Buses : Leyland Olympian – Rationalisation in action

Mike Humble

British Leyland pretty much had the UK bus and coach market sewn up from the late 1970s – certainly as far as double-decker vehicles were concerned. The big names on the roads at that time were the Daimler Fleetline – Bristol VRT – Leyland Atlantean with one or two others such as Foden and Ailsa (which became Volvo) nibbling round the edges.

Leyland had successfully introduced the high-tech Titan double-decker into London, a vehicle that bristled with new technology. However, owing to slow delivery thanks to union problems at its Park Royal factory in London, orders from other UK bus companies were dropping off with, for example, the West Midlands PTE (WM buses), which had initially ordered a large number, eventually taking just a handful.

Titan - Its complexity caused operators outside of London to say "no"

Staying in the West Midlands, the Birmingham company of Metro Cammell (MCW) had quickly developed an up to date deck chassis offering the industry standard Gardner 6LXB engine with a rugged Voith automatic transmission which became known as the MCW Metrobus. London Buses, fed up with late deliveries from Leyland, experimented with the Metrobus, found the vehicle most satisfactory for the intensive London traffic and ordered more examples in large numbers.

However, in the late 1970s, bus operators outside London followed the capital’s example to some degree and so, as a direct result, Leyland started to develop a double-decker chassis which was simplified in production compared to the Titan thus being more palatable to operators in the provinces.

One further issue was that London Buses had changed its buying policy – from now on London were to buy “off the peg” vehicles, this spurred on by the overwhelming success of the Metrobus. A modern but fairly simple chassis needed to be developed if Leyland were to keep the crown as the UK’s number one people mover. Prototype chassis were designed at Leyland’s plant in Bristol and the idea was to rationalise the range in one fell swoop.

The hardy Atlantean, Fleetline and VRT ranges were all worthy vehicles but not exactly in the first flush of youth. A choice of three chassis, all different yet all part of the same parent company, no longer made sense and Leyland Bus – now a division that stood alone within the BL group – saw this and acted upon it. Even though the Atlantean and VRT were still selling strongly at this point, forthcoming legislation regarding frontal impact safety and external noise meant that extensive and expensive re-working would be required.

This Northampton Corporation Bristol VRT seen here was one of the last delivered

Leyland launched the Olympian at the 1980 Commercial Vehicle Show and, shortly after, stated that the Bristol VRT chassis was to be deleted. The Olympian was offered with either a standard Leyland TL11 turbocharged diesel or optional Gardner 6LXB unit driving through a semi-auto five-speed hydra-cyclic gearbox with internal retarder. Air suspension was standard as was a return to a full air brake system. The design of the chassis was  semi-integral enabling the vehicle to be moved without a body being fitted. However, as far as coachwork was concerned, Leyland were keen to promote its own “in house” companies to supply bodywork in the form of ECW in Lowestoft and C.H. Roe in Leeds – both being Leyland-owned companies at the time. The start of this decade was not the best time to be launching a new product as the recession was biting, but interest in this new bus was strong upon launch.

A prototype Olympian seen here at the N.E.C in 1980

Right from the start, the Leyland Olympian was bought in fairly large numbers by the National Bus Company (NBC) with operators including Cambus, Crosville  and United Counties taking sizeable numbers into their fleets. Large municipal operators (Local Authorities) were more reluctant to embrace the modern Olympian, yet notable orders from Lothian and the once all Daimler fleet of Northampton Transport became customers of this one size fits all Leyland.

After the closure of the Brislington site of Bristol Bus, all Olympian production was moved to Leyland itself – this made commercial sense as the engines, transmissions and most of the castings were sourced from here. Shortly after this, a coach version of the Olympian was launched with a higher powered engine (260bhp) with features such as forced air ventilation and W/C –  Alder Valley being notable customers. This was a brave effort by Leyland, but the coach version never gained the sales figures marketing had hoped for, resulting in the coach version being quietly dropped.

Overseas, the Olympian was popular in Greece and several even made it to the United States. Throughout the 1980s, the bus was subjected to various improvements and seemed to suffer none of the serious shortcomings of the early National that came before it. One thing that did hamper its success was the Transport Act, 1985. Council or municipal bus companies found themselves in competition from ex-National Bus operators and the market swung towards cheap, secondhand vehicles and mini buses. Sales of new vehicles hit an all time low between 1986 and 1988.

This immaculate ex Lothian Olympian now with another Leyland fan - Heddingham of Essex

However, by 1988 the bus market was stabilising and the biggest bus group in the UK at that time was the Perth-based Stagecoach operation. They standardised their double deck purchases on Leyland Olympians with Alexander bodywork. At this point, the 11.6 litre Leyland power unit was deleted from the range along with hydra-cyclic semi auto gearbox. Engine options became the 10.4 litre Gardner 6LXB rated at 180bhp or the 10 litre Cummins L-10 with ratings from 210 – 250bhp coupled to either a Voith or ZF automatic gearbox.

The Olympian with Alexander body became Stagecoach's "standard" double decker.

1988 also saw Leyland become swallowed into the Volvo empire and, as the company entered the 1990s,  just two vehicles were to remain in the portfolio – the single-deck Lynx and the double-deck Olympian. The Olympian was the very last vehicle to bear the Leyland badge – the last chassis was a tri-axle bus destined for Hong Kong. All Leyland bus production ceased in 1992 but the Olympian continued after this date. The overall quality of the Olympian, especially when fitted with Alexander bodywork, was that of a genuinely  top class product. Hundreds of examples are still in everyday service, some now working with their fifth or sixth owners.

Finally, after the closure of the works, Volvo re-engineered the Olympian and fitted its own braking system, electrics and engines, though a Cummins option remained. The chassis itself – now built in Irvine, Scotland, was one that could not be improved on. Customers liked the Olympian so much that Volvo kept the name going as a token of goodwill to the many operators who had remained loyal to the brand and it remained a top selling product right up to the deletion caused by the trend of new step free, low floor buses.

Lothian of Edinburgh were a massive fan of the Olympian both Leyland or Volvo - this is a Volvo version from 1996

Timeline – 1980 – 1992 (Leyland) 1992 – 2000 (Volvo)

Engine: Cummins, Gardner, Leyland & Volvo

Transmission: Leyland, Maxwell, Voith & ZF

Posted in: Essays, The bus section
Mike Humble

About the Author:

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

10 Comments on "Buses : Leyland Olympian – Rationalisation in action"

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  1. Dr Bobby Love Dr Bobby Love says:

    Great article.

  2. Dave says:

    I found a pic of in Glasgow in 1980 Alexander R Type prototype Olympian VGB 364W with an electronic destination board (Very high tech back in 1980!) It was in regular use until 1992 when it was sadly destroyed in the Larkfield Depot fire

    • Scott Hutchings says:

      The bus you would have saw was one of the very early production models (chassis number 0004 I believe) which was ones given to what Leyland defined as key customers to give them experience of the new model. It also had the prototype Alexander R-type body. At the time Greater Glasgow Passenger Transport Executive (GGPTE) ran the biggest fleet of Atlanteans purchased by one customer in the world so Leyland naturally assumed GGPTE would follow it on with an equally massive fleet of Olympains. However a change of management saw the Ailsa being preferred and although further Olympians (and Metrobuses) were bought, they were not in the numbers Leyland hoped for.

      The destination display was a Vultron unit and as you state it was very high-tech – a similar unit went on the first Olympain for Greater Manchester Transport bodied by Northern Counties. – and it alternated between ultimate and intermediate destinations. However, it was very unreliable and was replaced by roller blinds shortly after that, which necessitated a new front around the destination. As you point out it was one of the buses lost in the Larkfield fire, as was the only single-deck Ailsa built as new plus one of the pre-production Ailsa’s. On top of this was one of the last Leyland-bodied Olympains built, the old ECW body still being built by Leyland at Workington. .

      Interestingly, the successor to GGPTE, Strathclyde’s Buses, also received the last Leyland Olympian delivered new to a UK operator in 1992. It also carried an Alexander R-type body. By that time the first deliveries of the new Volvo Olympain had begun….but the first and last was a nice bookend to a very successful bus.

  3. Gus says:

    You mentioned in your article that Olympian chassis production was moved to Leyland after the closure of the Bristol factory. While this is true, it’s not entirely accurate.

    Production was moved to Workington to begin with, and then in 1985/6 it was transferred to Leyland (supposedly to make room for building Sprinters). After the Volvo buyout it moved back to Workington, which built the last “Leyland” examples before the the final move to Irvine.

    Shifting production from one place to another, several times, must have been a fairly expensive process!

  4. Simon Newcombe says:

    Hi
    I own a 1982 Leyland Olympian the 10.4m length. Can anyone tell me how much the unladen weight of this bus would be please?? Ps the V5 nor DVLA have the details. Thank you

    Simon

  5. Mike Humble Mike Humble says:

    Simon… this is impossible to say from where I am sitting….

    But to give you an idea of a very rough figure, you need to budget around the 9500kgs mark.

    It should be displayed towards the rear of the legal lettering on the nearside lower skirt panels. If its not there and you want to be certain, your local municipality will have a weighbridge where for a nominal fee, they will give you the unladed weights of eack axle and total.

  6. Tan Tian Cai says:

    Hello. I stumbled on your site while looking for leyland info. I’m impressed, but i have to highlight that the bit about the last leyland olympian chassis been shipped to hong kong is not true. The last 3 axle leyland olympian is for Singapore Bus Services. Now known as SBS transit. The parent company of which is Comfortdelgro, who are also the same brokes who own metroline in the UK. The bus in question is registed as SBS9168S. As of now, it’s still on the roads. But it’s near it’s 17 year lifespan limit for public buses in singapore and is about to dereg soon. Following that, it will most likey be scraped in singapore…

  7. Warren B says:

    @6 It’ll be a shame if its scrapped, especially if its the last ever chassis built. It deserves to be preserved!

  8. Stephen Allcroft says:

    Don’t worry Tan Tian Cai and Warren B The final Leyland to be built is now repatriated to the UK for Preservation.

    The Last Leyland-badged bus to enter service turned out to be an Albion Viking EVK55EUL with PMC B50D body, the bus was built in 1983 but first taxed in 1995 and it is still in service in New South Wales.

  9. Stephen Culham says:

    I have a leyland Olympian double-decker Could anyone please tell me how much feel it will hold it has the double tanks on it many thanks stMev many thanks Steve

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