Van Damned

A press shot of an LDV Maxus because Ian's own shots are rubbish

Just closing the door told me all I needed to know about the potential of this machine. The clang instantly told me that yes, this vehicle was a pared down Korean design, nailed together using the thinnest metal possible in Washwood Heath, Birmingham.

The dashboard, with its many missing blanking plates ticked boxes in my head. Those boxes were cheap, nasty and beyond-basic. After being warned not to lean too hard on panels for fear of denting them, I was nervous as I reversed my steed out of a tight space, not helped by the warning that I should avoid using too much strength when changing gear for fear of ripping the delicate linkage apart. Well, yes, that might be nice but this gearchange has all the smoothness and ease of progress as that of an Austin-Healey 3000. At least I didn’t have to use two hands.

It didn’t seem a very good van, but then I guess it didn’t need to be. After all, in 2004, this model replaced both the Pilot and Convoy. The Convoy was a derivation and enlargement of the basic Sherpa theme, launched in the early 1980s as the Freight-Rover 300. The Pilot was effectively a Sherpa, first launched in 1974. The cutting edge these vehicles were not, despite a sporty engine line-up that included the MGB engine (Sherpa) and Rover’s V8 (optional on the 300).

I once owned a Leyland-Daf 400 (a tidied up 300) Beavertail, with the Peugeot turbo diesel engine, and it was a fine old beast – slogging on despite the exhaust falling off and a geyser-like oil leak. It didn’t have power steering, so was rather hard work, but you didn’t mind, as sticking to 70mph seemed like rather hard work for the poor truck. A few years later, I drove a Convoy (a tidied up 400 but with an even cheaper interior and a Transit engine) and it was dreadful, with such wear in the kingpins (yes, a vehicle built after 2000 with kingpins) that the steering wheel threatened to give me vibration white finger.

I digress. The point is, the Maxus didn’t have to be good. The thing is though, I was fast discovering that this failed Daewoo (well, technically, Daewoo failed the Maxus by going into receivership – the joint project with LDV was taken over fully by the British firm) was actually not a bad old thing. The Italian VM engine produced a wonderful wall of low-down torque that made acquiring a naughty amount of speed almost Merc Sprinter easy. It handled too, thanks to front-wheel drive.

Switchgear leaves a lot to be desired

I wasn’t the only one impressed either. The Maxus really didn’t sell too badly at all, with Royal Mail buying up hundreds of them. It even won awards! Sadly, it wasn’t enough for LDV, a troubled company dogged by funding issues from the very first Sherpa. In 2009, administration beckoned, though it’s likely that the Maxus will be reborn in China. Can then make it even more tinny?

Back to the drive. A 200 mile trip from Wales to Cambridgeshire to collect the last of our belongings beckoned. Yet, it was remarkably pleasurable. At motorway speeds, the van tears along quite happily. You might even call it refined. At least you don’t have to change gear much on motorways, so that’s one weakness temporarily banished from my mind.

Loaded up for the return trip the following day, the gutsy engine barely noticed the payload. Even in the ‘mild’ 95bhp form here, there’s a stonking 250Nm of torque available at a mere 2000rpm. Handling was still assured and I had to be careful not to destroy a completely unnecessary amount of flowerpots through the bends.

You know what? I was actually a bit sad to take the van back to the rental centre after our 400 miles together. It was very capable, sipped fuel like a child sipping mummy’s wine and despite a rather bland appearance, I think it actually had some character.

And that ties it in with all the other commercial vehicle products of Washwood Heath, Birmingham. It could very easily be argued that this factory didn’t build one good one. Yet there’s a willingness to deliver that shines through, just as the monotonous accent hides the willingness of Birmingham itself to please.

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