The history of commercial vehicles: from Cart to Nippy Vans

The history of commercial vehicles: from Cart to Nippy Vans

The automobile as we know it was not created originally as a way to take the kids to their after school activities. It was a development of the trusty horse and cart that drove or pulled the economy of the industrialised world. It’s no coincidence that we measure the power rating of cars, trucks and commercial vehicles in horse power! When they first hit the roads, cars could only match the ability of a few horses interms of pulling power and speed.

commercial vans

Since someone at vehicle manufacturer Volkswagen first sketched the idea of a “box on wheels” to deal with transporting goods and products, the commercial vehicle industry has grown to become one of the dominant income streams for many manufacturers including Volkswagen, Ford and Fiat.

As the horse drawn vehicles of the 1880s made way for petrol and diesel driven cars and buses, a number of challenges were faced by the manufacturers, particularly the ever increasing size of the goods needing transport, and, in Europe at least, a road network which struggled to keep up. Anyone who has driven through the narrow winding streets of Paris or London knows that it’s hard enough to find road space even in a family car so modern manufacturers of commercial vehicles have to build something big that handles like a small car. There are of course calls from some quarters for all vehicles to be banned from City centres.

It wasn’t always this way. The first commercial vehicles in the UK like AEC (Associated Equipment Company) or Leyland have all but disappeared or been swallowed up as subsidiaries of larger companies as they struggled to keep up with the ever changing needs of the post war economy. AEC who got their start in 1912, about the same time as most of the car and commercial vehicle brands we are familiar with today, only made it to 1979 for example.

Some brands like Leyland had an injection of money by winning government contracts like the Royal Mail contract (Postman Pat drove one!) but competition has meant that the UK companies have made way for their European counterparts.

As time progressed, and information transfer requirements got faster, there was a new market develop for the manufacturers. That of the light commercial vehicles like the Ford Transit van. This documentary on Youtube describes the origins of the light commercial vehicle industry. City centres could no longer afford to be congested with large trucks and lorries, as they had been before, and a new type of vehicle filled the gap between a car and a lorry. Rapid delivery, nimble handling and even a bit of creature comfort and mod-con gadgets were the reward for the drivers of a new fleet of modern commercial vehicles.

In the 2000’s a new challenge was faced by manufacturers. The increase in the price of diesel, and penalties for vehicles which were seen as polluters, have forced the manufacturers to look at increasing efficiency and decreasing the waste products of their fleets. Companies like Fiat with their flagship Ducato van have risen to the challenge and it seems like the next evolution of the commercial range will be an environmentally friendly one.