A variation on a theme of our popular Unsung Heroes section.
This time we pay respect to what was once ‘The biggest selling and biggest sized van in the UK’.
Words: Mike Humble
It’s Britain’s biggest van!
Funny as it seems, but to feature a commercial vehicle in the ‘Unsung Heroes’ section actually makes perfect sense. Firstly, the Leyland-DAF/LDV 400 sold in epic numbers from its launch, right through to its deletion; and secondly, it’s British almost to the core. Of course, the biggest selling van in the UK is the Ford Transit, but what’s interesting is the way the two biggest selling vans intertwined in engineering terms for some years.
The 400-Series van has its roots well and truly buried in the British Leyland/Austin Rover era, when the light commercial division was re-named Freight-Rover. The new marque operated under the wing of Leyland Vehicles, following the shake up of group divisions during Sir Michael Edwardes’ reign over BL. Leyland bus was sold to the management, while the truck division was sold off and merged into the mighty DAF B.V concern of Eindhoven in the Netherlands (Rover Group maintained a 40% shareholding).
This made perfect business sense, as DAF had no product under 16-ton in the UK, nor did it have any light commercial vehicle in the range in mainland Europe. The subsequent merge created the largest range of commercial vehicles on the market – ranging from 1.5- to 38-tonnes along with a specialist division. The largest van became the Leyland-DAF 400-Series.
Immediately, and with considerable capital investment, the Sherpa 350 was re-engineered to feature two new diesel engine options from Peugeot – the non turbo EN55, and turbocharged ET70 both 2.5-litre. The 2.0-litre petrol O-Series version (in low compression tune) remained in production alongside the V8 3.5-litre, which was aimed at the emergency services market.
Leyland-DAF was quite keen to prove how robust this new Peugeot driveline was with a series of endurance trails. They would have a van running round the clock, both out on the roads and on test circuits. Leyland-DAF made great use of these trails in advertising soon after they took over the Freight-Rover concern.
Once commercial customers were aware that these re-engineered vans were vastly superior to the old Land Rover powered vehicles, sales rocketed beyond imagination. This was partly thanks to some vivid marketing and the legendary Leyland DAF Aid back up programme, which included European cover, freight forwarding and parts availability that was second to none. The vans were also a huge success in mainland Europe (which were badged and sold as a DAFs), but it didn’t stop their either, as new markets for light commercials opened up as far away as Australia and New Zealand – especially as emergency service vehicles.
The maximum capacity 3500kg GVW versions offered a high roof option. These became known in the UK as the Hi–Loader, and were sold in either turbo or naturally-aspirated form. Very quickly, the Hi–Loader became the vehicle of choice for Royal Mail (with some depots running their vehicles as much as 22 hours a day), also earning the accolade of ‘Britain’s biggest van’. The Peugeot powered 400-Series gained an enviable reputation for rugged reliability.
Leyland DAF also ploughed huge resources into the bespoke chassis department at the Birmingham Washwood Heath plant, which was simply known as SVO – Specialist Vehicle Options.
The dealer could offer pretty much anything on a van chassis: Ambulance, Police response crew bus, drop side tipper, PCV-spec minibus and even a certified fire appliance. Leyland-DAF was rightly proud of the fact that anything you could possibly require on a chassis could be designed, engineered and built under one roof by a dedicated team of specialist fabricators and designers. The Police, Army, Navy and even the AA were regular consumers of Leyland DAF special products. The simple nature of the van design made common sense to cost conscious buyers, even some of the base models lacked features like power steering initially, but they pretended to be nothing more than a dependable box on wheels.
In 1991, the vans were updated with a revised facia using better quality materials to the air vents and centre console. The previous dash had been continued over from the Freight-Rover era and the heater benefited from a bigger matrix and fan unit answering customer complaints. The biggest improvement came in the form of the seating, thanks to a new driver’s seat supplied by Isri. This was a welcome addition along with heavier-duty fabric and the two man co-driver seat was redesigned to match. Petrol engines now included just the 3.5-litre Rover V8, as the 2.0-litre O-Series had been dropped due to lack of demand.
The early-’90s recession took its toll, and sales in both light and heavy commercials took a nose dive. On the Continent, the big truck makers were battling for business, and DAF’s main rivals – Scania and Volvo – went on a price offensive. In 1993, the inevitable happened, and Leyland-DAF entered bankruptcy by order of the Dutch courts.
A clever clause in the merger contract meant that the Leyland side of things were not included in the administrative process. In fact it was the DAF business which collapsed; Leyland was actually riding the storm and selling plenty of its home-produced vehicles. But both Washwood Heath and Leyland were in turmoil.
Things took a turn for the worse, when major component supplier AP products stopped the parts flow, worried about the company’s future, even though a takeover was pending. Things looked bleak in Brum. Especially as other parts companies heard the news and followed suit.
After some frantic discussions and help from the Banks, the senior management of the van plant successfully forged a take over of the van business of the failed Leyland-DAF concern, and duly re-named it LDV Limited. The name was chosen to keep some kind of association with the old company. The Lancashire truck plant also remained in business thanks to a buy out – but now LDV was very much a small fish in a big pond.
Visual differences between the Leyland-DAF and LDV vans were limited to a new badge and some cost saving touches to the interior. The cloth trimmed head rests were replaced by padded ‘A’ frame units, while the Philips radios were substituted for cheaper ones. By now, all models featured power steering as standard, but from the inside out, the LDV 200 and 400 range carried on with little change. Even though the vehicle continued to sell in respectable numbers, it was more than obvious that a replacement was badly needed mainly due to some superb new vans from rival makes such as the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter and the Volkswagen LT. Drivers were no longer accepting the ‘box on wheels’ approach to van design.
Despite the 400 being popular with Public service or Municipal sectors, these markets generated little or in some cases; zero profit. And in the light of stiff competition from most of the rival vehicles, retail and small business sales dropped off a cliff. A hasty but fairly decent restyle brought the LDV Convoy on the scene in 1997, with most of the underpinnings heavily based on the previous 400 or Sherpa origins, subsequent future replacements would require extra financial investment and radical cost-cutting.
To summarise the 400, it would be fair to say that just like the Sherpa that came before it, it was a simple no nonsense van.
A tough as boots chassis allied to renown, reliable and economical power units made the 400 van a sensible cost effective choice in a world of shrinking profit margins. With the aim of further reducing costs, later vehicles used the superb Ford 2.5 Di diesel engine and gearbox. LDV could even Type Approve its own in-house mini bus, making the 400 and the Convoy range that came later – King of the self drive or school mini bus.
Towards the end of production and certainly once no longer a part of Leyland DAF, the LDV 400 was not seen as a premium choice, but one of cost only – and by 1997 it was hopelessly out of date. Once a common sight on our roads; the 400 series is now a rare spot indeed, slowly fading away from memory – rather like the parent company, which entered administration in 2010.