Why the Astra van rules the fast lane: CAR+ archive, June 1990

Published: 09 June 1990

► Russell Bulgin on motorway etiquette
► Why the Astra van rules the outside lane
► A classic 1990 column stars in CAR+

Can we talk stealth for a while? Stealth is the art of driving inconspicuously quickly. The new Lotus Elan and the Peugeot 205 GTl 1.9 may well be fast up-and-at-'em middleweights, but with their alloy wheels, low-riding stance and general demeanour of muscley aggression, they are just too obvious. Driving an Elan is prima facie evidence that you like to go out and raise a ruckus now and again. 

And as I sit in the middle lane of the M25, it's not Elans and 205 GTls that stonk past me at a quadzillion miles per hour. The fast lane of a British motorway is where the stealth-machines fly. The fast lane of a British motorway is where you get blitzed by a Bedford Astra Van at 95. 

I'm not kidding. For the past 20 years, the fastest day-to-day transport on a British motorway has been a van, effectively unseen through its very ubiquity. To a car driver, a van is a van is a van: you can't determine light commercial status or performance in a single glance the because they all look the same. 

Before the Astra Van, the third-lane off gold medal winner was the Ford Transit. Forget Cavalier, Sierra and Montego: his serious week in, week out motorway speed, it seemed to me, came from a van. 

I wanted to check out the stealth of alternative. So I borrowed the pole position machine: a Bedford Astra Van 1.4L. In black. To the lame detritus clogging the outside lane this brick on wheels was as good as invisible. 

I saw an indicated 100mph in the Astra Van, no problem. The claimed maximum is 103mph and it feels like it would at that speed all day. Yes, it’s noisy, but there’s 55.4 cubic feet of air aching to cause acoustic mayhem in the void beyond your left ear.

The 1.4 engine is the same carburated unit as found in baby Astras. Two glorious characteristics mark it out: serious bottom-end torque and throttle response so delicate you can raise the revs by twiddling your toes. The gearshift is slick, complementing the alacrity of the motor. 

Handling is there, too. On a winding road the Astra Van is fun: grip is reasonable and turn-in pretty snappy. Unladen, the brakes are a mite over-servoed: with 620kg of tapioca in the back they probably work just fine. 

The Astra Van 1.4 packs its 75bhp into 875kg, which is pretty light by the fat car standards of today. The shape suggests itself as reasonably aerodynamic: the Astramax van, which comes complete with a raised rear roofline for greater losing its place as the '70s leader of the load-bay height, looks like it was designed by a team more used to shaping a Group C racer. While the Astramax may appear funkier, it is considerably heavier, model for model —the 1.4 weighs in at 915kg - and has a reduced available payload. 

So the Astra Van L, with its decent cloth seats and minimalist dash looks to be the one to go for. My test vehicle had one flaw. It was immaculate. Shiny, clean, tidy, sweet-smelling. Vans aren’t like that: the cabin is usually wall-to-wall halitosis, the exterior a graffiti of scuffs, dings, scrapes and chips. A dent in your Lotus Elan is a precursor to heartbreak: a scratch down the side of the Astra Van instantly confirms you as a take-no-mess van-man.

Because there is an unspoken code surrounding every move made by a serious van user: don’t give a shit. That, blunt as it seems, is the Zen of van driving. Just recently I saw a delivery can swoop into a parking space like Jean Alesi corning on qualifying tyres.

The van snagged the outside edge of a BMW’s front pumper and ripped it off. As the van shuddered to a halt, the driver hopped out, ran across the road, dropped of his parcel and headed back to his van. The BMW owner, who had been sitting in his car as the van sliced away a couple of kilos of prime German polycarbonate, walked over to the driver to give him a spot of what-for. The vanner ended up shouting at the BMW man for, presumably, wasting his time. 

In urban driving, the most determined road warriors are the Post Office boys. These guys use perfect racing lines on the road and have redefined late-braking as an ultimate in self-expression. 

And they know, like you know, that if you do tangle with them then the Post office pays for damage. And you can safely assume that trying to settle an insurance claim with the Post Office will probably prove an object lesson in bureaucracy – so you back off, pull over, let them get away with treating fellow road-users like backmarkers in a NASCAR race.

Ford is obviously concerned about losing its place as the ‘70s leader of the outside lane stealth squadron. For a mere £2518.50 on top of the price of a regular Transit you can now create a muscle-van. That two-and-a-half grand gets you a 150bhp Ford Granada V6 stuffed in the front of the Trannie, plus a five-speed box with a 4.63 to one final-drive ratio. 

You’ve got it. That final-drive figure – which, if memory serves, used to be favoured by series rear-drive Escort rally-boys – is the key to this machine. I borrowed a V6 Transit 15-seater bus which was about the size of a house. 

From the traffic lights, however, given the obligatory stump-pulling bottom two gears, the short diff and the grunt of the V6, this life-jacket orange leviathan destroyed hot hatchbacks. From 0-40mph the V6 Transit was awesome.

Sadly, however, it loses out at the top end, since it’s governed to just 87mph. The speed-restrictor is necessary due to the short-sightedness of Europe’s tyre-makers, who can’t see that 16 good friends could possibly want to travel together at 110mph and thus won’t produce radials that might relish such a combination of payload and pace. 

Fuel consumption is, sadly, pretty dreadful, languishing down in the mid-teens if you use the traditional miles per gallon measure: in terms of people carried per motorway mile per gallon, it’s probably terrific. You can buy the fuel-injected V6 Trannie from any Ford van dealer. It is built in Southampton and nine out of 10 produced go to what Ford gently terms ‘the emergency services’.

The Astra Van offers good B-road performance, compared to the Transit. The Trannie can’t match it on winding roads, despite power steering and a driving position which has you peering over hedges. But on the motorway and in any kind of between-the-lights sprint, the Transit comes over all Tyson. 

And, of course, the V6 Trannie is competition-proven. Back when Ford Escorts won the RAC Rally with the regularity of Liverpool taking the division one title, all the Boreham service barges had the comparatively puny 2.0-litre units junked and replaced by V6s. This means, I believe, that the V6 Transit has a more comprehensive motorsport history than, say, a Fiesta XR2i. 

Ford’s rally mechanics knew, of course, that they had to travel unobtrusively quickly, hauling vast mountains of kit. They needed a stealth van to win rallies. Now stealth vans rule the fast lane of the M25. So get set for a cliché – hands up all those who agree that, once again, competition improves the breed. 

Bulgin on the Astra Van, June 1990

By Russell Bulgin

Modernist, critic, columnist, contributor 1989-2000