The Sherpa/LDV 200/400/Pilot/Convoy was a perfect example of British industry make-do-and-mend. In an ideal world, the boxy JU/J4-based van would have been replaced sometime in the early 1980s, but it ended up going on a whole lot longer…
Here’s the fascinating story of one aborted attempt at replacement, and how it went on to become a Renault.
Words: Keith Adams Pictures: Stephen Harper
The one that got away…
By the early-1980s, the Sherpa was looking long past its sell-by date. The multi-adaptable Ford Transit had left it long behind and imported vehicles, such as the Renault Trafic and Master, were making serious inroads into the UK market. There wasn’t enough money in the kitty to fund the development of a desirable all-new FWD van that the company so desperately needed, but a light facelift was in order, if only to readily identify the product with the Freight Rover marque, created in 1981.
Sadly, commercial vehicles were a long way down the priority list for a struggling BL during the early 1980s. Austin Rover’s product-led recovery was very much occupying the minds of senior management, and both Jaguar and Land Rover were being slowly separated from the Cars Division with the intention of operating them as independent and profitable businesses further down the line. That was also the business model being employed on the vans front, too – so, when Freight Rover came into existance, it was seen as a very good thing. Because despite everything, the Sherpa commanded a useful slice of the UK van market.
The K2 facelift of 1982 had breathed new life into the Sherpa, and the addition of additional body variations in what were now known as the Freight Rover 200 (standard width) and 400 Series (wide-bodied) created sales opportunities that simply weren’t there with the original van. Moderate success ensued, and helped convince BL management that Freight Rover would work well as part of the successful Leyland Trucks Division, moving the product further away from the volume produced cars… and, arguably, where the heritage lay.
Such was the success of Freight Rover that BL prepared to float off the combined operation. A tentative deal with GM was inked in 1986, with the sale of a combined Land Rover and Leyland Trucks/Freight Rover, but the deal was called off at the last minute when the Government bowed to public pressure by not selling these ‘jewels in the crown’ to the USA. Well, the Land Rover part of the deal was withdrawn – the trucks were still on offer – but GM was no longer interested. However, Rover’s management still wanted to float off anything that was profitable and made it clear that all offers would be invited on Leyland Trucks/Freight Rover.
In 1987, the deal was done – and a combined joint venture with the Dutch DAF Trucks company secured the company. The new company, DAF NV, was formed, and it had a complex ownership profile: the UK operation was split between DAF Beheer BV (60%) and Rover Group (40%). The products were then sold under the Leyland-DAF banner in the UK, with the 200/400 continuing to be built in Birmingham as they always had been.
While these ownership machinations were going on, the Product Planners at Freight Rover were knuckling down to the task of creating that much needed replacement for the Sherpa-based 200 and 400. With there being little in the way design capacity available in house, the decision was made to outsource the project’s styling. In early 1988, wide- and standard-width bodies were designed by Bertone in Italy – a complete break with what went before. The project went under the codename FR201 and FR202 and, although they looked promising in concept, management was not entirely happy with the styling.
Once Leyland-DAF was in full-swing, the management decided that the FR201 and FR202 needed a change in direction. Styling, which was never that cohesive needed to appear to be more cohesive with the rest of the range and so the company outosourced a further redesign – really a clean sheet proposal – to MGA. MGA had already been responsible for the K2 facelift as well as the development of the high-roof conversion, so had a proven track record with Freight Rover’s commercial vehicle design. This was in January 1988, and the timescales were tight, as it was hoped that the van could go on sale within three years.
By the end of February, styling sketches had been produced, examining a number of frontal treatments. Once the favoured scheme was chosen, it was time for MGA to develop them into full-size models. The two vans that MGA’s Stephen Harper proposed were more conventionally stylish than their Italian predecessors and, most importantly, had that all-important cohesive style that Leyland-DAF’s management was looking for.
Within a few weeks of the first styling sketches being completed, a pair of clay models were developed under the codename LDV 201 and LDV 202, and produced under the guidance of John de Vries the DAF Design Manager and the Engineers at LDV.
The model was presented to management as a full-sized prototype in the summer of 1988, and looked good for production.
However, financial constraints within Leyland-DAF were already becoming apparent, and the dual width model programme’s costs were increasing more than the company could bear at the time. The company’s initial enthusiasm for getting it on sale dissipated rapidly and continuing strong sales of the 200/400 meant that the programme was placed under considerable pressure to deliver.
To ease the financial burden, Renault was drafted in as a partner into the LDV 201 and 202 programme and soon concluded that the only way it made any sort of financial sense would be as a single model, pitched some way between the two original ones. The programme continued to drag its heels and, in the end, Leyland-DAF cancelled the project, choosing instead to develop the Sherpa-based models for the foreseeable future.
However, the project wasn’t dead in its entirety. Renault recognised that its Master van was getting long in the tooth and approached DAF with a view to adopting the design and developing it. As Stephen Harper summarises: “Renault later developed the design to become the Renault Master, and IAD, who had been engineering the vehicle for LDV, later developed the design for GAZ of Russia, to become the GAZ Gazelle van.”
It’s a truly international design and one that could have seen Leyland-DAF and, subsequently LDV, enjoying a more prosperous future than it ended up enduring.