We all know and love it from the James Bond film, The Spy Who Loved Me, but Leyland’s Sherpa had a vitally important role in life – to beat Ford’s all-conquering Transit.
And given the resources available at the time, it was a fantastic effort.
By the late 1960s, BLMC’s offerings in the light commercial vehicle (LCV) sector were becoming very old hat indeed: the J4 was rather long in the tooth, and the JU, while better than the J2, was not much loved in the trade either. The company’s LCV panel van market share was dropping off rapidly, as the more modern Ford Transit and Bedford CF vans muscled in. The idiosyncratic Commer PB (with a car track under a wide van body) – so much loved by the GPO, or so it seemed – was about the only van that BLMC could beat on product terms.
Stan Dews, an ex-Longbridge engineer who had previously left for the bright lights at Ford, becoming a key engineer in the Transit programme, was lured back to Longbridge to take on, amongst other things, the solution to BLMC’s panel van problem. Dews soon set about his task of producing a new model with which BLMC could fight the successful new Ford.
His first concept, called CV300, used the ADO17 1800/2200 power packs for front drive and, as a result, was blessed with a superb low loading floor, very much like that of the Citroën HZ. It was possible to walk about in the back even without a high-roof conversion – something unheard of in standard-spec panel vans of the time. However, in those days there was the powerful Trade Distributor Panel that had input to product plans.
These ‘expert’ gentlemen (who probably couldn’t even spell the word Citroën) all held their hands up in horror, and said “you can’t possibly have a front-drive van; it wouldn’t get up hills in winter”. (They’d obviously never tried to drive an old Ford Thames van up a slippery hill – that certainly didn’t work!) Because of this unfortunate criticsm, work on the CV300 was unnecessarily halted while a different approach was formulated.
Not daunted by this criticism, Dews then worked up a pure Transit clone, the CV154: same package, better styling, didn’t look like a “piggy bank”. However, when the investment numbers were added up, they came to £8 million – adjudged too much for a van (which, in fairness, had much lower sales volumes than passenger cars). By this time, BLMC’s LCV division was losing market share hand over fist and was down to something like 7 per cent of the panel van market. In desperation, Dews cast around the parts bin of the existing J4, JU and car ranges to see which pressings and running gear could be adapted for a ‘bitsa’.
The Sherpa is born
The answer that he soon formulated was: JU underframe and axles; J4 side panels and roof; Marina 1.8 petrol engine plus an uprated 1.8-litre version of the old 1.5-itre B-series diesel; Austin 3-Litre version of the C-Series gearbox (ie: direct change, no remote shift), with an overdrive option; Marina heater unit; Mini exterior door handles; Austin 2200 steering wheel; instrument nacelle from Marina van; and so on… In fact, wherever existing parts could be used, they were, and no existing option was overlooked. Stir into the pot whatever new body pressings were needed to knit it all together, and voila! – the CV306 was born.
Initial cost estimates said £1million and, on the strength of such favourable financial forecasts, the project was given the green light. Of course, Dews naturally kept trying to add in more goodies, much to the chagrin of the Product Planning and Finance Departments. The CV306 very much needed to be designed and built on a shoestring – and every addition to the basic concept that Dews added would tip the finance further away from the original and appealing £1m estimate.
Marketing the CV306 posed an interesting question: the package was somewhat different to the all-conquering Ford Transit, and so the marketing pitch of the new van would also need to be somewhat different. The official line was that LCV should aim the CV306 slightly below Transit on a “value for money” ticket and also exploit a tighter package that was narrower, and therefore a bit easier to manoeuvre in narrow streets and yards, while still being competitive on actual ‘cube’ – with flatter sides compared to the somewhat wasteful, styled curves of the Transit.
The CV306’s relatively narrow body was seen as one of its major selling points – and, to be fair, it was in many ways a more pleasant van to drive in the urban sprawl than its Ford counterpart. Within BLMC at the time, there was also a certain amount of the “it doesn’t matter what it looks like, as long as it works” attitude about the CV306, despite the fact that one of the Transit’s main selling points at the time was its car-like looks. Regarding the “back to basics” approach to CV306 styling and implementation, an insider put it in these terms: “I railed against it, but was told to shut up!”
As demonstrated by rival products such as the Ford Transit and Beford CF, the J4/JU’s traditional forward-control layout was becoming unfashionable, not only due the poor frontal impact protection it afforded but also as it tended to result in higher servicing costs. Mounting the Sherpa’s engine out in front, along with the attendant extension in wheelbase, brought the further benefit that the front seats could be moved forward by a few inches; this, along with the relocation of the spare wheel and the fact that the sliding cabin doors – where fitted – now opened externally, meant that a remarkable 30 cu ft of extra capacity was liberated in the otherwise unaltered, J4-sourced loadbay, thus taking the Sherpa’s total capacity to 190 cu ft.
Once the CV306 package was settled, the process of productionisation continued. The Longbridge Body Engineering Department produced some ‘hard point’ drawings showing the panelling required to cover the new front engine position. Amazingly, these drawings were taken off to start tooling with little more than a cursory makeover from Harris Mann’s department.
So, it wasn’t really ‘styled’ at all. Some smoothing off took place on the way to production, the roof panel lost some of its fancy J4 detailing, but essentially the CV306 passed from drawing board to production line with little modification at all – perhaps, in retrospect, part of the Leyland Sherpa’s appeal was in its honest, no-nonsense styling. Because the majority of CV306’s componentry was so well sorted to start with, there were no particular problems during the development phase. There was always a bit of propshaft vibration noise, but this was considered par for the course on a cheap commercial vehicle, and wasn’t addressed until LDV undertook their ‘Bulldog’ facelift in 1994.
One of the things that Stan Dews managed to pull off was to develop a proper channel-frame chassis version for the heavier-payload Sherpas – the chassis cab versions. Dews did not want to go down the Transit route, where chassis cabs were made up by sticking top hat pressings onto the regular underframe stiffeners. Because of this one insistence that was allowed to follow through from drawing board to production line, Leyland was provided with a highly adaptable platform. Stan Dews had been proven correct and, even latterly, LDV continued to exploit the ease of special body building which resulted from having a proper chassis. This was one of the things that pushed the investment budget up to £3 million, but this was still small potatoes considering the subsequent uplift in sales that LCV experienced – to 14 per cent.
Confusion at launch
John Barber did create something of a hitch in the marketing of the new van at launch time – he overruled the name Sherpa, insisting that the new van should be given the extremely cumbersome title of: “The new Leyland Van from Austin Morris.” After six months of general trade and customer confusion, the Sherpa name was re-instated, and it never looked back. Things were helped by the fact that Ford couldn’t meet demand for the Transit, while the Bedford CF experienced problems with its slant-four engine.
As one ex-employee related, “I liked driving Sherpas – reckon the handling was better than the Marina’s! The overdrive spec was good – we used the Triumph switch in the top of the gearknob, and it worked on third and fourth, so you could play tunes and keep it on the cam – good fun!” And on the subject of the diesel version, “the B-Series diesel Sherpa was the first diesel I ever drove – didn’t realise at first that you had to use a much bigger throttle movement just to get away from rest, but once acclimatised, I enjoyed the feeling of relentless progress and slogging power of a diesel.” Remarkably, BL would also claim that the Sherpa was more aerodynamically efficient than most contemporary passenger cars.
The Sherpa soon earned itself a reputation for toughness, no doubt helped by the world-wide exposure it received as the result of its cameo appearance in the 1977 James Bond film, The Spy Who Loved Me, where it displayed tenacious stamina to keep going across inhospitable desert terrain, despite having been torn to shreds by the steel-toothed villain, Jaws.
1978 saw the range revised, with the O-Series petrol engines replacing the long-in-the-tooth B-Series, although the old B-Series diesel unit soldiered on. A short while later, the Sherpa was treated to a Morris badge, along with some very minor cosmetic revisions. Despite these improvements, as the 1980s dawned things were not looking good for the Sherpa. Ford’s recently relaunched Transit had a commanding hold on the market, taking a 28 per cent share, while the Sherpa could manage only a pitiful 8 per cent, placing it behind rivals from Bedford and Dodge.
However, BL did not give up on the model; instead, in 1981, it set about restructuring its light commercial operation, creating the Freight Rover division as part of the Land Rover group. At first, the only outward evidence of this move was the addition of the new Freight Rover badge to the Sherpa’s grille, but much wider-ranging developments were to follow.
Moving with the times
In 1982, things started to happen for the Sherpa. First fruit of the development programme was the K2 facelift, which gave it a smart new nose, with a Range Rover-style grille and mildly revised panelwork. More significantly, the K2 also benefitted from some structural alterations to the still J4-derived rear bodywork. This was most evident in the now-vertical trailing edge of the cabin doors and, as well as resulting in a tidier appearance, the changes meant that for the first time the Sherpa van could be offered with a sliding loadbay door capable of taking a standard-width pallete.
Much was made of this new feature in the launch advertising, with the advertising agency – Dorland – enlisting an African elephant to demonstrate the degree to which accessibility had been improved. Dorland also revived the James Bond connection by securing the services of stunt driver Tim Condren (who worked on the Bond films) to drive the van off a 4-ft ramp, creating an enduring image for anyone who saw the national press advertisements at the time.
All this exposure helped to boost the Sherpa’s image considerably and sales began to improve steadily, helped by keen pricing. In preparation for the imminent demise of the ancient EA van, the factory offered a new “Hi Capacity” walk-thru body built on either the 255 or 280 chassis-cab, and yielding an impressive 330 cu ft loadspace. The orignal, integral-bodied pick-up had now been dropped in favour of a drop-side pick-up built on the Sherpa chassis-cab. Engine availability continued unaltered, with 1.7 and 2.0-litre O-Series petrol units, the 1.8-litre B-Series diesel and the option of a Landi-Hartog LPG conversion, first introduced at the launch of Freight Rover the year before.
Another curiosity of this era was the 4-wheel-drive Sherpa, brought about as a result of Freight Rover having been positioned within the Land Rover group. Offered in van, minibus and chassis-cab forms and intended to appeal to the likes of construction companies for use on builiding sites, it unfortunately didn’t find enough customers to ensure a permanent place in the line-up.
Within a couple of years of the launch of the K2, as the newly profitable Freight Rover was gearing up to enter the private sector, the Sherpa took another leap forward. The introduction of the third-generation version was marked by a further mild facelift, featuring square headlamps, new bumpers and repositioned indicators. The range was now divided into the 200 Series, which retained the original, J4-derived rear bodywork, and a wide-bodied 300 Series, with all-new rear bodywork and a twin-wheel option. This meant that the range now encompassed gross vehicle weights (GVWs) from 2 to 3.5 tonnes.
While the 200 Series retained the original Sherpa’s 190 cu ft capacity, the 300 Series offered rather more. With short- and long-wheelbase options, the standard capacities rise to 268 cu ft and 316 cu ft respectively; but the long-wheelbase Sherpa was also offered with a high-roof option, taking its capacity to over 400 cu ft, a figure which comfortably eclipsed that of the even the larger of the two Leyland-era EA vans. For those who needed yet more space, a factory Luton-style body was offered, built on either the standard or wide-bodied chassis-cabs, providing capacities of 400 cu ft or 550 cu ft.
The chassis-cab also formed the basis for a narrow- and wide-bodied drop-side pick-ups, avaialble with either short- or long-wheelbases. Of course, the chassis-cab could also be ordered on its own so that bespoke bodywork could be fitted; again, it was offered in a choice of widths and lengths, but with the further option of either single or double cab. Passenger vehicles were also catered for: while the 200 Series continued to be offered as a 13-seat minibus or 14-seat crewbus, the new 300 Series spawned a range of standard mini-coaches offering up to 18 (more comfortable) seats. Freight Rover even had a stab at the MPV market, with its Sherpa Combi, but a graduated, two-tone paintjob and snazzy body-side graphics couldn’t conceal its commercial origins.
While the O-Series petrol and B-Series diesel engines continued as before, the 2.5-litre Land Rover diesel was also offered on the 300 Series models. Alternatively, customers could still opt for the Landi-Hartog LPG conversion and Freight Rover also introduced an electric-powered version of the K2-series Sherpa, which offered a range of 50-60 miles on an overnight charge. Developed in conjunction with Lucas Chloride EV Systems, the Sherpa Electric offered a payload of 950kg for its GVW of 3.5 tonnes, but with all of its 36 six-volt batteries located underneath the van’s floor, its loadspace was identical to that of the standard 200 series, at 190 cu ft.
It was around this time that the Sherpa attracted the attention of the Police. Towards the end of 1984, London’s Metropolitan force placed a contract with Freight Rover for the development of a “Rapid Intervention Personnel Carrier”, or fast minibus. Taking the high-roofed 300 Series Sherpa as a base, Freight Rover managed to squeeze a Land Rover-sourced 3.5-litre V8 power unit into engine bay, allied to a ZF automatic transmission.
As well as the uprating of various mechanical components that this engine transplant required, a number of further modifications to the standard specification had been specified, such as a reinforced roof and bullet-proof glass all round. Despite the significant amount of engineering work this involved, the contract was completed within a year, and the first V8-engined Sherpas hit the beat in August 1985. Other customers soon followed, with the V8-engine eventually powering the likes of Sherpa-based ambulances and even delivery vans.
As an aside…
So, as one can see, the Sherpa has led a long and valuable life – not only in its incarnation as a beast of burden, but also as a vehicle to test new concepts on. Julian Donald worked for GKN Composites during the late 1980s and into the 1990s, and related how a rather interesting concept was tried out on the LDV (nee Sherpa):
“In the early 1970s it was thought that there would soon be a breakthrough in the manufacturing process for carbon fibre leading to a big cost reduction. Bristol Aeroplane Plastics were working on ideas for using the new low-cost fibres. Leighton came up with the idea of manufacturing vehicle leaf springs and so they decided to make some prototypes. As BAP owned a Sherpa van, they designed and built a set of Sherpa springs.”
The reason for changing to a composite was to save weight. Every kilogram saved from the weight of a commercial vehicle increases the payload by a kilogram making the vehicle more cost-effective. Alternatively, weight saving improves performance and economy and furthermore composite springs take weight from the unsprung weight of the vehicle which improves the vehicle’s ride and handling. The vehicle ride quality is also improved because the damping effect of the multi-leaf steel spring is removed.
“GKN were, and still are, a major producer of car components especially CV joints. In the 1970s and ’80s they also made a lot of car wheels, chassis members and suspension components (for instance GKN Sankey made Land-Rover and Spitfire chassis, Transit subframes etc). So GKN devised the strategy of offering car manufacturers complete suspension assemblies, including wheels, CV joints and drive shafts, differential units, suspensions arms and springs. As we know with 10-15 years hindsight, this never happened, but the composite spring was a central part of this strategy.”
“So GKN did a deal with BAP to productionise the composite spring. One of the most difficult areas was how to attach the rubber bush to the spring. If you imagine the composite material being like a very fine grained wood, then you can see that drilling holes in it and then repeatedly flexing it would lead to splinters and failure. The engineers at GKN-Technology in Wolverhampton came up with a clever way of clamping the bush to the spring without having to drill it.”
“This was in the early 1980s, GKN were in talks with Freight Rover about the supply of composite leaf springs as F-R wanted to launch a revised Sherpa for the 1986 model year. They wanted to add a feature that would give the Sherpa a more high-tech image and gave GKN a letter of intent to order springs starting in mid 1985. On this basis, GKN built a production line in a corner of the Sankey site in Telford.”
“By mid-1985, all the durability testing had been completed both on test rigs and on vehicles and the vehicle ride and handling had been signed off. GKN found they could get the springs through a thousand miles of Pave at MIRA but the rest of the vehicle was another matter. For instance, the battery shook itself to bits so the GKN engineers rushed down to the nearest Motor Factors for a replacement which was also shaken to bits in a matter of days. As it was superficially brand new, they took it back and got a replacement free of charge.”
“Engineering projects seldom proceed without any problems. At the eleventh hour F-R found a brake steer problem on composite sprung Sherpas, during an emergency stop a RHD vehicle would veer markedly to the right. It also happened on steel sprung vehicles but the effect was about five to ten times worse with composites (I know, I did the measurements). At GKN we worked night and day on a solution, my friend Mike at GKN-Technology in Wolverhampton built up a test rig with a complete Sherpa front suspension and steering mounted on a steel frame with hydraulic jacks to simulate the braking loads. Taking a series of measurements over the weekend, he spotted that the front axle bent backwards under simulated heavy braking, this in effect pulled on the steering causing the vehicle to veer off to the right. The front axle was, and still is, a forging and had not changed since J4 days yet the allowable gross vehicle weight had gone up and up. Once this was demonstrated to F-R they agreed to beef up the axle and the problem was eliminated.”
“I also did a project to manufacture some prototype springs for the big Sherpa but this never came to a production order. Neither, unfortunately, did projects for Mercedes-Benz, Iveco or Chrysler, though Chrysler did order production tooling but never actually issued a production order. The only other production vehicles using GKN Composite springs were the London Taxi Cab and a snow-mobile. GKN-Composites could not survive on such a low production level so GKN pulled the plug in 1991. Interestingly, some of the last development projects we worked on were transverse leaf spring suspensions for Mercedes-Benz, Volvo car and Nissan and these eventually saw production but with composite springs from other suppliers.”
Summing up 30 years
In short, with the launch of the third-generation models the Sherpa had truly come of age. The only shame was that it would not be the Rover Group who would reap the benefits. Since the creation of Freight Rover in 1981, the Sherpa had pretty much begun to live a separate existance from the car divisions. Following the aborted sale of Land Rover (including Freight Rover) to General Motors in January 1986, the vans division followed Leyland Trucks into the private sector in 1987, finally being absorbed into the Dutch firm DAF in 1989. The Leyland-DAF-badged Sherpa models (which, incidentally, no longer carried this name following privatisation) continued in production throughout this period and remained so when the company became LDV.
In 1989, the 300 Series became the 400 Series, gaining the option of air suspension, while in 1996, the range was facelifted once again (this time under the project name, Bulldog), to become the Pilot (formerly 200 Series) and Convoy (400 Series) – and they remained in production until 2005, to be replaced by a van heavily based on an ill-fated Daewoo proposal.
The models which lasted until 2005 maintained much commonality with the Sherpa, proving not everything that came out of Austin-Morris during the 1970s would not be successful on the market.
Is the Editor of the Parkers website and price guide, formerly editor of Classic Car Weekly, and launch editor/creator of Modern Classics magazine. Has contributed to various motoring titles including Octane, Practical Classics, Evo, Honest John, CAR magazine, Autocar, Pistonheads, Diesel Car, Practical Performance Car, Performance French Car, Car Mechanics, Jaguar World Monthly, MG Enthusiast, Modern MINI, Practical Classics, Fifth Gear Website, Radio 4, and the the Motoring Independent...
Likes 'conditionally challenged' motors and taking them on unfeasible adventures all across Europe.