International Truck Stop - High and mighty

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

For all its iconic status, and all the urban myths surrounding it, Ford’s towering Transcontinental lasted little more than eight years...but what years they were.

Flashback to 1973 and cold weather testing of the
Transconti prototype in Finland. The project code 
name for the big Ford was Elba. 

The history of truck making is full of apocryphal tales. One of my favourites concerns the launch of the lofty Ford Transcontinental.

An early Transconti on a road test. Beneath the modified
Berliet cab beat a hummin’ Cummins.

In March 1975 Europe’s truck press were gathered at a hotel in Amsterdam to witness its official unveiling. As the presentation unfolded a distinct unease could be felt through the audience until finally an exasperated hack asked,

“If it has a Berliet cab, a Cummins engine, a Fuller gearbox, a Dana Spicer clutch and a Rockwell back-axle...what exactly does Ford take?” According to popular legend, the answer came back “The profit of course!” If it’s true, sadly it wasn’t enough. Little more than eight years after its debut, Transcontinental, or the H-Series to give it its proper name, was dropped from Ford’s European truck line-up. What price its advertising slogan ‘Built stronger to last longer’?

The Transconti’s build strategy clearly proved a challenge for those Continental journalists used to integrated drivelines. They couldn’t understand how a truck with a Cummins engine could be called a Ford. Then there was its four-point cab suspension, which came about because of the flexibility of the frame at the front end and the need to control cab pitch and roll. It certainly rode differently from a Foden or Leyland. 

Scottish Transconti on UK tanker work.

After taking the Transconti for a spin a number of scribes noted that the fully sprung cab not only bounced around, it also leaned alarmingly on corners and cambers, which didn’t help in keeping a precise line when driving along some of the narrower Dutch roads. One veteran UK journo likened it to “Riding on a blancmange”.

Notwithstanding that dessert-based analogy, after years of success with its D-Series, here was a company, traditionally strong in the middleweight market, and with a dealer network capable of supporting its lighter-weight products right across Europe, now offering a top-weight tractor. Suddenly, Ford was in the ‘big’ league with the Transconti. The words ‘whole’, ‘new’, and ‘ball-game’ came to mind. Could Ford’s European truck organisation really pull it off?

If ever a truck attracted urban myths it was the Transconti - or as one individual cruelly described it: “Overweight, overheight and over here!” Yet despite only 8,735 being built, it’s become one of the most iconic European tractors of the last century, with traces of its soaring DNA still found in today’s flagship tractors.

So how come it lasted fewer than nine years? And why is it still fondly remembered 34 years later? On paper, at least, the Transconti’s specification was exceedingly impressive. It was like Ford’s engineers had been let loose in their favourite sweetshop. Having looked around for a suitable cab, they chose well. The Berliet TR was one of the best available. Ford took it, jacked it up (to 3.15m high) to allow adequate clearance for their chosen powertrain, and added a distinctive glass-fibre skirt all the way around below the original cab’s waistline. It also meant the Transconti came with a proper sleeper as standard, with up to three seats in it too – even if no one was quite sure who the middle one was for. 

The Transcontinental still turns heads at retro truck shows. The one on the left is set up for the Middle East run.

ITS ENGINE CHOICE was equally inspired. Cummins’ legendary 14-litre was not only popular with British operators, it also reflected the belief amongst Ford’s product planners that ‘sometime in the future (and hopefully not-too distant future at that), UK artic gross combination weights would increase from the-then top limit of 32 tonnes to 44 tonnes – which, coincidentally, was the operating weight the Transconti was designed for. And if gross weights did go up, then operators would need more power to shift them. Thus, the 340 horses from a hummin’ Cummins would be perfect to propel those heavier British lorries down the road.

The original Transcontinental engine line-up included three turbocharged 14-litre lumps (rated at 273, 308 and 340hp) and the US-supplied, and naturally aspirated, 240hp NH250 (also called the Super 252) with a higher 15.2-litre displacement. The latter was reportedly fitted at the insistence of Ford of Germany in order to compete against Merc’s big unblown vee-diesels. It doubtless also pleased those dyed-in-the-wool British hauliers who, clinging tenaciously to their beloved unblown Gardner engines, were still wary of turbocharging – especially in ‘foreign’ trucks. Two years later however, the NH250 was replaced by the Shotts-built (in Scotland) turbocharged NTC 250E with 8% more torque, delivered at lower revs too. Now all Transcontis shared the same 14-litre engine family.

Sitting behind those mighty motors was the standard (and highly popular) 9-speed Roadranger constant mesh box (a 13-speed was optional), while at the back, a single-reduction Rockwell drive axle laid the power down onto the tarmac. Urban myths aside, Ford’s own contribution to the Transconti was more than just the badge on the front. The H-Series’ frame was similar to Ford’s US Louisville heavy-duty truck chassis (conveniently already engineered for Cummins engines), which was put together with high-tensile bolts and hardened steel washers.

There are few Transcontinentals still alive and kicking in Blighty as witnessed by these beautifully restored Mk 1 models at a vintage truck show.

Not surprisingly, given the sum of its parts and the size of its ‘living-room’, the Transconti was a popular choice for drivers on the blossoming Middle East run. Within a year of its debut at the UK’s Earls Court Show Ford rolled out a truly ‘Transcontinental’ spec with heavy-duty front and rear suspension, induction-hardened track rods, extra fuel tanks, a frame-mounted tool box, three 20-litre water jerry cans, and a roof-mounted air-conditioning unit. An optional security pack also provided “...locking facilities for all parts which might be pilfered”.

Those Middle East pioneers weren’t the only ones who appreciated the Transconti – UK domestic drivers loved its comfortable, spacious cab, even if their bosses struggled with its kerb weight – 1,200kg more than an Atkinson Borderer. And while its low-down torque, eager horses and final drive ratios were well suited to high-speed motorway cruising, they also loved the big Ford’s get-up-and-go, even in the 240hp entry level models. As one truck magazine road test of the 240hp HA3424 declared: “Ford has let loose a willing workhorse”. 

A year later came the face-lifted Mk II with its black grille and classic Ford blue oval in front of a Big Cam Cummins NTE 290 engine. Pushing out a healthy 274hp, it provided plenty of power for criss-crossing Europe’s rapidly growing motorway network. Indeed, as one tester confirmed, “The fitment of the NTE 290 has given the Transcontinental a new lease of life”.

Having previously picked up brickbats on its cab suspension, some journos even thought the Mk II rode better. So what exactly had Ford done to cure its wobbly cab? The answer was actually nothing – in fact the cab suspension design remained unchanged throughout the life of the vehicle. Which only shows how perception can play strange tricks when you’re sitting behind the wheel...then again, maybe the roads were just better.

While 70s and 80s lorry drivers certainly loved its high-and-mighty driving position, unfortunately the Transconti’s towering cab and big engine didn’t do it any favours in the fuel economy stakes. By the start of the 1980s, once-cheap diesel was all but a memory, while the UK economy (and truck market) was experiencing a major downturn. More importantly, there’d been no movement on raising UK gross weight limits – hardly the incentive to buy a tall, heavy, powerful truck with a questionable thirst.

Then, in late 1981 the Transconti became homeless when Ford closed the Amsterdam site where the big Ford was built. In short order, production was switched to Foden’s assembly plant in Cheshire (which had spare capacity) with Paccar building the Transconti, and Ford remaining responsible for sales, marketing and service. However, despite finally being made – and sold – at a profit, it proved little more than a temporary respite. In June 1983 Commercial Motor magazine reported the death of the H-Series, insisting:

“Transcontinental sales have never proved rewarding for Ford, and concentration on the [new] Cargo reflects its better performance as a volume seller of mass-produced [middleweight] commercials.” The very last Transcontis rolled off the Foden line in early 1984.

Back in 1975 there was sleeping room for two drivers in the Transcontinental cab.

So was the Transcontinental really 10 years ahead of its time? Or was it a case of Ford trying to leapfrog the competition in a single bound and failing? Either way it was certainly short-lived. Nowadays, eight years is nothing in the production lifespan of a long-haul tractor – barely enough to make it as a million-mile motor. Mercedes’ then equivalent New Generation range (which later morphed into the SK and Powerliner) lasted almost three times longer, while other UK-built rivals ploughed an equally extended furrow before being put out to grass.

Maybe the H-Series could have survived if gross weights had gone up. But they didn’t. In the face of strong opposition from the public and the rail lobby, successive British Transport Ministers refused to budge on truck weights. It wasn’t until November 1983, just months before Transconti production finally ended, that UK Transport Minister David Howell confirmed a modest increase to 38 tonnes GCW for artics. 

And it would take another 18 years before 44-tonners were universally allowed to operate on UK roads. By then, however, time had long been called on Ford’s short-lived supertruck.