The Canterbury Conversion

Cars Culture

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Mickey Gibbons has only lived with his1971 Ford Transit MK1 Canterbury Conversion for two years – but already its personality is burned into his hearts and minds. “Her name is Susan, Mickey tells me as we prepare to pull away into a North Essex countryside yellowing with ripening wheat, “The name just seemed to fit. It’s definitely a feminine vehicle, but is also quite practical. The name Susan seemed to say that to me.”

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Giving names to vehicles is a notoriously polarising piece of anthropomorphism. But if any vehicle on the road had a personality to which you could ascribe human attributes, it would be this pretty camper.

“The thing I love about it is the fact that so many other people love it,” Says the graphic artist. As he shows me the original plug, a tiny, forty year old plug that came with the van. “You could do a social history of England just through this van. We’ve just been up to Scotland and back in her, and everyone we met had a story about their old Transit Van, or their old Transit camper. There’s something about them that inspires a very real kind of devotion and affection.”

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The camper is almost completely original, with the leather strapped top box and modular furniture that came out of the Kent factory back in the time of the Ted Heath Government. The only thing that isn’t is the two litre ‘PInto’ ford engine, a reliable bit of Dagneham engineering that propelled the two of them to the Western Isles of Scotland and back to the Essex countryside they call home. ” It was a 1400 mile roundtrip, and we only had one little incident with what the man called an ‘Ignition electronic amplifier’.” Half a day’s delay and eighty quid in parts and labour, and the sailed off into the distance unharrassed. “She’s got a 50 mile per hour maximum cruising speed, so we still managed to get 25 MPG.” Mickey is obviously a proud partner of the Canterbury.

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Driving a forty year old van is a physical experience. Mickey shows amazing aptitude, throwing the Trannie in and around the tight, undulating lanes around Manningtree with aplomb. It’s all about flirting with the gearbox, reading the road ahead and teasing the lower gears in and out of corners. “When I get in a new car, I’m always amazed at how little you have to do!” he says, as we pull out from some stationary traffic and some blokes in a Mercedes Vito pipe up without being asked. “No power steering that one, mate!”

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“The thing is with new cars is that they are so boring, Mickey tells me, as we pull back in to the driveway and fire up the stove for a cup of tea. “They have no personality and are still really expensive to buy and run. We can get out on the road with this van and the journey becomes the destination.”

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