Being practical, I spent the ‘winter term’ of my freshman year in college earning an EMT Basic certification in lieu of studying ‘Religiosity in the Simpsons’. My idea was to both increase my earning power during summers through learning a skill and to do something useful. After busting my ass for a month in a compressed course while friends in the dorms pulled all night benders, I passed the simple exam and started volunteering for the rural county EMS provider. That gave me the chance to get up-close-and-personal with a variety of Ford Econolines including a late 80s 460-powered Type II (van body) bruiser back-up bus (you may have seen this at Putnam Park), a 7.3L naturally aspirated Type III (box-type) diesel, and a pair of 7.3L ‘Powerstroke’ turbodiesel Type IIIs. All had well in excess of 150,000 miles. None were cosmetically pretty. All were in reasonable mechanical repair.
After going through an Emergency Vehicle Operators Course – consisting of watching a video – and driving around on a wet high school parking lot forwards and backwards with a senior Paramedic, I was deemed qualified to operate a 5 ton truck capable of pushing 100 miles with lights, sirens, and an air horn at the ripe age of 18. Naturally, I drove as much as I could: emergency responses, 120-mile round-trip patient transports to regional medical centers, in conditions ranging from a sedate transport on beautiful spring days to emergency transports in the midsts of hellacious storms so rotten helicopters couldn’t fly. Since I was paired with a full-time Paramedic, I’d ride in the back about half the time, depending on the patient’s condition. That also meant I was the guy driving when the patient’s life literally hung in the balance and OTIF delivery to a trauma center 60 miles away would determine whether someone went home alive.
The old Econoline was a noisy, wandering, bouncy, uncomfortable steed with hot, cramped footwells, weak AC, and suspension tuning that would give you nausea from repeated jolts to the front wheels. At speed, the losing combination of a drag coefficient approaching the percentage of Millenial males unfit for military service and a complete lack of suspension travel made high speed work simply terrifying. It required micro-movements to keep the thing straight and huge corrections when the nose started wandering around. No brake or steering feel, either.
Why the hell does this matter in an ambulance? Because when some asshole doesn’t see a huge ambulance with dozens of flashing lights and 200 watts of blaring siren and therefore pulls out in front of you, or in those fortunately rare times when seconds really do count and you’re driving down an ice-covered interstate as fast as possible to get to a scene, you need to know what’s going on with the vehicle in order to arrive alive and avoid creating your own bus crash.
With bad memories of “American” style vans in mind, I pulled into Enterprise to pick up a 15-passenger van for a week-long adults-only vacation in Charleston with my wife and 6 other good friends. I was the designated driver for the 850 mile jaunt.
I was crestfallen when the guy pulled around a ratty-looking Chevy Express and informed me no Transits were available. At least I’d have 6.0L LS V8 power. Pulling out, it felt pretty sluggish, however, and I was even more disheartened when I got it home, checked the VIN, and realized it was a 4.8L V8. (Editor’s note from Jack: That engine is a popular installation in endurance-series Corvettes, so much so that it has its own name: “Express conversion.”)
This wasn’t going well.
Fortunately, the back doors were jammed shut on the thing. I didn’t expend any extra effort trying to un-stick them. Instead I called Enterprise and said I needed to swap as I wasn’t going to chuck luggage in the way-back with all the care of a hungover baggage handler.
A few hours later, I returned the Express and found a high roof 148” wheelbase Transit waiting for me.
On my walk through the interior to identify any damage or stains, it was hard to describe the sense of space a vehicle with a 7’ tall interior imparts. Some re-adjustment is in order to get used to standing upright and walking around in any transportation device this side of a widebody jet. I’ve read other outlets call driving the Transit just like driving a big Focus and thought this was horsepoop. It isn’t far off. The small-car Ford parts bin wheel, with its polygonal cruise button, the familiar control stalks, and Ford Euro Font binnacle gauges is a world away from the melted oval E-series truck dash and column shifter. It immediately reminded me of the Foci I’ve driven.
Firing it up, the 3.7L Ti-VCT Duratec sounded pretty good, and I was surprised by how the low-torque-high-revver moved the huge box on wheels during the back to my house. It pulled strongly to redline. The transmission shifted smoothly in normal driving and rapidly responded to engine room requests for more power. It didn’t seem tippy on the short trip home, either.
Seat removal is very easy on a Transit, but is prohibited by your rental agreement. If one were to find one of the many youtube videos illustrating the lever to pull and remove a few modular sections of the back rows for luggage space, I would guess it would be a one person job in theory, but two person in practice. Removing a few seats would free substantial floorspace for luggage, keeping weight on the floor and and improving rear visibility.
At 4:00am the next morning, I saddled up and pulled onto the street for the start of the trip with an additional 1500-1700 lbs of weight aboard. Getting to I-77 involved working my way across Ohio and some slightly twisty two-lane roads. The Transit’s tracking and stability leapfrogged the E-series and GM full size vans, but that doesn’t convey the scale of the improvement. Comparing the driving experience between a traditional full size van and a Transit is like comparing London in 1865 – with an underground, sewage system, museums, etc. – to the wreck of Atlanta in 1865. Nothing between the two is remotely analogous – they may as well be in different galaxies.
I can’t go so far and say a 10’ tall vehicle is car-like because that isn’t true, but it did require less highway steering correction than a Ford Explorer rental I recently had. Power wise, I wanted more grunt, but never needed it. This came as a shock, particularly when I got on the interstate and was punching a massive hole into the air at 75mph. The 3.7 performs its role admirably, and while it certainly was moving a load, always seemed cheery about it. The noise was pleasant enough for a commercial vehicle. High RPM activity didn’t become bothersome until the tach crossed 5, but even then VCT (yo) gave a tangible little extra boost.
Once I got to I-77, the best part of the drivetrain came into focus. It has a true manual gear selector on the side of the shifter within easy reach. Not some Toyota or GM style gear suggestion button, but an actual feature that will hold the selected gear regardless of throttle position. For the mountains on 77, this was incredibly useful as I’d put it in 5, drop the hammer, and be able to mostly maintain speed climbing without exploring the 6,700 RPM redline.
If this powertrain were an animate object, it would exemplify the Stoic idea to accept your given role and play it well, whether you’re under the nose of a drifting ‘Stang or delivering building materials to construction sites. Going down the mountains, I gained more and more confidence in the inherent stability of the Transit’s platform. My brain is pre-programmed to assume anything tall is top heavy, but I never felt it from the wheel as the height is just air and fiberglass. The Transit’s clear signals from the wheel, progressive brakes, and reasonable (for a commercial vehicle) suspension compliance allowed us to keep or exceed the pace of most other vehicles, and I had a bit of fun staying on the tail of a guy in an Subaru WRX who would tear away in straight lines, but lose focus while vaping (seriously) and allow me to catch up in the curves. A well-driven Ecoboost Transit would have no trouble leaving just about anything for dead.
Not that I cared about passenger comfort, but I was told that – aside from not having as generous legroom as such a bus would outwardly imply – seats and the ride were ‘fine,’ and everyone appreciated the ability to GO FOR A WALK INSIDE while rolling down the highway. Behind the wheel, I never got fatigued or had an ache due to the comfortable seats, lumbar adjustment, and tilt wheel. This was massively different from memories of Econoline sponges that would cause 18-year old me backaches after an hour’s drive.
Big side mirrors with standard wide-angle viewers underneath gave me plenty of BLIS without the need for an actual blind spot information system and confidence for a few quick unanticipated lane-changes to dodge debris. Aerodynamics dictated the fuel economy of just under 15mpg over the course of the entire 1800 mile trip, but when compared to the 22mpg I got in a rented Explorer, I didn’t think it was too bad considering the capability of the Transit and heavy foot I applied. It supposedly had a locking rear diff, so I’d expect it would be as good or better off-road than the Explorer, too.
For those who drive a Transit for a large part of the work day, it is hard to overstate how much of an improvement it is over the E-Series. Ford tangibly improved drivers’ lives more than government ever could. I don’t know much about the long term durability of the Transit platform – which will determine the Transit’s place in history – but forums don’t have any horror stories for the gas engined ones. The oddball 3.2L diesel is another story.
On the way home, we stopped for gas in a rural West Virginia town. I saw a young medic and a new Transit Ecoboost Type II ambulance parked at the pump. A pang of jealousy sprung up as I knew he’d be having a lot better time responding to calls that I did.