Concepts and prototypes : Leyland CV300 van (1970)

Before the Leyland Sherpa, BLMC looked into a more radical front-wheel-drive van to replace the ageing J4-series under the codename CV300.

Thanks to the recent unearthing of these images from John Worker’s collection, we reckon Issigonis would have approved, even if the trade wasn’t so sure.

Leyland CV300 – BLMC’s H Van

Leyland CV300 Van 01

It’s fair to say that, when the Ford Transit arrived on the scene in 1965, the commercial vehicle market in the UK changed forever. This stylish replacement for the long-lived Thames 400E offered a much more car-like driving experience than van drivers were used to – and they rather liked what they found.

In a stroke, BMC’s challenger in this market, the forward-control J4 van (below) looked old-hat and unappealing and, as the 1970s approached, BMC’s market share of the LCV panel van market share was dropping off rapidly. This situation wasn’t helped at all by the arrival of the similarly car-like Bedford CF with its excellent slant-four engine in 1969.

So, the need for a new van from BMC became increasingly urgent if it wasn’t to surrender the market to its younger rivals. It was from this sense of need that the impressively bold CV300 would emerge.

First thoughts for a new Leyland van

BMC J4 Vans as seen in Quadrophenia
BMC J4 Vans as seen in Quadrophenia

The new van was the brainchild of Stan Dews. He was an ex-Longbridge Engineer who had previously left for the bright lights at Ford, becoming a key Engineer in the Transit programme and, like many of Uncle Henry’s best, was eventually lured back to Longbridge.

With his intimate knowledge of the Transit, it made absolute sense for him to lead BMC’s charge into the 1970s with a more modern and capable van, thus solving 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 initial concept would very different to what the Anglo-Americans were producing. For a start, the CV300, used the 1800/2200 (ADO17) power packs for front drive and, as a result, was blessed with a superb low loading floor, very much like that of the Citroën H Van.

Leyland CV300

Front-wheel drive advantages

Under the direction of Harris Mann, John Worker was tasked with coming up with ideas and, rather like Dews, he was inspired by the H Van. Although he sketched a modern looking vehicle in 1970, it shared the Citroën‘s ribbed flanks, acknowledging the additional strength this design would bring to large, unstressed panels.

The sketch was approved for development into a full-sized mock-up (below), and it was soon clear that this layout’s inherent advantages were there for all to see. According to one ex-Austin Apprentice close to the programme, it was perfectly possible to walk about in the back even without a high-roof conversion – something unheard of in standard-spec panel vans of the time.

In addition to this, there would be the undoubted traction advantage that came part and parcel with front-wheel drive. In poor weather and on low-grip surfaces, FWD would result in fewer stranded vans – important for the UK’s icy winters.

Leyland CV300 van - 02

Trade push-back and abandonment of the idea

However, the trade wasn’t so enamoured by the new design. Back in the 1960s and ’70s, there was the powerful Trade Distributor Panel that had input to product plans – and, as such, had early access to the CV300 programme – to say that the Panel wasn’t impressed was something of an understatement.

These ‘expert’ gentlemen 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’ (of course, we know the opposite to be true). Because of this unfortunate criticism, work on the CV300 was unnecessarily halted while a different approach was formulated.

In addition it could be argued that the Issigonis-engineered front-wheel drive, transmission-in-sump layout had not been tried and tested in a commercial vehicle application. It’s very likely the more rugged in-line RWD B-Series arrangement that was used would have been more durable in the punishing service it would have been treated in in a commercial vehicle.


After CV300

The CV300 then gave way to a Stan Dews-engineered Transit clone known as the CV154 (above), but at £8m to get into production, that was considered too expensive, despite being a very appealing package which one ex-Austin Apprentice described as being ‘good looking’. You can make your own mind up about that.

From that, the CV306 Leyland Sherpa was born – and, arguably, a modest legend would make into production in 1974… But was it the right approach to take? We’ll never know.

Austin-Morris Sherpa

Keith Adams


  1. The success of CV300 would have been dependent on Issigonis managing to launch ADO16 (and ADO17) with an end-on gearbox as originally intended, instead of being forced to apply the Mini’s in-sump layout on ADO16 and ADO17.

    With the Sherpa that ultimately reached production, its parts bin nature leads one to ponder if like the idea behind the Marina a competently managed BMC would have been able to bring both to production much earlier then was the case as both purportedly were said to share much with the MGB.

  2. Although the Fiat 242 would be a more apt comparison to CV300, there was also the Autobianchi Primula derived Fiat 238 to consider.

  3. I suspect the Sherpa was the right call. It certainly lasted! Remember, Ford stuck with RWD only vans until 2001, Mercedes-Benz even longer.

  4. Interesting sketches. The boxiness and general shape of the CV300 is similar to the 1980 Renault Trafic van and quite good looking while the CV154 looks like a Transit with a poorly styled facelift. The Sherpa as produced looked wrong to my eyes, being awkwardly styled – especially at the front – and too much like the J4.

    The writing of the article needs spelling and grammar checking. For example, fixing:
    they rather like
    Beford CF
    this solving

  5. That yellow drawing at the top of the article reminds me of the Dodge / Commer Walk-thru van of the 60s, though they were quite large. Popular with the electricity and gas boards of the era.

    The survival of the Sherpa and it’s LDV successors always amazed me – we had a 2005 Convoy with a Ford engine and gearbox. The Ford bits were OK, the rest of the thing was horrible. Beam axles, steering where the wheel seemed connected to the mechanism by bungee straps, and an electrical system apparently possessed by poltergeists..

    We got rid of the thing after a couple of years, by which time the rust in the front footwells was already making an appearance, aided no doubt by the leaky windscreen rubbers.

    The VW Transporter that replaced the Convoy was a joy to drive.

  6. The 1960s Commer walk thru of course became the Dodge 50 which in turn became a Renault!!

    I guess that if BL had had the money they could have done something better than the Sherpa. But would you want FWD coupled to powerful engines as needed for ambulances, police etc??

    And I don’t recall the combination of a Diesel engine with the 1800/2200 style FWD transmission,, a Diesel was mandatory in the range for many commercial fleet operations.

    • The Dodge 50 series utilised a Chryslers then US van cab and body which was put over what was a essentially the walkthrough chassis but then that was a generic UK component rear control truck chassis so was something that simply evolved with time rather than having specific model year updates. Its introduction was funded by the British Government’s Chrysler UK bailout in the mid 70s. The interior was however pure UK and heavily influenced by the SD1, utilising a “instrument panel on a shelf” as per Bache SD1,ADO88 and LC8. Quite likely some of the people working on it brought their ideas with them when they moved down the A45 from Rover at Solihull to Whitley (also explains why a good deal of SD1/SD2 influences can be seen in the Tagora interior as well).

  7. As always with BL in this period, you can look back at what WAS funded and what wasn’t funded, and scratch your head slightly. I imagine CV154 would have been more competitive against the Transit and CF, and possibly the larger 300 wouldn’t have been needed? Plus it would have been a much more modern base for future facelifts, so a very worthwhile longer term investment.

    CV300 would have been great if properly developed and tested, to prove that the Issigonis drivetrain could work in such an environment. I’m sure it would have won over the fleet buyers eventually IF it was shown to be tough and reliable. AND easy to service and repair.

  8. Looking at the short rear overhang I suspect it was also using the hydragas suspension of the 1800/2200, which would have made it considerably better handling and riding than it’s Ford and GM rivals. Also the 1800/2200 transmission was very robust by FWD standards at the time with its oily bits originating from the BMC gearboxes utilised in the RWD gearbox used on the likes of the Westminster and MGC. Whilst it may have struggled to find traction with the construction industry, it would have with its low floor height and smooth ride cleaned up in the Camper van market.

  9. Some of those Dodge Renault 50 series had an unusual 6 cyl diesel engine, designed by Perkins but manufactured by Mazda!
    A real bitza machine

  10. Keith, FWD is better for traction in cars, especially small ones in slippery conditions. But loaded, in a van, not so much. Especially with the tech of the time for a van that’s meant to be a motorway hauler & more. No way would FWD sell in the traditional van market at the time, especially as BMC were having so many reliability & durability issues.
    But the Sherpa was an awful thing & only misplaced national loyalty & discounts would have helped it sell. Another wrong turn, another of the 1,000 cuts that led to their demise.

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