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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
- Concepts and prototypes : Hyundai/Rover Oden (1992) - 9 November 2023
- Opinion : So, maybe the Montego was the best they could do… - 8 November 2023
- The cars : Austin Montego (LM11) development story - 7 November 2023