Blog : Happy birthday – Roadrunner reaches 30!

Carole Nash Classic Insurance Specialists

Continuing the birthday celebrations for our beloved vehicles like the Rover 200 and Montego that both have milestone anniversaries, Mike Humble raises a glass for one of Leyland Trucks success stories that’s just turned 30 this year – the T45 Roadrunner.

The 1984 Leyland Roadrunner seen on display at a Design Council Award display.
The 1984 Leyland Roadrunner seen here at a Design Council Award display just after its launch

If you think hard enough, there were many car adverts on the television that stand out in the mind’s eye. Ford had the Sierra had the XR4i with the strapline “Man and machine in perfect harmony” and our very own B.L had a patriotic televisual treat telling us all the Metro was “A British car to beat the world” – who can forget the gathering of Mini Metro’s parking at the tip of Dover cliff seeing off Johnny foreigner. But when it comes to commercials vehicles, has there been any truly iconic commercial vehicles on the small screen making small boys and transport managers slaver at the mouth? One certainly comes to mind – the Leyland Roadrunner, and it’s just recently joined the ranks of the Rover 200 series and Vauxhall Astra MK2 by celebrating its 30th birthday.

Roadrunner was the last member of the “T45” development programme and had its launch in September 1984 in a huge blaze of glory and publicity. The problem at the time was how to make a truck look sexy and have a genuine WOW factor and a Leyland advertising man had a brilliant idea. While throwing about strap lines and catchphrases, someone mentioned about the proving and testing it had gone through during development by saying it was quite possibly the toughest truck on four wheels. A brilliant eureka moment then happened when the thought of a truck driven by a stunt driver might be just what the public would appreciate.

Gilbert Bataille, the Belgian stunt driver does his party trick by completing a full lap of the Silverstone circuit
Gilbert Bataille, the Belgian stunt driver does his party trick by completing a full lap of the Silverstone circuit

After some phone calls to Belgium and some hurried development work from Leyland chassis engineers they were left with one of the most iconic and legendary TV adverts of all time. World record-breaking stunt driver Gilbert Bataille who was famed for his truck antics drove the specially prepared Roadrunner while the velvety tones of Anthony Valentine calmly boasted that Leyland Roadrunner was “The Toughest Truck On Two Wheels”. At the time of launch it was the lightest, most productive and aerodynamic 7.5 tonne truck on sale anywhere in the world – certainly something to boast about, yet the Roadrunner almost took on a very different shape.

The initial plan to replace the ageing Terrier model was to create a beefed up version of the Sherpa van in a similar manner to what Ford had done with the A series and Transit. After some disappointing results with mock up vehicles, some experimental ideas were put forward to Leyland bosses using the existing Terrier chassis. Eventually, the choices were narrowed down to two vehicles – one of which styled by Ogle – who had already created the Roadtrain, Constructor and Freighter range, the other being a design by Leyland’s own stylists. The design put forward by Bill Lowe – Leyland’s chief engineer was chosen over the Ogle / Tom Karen design purely on a cost basis – too much glass and expensive composite material was cited as being the drawback for Karen’s proposal but OGLE were not convinced.

The original design put forward by OGLE that was rejected by Leyland on cost and engineering difficulty.
The original design put forward by OGLE – Leyland cited cost and production problems. OGLE were not convinced by this reasoning

Ogle felt let down with this decision by Leyland. Chief Stylist Tom Karen told us: “we gave Leyland another option whereby we showed that the front aspect could be changed to a split design with much less glazing if cost was the only issue – they didn’t want to know and I still think the OGLE proposal was a nicer looking truck than the production vehicle”. Many have said that too many egos were in key positions at Leyland Trucks and despite the fact they we no longer the mighty force in the truck industry to be reckoned with, there was still an arrogant attitude towards customers and service suppliers. Leyland by now operated as a stand alone division within BL, mind sets were changing and progress was being made – Roadrunner had to succeed!

Extensive used of Computer aided design and manufacture (CADCAM) enabled a huge proportion of the development to be done via programme simulation. When a jig prototype was eventually produced and tested in real-time scenarios, Leyland found their design was only 10 to 15% out in terms of computer prediction which at that time was incredible. Other features included flush bonded glazing to the windscreen area, a unique passenger side kerb window, adjustable steering column and an orthopedically designed driver’s seat that weighed 25% less than a traditional item. Cab construction was sheer simplicity as the whole structure was made of just seven major components with the whole cab floor being just one pressing – the whole truck was designed in record time for a fraction of the traditional cost.

Post 86 Roadrunners used the Cummins B series engine as seen here - Leyland used spare foundry capacity to cast various components in return for cheaper unit costs. Leyland and Cummins worked closely to provide a tailor made installation that was one of the most tested engines in the world.
Post 1986 Roadrunners used the Cummins B series engine as seen here though it was originally named the “Leyland 300 series” – Spare foundry capacity at Leylands “Spurrier” foundry was used to cast various engine components in return for cheaper unit costs. Leyland and Cummins worked closely to provide a tailor made installation and it was one of the most thoroughly tested engines in the world

Using an updated Terrier chassis and proven Leyland running gear, the Roadrunner was originally earmarked for production at Bathgate near Edinburgh, but as the launch date loomed it was decided to concentrate assembly at Leyland. Despite the outwardly modern look it was very conventional underneath using a tried and tested Leyland “6.98NV” 5.6 litre engine bolted to an updated Turner T5 gearbox. The Terrier braking system that used a system reliant on nitrogen charged spheres for braking assistance was deleted in favour of a standard air / hydraulic type which pleased engineers. But it was the cab itself produced by Motor Panels of Coventry where all the magic took place giving Leyland a useful payload advantage of around 500kgs over its closest competitor.

Original power levels were rated at 97 and 115bhp but Leyland were already working on a joint collaboration with Cummins to adapt the 5.9 litre “B” series engine for the Roadrunner. In turn for some favourable unit costs Leyland used their spare foundry capacity to cast some of the components in house for Cummins and power options went from 115 to 130bhp with a 145bhp turbo becoming available soon after. At the same time ventilated disc brakes were fitted on the front axle which promised up to 60% longer pad life over the outgoing drum and shoe arrangement. Roadrunner was a cracking little British truck that sold in big numbers and it was this and the revised Ford Cargo that dealt the killer blows to our other remaining truck maker – Bedford.

 Roadrunner was simplicity personified as seen here with this early launch vehicle. Headlamps were shared with the Austin Maestro while the facia heater vents were borrowed from the Triumph Acclaim.
Roadrunner was simplicity personified as seen here with this early launch vehicle. Headlamps were shared with the Austin Maestro while the facia heater vents were borrowed from the Triumph Acclaim

After the merger that created Leyland DAF, the Roadrunner steadily developed and matured into a respected top selling truck. It morphed into the “Leyland DAF 45” series in 1991 gaining full 24v electrics, new seat trim, revised frontal styling and an intercooled 160bhp option aimed at the draw-bar sector but the most welcome feature was a new ZF manual gearbox that finally ousted the antiquated and cumbersome Spicer-Turner unit of old. The “45” continued albeit in a restyled form until 2001 whereby the old Motor Panels produced cab was dropped in favour of a new item developed between DAF and Renault. Its title now became known as the DAF LF but a little known fact is that this all new light truck was also designed and developed by Leyland engineers.

In practice, the Roadrunner was a good little truck that punched above its weight and also gave way to a bus chassis called the Leyland Swift. The huge cab doors gave superb access to the interior and its minimalistic yet stylish interior design offered loads of space for the driver and up to two passengers. Post 1991 Leyland DAF 45 models were especially good little tools and felt a little more plush that the earlier models partly thanks to the introduction of a more common ISRI driver’s seat and more soft trim to the interior. On the whole, they were reliable and frugal trucks that sold in big numbers to every type of operator from self drive hire through to intensive parcel distribution companies – British Rail, Lynx Express and Tuffnells being notable buyers.

Roadrunner sat well in the T45 family and by 1986 Leyland had a range of trucks that spanned 6 to 300 tonnes - a feat that was matched by no other manufacturer.
Roadrunner sat well in the T45 family and by 1986 Leyland had a range of trucks that spanned 6 to 300 tonnes – a feat that was matched by no other manufacturer.

The ace up the sleeve of the Leyland Roadrunner was efficiency and it was consistently better than its rivals when it came down to the two most important attributes in the cut throat world of commercial vehicles – fuel consumption and payload. Its spiritual successor – the DAF LF continues to sell strongly and is assembled by Leyland Trucks in the UK. The tried and tested lightweight but strong chassis allied to a Cummins / ZF driveline remains to this day.

Happy 30th Birthday to the Leyland Roadrunner!

You can watch the TV launch commercial from 1984 by clicking HERE

Roadrunner Trivia

The T.V commercial was filmed over two days in Southern France, no accidents took place and the only modifications required to the truck was by fitting rear axle springs to the front and a heavy duty anti-roll bar. The Belgian stunt driver – Gilbert Bataille went on to perform other vehicle antics in movies such as “Licence To Kill”  “Ronin” and “The Bourne Identity”

The Roadrunner became the first light truck to feature front disc brakes as standard

The Roadrunner launch marked the final closure of the old BMC plant in Bathgate

The Roadrunner shared its cab doors with the other T45 models

The cab itself comprised of only seven major components to assemble and whole cab floor was made of just one panel pressing.

The Cummins B series is the worlds most produced truck engine – over 8 million built to date

The Leyland assembly plant is Europe’s most efficient truck factory and is still home to the current top selling 7.5 tonne vehicle – the DAF LF.

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

4 Comments

  1. Mike, this a fantastic retrospective on what I believe is one of the most neatly styled British vehicles of the era. The Roadrunner and the Ford Cargo were both so well styled that they’d still look pretty fresh today. We should source one of each for a twin test…

  2. Back in the early 90s I worked as a glass fitter at Auto Windscreens. The bonded screen was expensive to change for the operators so a rubber mounted option was developed….. I wonder how many original cabs still have bonded in glass??

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