What is a Panel van? Origins, features and uses

Written by Steve Cook

Published on

The panel van has played an important role in the UK’s trade and transportation industries for decades.

Versatile, practical and powerful, panel vans are used by all types of businesses, from florists to electrical contractors.

In this article, we take a look at the history of the panel van, and learn about the different ways it’s used here and further afield.

Ford Transit Van

Image taken from Ford Transit Van product page

So, what’s a panel van? Here’s the quick answer

A panel van is a small-to-medium sized cargo vehicle. It features a single front bench seat and solid panels instead of side and rear windows (hence the name). The large cargo space makes panel vans ideal for transporting equipment, tools and bulky goods, while the lack of windows helps to protect valuable items from theft and weather damage.

Panel vans: A practical history

The panel van was originally designed with commercial use in mind. At its core, it’s a utilitarian vehicle, distinguished by a few key features that set it apart from other commercial vehicles.

The name "panel van" (or blind van) comes from the vehicle's distinctive construction, featuring solid panels in place of windows. This unique design offers a secure and spacious area for the loading and transport of goods. Valuable items are not only shielded from public view (reducing the risk of theft), but also protected against adverse weather conditions.

The large side panels on these vans also offer an ideal canvas for displaying company logos and information, allowing businesses to effectively advertise their service and branding on their own vehicles.

A versatile commercial vehicle

Panel vans have evolved to serve a broad range of industries. This type of vehicle is available in a variety of configurations, including different wheelbase lengths and roof heights, catering to diverse business needs.

The panel van’s simple design also makes it easy to convert, especially into refrigerated vehicles for the food, hospitality, medical and pharmaceutical sectors.

Larger models of panel vans offer even more logistical efficiency, with features like rear and side loading, providing a convenient, practical load space. The interior can also be customised with storage solutions and fittings, transforming the van into a mobile workshop for professionals like engineers, electricians and carpenters.

Benefits for businesses

Owning a panel van comes with several advantages:

  • Practical and versatile: Panel vans can be used for a variety of transportation needs, including tools, equipment, materials and perishable goods.
  • Customisable: Businesses can select or tailor their vans to suit their storage requirements, including bespoke shelving and cargo areas.
  • Reliable: As a business, you need a reliable form of transport to help you run your operation. Panel vans are renowned for their reliability.
  • Branding potential: The large, panel-sided design allows companies to display their business information and branding for other road users to see.
  • Business expansion: The adaptability of panel vans allows businesses to explore new operational avenues.

The Ford Transit and VW Transporter stand out as iconic panel vans — reliable work vehicles that have earned their popularity among tradespeople.

For lighter commercial transport, models like the Ford Transit Connect and Citroen Berlingo offer excellent manoeuvrability and efficiency, particularly in urban settings.

Larger operations may benefit from long wheelbase (LWB) and extra-long wheelbase (XLWB) panel vans, such as the Mercedes Sprinter, Citroen Relay and Ford Transit LWB, each providing enhanced loading capacities and space.

Panel van vs box van

Compared with box vans, panel vans are generally more compact and closer to the ground, making it easier to load high volumes of lighter items.

Box vans, with their straighter, box-like design, usually offer a better internal space for shelving installations, but often need additional steps for loading bulkier items due to their height.

If your work requires you to load lots of smaller items on a regular basis, a panel van could be the more practical choice for your business.

Panel van vs Luton van

The choice between a panel van and a Luton van largely depends on the work you do.

Panel vans, with their slightly smaller size and enclosed, windowless design, are great for courier or delivery drivers, or for tradespeople working in busy urban environments.

Luton vans, with their distinctive boxy extension, are designed for transporting bulky items, featuring larger cargo areas and are often equipped with tail lifts for easier loading of heavy goods.

While panel vans are suited for city navigation and quick loading, Luton vans provide more space and capacity for larger hauls. Deciding between the two depends on the needs of your business, the items you need to transport and where you tend to drive.

Frequently asked questions

What’s the difference between a box van and a panel van?

The main difference is in the design of the cargo area. Panel vans tend to have a curved roof and internal intrusions over the wheel chassis, reducing space. Whereas a box van provides a flat surface underneath the storage area for easier loading.

Is a Ford Transit a panel van?

Yes, the Ford Transit Custom is a mid-sized panel van, offering reliable and versatile transport for all types of commercial work. There are also larger, long wheel base models available for the transportation of larger, bulkier goods.

Why are panel vans so expensive?

Panel vans tend to be more expensive than regular cars due to their larger, more powerful engines and increased size. In recent years, there has also been a price surge due to shortages of materials following the lockdown. This has disrupted the production of new vans, and driven up the cost of second-hand vehicles.

Do you need a special licence to drive a panel van?

No, you don’t need a special licence to drive a panel van. Your standard driving licence allows you to drive vans that weigh less than 3.5 tonnes on public roads.

If you passed your driving test before 1st January 1997, the allowable weight limit increases to 7.5 tonnes, meaning you can operate larger vans without needing a specialised licence.

Is a Luton van a panel van?

While both types of vans are used for transportation and commercial driving, they are different from one another. Panel vans are smaller and more compact, while Luton vans tend to be larger, with an additional space (called the “Luton peak”) above the cab for extra storage.

Is a VW Caddy a panel van?

Despite some models having windows at the sides and rear, the Volkswagen Caddy is in fact classed as a panel van. The VW Caddy panel van is primarily designed for business use, however it also offers plenty of opportunities for customisation, allowing it to be converted into a leisure activity vehicle for camping and recreation.

Can I insure a panel van as a campervan?

Yes, if you own a panel van that’s been converted into a camper van, you’ll need to make sure you get the right insurance for it. Be sure to let your insurer know how you intend to use the vehicle — if you’ll only use it for personal driving or recreational use, you’ll need an appropriate social, domestic and pleasure policy, rather than a commercial van insurance policy.