Carole Nash Classic Insurance Specialists

Blog : Wrestling with an Octopus – the Leyland kind

AROnline readers of regularity will have followed Mike Humble and the Essex-based contact who owns a rather large collection of Leyland commercials.

Who would have thought they are all mostly up and running owing to a movie project that’s gathering pace as you read this? A project, in fact, that’s occurred mainly as a result of this website. Mike recently visited Tony Gothard to sample the latest Leyland to come out of hibernation.

The pride and joy of the Gothard fleet: a 1979 L12-powered Leyland Octopus
The pride and joy of the Gothard fleet: a 1979 L12-powered Leyland Octopus

From the very first meeting with Tony a few years ago, I just knew there was a relationship to be formed, but I also knew it would have to be one based on trust. Our first meeting of minds is one I shall never forget – to survive in transport, especially demolition and tipping work, requires a hard-nosed attitude to business and life.

I came away with the mind-set that Tony had seen and heard it all before – which, in fact, he most certainly has. Starting out in the fading years of the 1960s, Tony Gothard has operated on the borders of East London and Essex for almost 50 years. He’s seen other operators and rivals come and go since then and the man has also had to deal with a number of motoring writers too –  most of whom he’s given short shrift.

His persona is best summed up like this – if he likes you he likes you, if he doesn’t, you’re knackered. In a nutshell, the man is my kind of person to know. Not a chap to mince his words or hold back opinion in the slightest, he’s a delight just to sit there and listen to in silence with a mug of strong tea while you take in and soak up his lifetime of experience of drivers, trucks and occasional skulduggery.

Tony Gothard behind the wheel of his beloved Leyland Octopus
Tony Gothard behind the wheel of his beloved Leyland Octopus

If the man could hold back on his expletives he would earn a killing as an after-dinner speaker, though sadly a great deal of the humorous, gripping and sometimes sad tales he tells – all gospel fact as well cannot be published here. They may get published one day though, but that’ll do for now. However what, I will say is… watch this space!

Anyway, as you know, there is film project in the pipeline. I’m not permitted go into too much detail right now, but suffice to say that it’s not going to be filmed in London thanks to the various Boroughs constantly putting up hurdles thus making the locations unworkable. Plan B was Bristol, but again the same issues arose, so alternative plans are in progress it’s still going to happen and we will keep you abreast of developments.

The Octopus comes to life

Spurned on by cosmetic work already done to restore his eight-wheel Constructors, a decision was made to pull the Octopus out of a shed and get it up and running. The original cab was in a right mess and the vehicle had been parked up following the retirement of its last full time driver many years back. Thankfully, he had a spare cab amongst his incredible stock pile of Leyland spares so his fitters got on with the task.

Considering the long time of slumbering the engine only required a full service and some new fuel pump drive shims (these had to be made especially) to fire into life. Work on the brakes was obviously required but, even then, the most intensive surgery amounted to the replacement of a couple of brake chambers. Once a few seized up components had been freed off and some new tyres were fitted, the once redundant tipper backed out of the workshops under its own power for the first time in over twenty years.

Motion picture plans

The American production house gave Tony the go-ahead to organise his vehicles. The original need was for 15  running tippers but, after the various machines had been pooled together – some of which that had been parked up for two decades, the best he could cobble together was 12 plus two more earmarked for being blown up.

Well, since the go-ahead was given, his small but capable workshop and team of fitters have beavered, fettled, adapted and overcome to bring back to life what the man himself calls his dirty dozen. All of them feature a Cummins L10/Spicer driveline with the exception of a solitary (and extremely rare) Gardner 6LX-CT.

The last time I actually saw the Gardner=powered Constructor it was buried in foliage with thorn bushes actually growing out of the radiator grille. All 12 are now fully drivable and not only that but his secret pride and joy has now joined the ranks of his seemingly immortal aging fleet. We spoke on the ‘phone a few weeks ago and he slipped into the conversation that his 1979 Leyland Octopus was out of the shed after many years and also running.

Minimalistic is the best term for the ergonomic GKN-assembled cab. Yet, despite the age of the design stemming back to the 1960s, it all still functions well. Perhaps the Roadrunner design team got their inspiration for the dashboard design as the idea of everything being based around the steering column is the same
Minimalistic is the best term for the ergonomic GKN-assembled cab. Yet, despite the age of the design stemming back to the 1960s, it all still functions well. Perhaps the Roadrunner design team got their inspiration for the dashboard design as the idea of everything being based around the steering column is the same

As you can imagine, I got rather excited about this and, a few weeks later, with the weather being nigh on perfect, he affixed the trade plates to the truck and threw me the keys. As some of you may be aware, I hold both HGV and PSV entitlements on my licence, but have never driven anything as old as this in active service.

As far as haulage matters, my experience has been on the soft side of transport such as groupage, general haulage and contract distribution in mainly new and modern equipment, so this was going to be an experience. After getting the old girl started after swapping some batteries over, she fired into life on the first prod of the button. What a noise from the home-made vertical stack from the twelve-litre as she idled as smoothly as many a modern truck.

The power unit is the Leyland L12 series developing 220bhp – in essence it’s the same prime mover fitted to the Marathon tractor unit, albeit without a turbocharger. This engine was originally an AEC design called the AV760 – AV denoting automotive vertical and 760 its size in cubic inches.

Engine factoids…

The L and TL12 were reworked by Leyland by using revised cylinder heads and higher lift valve timing along with a Bosch fuel pump although production remained at Southall until the plant’s closure in 1979. The rest of the driveline is pretty much old-school AEC/Leyland with a simple constant mesh six-speed gearbox and a double=drive rear bogie featuring hub reduction axles. After a few minutes just listening to it idle, it was time to get her out on the road.

Threading my way through Tony’s farm property, which included a worryingly narrow snake-through past some barns and his ornate metal driveway gate complete with stone posts, and we’re away. Despite the age of the design, I’m surprised at the agility of the Octopus even though I am initially battling with the vague gear change quality and eye-wateringly narrow country lanes.

Once a little distance has passed, I’m at one with the truck and, every time I manage a slick gear change as opposed to a noisy one, Tony gives me a little grin and I give myself a silent cheer. Even a busy roundabout can’t hold me back now I’ve mastered the double de-clutching and we are heading for the A13 trunk road towards London.

The AEC-based Leyland L12 bares no similarity to the L/TL11. It produces around 220bhp in non-turbo format and thumps some torque at low revs, based on the AEC AV760 unit. The engine in turbo flavour went on to power the Marathon and Roadtrain. Needs a splitter or range change to get the best from it, but in the Octopus it's hampered by a six-speed constant mesh gearbox. It makes a glorious noise, too
The AEC-based Leyland L12 bares no similarity to the L/TL11. It produces around 220bhp in non-turbo format and thumps some torque at low revs, based on the AEC AV760 unit. The engine in turbo flavour went on to power the Marathon and Roadtrain. Needs a splitter or range change to get the best from it, but in the Octopus it’s hampered by a six-speed constant mesh gearbox. It makes a glorious noise, too

Other trucks and the occasional car give a double take and wave and there’s simply no point in trying to converse as the speed steadily increases. The noise from the discharge stack that’s just inches from the back of the cab wall is both glorious and distressingly loud. I yell at Tony asking if there is actually any baffle material inside the silencer, his trademark cheeky grin spreads all over his face: ‘probably not,’ he yells back at me.

The L12 in non-turbo flavour was well known for its poor breathing – for sure there’s plenty of thump low down in the rev range, but once the torque curve reaches its peak the power simply vanishes. By now the cab aroma is of a distinctive hot metal and oil smell… The smell of 1970s and ’80s British trucking: bloody marvellous!

Driving the Octopus

The ergonomic GKN-assembled cab may have been cutting edge in the mid-1960s but, by 1979, it was getting plain crude. Nothing is offered in terms of creature comforts with the exception of a suspended driver’s seat – even the windows pull down and up akin to an old railway carriage door.

And yet to drive it feels amazingly precise with little correction required to the steering as you trundle and when you need to stop in a hurry the footbrake anchors up all eight wheels straight and true. Incredible racket aside, it’s a lovely thing to drive and, in this politically correct world we live in – dare I say it, a man’s truck in every sense. A few miles down the road we swap over and I’m silently pleased that even Tony is finding the gears an initial battle at first.

Arriving back at his place half an hour later, we retire to the kitchen for a reflective chat and a cup of tea. I’m totally worn out and my ears are still ringing. Drivers of yesteryear truly earned every penny and we chuckle at my remark about how petrified a newly-trained driver of today would be if he was thrown into the cab of a 1979 Leyland Octopus.

He prefers driving one of his T45 Constructors any day and I agree with him wholeheartedly, but of all his truck fleet, which includes a sprinkling of modern DAFs and a Scania, the Octopus remains his favourite. I ask him why and his retort is simple, ‘what’s there not to like, Mike?’

Again, his reasoning makes sense, it’s got a brutish charm for all to see.

Oddly enough, rather like the truck’s owner – cheers to you Tony!

Once the noise and the transmission is acclimatised too, the Octopus is surprisingly agile and responsive to drive. But I might have to pass if asked to do a 10 hour shift in active service.
Once the noise and the transmission is acclimatised too, the Octopus is surprisingly agile and responsive to drive. But I might have to pass if asked to do a 10 hour shift in active service.

Mike Humble

Upon leaving school, Mike was destined to work on the Railway but cars were his first love. An apprenticeship in a large family Ford dealer was his first forray into the dark and seedy world of the motor trade.

Moving on to Rover and then PSV / HGV, he has circumnavigated most departments of dealerships including parts, service and latterly - the showroom. Mike has owned all sorts of rubbish from Lada to Leyland and also holds both Heavy Goods & Public Service Vehicle licences, he buys & sells buses and coaches during the week. Mike runs his own automotive web site and writes for a number of motoring or commercial vehicle themed publications

14 Comments on "Blog : Wrestling with an Octopus – the Leyland kind"

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  1. Christopher Storey says:

    I never realised that these vehicles didn’t require MOT to be driven on the public highway

  2. Jemma says:

    Saw a 1980 & 1981 aec in convoy last week, as well as two American cars, a Humber Hawk series, a sherman tank and 4 classic motorcycles in a 14 mile round trip!
    They’re still around, and there’s an ancient bright orange Bedford tipper still kicking around Colchester delivering coal I think, it’s definitely pre 1981. There was a buzby yellow Humber Hawk kicking around too for a while.
    I’d guess that commercials are under the same rules as classic cars re road tax?
    I think the secret is trade plates.. Just peeking out on the ?oddments tray? in centre of cab?

  3. Stuart R says:

    Another great article Mike. Get off your bum & do more on any subject as there’s a devout bunch of us that love your articles. Your observations & memories are a cherished part of the site.

  4. Mike Butler says:

    At the moment I’d have though that a fleet of tippers would fit right in here in Bristol.
    But the reason for not shooting here probably isn’t “political”, it’s more likely that the entire city seems to be in the grip of massive road works.
    At the moment it’s well nigh impossible to get anywhere without every road being dug up by either every one of the utility companies, or Metrobus works for a “rapid transport” bus network.
    I hope it’s all worth it when it’s done.

  5. Ian says:

    I have Not tested many of Tony’s constructors in the past.

  6. Glenn Aylett says:

    An old school British lorry, basic without the creature comforts drivers brought up on Scanias would take for granted( it doesn’t even have a two band radio), but very tough and simple and built for tipping things like rubbish into a tip.

    • Mike Butler says:

      Radio? Who would have heard it anyway?
      When I was younger one of my Dad’s mates gave me and him a lift in his concrete mixer, I think it was a “Leyland” Bear. Dad had the passenger seat, I had the engine hump.
      We travelled an extra 1000 yards, because I couldn’t shout loud enough to get him to stop!!

      • Mike Butler says:

        Forgot to mention, this was the knuckle cruncher LAD cab.

        • Glenn Aylett says:

          Old school British lorry, same as the old Bedfords, no creature comforts and built purely to pick up and dump things like rubbish and gravel. Modern lorry drivers don’t know how lucky they as these old bruisers were common well into the eighties.

  7. The Wolseley Man says:

    Fully agree with a previous post (Stuart R) – your articles are a joy .
    Some (well, 270 to be exact) great commercials here at the South Cerney Steam Extraviganza in Gloucestershire – though as yet I’ve not heard my favourite – the Commer TS3 – what is it about two stroke lorries? I go all ’emotional’ so I do!

    • Christopher Storey says:

      Ah!! the beam engine Commer – one of the great, not to say most ingenious , engines of the 20th century – and what a noise!

  8. Glenn Aylett says:

    Shows how far lorries have come since the Octopus, with its totally basic interior, noise and primitive gearchange. These days lorry drivers, not just long distance ones, demand their lorries come equipped with tinted glass, a fancy stereo system and air conditioning.

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