Commer Van Man

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When you think about motoring in the 1970s you’ll probably conjure up images of British Leyland strikes, hideous colour schemes and the first steps of the Japanese giants into the UK market

You certainly wouldn’t consider diesel engines, nor oil burning camper vans for that matter. Dan Chudleigh’s not old enough to remember the 1970s – aged just 21, Dan’s early memories of diesel motoring are based around smoky Peugeot 505s and the like. A true car nut, Dan owns an impressive collection of Triumphs as well as a Jaguar XJS, to which he personally added hand controls for his disabled mother. The most recent addition to his fleet is this 1971 Commer PB camper van –but what’s it doing here in What Diesel? Commer was the commercial arm of the Coventry based Rootes Group, and the company’s PB van was launched in 1960. The PB became an instant hit with the likes of the GPO and the AA, and even the BBC used it for the fleet of TV Detector vans. With Chrysler’s buy-out of the Rootes Group in 1967, the Commer name was dropped by 1979, becoming Dodge, and the PB was rebranded as the SpaceVan.

With many commercial vehicles, most were scrapped once they were deemed past their best. With few Commers left on Britain’s roads, Dan’s camper is extra rare, as it’s believed to be the only diesel variant left in existence. He told us: “I found the van online and paid £800 for it, and from the photos shown on the online auction description, it looked quite clean. I guess the pictures were pretty old!” The camper had ended up in exile in Jersey, meaning Dan had to travel to Southampton to collect it. “The auction said it had an MOT, so I thought things would be OK.” They weren’t though, and on closer inspection, it appeared that all was not right. “Basically, the bottom foot of it is rotten. There’s also no metal left around the pedals, and we found out that the back lights didn’t work.” Thankfully, Dan’s ever understanding mum was able to follow him home and prevent any run-ins during the journey.

“It’s certainly loud inside,” he continued, “You’re sat right on top of the engine. I had no idea where any of the controls were – things were coming off in my hand and nothing worked – it was a nightmare” he says with a grin. With the van needing so much work, Dan’s had little chance to experience its charms on the road. “I joined an owners forum, which was really helpful and I attended a Commer Van meet up in Bude, which was pretty cool, although the over-drive died on the way there, and I was stuck at 55mph. The trip took an hour!” With Dan’s current project – a BMW powered Triumph GT6 – rapidly nearing completion, his focus is now shifting to the camper. “Externally and mechanically it’s going to be a straight restoration. The diesel engine might prove difficult to get parts for, but it’s so rare there’s no way I’m not keeping it.” With the original colour long gone, Dan intends to spray the van British Racing Green, complimented by a cream roof to really emphasise the model’s classic 1960’s looks, while the exterior’s going to be kept as close to original as possible.

Dan plans to go all out with the interior, though: “I’d like to really go to town on the cabin – a couple of flat screen TVs and a DVD player for a start.” With the winter now on its way and the classic car show scene in hibernation, Dan’s going to have plenty of time in his lock-up to get the camper well and truly sorted, and when he does, What Diesel will be there.

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