Shag carpeting, a round window in back and an 8-track tape blaring “Stayin’ Alive” by the Bee Gees. It was 1978, and Ford’s U.S. van sales soared to a record that still stands.
But, thanks to a surge in Transit van sales this year, Ford expects to come closer than ever to matching its custom-van-craze-induced sales peak of 38 years ago.
Ford said sales of the Transit, made at its Claycomo assembly plant, had climbed 30.8 percent through the first nine months of this year compared with a year ago. That’s good news at Claycomo where 3,100 employees, among 7,500 at the plant, make Transits. Claycomo also makes the Ford F-150.
Transit sales are so strong this year that 1978 is starting to come into focus. Ford sold 273,728 vans that year, up 20 percent from 1977, which stands as second-best.
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This August, Ford topped its 1978 pace for one month anyway.
“We’re always flirting with 1978,” said Erich Merkle, U.S. sales analyst in Ford’s Dearborn, Mich., headquarters.
Merkle doesn’t expect Ford to beat its 1978 record this year. But his data shows 2016’s pace is well ahead of last year’s pace that stands as third best at 220,586 vans.
Though September, Ford sold 186,555 Transit, Transit Connect and E-Series vans, up 15 percent from 161,948 sold in the first nine months of last year. Production got a bit ahead of demand and Ford idled the Transit line at Claycomo for a week in late September, and is idling the F-150 line next week.
Of course, these aren’t shagged out ‘78 models. That was then, when sales of a standard commercial vehicle got a boost from the custom van craze. Van sales slowed as the nation headed into the 1980 recession and as consumer tastes changed.
“It worked for a number of years, then the fad died off,” Merkle said.
Merkle said vans remain popular with large families that have more children than mini-vans have cup holders. But vans are working vehicles for the most part, true even in 1978.
Ford offers 64 different configurations of the Transit van from changes in roof lines, wheel bases, etc. A dozen “upfitters” add more variation with RV, camper, animal transfer, bins and shelves and other modifications before shipment to the dealer.
Commercial vans still carry people, for example, on the ride-hailing Bridj service being tested in a one-year pilot program by the Kansas City Area Transit Authority. Just, without the shag.