Mike Humble fondly recalls the halcyon days of the UK bus and coaching scene from the 1970s, and pays tribute to the Leyland Leopard.
For me, its all about the sound – you never forget the noises of your childhood, the school bell ringing to signal 3.30, the now almost extinct two tone air horns on emergency vehicles, and for me, the throaty roar of a Leyland Leopard.
Growing up the railway town of Darlington in the ’70s, it was all about trains and buses, and they played a big part in my childhood days. In the road where I lived for some years, our neighbour was the workshop foreman of the local municipal bus operator Darlington Corporation Transport and a few doors up lived the General Manager. The Leopard was the first vehicle to tickle my senses owing to the fact they were noisy and had bags of character.
Occasionally, we would take a holiday toBlackpool on a coach trip, as a child the journey would seemingly take forever, but the brand new Leopard looking resplendent in the silver and blue livery of the long gone operator Scots Greys was the best part of my week.
To many people over the age of 35, the Leyland Leopard was the epitome of 1970s coaching, introduced back in 1959, the Leopard was the biggest selling PSV chassis in the UK for the best part of three generations and went on to be the backbone of National Express throughout the whole of the 1970`s. The wonderful booming soundtrack came via Leyland’s own 0.600 and latterly 0.680 horizontal diesel engine with a choice of ZF or Leyland pneumo-cyclic semi automatic gearbox.
Throughout its lifetime (1959–1982) virtually every body builder built on the Leopard chassis including names like Plaxton, Duple, Willowbrook, Alexander and ECW. For me, the ultimate coach of yesteryear was a Plaxton Supreme Leyland Leopard, it seemed no matter where you were in England– one would come along in a minute or two.
They offered reliability and rugged appeal owing to the strength and rust resistance of its chassis, and even through the turmoil of the BL era, the Leopard continued to offer sterling service and was sadly mourned upon its deletion in the early ’80s. The Leopard was offered in lengths right up to the legal maximum of 12metres and power options from 150 to 200bhp.
Today, many Leopards are in preservation ownership, and for me, it’s a reality check, as it only seems like yesterday since the five-year old boy that I was then, was given a sneak preview of Darlington Transport’s brand new Leopard buses weeks before the public – If I shut my eyes, I can still smell the fresh paint.
Today, the upright driving position, its huge bake-o-lite steering wheel and massive alloy throttle pedal with Leyland cast into it seem out of touch with today’s high tech buses and coaches. The air operated throttle and gearbox take some serious getting used to, but once mastered, the Leopard in good fettle is still surprisingly good to drive in today’s traffic!