I always get the sneaking suspicion that when vans are delivered to us for appraisal, the test week is a slightly unreal affair.
For starters the vehicles are always new, with rarely more than delivery mileage on the clock, and also we never know quite what bits of secret tweakery have been perpetrated by the various manufacturers before the vans reach us.
I’m not suggesting that anything underhand goes on, but let’s just say our test vehicles have been very carefully inspected before we get them.
So, driving nothing but brand new vans week in, week out, I was shocked recently when I hired a 3.5-tonner from a local rental firm to find what a state it was in, even though it was only nine months old.
I won’t mention which particular model it was, but it shook, it rattled, it squeaked – and using the gearstick was a bit like stirring a Christmas pudding.
Time, I thought, for a long-term test model.
By keeping a vehicle for six months and subjecting it to some of the rigours of a normal fleet life, we would really get to see what was what.
And what better vehicle to start with than the undisputed king of panel vans, the Ford Transit.
Ford was happy to help out and within a week of the request, we were furnished with a shiny new 3.5-tonner with just 400 miles on the clock.
This Transit is a medium wheelbase, medium-roof version tipping the scales at 3.5-tonnes gross vehicle weight, which is the top end of the Transit scale.
Under the bonnet is Ford’s 2.0-litre common-rail TDCi powerplant offering a meaty 125bhp and torque of 210lb-ft. It isn’t the most powerful Transit on the road – there is a new 135bhp version now – but it will be plenty fast enough for our testers.
Step aboard and it soon becomes clear that this is no ordinary Transit.
It comes with all the extras you can think of, including metallic paint, full steel bulkhead, reversing alarm, electric windows and mirrors, air conditioning, foglights and a CD?player – many items that would have been restricted to cars not long ago.
This van is so well specced that I’m seriously considering putting in an offer for it when it is time for it to go back to its maker next January – I doubt there is another like it on the roads.
Not only will the vehicle be driven by the Fleet Van staff, but some of the testers from sister title Fleet News will be taking a turn behind the wheel, many of whom have driven nothing bigger in their lives than a Volkswagen Passat.
So I was relieved to see that the van had a reversing alarm.
I also laid down some firm ground rules about what the vehicle could be used for.
I don’t mind the odd bit of furniture removal and even taking an old gas cooker to the city dump but the transportation of horse manure and suchlike has been strictly banned.
This might seem strange but several of the Fleet News staff are keen gardeners and I wouldn’t put it past them to try and snaffle a ton or so of the old merde du chevaux aboard when I wasn’t looking.
I shall also be keeping a strict log of who had the van on which day, in the event that a speeding ticket comes winging its way in my direction.
Gosh, it’s almost like being a real fleet manager!
So how has the Transit performed in its first few weeks? Admirably well.
Hardly a day goes by without someone wanting to borrow it and, to a man and woman, they have all praised its car-like driving qualities.
The van has a full bulkhead so there is no chance of using the rear door windows while manoeuvring.
Nevertheless, none of the testers have been fazed by that. ‘It’s just like driving a big car,’ they said.
As various people use the van, it is fast becoming full of those little bits and pieces that prove invaluable to an operator.
One tester left a road atlas in the cab, another left some large cardboard panels which are handy for slotting in between pieces of furniture to stop them rubbing together and I finished things off with a couple of blankets and a few pieces of stout rope for covering and tying-in loads.
When the cardboard isn’t being used for protection, it makes a nice covering for the floor to stop it getting scuffed.