Commercials : The BMC 250 JU Coach

Chris Cowin looks at a vehicle which used to be everywhere, but has now largely disappeared: BMC’s 250 JU Coach.

It was part of British Leyland’s range in Britain until 1974, and formed part of the 250 JU commercial vehicle range which could trace its roots to the 1950s.


Remembering an icon: BMC 250 JU Coach

A 250 JU Coach displayed by British Leyland in the early '70s (when they were badged Austin Morris).
A 250 JU Coach displayed by British Leyland in the early 1970s (when they were badged Austin-Morris)

Move over Volkswagen Microbus… as the 1960s swung into the ’70s, Brits could buy the distinctive 250 JU ‘Coach’ – a roomy minibus.

It could carry up to 14 (including the driver) with 11 passengers facing forward in the rear compartment on upholstered seats, or 12 on longitudinal benches. (Kids of the 1970s may remember such benches crammed with far more than 12 youngsters).

Rather awkwardly, access to the rear seating area was by the tailgate only – even though the preceding J2 Coach (as favoured by The Beatles in their early days) had featured a side entry. This is likely to have been due to evolving United Kingdom PSV (Public Service Vehicle) regulations.

Some export 250 JU Coaches retained the side door which was listed as an ‘export only’ option, with vehicles so equipped being popular as school buses in Malaysia, to take an example. But in its absence passengers climbed up and through the single side-hinged rear door with the aid of a large step platform.

One hopes the lady in the leopard-skin coat didn't ladder her tights climbing aboard the 250 JU coach.
One hopes the lady in the leopard-skin coat didn’t ladder her tights climbing aboard the 250 JU Coach
Entrance through the rear doors was aided by a broad step platform.
Entrance through the rear door was aided by a broad step platform
The convenient side door as featured on the preceding J2 Coach (pictured) was “export only” on the 250 JU Coach

Substantially updated

Compared to the old J2 vehicles on which they were based, the new-for-1967 250 JU range had a wider track (by 10 inches at the front), giving better stability, and also a longer wheelbase, with the front axle moved forward. Steering and brakes were revised, combined with a restyled front and new ‘strip speedo’ dashboard that owed a lot to the Austin 1800 (the influence of BMC’s Technical Director Alec Issigonis ran far). ‘Spherivent’ ventilation nozzles cooled the cab.

The 250 JU range was built at Adderley Park, Birmingham, though it’s believed the coach models were fitted out by an external company.

The owner of an Austin 1800 would have felt at home behind the wheel of a 250 JU coach (or any of the range).
The owner of an Austin 1800 would have felt at home behind the wheel of a 250  JU Coach (or any of the range)

Design compromises 

However, the 250 JU range came down the pipeline at cash-strapped BMC at a busy time, and they retained many elements from the 1950’s J2, being still forward control (with the engine under the cab) when that was going out of fashion. The ‘U’ in JU stands for ‘Underfloor’. That made for a noisy and sometimes hot vehicle. The ‘250’ referred to the two and a half tons gross loaded weight rating that applied to this range of vehicles.

The Coach model was normally supplied with ‘Deluxe’ trim which included chrome bumpers, a heater/demister (lucky passengers) and twin sun visors up front. Its 49bhp came from the 1622cc B-Series petrol engine. Automatic transmission was an option, and so was the 1489cc B-Series diesel engine (not in conjunction with automatic). An identical engine offer to the Morris Oxford VI, in fact. Crossing the Welsh mountains with 14 hefty rugby players on board was no fun.

Early models (here on military plates) were badged both "Morris" and "Austin".
Early models (here on military plates) were badged both Austin and Morris

The 250 JU Coach, like other members of the 250 JU commercial range, suffered something of an identity crisis. Originally, in 1967, both Austin and Morris versions were marketed, followed by a single version branded and badged BMC during the period (1968-70) when BMC continued to exist as a division of the new British Leyland.

Then, from 1970, until replacement by Sherpa in 1974, they were badged Austin-Morris. At some point the rear lamps were changed from twin individual units to a cluster similar to the Mini pick-up, and there were detail changes to the grille and bumpers.

Following the creation of British Leyland in 1968, the 250 JU range (including the coach) was branded "BMC" - usually with a BMC badge above the grille. BMC lived on for a while as a division of British Leyland.
Following the creation of British Leyland in 1968, the 250 JU range (including the Coach) was branded BMC – usually with a BMC badge above the grille. BMC lived on for a while as a division of British Leyland
From 1970 branding and badging changed to Austin Morris which reflected how the BMC division of British-Leyland had been renamed the Austin-Morris division.
From 1970 branding and badging changed to Austin-Morris which reflected how the BMC division of British Leyland had been renamed the Austin-Morris division.

These ‘coaches’ faced competition from the rather more modern Bedford CF and Ford Transit equivalents, with British Leyland’s share of the overall light commercial market slumping badly during the early 1970s.

The 250 JU (centre back) slotted into a British Leyland light commercial range that was looking distinctly dated by the early '70s (though the EA van - left back - was new in 1968). The FX4 taxi was classed as a commercial vehicle so appears here.
The 250 JU (centre back) slotted into a British Leyland light commercial range that was looking distinctly dated by the early 1970s (though the EA van – left back – was new in 1968). The FX4 taxi was classed as a commercial vehicle so appears here

The ‘new Leyland van from Austin-Morris’ – swiftly renamed Sherpa – took over from both 250 JU and the smaller J4 van range in 1974, and British Leyland’s share of this market segment swiftly rose from a low of 7% to 14% two years later.

To the relief of some passengers, the Sherpa could be ordered as both a ‘crewbus’ and ‘minibus’ – the latter featuring the side door that the UK market 250 JU Coach had lacked.

Chris Cowin

36 Comments

  1. Another one of those vehicles that was on our streets but is forgotten nowadays, looking at it it’s easy to see why it wasn’t competitive with the Bedford CF & Ford Transit vans. Are there any examples that have survived?

  2. I remember as a kid in the early eighties a guy around the corner having one of these converted into a camper van. It never moved until it was replaced by a newer transit replacement. He also had EA van. I think I have seen one JU doing the rounds at car shows in Essex, but that’s it. Its funny how classic commercial vehicles don’t have the same following as cars?

  3. I drove one (a van) for several years in the early 70’s. Loaded with McPherson struts it would get to 50 eventually but the noise was horrendous! Long trips down to Cornwall took absolutely ages and coming back empty the noise was even worse. Had a scary moment at 4 in the morning on the Lambourne Road – a huge stag leapt in front of us. His antlers missed the windscreen by a whisker. That windscreen really was so low – almost level with ones knees. Much as I am a BL fan I can’t deny that coming from driving the new Bedford CF a year or so before – comparison was very much Tesla versus Lada. But then, the CF was at the cutting edge of vans – and still looks cool even today.

      • Actually, the Lada Niva is currently the longest-running 4×4 still in production… As at April 2017, more than 2.5 million had been produced.

        The Lada Riva (aka VAZ-2101/VAZ-2105, etc and basically a Fiat 124) had a 42-year production run, with more than 14 million made at the Togliatti (Russia) plant, ending in September 2012. It was still being produced in Egypt in 2014. For comparison, the BMC/Leyland Mini had a 41-year run, but sold circa 5.4 million units.

        Lada is now part of Renault, being part of their Lada-Dacia business unit. For Lada’s current product range, see https://www.lada.ru/en/

  4. I remember in the 70’s the government department department that I worked for at the time had JU pick-ups. The strongest memory I have of them is the very heavy steering. The Sherpas that replaced them were a far better vehicle.

  5. Worked on these as an apprentice then later the EA J4 and sherpa when I worked as a mechanic for the Post Office BMC 1.5 Diesel was unburstable

  6. Memories! We had one of these as our school minibus. White, badged “Austin Morris”. I remember the big step at the back – didn’t it come out as the rear door was opened?

    • Certainly the preceding J2 claimed to have “a patented design of automatically retracting step”. The 250 JU brochure I’ve consulted is strangely silent on the subject but it would make sense for the design to have been carried over.

      • The J2 also had self-closing front doors. On airfields, we habitually travelled with the doors slid back, but a sharpish application of the brakes would cause the doors to slam forwards. It was best not to have one’s hand holding the windscreen pillar…

        • A sort of “accidental” design feature then : ) (same on the Bedford CA). On the 250 JU sliding cab doors were still an option on the van version but the pick-up and coach had hinged doors.

  7. I should have added to my previous post that the Bedford CFs we also had at the same time were nicer to drive than either the JU or the Sherpa. I have to agree with Wolseley Man there.

    • The last ones (called A60 by that time – or “half ton” van/pick-up) were built in 1972 in the UK (and possibly later overseas from CKD kits). They hung on until the Marina commercial versions were ready

      • @ Chris Cowin, the Austin A35 van outlived the car version by 13 years and a few were still running into the eighties. Old fashioned and crude by 1972, but the A35 van was a durable and very simple to maintain vehicle. Probably the same reason the elderly Morris Minor van lasted until the bitter end, it intherited the good points of the car and was one of the cheapest vans on the market.

        • Glenn, the A35 van was, from 1989 until his death in 1993, former F1 World Champion James Hunt’s daily driver. He always maintained that he had great fun driving it flat out everywhere, just to be able to keep up with the traffic.

        • Yes … though in fact the A35 van was dropped in 1968 (which is why it doesn’t appear in that 1970 “family photo”). It was replaced in the short term by the Austin badged version of the Morris Minor van (6 cwt/8 cwt van) which previously had been restricted to Morris franchised dealers in the continuing dual channel UK distribution network – and which could carry more weight. This streamlining of the range was something of a masterstroke – as sales and production of the Minor vans jumped – which helped keep the whole Morris Minor production process more viable for longer. They were building as many commercials as cars in the end.

        • All these old vans stayed in production only to supply the Nationalised utilities – along with the Bedford HA – effectively subsidised by the Government and sold at cost/wooden dollars. The private sector stayed well clear and bought Fords in their droves.

          • The Escort van appeared in spring 1968, making it 20 years newer than the Minor van and 11 years newer than the A55/A60 design!

  8. The BMC Leyland commercials may have been dated by 1968 but they were very robust and they looked good. Especially the A55 van. A neighbour of ours ran one right up the early 80s it was a beautiful beast.

  9. I worked as a Fleet Manager for a formally nationalised company in 1983-86. We inherited several J and EA vans.
    They were awful vehicles compared to Transits and even CF vans.
    Drivers hated them, suspensions would wear out between services and engines would constantly overheat for no apparent reason.
    Heads would crack like carrots and you could not get replacements from the tossers at Leyland so you had to try scrap yards and they were usually cracked as well.

    I have no nostalgia for these beasts of vehicles.

    These vehicles are a good example of why British Commercial Vehicle Industry is dead and buried.

    There were good vehicles produced in Britain in the past (I own a 1969 Lotus Europa). There was however so much dross like the vans that BL produced including Sherpa that I genuine believe we got what we deserved- assembling vehicles for others to make profits.

  10. Vauxhall survive as the last producer of British vans, the Vivaro seems to have quite a good reputation, and the company is to build a smaller electric van at Ellesmere Port later this year, so all is not lost. Also Vauxhall now assemble some Peugeot vans at Luton, which means a supposedly French van might actually be made in Britain.

    • The “supposedly French” Renault Trafic was assembled at Luton for most of the last 20 years of course : ) And exported in serious quantities with both Renault and Opel badges as Luton was the plant for Europe for that vehicle. Meanwhile the bigger Vauxhall (and Opel) Movano was built at a Renault factory in eastern France alongside their Master version. That joint venture began in the 1990s and also covered the Nissan badged versions.

      • @ Chris Cown cheers, I never knew that, although Renault did take over the Dodge van plant in nearby Dunstable in the early eighties, which might explain why Vauxhall Luton was involved in assembling the Trafic.
        Vauxhall. Bedford were always a reputable commercial brand stretching back to my boyhood. The CF was a decent enough van that could compete well against the Sherpa and the Transit, and was vastly better than the horrid Commer. Then there was the hair shirt HA, elderly and crude, but a tough little van that survived into the eighties, and the highly competent Chevanne and Astramax, based on tio of Vauxhall’s best cars of the seventies and eighties.

        • There’s no connection between the Renault/Dodge factory at Dunstable and Vauxhall assembling Trafics

          GM did a JV with Isuzu to assemble vans such as the Midi and the Trooper SUV. They then took back control of the plant, and then formed a JV with Renault covering larger vans which led to the Trafic based Vivaro being assembled at Luton, (and Renault Trafics until 2013)

          • Not forgetting the Opel Vivaro version which (like the Renault Trafic) was exported from Luton to the entire European continent (the exception being the high-roofed versions). Also the Nissan Primastar which was a rebadge of the same design. Luton was (and still is) an important van production centre.

    • Make that Vauxhall survive as an assembler of French vans! Makes a change from assembling German hatchbacks I suppose

      • @ Paul, Vauxhall haven’t ;produced their own drivetains since the end of the Chevette in 1974. The cars have used Opel drivetrains, dashboards and electrics for decades and British content in cars made in the UK has been limited to things like tyres and brakes. However, even if the cars have been Opels in all but name, this has kept several thousand British workers in jobs.

        • It’s also helped the trade balance in recent years as the bulk of Astras built at Vauxhall’s Ellesmere Port have in fact been badged Opel and exported. It’s been one of only two plants in Europe building Astra and the only one building the estate version. It’s been amusing to see Opel Astras marketed on the continent & Ireland on the basis of “German engineering” (in France they have “German Days” in the Opel dealerships) knowing that some at least come from Cheshire. Britain has been building a “German” car but this is something of an unsung story as Vauxhall themselves (when still part of GM) chose never to publicize they were a major manufacturer and exporter of Opel-badged cars, and very much integrated into the pan-European GM production framework (presumably as it rather conflicted with the “UK brand” message contained in the link posted by maestrowoff below : ) ) . Astras also went from Ellesmere Port to Australia as recently as 2019 when you could buy a Holden Astra Tourer (estate) in Australia – which was British built.

          • It has been good to hear Astras have been exported from Ellesmere Port, but the end of Astra production surely means more imports and a smaller share of the market for British cars. Incidentally I’ve never been swayed to buy a Vauxhall since the end of the Cavalier and the Carlton, as I’ve heard plenty of complaints about their reliability and the local dealer is awful.

          • GM have long done mix-n-match, product-wise. Effectively, it’s badge-engineering. In 1978 I bought my late wife a new Holden TD Gemini SL/E 5-speed manual 4-door sedan, being a member of GM’s T-car range. It was similar to the Vauxhall Chevette and likewise originally based on the Opel Kadett, but equipped with the Isuzu 1.6 SOHC engine which, for a small car, gave it a nice power/weight ratio. It handled quite nicely too, as it had the new Radial Tuned Suspension (RTS) package as OE. It was made in GMH’s Acacia Ridge plant, Brisbane. That plant closed in 1984 and GMH itself stopped all manufacturing in 2017. The Holden badge staggered on for a while with imported product, but that too is now defunct.

    • @ richardpd, the Cavaliers of all generations were very competent cars aimed at company car drivers and were pleasant to drive, but possibly a retired driver didn’t want to shell out a considerable sum on a Cavalier he didn’t need. By the nineties as well, there were so many decent smaller cars to choose from that were the equal or better of anything Vauxhall made.

  11. The front certainly deserves a prize from the ‘wheel at each corner’ school of design!

  12. I saw a modern Ford minibus parked outside a school today and they are light years ahead of the ones from the seventies, which had few creature comforts and the most basic ones had wooden benches. This Ford had tinted glass, cloth seats with head restraints, a CD player and digital radio, air conditioning and front electric windows. Also with PAS and a five speed transmission, it will be far easier to drive than the older variety.

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