Having looked at the Viking I (the first drive-through ferry to serve Britain) and the Norwind/Norwave (essentially the first â€˜ro-paxesâ€™), our attention now turns to Townsendâ€™s Free Enterprise of 1962. Townsend Car Ferries had been around since the 1920s operating, first, a converted minesweeper (the Forde) and after World War Two the Halladale, formerly a frigate. The Free Enterprise however was the companyâ€™s first purpose-built ferry and the differences between this vessel and those which had gone before were stark, as was highlighted in the 1962 brochure which offers an interesting comparison from an equivalent late in the Halladaleâ€™s career.
Carrying 850 passengers and 120 cars (against the Halladaleâ€™s 350 and 55 respectively) the new ship proved a massive success and Townsend were able to order a second vessel, the Free Enterprise II, the first British-registered â€œdrive throughâ€ ferry, which entered service in 1965. Further new ships followed, firmly laying the foundation for the leadership of the Dover ferry market that the companyâ€™s successors, P&O Ferries, retain to this day.
In terms of post-war Dover Strait car ferries it is however fair to say that SNCFâ€™s Compiegne of 1958 was perhaps the more significant ship in purely technical terms â€“ she was the first with controllable pitch propellers and bow thrusters although the â€˜FEâ€™ trumped her with a stern door headroom of over 15 feet compared to 12 feet on the French ship. The â€˜FEâ€™s significance for the British ferry scene however was perhaps in highlighting a trend that would become fast apparent through the early and mid-1960s: as her name proudly flaunted, she was owned by an independent operator, free from any governmental constraints to pursue the most profitable and logical design. And, with free enterprise coming to the fore, it was the independent companies who would blaze the car ferry trail with genuinely modern new ships around the United Kingdom during this period â€“ Tor Line and North Sea Ferries on the North Sea and Townsend, Thoresen and Normandy Ferries on the English Channel.
Remarkably, both the Compiegne and the Free Enterprise survive â€“ the French ship as a virtual hulk in Alexandria, Egypt whilst the ‘FE’ is today the Okeanis, laid up for a couple of years now in Elefsis Bay, after an abortive attempt to re-enter her latter trade as a Santorini-based day cruiser.