The evolution of the ‘man with a man’

It’s been several decades since the first vans hit Britain’s roads and 2019 marks the iconic Volkswagen Transporter’s 40th birthday. To celebrate this cornerstone of LCV history, we take a walk through the story of van man and his heritage.

Being a man with a van is about more than just driving your Ford Transit or Mercedes Sprinter from job to job. It’s also a matter of identity, representing the freedom of self-employment or the hard-won skills of your trade.

This is the history of vehicles we all know and love – as well as the men who drove them.

Wagon Man

The sight of vans dashing along our motorways has become so common that it may seem strange that a few generations ago, there was no such thing. Much of the transportation work tackled by modern Van Man happened on canal boats or the simple horse and cart.

The word ‘van’ first appeared in the 19th century, long before the car was dreamed of. It referred to a covered wagon meant for transporting goods. This type of van might have been powered by horses rather than horsepower, but it sowed the seeds for van man culture as we know it. Tradesmen were able to carry their tools more easily than ever before.

When the petrol engine was added – like the Peugeot Daimler prototype from 1890 – van man’s early ancestor was able to cover off larger distances with more speed than ever before.

Early Man (with a van)

Car ownership took off in the 1910s in Britain, but it really ballooned from the 1950s onwards. Vans came later – many of our best-loved vans were developed in the 1950s and 60s. These include the British Ford Transit, the German Volkswagen Transporter and forgotten favourites like the Ford Econoline.

This was the era when van insurance was specialised and distinct from other types of vehicles – today, it can be customised to protect tools and cargo, reflecting the unique ways vans are used.

The breakdown van was introduced by the AA in 1962, marking an era of diversification for vans.

White Van Man

Somewhere around the 1990s, van-driving became so synonymous with working-class manhood. The term ‘White Van Man’ was coined by BBC Radio 2 DJ Sarah Kennedy and it was quickly adopted by the British press.

The term is loaded with stereotypes – one article called White Van Man the ‘scourge of Britain’s roads’. But, some drivers and traders wear the label as a badge of pride – after all, almost half of Brits have benefited from a van in the last 24 hours. 

High-tech Trader

The 2010s have seen traders and couriers driving away from the stereotypes. The three-wheeled designs of yesterday are long gone and modern vans are more likely than ever to be silver or black. In fact, changes to tax rules are encouraging van drivers to invest in newer vehicles, which often come with nifty new touch screen gadgets.

The best new vans for 2019 are equipped with a responsive drive and radar-powered safety boosters. Electric vans are catering to a more eco-conscious generation and one in three van drivers are now women.

The humble van has come a long way through decades of development, driving trade and fixing problems all over the country. It’s no wonder Transit vehicles are a source of great pride for so many drivers.