The Worst Vehicle I Ever Owned
How generic British amateurism and apathy conspired to create a mobile death-trap
For those of us fortunate enough to be born in the affluent countries of the West, there generally comes a time when we acquire our very first automotive means of transportation. No more bicycling in the rain. No more waiting for rattly old busses that arrive late or never arrive at all. No more noisy trains crammed full of beer-sodden soccer fans vomiting on the floor. The moment we get our very own personal private independent means of getting from one place to another, we experience a kind of small-scale Nirvana.
Unfortunately, Nirvana in my case was rather more rusty and decrepit than one may have hoped for. At age seventeen I wasn’t interested in sporty cars; I wanted something practical. As my entire life up to that point had been highly unstable and unpredictable, I wanted something in which I could, if the worst came to the worst (as it had so often done in the past), exist. I wanted something I could sleep in, get dressed in, and even eat in. And so I wanted a camper van.
Yes, gentle reader, even back then I had absolutely no idea what would be considered attractive to women. If there’s such a thing as a “chick magnet” then rest assured, a camper van is most certainly not it. Especially when that van is very old and very rusty, because that was all I could afford. But for me it wasn’t about attracting naïve young women or bolstering an underdeveloped sense of self; it was about ensuring that if the brown stuff hit the rotating object once again, I’d have a form of refuge. So it was that I became the owner of a thirteen-year-old Commer camping van.
For those who have been fortunate enough to have lived without ever once having experienced the dubious pleasures of British automotive engineering, suffice it to say that there’s a very good reason there are no major British car manufacturers any more. JaguarLandRover is a low-volume producer of hopelessly unreliable vehicles that survives only thanks to continued infusions of cash from its Indian owner Tata Motors. Lotus, Morgan, and Aston-Martin all lurch from one bankruptcy to the next while their products invariably display signs of cost-cutting and sloppy workmanship. Bentley is owned by VW and Rolls-Royce is owned by BMW and so aren’t embarrassing like they used to be. Both these two latter marques sell products based on reliable quotidian core elements, dressed up and disguised by pleasant coachwork and expensive interiors.
But back when I bought the Commer, the awful British car industry was still lurching from one self-created catastrophe to another. Quality was worse than abysmal and reliability wasn’t even a concept British automotive engineers understood, never mind aspired to. Subsidiaries of the US giants Ford and General Motors churned out third-rate products; indigenous British firms struggled to deliver products that were fourth-rate or worse. And at the very bottom of this heap of iniquity and shame lurked (yes, you guessed it): the Commer van.
Which is why I was able to buy one for around the price of a prawn sandwich. Everything else was completely out of my reach.
Had I but known it, however, I’d have been wiser attempting to attach a 50cc two-stroke moped motor and a set of roller-skates to a prawn sandwich than to buy the Commer. Alas, I had to learn from experience. My automotive virginity had to be brutally despoiled, leaving me sadder and wiser and even less financially secure than before.
The Commer was so utterly awful that it’s difficult to know where to begin when attempting to describe it. The vehicle was, in essence, a series of atrocious design decisions executed with the slapdash carelessness for which British automotive workers were justifiably famous, and made from parts that were poorly manufactured from low-quality materials. But even this litany of failures doesn’t really capture how truly dreadful the vehicle was.
The Commer van was an ill-conceived British response to the successful VW (Type 2) van. The VW had begun life in 1950 as a commercial light van, based on the VW Beetle. Like the Beetle, its engine was at the back (the worst possible location) and was the same atrocious little air-cooled flat-four contrivance that struggled to produce more than a handful of flatulent horsepower. Yet, transmutated into a camper, it became wildly successful. The manufacturers of Commer (the name deriving from Commercial van) thought they could pull off the same trick. And so the Commer camper van was inflicted upon the world, or at least the dreary little UK, which has for the last couple of centuries thought of itself as the entire world.
The Commer did have some advantages over the VW. For a start, its engine was situated up front, between the driver and passenger. By lifting a poorly-fitting fiberglass panel, the driver could gain access to the engine and related components. This meant that it was often possible to fix a fault while remaining inside the vehicle instead of having to stand in the inevitable British rain to do the job. And that was just as well, because the Commer broke down a lot.
Seriously, a lot.
Unfortunately the Commer’s slender advantage in this regard was somewhat eroded by the fact that its front doors operated on rails, sliding back and forth rather than opening conventionally. As panel fit was extremely sloppy, this meant that rain poured in at the top of each door, guaranteeing a “refreshing” impromptu shower every time it rained. And in Britain it rains a lot.
Water also came into the vehicle by means of the bottoms of the doors, which had an equally poor fit and were further enhanced by the presence of several holes resulting from chronic rust. Back in those days, paint was applied to cars in a rather random fashion with the consequence that patches of bare metal were visible even on brand-new vehicles. As the British used rock salt every winter to prevent ice forming on the roads (which it did, anyway) and as rock salt is highly corrosive, this meant that nearly every British vehicle became a rust-bucket within a couple of years. Or in the case of the Commer, much sooner than that.
As the Commer was body-on-frame, this meant that the fundamental structural integrity of the vehicle would rapidly be compromised. Which led to interesting developments, as I eventually discovered.
But the crowning genius of the Commer was the fact that the front wheels were inset relative to the rear wheels. This made the vehicle fundamentally unstable when turning a corner. Not as unstable as the equally British Reliant Robin, which had a mere single wheel at the front and was thus a total death-trap, but nevertheless rather unstable and on slippery surfaces a serious liability. This was because, as so often happened with British automotive engineering, Commer decided it would be cheaper to use parts from an old existing car and simply weld them to the frame of the vehicle rather than go to the trouble of actually designing something new for the van itself. The rear of the van used parts from an older commercial vehicle and so the track at the rear was therefore wider. This was all in the proud British tradition of “bodge engineering.”
Meanwhile, the hapless driver was positioned at the very front of the vehicle with only a thin sheet of metal between them and anything in front and the steering wheel was of course free of modern safety aids like an airbag and a collapsing steering column. As for seatbelts, only a lap-belt was available. This meant that even a very low-speed impact would likely be fatal. Designing failure into the vehicle was a stroke of genius and I’m sure the engineers who did this must have congratulated themselves on their heroic attempt to tackle the UK’s over-population problem.
In my particular vehicle the heater no longer worked as the flow of water from the radiator (itself perpetually leaking) was blocked by rust. Astonishingly, after freezing all the way through a bleak British winter with a blanket on my lap whenever I had to drive the van, hitting a pot-hole one day caused the rust to shift and from then until the vehicle’s eventual demise it was possible to obtain a lukewarm shuffle of air from the single front vent placed in the middle of the metal dash.
As was customary for vehicles back in those days — literally the automotive dark ages — the headlights were powered by geriatric glow-worms, most of which were actually dead. As the lighting system was supplied by the UK’s very own Lucas Electrics, the chances were than every electrical item in the vehicle depended on slender threads of copper wire originally intended for shop display Christmas tree lights.
The brakes, needless to say, were drums all round and even at their best were capable of stopping at most a child’s go-kart.
Thanks to my Commer, I quickly learned a great deal about how to repair engines, alternators, clutches (for there was of course a three-speed manual gearbox as the only possible transmission option), lights, brakes, and all manner of other components. I discovered that no matter how diligent I was, I couldn’t eradicate all the rust. In fact, I strongly suspect the Commer was originally manufactured from compacted rust, much as cheap self-assembly bookshelves are made from compacted wood pulp.
Inside the vehicle the camping components were modest. The tiny sink (which drained directly onto the road below) had a tiny pump-tap that drew on a copious two-pint plastic reservoir, but the pumping mechanism predictably didn’t work. The simple bench seats running down each side were covered with bright orange cushions and doubled up, at least for extremely thin people, as beds. There was a closet large enough to hold one summer jacket. As for interior lighting of any kind, that was a luxury beyond the imagination of the vehicle’s creators. And even if it had been fitted, chances are it wouldn’t have worked.
My Commer came to its ultimate end one dark night as I was driving down an unlit country road. As I came around a narrow corner the feeble headlights vaguely illuminated the carcass of a dead dog. Given the Commer’s brakes and lethal steering geometry, it was inevitable that the vehicle hit the corpse. The impact caused the vehicle to rise into the air and then come down hard on the feeble leaf springs. There was a loud bang and the van lurched to the left. Eventually the brakes brought the vehicle to a halt at the side of the road. I got out to inspect the damage: the left frame rail had snapped clean in two, and as a result the left side of the vehicle was now several inches shorter than the right.
I was far from home, in the early hours of the morning, on a remote country road. I did what I had to do, and cautiously nursed the broken vehicle home, from whence it was later lifted onto the back of a large truck and taken away to be deservedly crushed.
Why did such a catastrophically bad vehicle persist for more than thirty seconds? The answer, it turns out, is the British Post Office. Seeking to “buy British” (even though by this time Commer was owned by Chrysler, and then later by Peugot) the Post Office ordered hundreds of these abominations and thereby kept the company just about in business until 1982, at which point it deservedly ceased operations. Commers continued to pollute the British highways until the last one rusted away, unloved and unmourned, in some obscure part of the gloomy little island in the 1990s.
Although, just as there are men who revel in having a stiletto heel ground into their genitals and just as there are people who watch reality TV without being forced to do so, so there are Commer camping van enthusiasts who spend enormous sums reconstructing these atrocious vehicles from piles of rust. One is pictured at the very top of this article. Like the living dead, Commers rise from the grave to haunt the roads, a hideous reminder of how truly awful some things can be.
There was, however, one upside to owning a Commer. It was the knowledge that no matter how bad things got in future, it would be impossible for me to come remotely close to owning such an atrocious lump of junk ever again in my life.