Atlantean: bearing the weight of the world
Should you be of a certain age, a bus still rustles up a mental picture of something big and noisy with large 22.5in tyres that rattles your fillings and windows with the thumping growling big block Gardner or Leyland 680 power unit. The sights, sounds and smells of yesteryear public transport are a cacophony of hisses whines and diesel smoke, just as modern rolling stock has diluted the romance of train travel to the point of an emotionless experience, modern buses are so clean quiet and dare I say it – totally lacking in any soul or character with a teeny wheezy 4 pot Cummins replacing a pig iron 11 litre six.
The world’s biggest bus maker before compact disc players and Channel Four was Leyland Motors, this of course made perfect sense as their top man throughout the 1960s and ’70s was Donald Stokes – the son of an ex-Plymouth Corporation Transport General Manager, moving people was in his blood. Double deck buses the country over were once of course your traditional half cab open platform affairs with a cheery clippie taking your money. The driver simply drove albeit being slowly deafened and baked by a six cylinder diesel only a cats whisker away from his left leg while he wrestled with a gargantuan steering wheel and crash gearbox.
Not such a great life on the buses
Forget the nostalgic comedy of Stan Butler and his lecherous conductor Jack in LWT’s On The Buses. Take it from someone who has done a stint or three behind the wheel of a Daimler COG5, a shift driving a traditional decker left you barely capable to untie your shoelaces let alone hotfoot it upstairs with a married housewife who just happens to live near the terminus while her husband is at work. Bus driving was serious hard graft make no mistake, a job for life that the public depended on and respected maybe. But at the price of atrocious working conditions that today’s Health and Safety executives would condemn.
Long before Leyland became embroiled with take overs and union strife, the company led the world in bus and truck production. A long forgotten fact is that Leyland were once an engineering and sales led corporation that were feared by every rival maker, known for their aggressive sales force equally as much as the reliability of their product. A great deal of research was taking place as far back as the mid-’50s towards engineering and designing new buses using new methods of construction and calling upon the resources of some of the best automotive talent in the world.
Leyland moving fast in a fast moving world
In 1952, Leyland began experimenting with ideas for a rear-engined double-decker bus. A prototype was built, with a body by CH Roe to the maximum permitted width at that time of 7 feet 6 inches. It was fitted with a turbocharged version of the Leyland O.350 engine, which was transversely mounted at the rear of the sub-frame. The chassis was a platform-type frame of light steel and alloy with an automatic clutch and self change gearbox. After some mixed reactions following some in service testing and gauging the views of bus depot engineering staff, Leyland went back to the drawing board.
A second prototype also received mixed reactions, so after simplifying the design into a rear engined bus with channel section chassis rather than being semi integral with the bodywork and using the tried and tested 600 series engine, the Atlantean was born with the transport departments of Greater Liverpool and Glasgow being the first customers. Even though the then traditional decker still reigned supreme, the Atlantean settled down to become a reliable and solid piece of engineering but only following the allowance of one man operated buses, did the Atlantean really became popular.
In the early ’70s Leyland started fitting the larger 680 (11.1 litre) series engine to cope with modern traffic speeds and various updates involved driver safety and simplicity for engineering staff. Optional equipment for the Series 2 Atlantean included an automatic gearbox (favoured by Tyne and Wear PTE) and various power settings ranging from 150 to 200bhp. Both Bristol and Daimler prior to the Leyland take over had developed their own rear engine designs with the VRT and Fleetline but the Altantean developed an excellent reputation and outsold each rival.
A sales success of simplicity and effectiveness
Operators tended to remain loyal to this Leyland despite the onslaught and crisis of BL and the troublesome reputation of the National. Many companies relied on the Atlantean for all of its lifespan with huge fleets belonging to National Bus and the municipal operations of Blackpool, Glasgow, Manchester, Newcastle, Nottingham and Stokes home city of Plymouth. Towards the end of its life the Atlantean was offered with the new 690 series engine which was a lightly turbocharged development of the 680 and created less noise in service with better efficiency.
From a drivers point of view, the Atlantean offered a minimalistic cab that featured nothing more than a speedometer and a brace of air gauges. Early examples used an air operated gear selector that emitted a lovely peep or whistle noise as you snicked through the cogs, while later versions used an electric selector knob that needed just a fingertip to use. Because the Leyland power units tended to run at a higher temperature than a Gardner equipped Daimler Fleetline or Bristol VRT, the Atlantean tended to be known amongst driving crews as a ‘warm bus’ in winter.
Reliable and popular the world over right to the end
As mentioned before, they were known for being a no-frills bus that on the whole was very reliable. The semi automatic gearbox could be problematic in the hands of an abusive driver, and if the warning buzzer failed on the radiator status device, the 680 tended be known to throw a head gasket. The chassis was incredibly strong and long lasting making sure that even the most cost effective bodywork could go the distance. A handful even became motorway coaches with Standerwick Travel specifying plush interiors and high ratio transmissions on their once famous ‘Gay Hostess’ long distance deckers.
The growl of the engine and the whine from the rear mounted fan drive were typical of the Atlantean in public service along with the loud whistles of the air operated gearbox. The howling screeching brakes that made small children cry and old ladies tremble take us back to an era when everything seemed all-right with the world. Public transport had bags of character, when even a trip into the City by bus as a small child was almost as exiting as Christmas morning. The last Atlantean for the UK market was built in 1984 but export chassis were assembled in early 1986.
The bus was an export hit in places as far afield as Baghdad, China, Singapore and even the USA bought into Leyland’s last no-frills heavy duty and totally reliable double deck chassis. Leyland even tried to develop an 8 wheel ultra heavy duty version for the American and Canadian market with a 220bhp turbo charged engine and double drive rear axle. Nothing came of this one off chassis and all production Leyland Atlantean examples were two axle chassis types with final production figures being well in excess of 15,000 units in both double and in rare single deck form.