Buses : Leyland Leopard 1959-1982

Carole Nash Classic Insurance Specialists

Mike Humble fondly recalls the halcyon days of the UK bus and coaching scene from the 1970s, and pays tribute to the Leyland Leopard.

A Plaxton bodied Leyland Leopard: the epitome of '70s coaching?

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!

Not even the snow of `87 could stop this Cat - Darlington Leopard Fleet No:72

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

29 Comments

  1. I grew up in Durham in the 70s and 80s and know exactly what you mean about familiar sights and sounds have now gone into history. I had forgotten the blue and cream buses in Darlington completely!

  2. This brings back memories – when I was growing up a local coach operator (Rose of Cudworth, Barnsley – known locally as “Chippy Rose” for some inexplicable reason) had a fleet of these, all ex-National Coaches ones. We used to be taken to the swimming baths four miles away by them – a bitter-sweet experience as I loved the coach ride on the super comfy seats but hated going swimming! I always remember the slow hiss as the door gradually swung open, it always looked like it might slow down and get stuck, but it never did, despite the fact that these coaches were probably at least decade old by then.

    Speaking of school trips, our school bought a new minibus in 1989 to supplement its existing late Seventies Transit 16 seater with sticky vinyl seats and no headrests, along with a crunchy gearbox that required double de-clutching on downshifts. The new minibus was an F reg Freight Rover Sherpa with what was called “crew seating” or some other strange euphemism for the uncomfortable slatted benches without seatbelts that ran down either side of the minibus – you wouldn’t get that these days! I’ve still got the marks on my backside from that residential trip up to to the Pennines in 1990…

    Great essay as ever Mike. Keep ’em coming!

  3. I love these essays and blogs about buses, please keep them coming Mike.

    There’s something about buses and trains that takes me back to my childhood. I’m not yet in my 40s but even I had the same childhood aspirations as my father and his generation, and the generation before no doubt – to be a bus or train driver.

    I remember sitting behind the driver on a junior school trip and being enthralled at how it was driven – judicious use of the throttle – fascinated to watch how he skillfully used the weight and momentum of the bus to coast along without too much effort, easily feeding the big steering wheel to make the coach go wherever he wanted, seemingly effortless skill positioning the big coach for turns – always love the way it appeared we’d gone too far out into the junction to turn and miss the cars on the other side of the road – and so on.

    Loved riding on these buses….still do!

  4. Just reminds me of travelling on school trips and going to Aston Villa away games in late 1970’s and early 80’s. 20 or 30 coaches sometimes, many of them Leopards

  5. Is this the one that was really quick? I seem to remember someone saying Leyland had a bus that was unusually quick, even to the point of giving many cars a run for their money away from the lights.

  6. Dennis

    A Lynx service bus with a Cummins L10 even with a full compliment of passengers setting off on a 1 in 3 bank towing the county of Yorkshire behind on a trailer with a seized axle was quicker off the lights than a Porsche Carerra Turbo 🙂

  7. That’s probably the one then. As i understood it, it basically had a very torquey high horse power engine as used in high end trucks but coupled to a high ratio gearbox and axle.

    Still Leyland-Daf also did some high performance LF’s for MOD bomb disposal. I think they were rated at 12 ton, but about the size of a 7.5tonner and they had something like the 400bhp engine in them! I can remember one passing me on the M2 with the blues and twos going, the thing must have been doing 90+! Hell of a bow wave from it.

  8. Memories… As I still lived in the Juwel of the East (Lowestoft ;)), I always saw those old Leyland busses. Don’t know if anyone knows “Belle Coaches”? They had – back in the mid 90ies – an entire fleet of those Leyland Leopards with the Plaxton body. I saw that top picture and instantly could remember the rumble of that diesel in the rear and that shaking. When going swimming – from school – the bus would rumble and bump all over the road and bounce like broken dampers… Memories 😀

  9. Belle are still going strong, mainly with a fleet of Van Hool DAF & Scanias.

    The Leopard was loved by the Scottish Bus Group, who amassed a massive fleet of Alexander bodied buses, and many had ‘dual purpose’ seats, and were used on long distance work. The Leopard seemed to be almost bomb proof, and were very economical, and easy to work on, due to their simpleness.

  10. use to go to the swimming baths from school on a plaxton bodied one in th mid 80’s, but this use to be on a 70’s knackered version run by the canvey based Semiens Coaches, now called Amber after they rebranded to hide their terrible service back then. Remember breaking down anf having to walk back to school with Steve the driver trying to find the change to call for a tow – pre mobile days!

  11. I remember going to London in from Brum for the 1981 (I think) charity sheild at Wembley, Villa v Spurs. The thing flew day and I even rember being in the outside lane a couple times…very naughty. I would say it was doing 80+ at times

  12. I once drove MRU 551W. This was a PSU5C/4R with Plaxton 57 seater body ex Marchwood Motorways. I worked for Country Lion at the time. It always sounded like the most powerful coach on the road, but didn’t have performance to match. Nice coach to drive though.

  13. Used to get Alexander bodied leopards into school in the late 90s. I remember them breaking down more than once. They stayed in the Ulsterbus fleet til the mid 2000s, a few were shortened for towing.

  14. As Will says, the Alexander bodied Leopards were a stable of the Ulsterbus fleet for years. I always thought they looked much better than the squared off Tigers that followed. Always liked the curved rear of the roof on the Alexander body, and they looked superb when new and shiny in the blue & white Ulserbus livery. Not so fond of the red & white Citybus livery.

    Sadly quite a few Leopards in Northern Ireland were destroyed by fire and hijacking, but thankfully a few are now in preservation. Sorry to see these icons of the road retired.

    http://ardsbuspreservationgroup.weebly.com/uploads/7/8/6/1/7861103/1321053259.jpg

  15. Nice photo, one of the many that worked on Associated Motorway Serivces out of Cheltenham, by Black@White Motorways, before National Express messed up eveything,
    A lot of famous names disappered overnight, and a lot of money wasted painting buses and coaches, in green/red or white,

  16. Great buses the Leopards lots of them in Scotland at the times with Alexander Y type bodies SBG didn’t go with the Leyland Nationals until the late 70’s

  17. The gearbox did take some getting used to. I remember the proprietor of the local independent company that did our school transport complain that his drivers didn’t take their foot off the accelerator when changing gear causing the transmission to slip.

    It was always a mystery to me why, after a while, the engine noise would change to a most distinctive if somewhat ominous one.

    Didn’t have any effect on the durability though.

  18. The Leyland Leopard, best bus ever! we had several at The Eden,(Summerson Bros) West Auckland. The Eden also bought the first and Last Plaxton Derwent 1’s the last one being a Leopard (ABR778S). We have recently brought one Leopard Derwent back to life (PPT446P) known to us as Leopard 14, which was recently retested after a break of 18 years!.
    LONG LIVE LEYLAND LEOPARDS.

  19. The O:600 developed between 125 and 140 bhp and the O680 between 153 and 175 in Leopards.

    Leyland manual transmission was the original standard with the Pneumocyclic optional. SBG had an exclusive option of a four-speed ZF after the Leyland manual was dropped bu the six speed ZF only became available after the Reliance was dropped.

  20. I’ve driven a Leyland Lynx with ZF auto’ ‘box and a TL11 engine. Sprightly performance… 😀

  21. And the very first coach I drove on the road? An ex Black and White Motorways Leyland Leopard/ Plaxton Supreme! 🙂

  22. Widnes Corporation which became Halton Transport had 12 leyland leopards from 1967 to the late 1989 only survives but as a breakdown recovery bus KTB748F, Aall where replace by a mix of Leyland Nationals and Lynxs

  23. We had them all over the country (Holland). It all started back in the early 50’s with the Worldmaster and Royal Tiger and the complete chassis were imported. Locally produced bodywork, mainly by Verheul, Roset and later Den Oudsten from Woerden, was used. Later on, the Leopard chassis was used. Locally built to Leyland specs by Leyland owned Verheul and due to a devestating fire, followed up by Den Oudsten. Most were in use as public transport vehicles, only a few were coaches. We have quite a few units that are preserved and some are even on the road, but as times go by we have increasing problems keeping them on the road. Even a simple part such as a thermostat is now so hard to obtain, that many units are now forced inside a musem being on static display. Which is a shame realy. I do not know about spares supplies in the UK but we simply have to turn down requests for engine rebuilds. We have a 1967 O.600 10-meter Leyland-Verheul city bus in great shape from Delft that has a dying engine that needs to be overhauled or replaced, whatever is better. But until we find spares, the project is halted. And this goes for many units to come. Perhaps all this is just a matter of how things go, it all ends somewhere. Sad, but true.

  24. The Leyland Leopard is proof positive that Leyland, at its zenith, knew how to build a good bus. Whilst most people will tend to associate the Leyland name with all the ills of car building, it should be remembered that Leyland built its name on building quality buses and lorries, built to last. Indeed Leyland’s motto – For all time – could easily sum up the Leopard. It was by no means the most sophisticated coach on the market – indeed it could be argued that the AEC Reliance was a better coach overall.- the Leopard was a simple, no nonsense, no frills coach. The Leopard was born as motorways began to open up express coaches as a genuine alternative to rail and as the Government legislated for coaches at lengths up to 36 feet, Leyland met the perceived demand with its new chassis – the Leopard.

    It was marketed as a no-frills bus but operators loved it. It was reliable, dependable and had good fuel economy. It was especially loved by the state owned fleets and the National Bus Company (NBC) and Scottish Bus Group (SBG) built up huge fleets of coaches, almost all of them Leopards. Indeed, if you saw a NBC white coach in the 70’s, chances were it was a Leopard.

    The SBG went further and had Leopards bodied as buses as well as coaches. It has to be said that the Leopard was not the most ideal local service bus with its high entrance and steps up but then again, anyone mentioning easy-access to SBG would have been strapped to a Leopard’s chassis and soundly hit around the head with a SCG-Gearbox, such was its conservative nature of bus travel. However, such was SBG’s love of the Leopard a massive backlog of chassis built up at Alexanders and in some cases bodies were placed on chassis without checking what was underneath them, gearing wise. This led to some rather underpowered coaches and some massively overpowered buses until the mechanics could sort them out….Ho hum hoots.

    It has to be said that Leyland helped the Leopard by killing off its rivals at Briatol with the RE and AEC with the Reliance. At the same time, in all honesty, the Leopard was probably kept on the market too long. It was looking very long in the tooth by the end of the seventies and was being outclassed by its rivals. Volvo and DAF had entered the market, Volvo in particular had growing success with its massively competent B58 model and then moved the game on in leaps and bounds with the B10M. Leyland was struggling with cash crisises and whilst it struggled to get the B15 Titan to market, it probably held back replacement of the Leopard which was more pressing. When the Leopard’s replacement was the designed – and eventually arrived as the Tiger – it held back replacement of the National.

    However, this should not detract from what was a special bus. It’s an enthusiasts bus too, with a lovely exhaust note and most enthusiasts don’t have a bad word to say about the Leopard. The Leopard deserves in place in the pantheon of great Leyland buses, alongside the first generation Titan, Atlantean and Olympian.

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