Blog : Raise a glass to… 35 years of the Leyland Olympian

Carole Nash Classic Insurance Specialists

Mike Humble pays tribute to the Leyland Olympian chassis which celebrates 35 years since its introduction. After some technological flops such as the original National and problematic build issues like those associated with the Titan, the Olympian pretty much worked straight from the box and it needed to…

olympian
Can it get more 1980s than this? An ECW bodied Olympian of the NBC East Yorkshire
fleet in 1982

The Leyland Titan was by no means a poor product – in fact, it was superb on paper and in practice. Where it went wobbly was in its lavish and exotic specification. The electrical systems, braking, independent front suspension and integral construction were just a bit too much for operators used to more proven designs of double-decker buses. The Titan would have sold better had Leyland got to grips with union matters and where to build the bus in the first place. A pleasing number of orders had, in fact, been placed but, by the time production was consistent, most interest and deliveries outside the Metropolis had been cancelled.

The Titan ended up costing Leyland millions by trying to cater for London Transport (LT) as well as National Bus (NBC) and municipal operators. West Midlands PTE had ordered 80 Titans with an option to replace their existing, ageing fleet of Daimler Fleetlines but, following the disastrous production delays, only five entered the huge West Midland fleet, and this was a massive blow to Leyland Truck and Bus. Quite simply, the specification was too lavish and the lack of options for bodywork and height switched off any local municipal interest.

A Leyland demonstrator threads its way through Birmingham City centre.
A Leyland demonstrator threads its way through Birmingham City centre

Its bespoke cooling system, independent front suspension, hydraulic braking system (LT insisted on this) and diagnostic wiring system heralded an unheard of level of sophistication that’s commonplace today. What mattered back in the late 1970s was that many operators were still using platform deckers with conductors. As with the National a few years before, the Titan was met with curiosity and distain by dyed-in-the-wool operators who felt disappointed by Leyland’s take it or leave it attitude and were unappreciative of what was seen as LT’s unnecessarily complex specification being forced upon them.

Leyland also had too many models offering a similar transport solution. Chassis under the BL umbrella included the Atlantean, Fleetline and Bristol VRT, so rationalisation was the only key to long-term success, let alone survival. Work got underway with Project B45 – an air-suspended, rear-engined double-decker bus chassis of a much more conventional design comprising of a chassis backbone and live axles front and rear albeit using air bags and telescopic dampers as a suspension medium. Bristol Vehicles undertook the development work at their Brislington factory with powertrains coming from Leyland.

Engine options were the TL11 offered as standard with the legendary Gardner 6LXB as an option. Gearboxes came in the form of a new hydracyclic auto or semi-auto transmission operated by oil pressure rather than air with a built-in hydraulic retarder to extend the life of brake linings. This all-new chassis used proven running gear and, with it having a backbone chassis, it could be supplied with a number of bodywork options in both high and low bridge form. The driver’s cab followed a similar theme to the National’s by being fully ergonomic; all controls were positioned in operational priority.

Launched at the 1980 Commercial Motor Show alongside a prototype Tiger coach chassis, the Olympian was met with praise by critics and operators. It seemed the company was finally listening to its customers and this had been noted the year before with the introduction of the radically improved and mechanically simplified National 2. Greater Manchester PTE was the first customers to order and, in fact, one of their vehicles was proudly displayed on the Leyland Bus stand at the National Exhibition Centre. Despite encouraging orders, things were far from rosy in Leyland’s garden.

The Olympian was much more of a sympathetic specification than the Titan. Municipal operators showed strong interest that can be seen here as a Northampton Transport Leyland exists the cavernous gloom of the now demolished Greyfriars bus station.
The Olympian had a much more user-friendly specification than the Titan and municipal
operators showed strong interest. Here is a Northampton Transport Leyland exiting the
cavernous gloom of the now-demolished Greyfriars bus station – check out that area
traffic division Sierra GLSi in the background

The UK recession had bitten hard and so, in 1981, Leyland Vehicles Limited (formerly Leyland Truck and Bus) was split into three distinct standalone entities. To slim down and rationalise bus activity, the decision was taken to shut down the Bristol plant and concentrate all chassis production up at Leyland along with heavy machining. This period also saw the end of the VRT and Leyland Fleetline, but the Atlantean was to soldier on for a couple of more years. The Olympian continued to be improved in detail and quality and it was soon to become the only double-decker chassis for the UK market in the product portfolio.

Most of the chassis built featured the Gardner power unit with semi-auto gearbox but, as the 1980s progressed. Leyland Bus entered into manufacturing contracts with outside suppliers. These included ZF which entered into an agreement allowing Leyland to build certain components of automatic gearboxes for ZF in return for more favourable buying costs. A similar arrangement had been agreed upon with Cummins and Leyland Trucks whereby manifolds and crankshafts were cast by Leyland for Cummins engines notably for the B and L10 engine ranges.

Management at Leyland inspect the first Olympian chassis fitted with a ZF automatic gearbox.
Management at Leyland discuss an engineering issue on the first Olympian chassis fitted with a Gardner and ZF driveline

The hydracyclic transmission was eventually phased out and the ZF HP series gearbox became the standard transmission and by 1989 had ceased all in-house engine production. Leyland Bus (now owned by Volvo Bus) had, in fact, tried using a Maxwell gearbox some years earlier but found it problematic and unpopular. By 1992 new EU emission rules had forced the respected Gardner engine into retirement and, once again, Cummins became the chosen supplier with its L10 series power unit. This gave the Olympian brilliant performance and fuel economy that almost eclipsed the frugal Gardner unit.

Decades of miss-management eventually caught up with Leyland once Volvo bought the business and really went through the books. The colossal debt brought about by a costly re-engineering programme for the unreliable Leyland rail cars, a massive recession and dwindling sales were all factors in Volvo Bus’s decision to close the plant in 1993. The Olympian soldiered on as a Volvo but was built in the company’s own UK plant in Irvine and totally re-engineered to a Volvo design. Only the chassis itself remained the same and, even then, Volvo opted to use a different grade of steel.

The final Olympian chassis was assembled in 2000.

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

17 Comments

  1. A well deserved tribute!
    The fact that Volvo kept the Olympian name for their re-engineered model is a sign of how successful it was.
    The 2 axle version was replaced by the B7TL, but interestingly the 3 axle version was replaced by an improved and low floor version of the Volvo Olympian, the B10TL Super Olympian! Hence the Olympian name lived on until 2004.

  2. The Titan has been previously likened to be the Concorde of buses. Technically advanced but too restricted and expensive for most operators. The lack of body options and London inspired features put off most operators outside London – less than a hundred were sold elsewhere.

    They served London for any years, but the London market was not enough and even London did not buy as many as they might have done owing to the production delays. LT ended up buying a larger fleet of MCW Metrobuses as the delivery was more reliable.

    The London Olympians were also long lived and were the last vehicles completed by Eastern Coachwork at Lowestoft before closure in 1986.

    The Olympian was a more suitable and adaptable vehicle for the market and was probably the bus Leyland should have built in the first place.

    • Something like the Titan would probably go down better today!

      Back in the 1970s and 80s, operators liked having body options, whereas the market has now moved much more towards integral body/chassis products, and with strict access and emission rules, modern buses are all very complicated.

  3. Had the Titan been a bus also available as a separate chassis it’s debatable whether the Olympain would have even seen the light of day. The Olympain was basically designed as a body-on version of the Titan. Leyland had been swayed towards integral buses with the Leyland National but the issue with the Titan was that it was a full-height vehicle. Both the National Bus Company and Scottish Bus Group had a pressing need however for low-height buses. So the Olympain was born as a bus suitable where the Titan couldn’t go. So as BL entered the 1980’s it’s bus range would have consisted of the Leyland National 2 (Integral), Leyland Titan (Integral) and Olympian where the Titan wouldn’t fit. That was the plan. You could – if you really wanted – get the Tiger as a bus but the National 2 was the sales teams preferred choice.

    However, most operators wanted double-deckers with their choice of bodywork and with the Titan only really selling in London, the cheaper yet more versatile Olympain shone through. Interestingly, it was never meant to be called that. Bristol Commercial Vehicles, the BL subsidiary that designed and built it wanted to call it the Unicorn after that town’s coat of arms. It even went as far as to have badging designed for it but mother Leyland over-road it, despite having used the Olympic name for a single-decker in the 1960’s.

    Early pre-production models were actual registered as Bristol’s – Bristol Olympian – although The Leyland code for it was B45. Indeed, I read it said that the prototype was actually registered as a Morgan to confuse Leyland’s competitors. The initial prototype was actually a curious hybrid sharing the normal ECW body – itself influenced by the Titan – but with the front grille of the Bristol VRT. So it looked like no other Olympain.

    Had the Olympain been designed in happier times it would have sold more than it did. Only 5,581 Leyland examples were built with a further 4,717 Volvo examples. Indeed if you make allowances for the fact that the Leyland total was achieved over a longer period, the Volvo Olympain was more successful as production peaked at that time. That’s a total way behind the totals of the Atlantean, Fleetline or Dennis Dart. But it would be fair to say that the Olympian was probably the zenith of rear-engined double-deckers. It shared none of the drawbacks of today’s double-deckers which have to have necessary compromises built in for these more enlightened times.

    Although when you think of a Leyland Olympian most will default to an ECW/Roe bodied example, most Leyland Olympians had Alexander bodies. Out of the 10,295 total of both Olympians built, 5,724 had Alexander bodies, with 2,665 Leyland examples. The next biggest builders were actually Northern Counties of Wigan, mainly due to the large total of Volvo examples built, with ECW third. My local operator, First Glasgow, also had a notable claim in operating one of the prototype Olympians (chassis number 00004) and also operated the last Leyland Olympian built for the UK. For a time, it also operated the last Volvo Olympain built too, a former Yorkshire Coastliner example, which Firstgroup accquired.

    The Olympian was a good bus that deserved to do better than it did. What Mike said about the Volvo Olympain’s chassis I found fascinating surrounding the steel as apparently chassis rot is a major issue for the Volvo example. Guess the Leyland ones were better built….

    • Fascinating stuff, Unicorn would have been a terrible name!

      It’s interesting that one of the major rivals to the Leyland Olympian towards the end was the Volvo B10M Citybus. It’s the polar opposite of the approach we now have, a bus with lots of steps to get in and out, but once inside you have a completely flat floor with no intrusions at all and seats right to the back.

      Once Volvo bought Leyland Bus, then the Volvo Olympian effectively replaced both.

  4. The name Titan had long been used for Leyland’s traditional half cab double deckers up to the 1960s.

    The Atlantian had been designed to have unitary construction but was too radical in the late 1950s for most operators, so it was redesigned to have a chassis.

    I’m presuming the Metrobus took a fair amount of potential sales away from the Olympian.

  5. The first Leyland Olympians I saw were owned by Northern General Transport (Go Ahead Group.) Not a bad looking bus, but I preferred the look of the original Leyland Atlantean & Daimler Fleetline.

  6. Most Olympians in the early years had the Leyland (SCG) gearbox in automatic form. Later in life many were converted to semi-auto, which is a fairly easy job.

    Although the TL11 was considered the standard engine, up to about 1990 the Gardner outsold it, but then the Cummins L10 became more popular.

    The biggest problem was that the market collapsed after 1986, when the Olympian was outselling its competitors. The Metrobus had 2 main customers, but one of those only bought 3 more after C plate. That Olympians were still selling in the late 90s is testament to the design and it was only killed off by the move to low floor.

  7. Leyland also had a plant in Workington that produced Nationals and later Volvo single deckers. Like the Leyland plant, the Workington plant was run down and closed in the early nineties. Also being remote didn’t help, even if the Workington factory was more modern than Leyland and had an almost impeccable industrial relations record.

  8. Most of the Titans were built at Workington, after production moved there when Park Royal Vehicles in West London closed. Only around 70 Titans had been completed when the closure was announced and the factory shut in June 1980.

    The Workington plant was built for the National and had plenty of spare capacity, so it made some sense to move there.

    London had a fleet of 1125 Titans, but less than a hundred were sold elsewhere. They were concentrated in East and South London, while the MCW Metrobus (1440 standard vehicles in the fleet) was concentrated in West and North London.

    Very nearly all of both types ran with the Gardner 6LXB, apart from trial and experimental vehicles.

  9. Leyland & London Transport had a few disputes on where to build the Titins & some issues over production.

    IIRC Merseyside & West Yorkshires PCTs were interested in the Titan but cancelled any provisional orders.

  10. @ Alasdair, Park Royal’s loss was Workington’s gain, especially as the town in 1980 was seeing its steelworks being run down and unemployment was soaring( also the plant was newer and had a better industrial relations record). At one stage in the late eighties, Workington was so successful they were producing DMUs at a new plant and seemed to have a secure future, but the early nineties recession and Workington’s remoteness saw both factories closed with the loss of 500 jobs. T

  11. I dunno..But perhaps the Olympian with the Cummins engine is most likely the best double decker built..or likely to be built.
    These days with exhaust emissions and weight saving and hybrids and all the rest of it.
    This leads to a flimsy made bus with over complex systems.
    Modern buses are very disposable after 10 years or less.

    The only modern double decker I would like is the Berlin Tri Axle MAN Lion city buses.
    They look okay…And the older MAN double deckers were good looking also. I also doubt whether they’d be as durable as the Olympian.
    so, I put forward the idea that modern standards and market forces have conspired to make the Olympian the best Double decker bus.
    My only experience to say that is I have heard one technician of my local bus company praise the Cummins engined variants..And the rest about modern buses is what I can discern from my use of them. Flimsy bodywork etc..etc. All in the mantra of fuel saving.

  12. @Glenn,

    Park Royal had been suffering industrial relations and productivity problems for a while. It has been said the staff were jealously watching staff at the nearby AEC plant leaving with generous redundancy and walking straight into well paid jobs at Heathrow.

    LT had discussed building the Titan at AEC, but Leyland settled on PRV. The problems cost sales to LT as delivery delays caused orders to be switched to Metro Cammell.

  13. I don’t know about modern deckers having better fuel consumption than Olympians, some Tridents and B7TLs struggle to better 5 .5 mpg where you’d get 7 out of an Olympian. Now the Volvos are getting on a bit they are dying of chassis corrosion, I’ve scrapped a late model one this week. However my last Leyland looks set to run to the DDA deadline! (Maybe beyond if I find something for it to do!)

  14. Glenn – Just to clarify that only Volvo B10M coach chassis were built in Workington. No single-decker service bus chassis was built there. Whilst the B10M was available as a service bus in single-decker (B10M-55) or double-decker service bus (Citybus or sometimes referred to as the D10M) these were built at Volvo’s main bus plant in Sweden as the chassis was slightly different for service buses – mainly surrounding positioning of stuff such as air-tanks.

    There was a plan for Volvo’s rival for the all conquering Dennis Dart – The Volvo B6 – to have its chassis built at Workington and indeed when it was revealed at the Coach & Bus Show 1991 by Stagecoach’s Ann Gloag that’s what was being spun by the Volvo PR machine. Indeed Stagecoach had ordered 200 off the drawing board along with 90 all-Leyland Olympians (both chassis and bodywork) which would also be built at Workington. One suspects that the Leyland Olympians were heavily discounted to fill up space at Workington as bodywork at this stage was down to a trickle and Stagecoach tended to buy from Alexanders.

    However the PR spin contrasted with signs in front of the chassis that said “The Volvo B6 – built in Britain” – just not stating where. As it turned out, the announcement to close the plant happened weeks later and the B6, B10M and Olympian went to a new facility at Volvo’s Irvine Truck Plant in Ayrshire. Albeit the B6 was considered being built in Austria at the Steyr plant but as the main orders were coming from the UK it made sense to build it in the UK. The fate of Workington had already been decided one suspects before the show started.

    Turning to the Metrobus, it’s debatable whether it took orders off the Olympian but what is clear is that it took orders from the Titan. London split its orders between both but due to the Titan’s well documented issues with production some years London had to take more Metrobuses simply because Titan deliveries were so inconsistent. Oddly London stuck with the MkI Metrobus long after the MkII was introduced, building up a massive fleet of them. It did order a few MkII Metrobuses – mainly to evaluate for future vehicle purchases and because Titan production was ending – and indeed one of the MKII buses was actually a prototype MkIII that never went into production. However one suspects that it was MCW’s decision to phase out the MkI that led in part to London’s last major bus order being Olympians, a type it had precious little experience of. Indeed the Metrobus was still available at that time, so it wasn’t down to any issues with the Metrobus itself. Indeed, for fleet standardisation the Metrobus was possibly the more logical choice but obviously the Olympian impressed.

    When Titan production ended at Park Royal, it was planned to go to Eastern Coach Works (ECW). However the staff there demanded many concessions and changes in working patterns to build them there. Where as the more flexible Workington staff demanded no such concessions so it went to Workington.

    As said earlier, the Olympian was probably the zenith in rear-engined double-decker production. A Cummins-engined Alexander-bodied Olympian is probably as good as a bus gets. Smooth running, reliable and with plenty of seats accessed by two shallow steps. It shares none of the compromises of today’s double-decker where lower deck seating capacity has to be sacrificed for easy access. Leyland may have became a bit of a joke by the time the Olympian burst into the world but it still knew how to build a truly great bus.

  15. The Titan spawned competition for Leyland. Whilst the National single decker led to the launch of the Metro-Scania, which in turn led to the Metropolitan decker by the time the Titan arrived British body manufacturers thought Leyland were cutting them adrift by concentrating on whole vehicles.
    By the time the Olympian came along MCW had launched the Metrobus and Dennis the Dominator. The MCW product was a real rival to the Titan and Olympian but sold mainly to large city fleets. This was a reliable bus let down by variable quality of the bodywork. The market by the early 80s was based around replacing early 70s unreliable single deckers and had received a boost with NBCs MAP study which identified a larger told for double deckers.
    The Metrobus allowed others’ bodywork but most were built with MCW’s product, which was not available in low height form until 1986.
    The economy and reliability of the Metrobus led to one of its bigger customers, West Midlands Travel spending c£20k per bus having the bodies rebuilt as they were so much cheaper to operate than modern buses. All of which shows how good the buses of the 80s were. However they were not produced in the quantity required to be competitive.

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