GM Coachwork hopes to hit a home run with the new front-entrance For Transit conversion. It’s versatile and good value, and it ticks many boxes. We drive one based on a mid-life existing minibus
One type of minibus that has been scarce for a number of years is a cost-effective front-entrance 16-seater. Since the demise of the LDV Convoy, little outside the premium sector has ticked that box. Until now.
The change has come about thanks to GM Coachwork. The Devon firm has developed a suitable conversion of the 4,600kg GVW Ford Transit, and to promote the value aspect, it is offering it in conjunction with a variety of used base minibuses.
The conversion is also available on new Transits sourced by GM, but it intends to leverage its relationships with contract hire and leasing companies to source low-mileage, well-maintained models looking for a second life. As a result, it can offer the complete vehicle from £25,000 on a 64-plate.
In a diversification of its existing client base, GM is targeting PCV operators with the conversion, although it will of course sell it to customers in the community transport and local authority sectors. It is not promoting an accessible variant.
“We did a lot of business with PCV operators in our early days, but that tailed off,” says CEO David Vooght.
“This new product takes us back into that market and we are excited to be there once again. We see scope for considerable numbers, because a front entrance is often key to the contract market.”
To refine the concept and display it to potential buyers, GM has created a demonstrator. It is built on a 2014-registered Transit Trend factory minibus that has covered just under 30,000 miles.
As the base vehicle used for GM’s front-entrance conversion is already a minibus, the level of work required is substantially less than if it was starting from scratch with a van. The sliding side door is bolted shut. Its external handle is removed, but that on the interior remains; however, the opening mechanism is disconnected. The extendable step is also removed.
GM then relocates the single passenger seat from its original position to next to the now-sealed sliding door. It sits on a new section of floor that is added as part of the conversion, and the seat legs are anchored securely.
The new piece of floor is a particularly pleasing aspect of the work. It is slightly darker than the OEM covering, but it is added in such a way that passengers will not be aware that is has been retrofitted. The ‘join’ with the existing floor is also handled well and there is no trip hazard.
As part of the movement of the passenger seat, in Trend models GM also relocates the saloon heater motor and adds additional ducting.
Ex-factory, it is located in the passenger seat pedestal. After conversion, it is positioned in what was the passenger footwell. Base model Transits do not have underfloor saloon heating and so that aspect of the conversion is not required on those minibuses.
The most obvious modification is the addition of a three-step entrance. In the demonstrator, the unit is made from steel to allow perfection of the design, but in production models it will be constructed from fibreglass and plastic to ensure corrosion resistance.
Finally, GM adds an extension to the bottom of the passenger door to cover the lowest step and a vertical yellow internal handrail to the right of the door.
When the work is carried out on new and unregistered Transits, they will be subject to Individual Vehicle Approval. Used conversions will be certified under the Notifiable Alteration procedure.
Extras and additions
Where a second-hand Transit serves as the base vehicle, GM’s preference is to source one that already has a tachograph. If one is not present, it will be added; the demonstrator has a VDO unit.
A potential compromise is headroom by the door, particularly for alighting passengers. The demonstrator retains its OEM over-windscreen storage compartments. While they are useful, the one on the nearside may catch users’ heads. GM can remove it if required.
Another optional addition is an powered ram to open and close the passenger door. When the standard-fit items and the optional extras are taken into account, they make the Transit conversion an attractive proposition. The standard of workmanship is high, and the minibus that it generates is versatile.
To give an idea of what appeal a well looked-after used Transit conversion has to drivers and passengers alike, David and Marketing Manager Mathew Smith made the demonstrator available for a miniplus Test Drive.
From the back seat
The Transit minibus is supplied ex-factory with 17 matching seats, including the driver’s. As a result, nothing suggests to passengers that the position next to the now-sealed sliding door has been moved from the cab area, although it lacks an aisle-side armrest.
All positions have headrests and three-point belts, while for those by the window, a cup-holder is provided.
Four full-height sliding windows are fitted and a glazed roof hatch serves as the emergency exit. Vents for the saloon heating are within the floor, and air is also admitted above the windows.
With Mathew driving, the opportunity was taken to sample the ride quality at the rear of the Transit.
In steel-sprung minibuses that are unladen this is the acid test; the experience here can often be choppy. That’s not the case with the Transit. The obvious conclusion is that the ride is soft thanks to the imposed load of the seats on the suspension. That’s borne out by the unladen weight. At 3,272kg, it leaves a tolerance of 1,328kg for the driver and passengers.
What is also noticeable is how quiet the saloon is. Engine noise is non-existent and that complements an ambience that is aided by the glazed roof hatch. Couple that with well over 6ft of headroom and it’s a pleasant place in which to travel.
Behind the wheel
The demonstrator comes with a 2.2-litre, four-cylinder Euro 5 engine rated at 125bhp coupled to Ford’s six-speed gearbox. Parking sensors are fitted, along with engine stop-start.
125bhp is a mid-range output at the Transit’s GVW. Coupled with the draw of an air-conditioning unit that may suggest that progress is not as rapid as in some comparable vehicles, but that’s not the case; while the minibus does not tear up the tarmac, it has ample grunt when required.
What is noticeable is the slick nature of the gear mechanism. Ford still does not offer a fully-automatic option, but the manual is an acceptable substitute. It requires minimal effort and there is none of the notchiness that is sometimes found.
The area surrounding GM’s base near Newton Abbot is hilly. That gave the opportunity to work the Transit hard, and it took what was thrown at it.
Climbing does not demand a boot full of revs, and the engine pulls strongly and without complaint from around 1,600rpm.
At the limited speed of 62mph, 2,000rpm is displayed on the tachometer. The Transit is happy with that and it did not drop off on any climb encountered on the A38.
A promising product?
GM Coachwork sees a market for the front-engined Transit conversion to replace those LDV Convoys that remain in service. Although their numbers have dropped in recent years, many Convoys are still out there.
While the Convoy was a cheap and cheerful minibus, the Transit represents a significant improvement. David says that finding suitable used stock is not a problem, and leasing companies are a good source of examples that are low mileage and have been looked after.
One possible addition that the Transit would benefit from is a shroud around the handbrake. As it is, it can be reached easily by a passenger; Mathew explains that one could easily be added, should the customer require.
“We believe that one of the main attractions of the front-entrance Transit is that buyers can choose how much they want to spend by picking the age of the base vehicle,” says David.
“Now we have the demonstrator, the next stage is to productionise the conversion process. That will allow us to carry out the work quickly. We pride ourselves on doing a thorough and professional job, and that will continue with the Transit.”
It’s worth reinforcing that GM is not promoting an accessible version. Such is the level of work required to install a tracked floor and a wheelchair lift, he advises customers that the better option in such a scenario is to start from scratch.
The front-entrance conversion does include four removable seats in the back row. That gives scope for luggage space if a cut in passenger capacity to 12 can be accepted.
So whether it’s an airport transfer, a school contract or a private hire, the front-entrance conversion is a versatile and cost-effective offering.