Serving the Ford-approved needs of the customised van scene
You would be exceptionally myopic to miss the impact of the custom van scene in the UK, diagnoses Iain Robertson, epitomised as it is by a growing gaggle of VW Transporter vans sporting vivid paint schemes, wide wheels and custom interiors but for the past few months it has been Ford’s turn.
Track back into the history of the motorcar and you will find that, for some adopters, the standard offering is seldom adequate. During the booze-running period of prohibition America, engine tuning was all the rage and, once the economy had recovered, it was inevitable that those former ‘criminals’ would indulge in some form of competition, which drag racing satisfied to perfection.
While vehicle customisation, these days referred to as ‘personalisation’, was largely inspired by 1950s Americana, by the mid-1960s, it had reached our shores and those of Europe, emphasising a growth away from post-war austerity to new-found prosperity, while also allowing an exploration in displaying individuality. Unlike the drag-influenced scene in North America, ours was promoted by a blend of race and rally activities.
It is a fascinating market that has peaked and troughed but never been lost over the intervening years. Needless to say, it is viable in financial terms and there are many pockets of individual customising and tuning shops dotted around the UK. However, taking that vital forwards step into a much broader arena demands a judicious blend of entrepreneurial spirit and a moderate pot of cash.
In May last year, the first of the current Transit Custom vans worthy of the term ‘custom’ rolled out of the former heritage protected ICI works on the north side of Pontypool, a Welsh town that sits in the lea of the picturesque Brecon Beacons. Check back through our motoring archive for more details on the MS-RT Transit. Since then, the company has been working feverishly to develop the smaller MS-RT Transit Connect, the first examples of which are being despatched to Ford Van Centres presently.
It is worth highlighting that, when ICI closed its various fabric manufacturing operations, the Pontypool area became an unemployment blackspot. In fact, the premises of MS-RT is based in one corner of an industrial estate formed out of the previous ICI buildings that used to employ in excess of 23,000 people.
Established by Ed Davies, the company’s managing director, and a £25,000 investment as Van Sport, it was clear from the outset that a hands-on mentor and business angel would be essential. That individual arrived in the form of Malcolm Wilson, the Cumbrian-based former rally driver and, for the past 23 years, director of Ford Motorsports. He provides a valued and direct link to Ford’s main board, as well as enthusiastic development funding for the vans operation in South Wales. While MS-RT is linked directly to Ford Motor Company, it remains an independent business operation that can not only develop its own products but can also work on other brands.
The Ford connection is an important one. As the recognised ‘Backbone of Britain’ in light commercial terms (reinforced recently by a TV advertising campaign), its Transit family is the top-selling van line-up in the UK, despite no longer manufacturing (in Southampton) as it used to. Recognition of the values associated with customised vans, not only to the business sector but also and equally to the retail scene, has provided the momentum to MS-RT. In fact, Ford Motor Company has been so enthused by the Welsh customiser that it has ‘bought into’ the enterprise by investing its Qualified Vehicle Modifier (QVM) status that adds manufacturer warranted support, a vital adjunct.
MS-RT’s remit is to infuse a motorsport inspired level of bespoke customising to Ford light commercial vehicles. Although its early developments were, as for many other local customising businesses, retail biased and multi-branded, appreciating that a major manufacturer like Ford Motor Company might benefit from a similar impetus was pursued by Mr Davies and his colleagues. Apart from providing a wonderful industrial backdrop for photographic efforts, building up work opportunities from an area starved of them is intrinsic to the MS-RT ethos.
Naturally, Ford is hugely impressed by MS-RT, following an extensive and deep dive assessment of its production facilities. Each of the vehicles produced at Pontypool must meet Ford’s Body and Equipment Mounting Manual (BEMM) standards, Quality Control processes and all engineering aspects. All original Ford parts removed from the supplied vehicle provide the direct mounting points for MS-RT modifications. The injection moulding processes and both paint and trim finishes not only meet Ford’s exacting standards but also ensure that vehicle kerb-weights and core dimensions remain intact, an important aspect of vehicle homologation. As the rest of the components are largely bolt-on and proprietary but are motorsport-derived, the Malcolm Wilson Motorsport connections are exercised with alloy wheel suppliers and other manufacturers, none of which has been involved in the vans sector before.
Following established production line techniques, MS-RT has already reached a 700 units annual sales level that is set to more than double with the introduction of the Transit Connect model. While it is somewhat larger than some ‘cottage industry’ exponents, MS-RT is the first fully manufacturer supported, van customising operation in the world. As such, the business is already commencing the next stage of its exciting expansion programme, in readiness for dealing with the European side of Ford’s van business, with supplies to several countries due to start in 2020.
Conclusion: To witness the passion and enthusiasm evident at MS-RT is highly infectious. It is a company flexible enough to deal with Ford’s specific demands, which will include future hybrid and EV variants, while durable enough to meet future challenges and provide solid employment prospects to the local community. It already employs 53 personnel; a small but important starting point.