs up front and GAZ Golds with single-leafs out back, anti-tramp bars, a quick-rack, and a nice thick anti-roll bar. 

escort van

Britain’s best

Safe to say that not a single stone was left untroubled throughout the course of this build; the finish is flawless throughout and this is certainly one of the best Mk1 vans in the country right now. The plucky little ’74 8cwt has served its functional purpose, survived the ignominy of abandonment, and enjoyed a fabulous modern rebirth. 

Backbone of Britain? Damn right — and unlike most of us, this backbone’s only getting tougher with age. 

Words Daniel Bevis

Photos Adrian Brannan

See more photos and get the full spec on David’s Escort van in the Spring issue

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