One of the many companies within the old British Leyland empire involved with public transport, was Bristol Commercial Vehicles with its headquarters in the suburb of Brislington, slightly south west of Bristol city centre. Some relaxation in Government policy regarding free market competition resulted in Leyland Motors Ltd buying a majority shareholding in both Bristol and their associated bodywork plant Eastern Coach Works (ECW) in the mid 60’s. Bristol were then seen as a builder of reliable conventional & yet somewhat unexciting truck and bus products.
Leyland had been gathering speed with the introduction of the Atlantean chassis, which then featured a revolutionary transverse rear mounted engine with air operated semi automatic gearbox. Shortly before the Leyland take over, Bristol had been working on their own design of rear engined bus chassis in the form of the VR (vertical rear) and RE (rear engine) designs. Upon seeing this, Leyland agreed to sanction a fully operational protoype with ECW body for the 1966 Commercial vehicle show in Earls Court.
Traditional half cab conductor operated buses were falling out of favour by this time and the one man operated (OMO) bus was fast becoming the accepted method. Following the creation of the National Bus Company (NBC) in 1968, the VR entered full scale production with completed chassis travelling by road to Suffolk where they would be bodied by ECW in Lowestoft. The standard power unit was the Gardner 6LW or the more powerful 6LX, with Leyland options of the tried & tested 0.600 or the all new high speed 0.500 series.
The early production VR was not without its problems in service, the mechanical linkage for the throttle cable gave engineering concerns and ventilation of the engine compartment was found to be poor during intensive operation causing overheating and failure of the power unit. Weaknesses in the gearbox output drive known as the mitre box caused stress on the bearings and soon the VR became known as a problematic vehicle. Bristol & Leyland engineers went back to the drawing board with a view to ironing out the creases.
Initially there had been two versions of the VR at launch. The VRL was a long wheelbase decker intended for coaching operations with its engine mounted in line fitted towards the offside to create more luggage space, VRL standing for vertical rear long. The VRT was the bus version with its engine mounted across the back in an east west fashion (vertical rear transverse). The VRL never sold in huge numbers and were constantly dogged with driveline and overheating problems owing to the boxed off engine. The VRL was killed off with all engineering efforts and sales drives concentrating on the VRT.
By 1970, the VRT series 2 saw the issues of the first examples mainly cured. A new air operated throttle, engine bay fan and extraction system and improved tolerances in the final drive along with standard power steering turned the VR into a reliable and hard working bus, especially when fitted with a Gardner engine. Very quickly, the VR with ECW bodywork became the standard vehicle for the NBC with even the dye in the wool conventional Scottish groups placing big orders. As the 70`s progressed, the two biggest selling decker buses were the VR and Leyland Atlantean.
Minor changes were made in the mid 70`s following the introduction of the series 3 which mainly involved specification improvements. The main technical update was the option of a fully automatic transmission though only a handful of operators went for this option. The VR was mainly sold into NBC fleets but a few municipal operators placed orders of note, Cardif – Northampton & Tayside all built up large numbers with Northampton`s three batches from 1977 – 78 & 81 all being fully automatic and dual door spec.
The series 3 VR became renown for it being a rugged and reliable bus in every sense, Bristol avoided the frills of turbocharged engines following the deletion of the 0.500 option and towards the end of production only Gardner engines were on the menu. Due to Bristol`s expertise in chassis building, work got underway on its replacement which was to feature the high power Leyland TL11 engine and air suspension. The experimental prototype was code named the B45 and Bristol subsequently commenced production of what became known as the Leyland Olympian.
The Olympian was originally developed to be fully assembled at Bristol and VR production ceased in 1981 taking the Bristol name with it, at the same time BL announced that the Daimler Fleetline chassis was also to end. Following internal problems within British Leyland, all tooling and machinery was moved to Lancashire in 1983 with the Brislington plant closing down as a consequence. Initially, operators protested against this by purchasing the Leyland Atlantean over the more modern Olympian design and to many, the Olympian will always be regarded as a Bristol Product.