It’s 20 years since Volvo delivered three killer blows to our motoring industry: 1992 saw the end of Leyland Lynx and Tiger production with total closure being announced for the following year.
Mike Humble takes a look at the declining years of Leyland Bus.
Recession of an Empire
Moving fast, in a fast moving world
Looking back in time, it’s hard to believe that Leyland Motors Limited was once a respected and feared concern with a reputation for quality, reliability, engineering supremacy and an effective sales back up. Pretty much wherever you resided in the world, a Leyland bus or truck would be a common sight and in this country, almost every local municipal operator purchased Leyland buses.
Right up until the mid-1960s, Leyland Motors was the largest global player in transportation earning the right to use their well used slogan ‘Moving fast in a fast moving world’ a statement that was quite true. Their Chairman was Donald Stokes who had worked in the Lancastrian town, with the exception of his Army service, as man and boy. The son of a Plymouth Corporation Transport Department General Manager, Stokes moved to Leyland following an engineering apprenticeship before moving over to the Sales Department.
Stokes’ subsequent rise and fall has been well documented over the years, but his time at Leyland prior to the disastrous merger with BMC was one of great prosperity which earned him a knighthood and the image of a true British industry statesman. In 2012 you will struggle to find a Leyland product earning its corn with a deck full of passengers as the last vehicle quietly left the plant in 1993.
The sterile world of modern busing is one of accessibility and strong brand presence. I will concur that modern buses drive like cars, make little more noise than cars and make a case for replacing cars. Low kneeling floors and intense interior lighting make them feel safe secure and pleasant but how I miss the leatherette interiors, chrome hand rails and the sublime sound of a plodding Gardner diesel.
The harder they fall
Much has been said of the car division being shored up from the Truck and Bus division’s profit following the creation of British Leyland – this was certainly true in the early years of BL but, by the early 1970s Leyland Truck and Bus was having serious issues of its own. Following the opening of various new motorways, haulage operators were quick to realise that journey times were rapidly shrinking.
No longer was an Atkinson Borderer with a Gardner 150 engine suitable for a sustained high-speed journey and foreign makers such as DAF and Volvo were moving into the UK market in a manner which brings to mind a line from the musical version of The War of the Worlds: ‘slowly but surely, they drew their plans against us’. Volvo quickly introduced their F86/88 range onto the UK market with almost immediate sales success with DAF not far behind with their range of 2000 series trucks.
After some initial resistance from UK operators, Johnny Foreigner became accepted and running an imported truck was no longer seen as an inferior alternative. These European trucks were better built, roomier and featured power units that were not not only more reliable, but also superior in power. It was not until 1980 that Leyland had a product range of trucks that could almost compete head on in terms of ability in the shape of the T45 range, but by now, all the foreign makers were established and well respected.
So far as public transport was concerned, Leyland still held the lion’s share of the marketplace mainly due to the fact that they owned all the competition. Think of great bus makers names such as AEC – Bristol – Daimler – Guy and, of course, Leyland, but they were all under the wing of BL.
Technological turmoil and internal competition
Leyland continued to be a dominating force despite the well-documented turmoil within British Leyland, quite staggering considering some horrendous engineering blunders. The National single deck bus simply bristled with new technology and features when launched, many of which are commonplace today. Air suspension, turbocharging, low steps and an excellent ergonomic cab area – all features taken for granted on a modern bus were pioneered by the Leyland National.
Leyland punched above its weight as far as engineering mattered and the revolutionary high-speed 8.3-litre 500 Series turbo diesel with its overhead camshaft and fixed crossflow cylinder head gave operators a serious challenge and, at best, only ever gave tolerable levels of reliability. With a more dependable power unit, the National most surely would have been a world-wide hit.
Ford and Bedford were fringe players in comparison as far as buses were concerned though they both sold in considerable numbers in the coach sector, but all the above each had their own engineering accent and distinct differences.
We look back in aghast at how this could be allowed to continue and, Ford and Bedford aside, each of the aforementioned companies lived under the British Leyland wing. The same situation carried on in the car division for some years with Austin competing with Morris and Rover with Triumph – total business lunacy one may say. In the cut throat PSV market virtually all the big names were BL controlled with only MCW and Dennis presenting any real threat. When operators put a tender out for new vehicles Leyland would be slogging it out for the deal against, for example, Bristol to the point whereby little or no real profit would be gained.
Market changes and missed opportunities
In hindsight, would it have made any difference if the customer purchased 30 Leyland Atlanteans or 30 Daimler Fleetlines if ultimately British Leyland, being the parent company, won the deal? So far as money mattered, not at all. One major factor which contributed towards the Bus Division’s continuing survival was the way in which the marketplace was artificially stimulated.
Most of the big towns and cities featured municipal or corporation buses, operated and provide for by the local authority subsidised, of course, by the local taxpayer. Out of town services or longer distance operations tended to fall under the control of NBC (National Bus) operations by, for example, the likes of Southdown, United or Ribble. National Bus was state-owned and also heavily subsidised, so in effect, both your local municipal or NBC operator were answerable to local or central Government.
Couple this to the fact that they were buying buses also at a subsidised cost from a state-owned chassis builder, and you can see why the Conservative Government was keen to make all of the aforementioned companies stand on their own feet finance wise or be sold off to private investors. The first wind of change came with the Transport Deregulation Act which gave local authorities the right to sell their bus operations in 1986. Most local authority bus operations were a loss maker and many were keen to sell off right away.
NBC were also deregulated and split into more than a dozen different companies – most of which were local management buy outs. In this free for all market, many operations became non-viable partly due to intense competition which became rife and partly due to the fact that many bus companies had been operated with no commercial awareness prior to 1986.
The rivals exploit the weakness
As mentioned, competition became intense up and down the country and companies both big and small changed hands or collapsed altogether as the marketplace became swamped with new bus companies all trying to cash in on the act.
So far as assets mattered, shrunken profits meant that new bus purchases hit an all time low as operators responded to predatory or competition by simply buying second hand vehicles. Leyland were never to recover from the events of the mid-1980s and they were also guilty of not responding quickly enough to market needs. The mid to late 1980s was the era of the minibus and Leyland had no vehicle to cater for demand. Starved of development cash partly due to some serious blunders in the rail operations, they had to stand on the sidelines and watch as companies like MCW and Mercedes Benz ran away with this lucrative market.
Deregulation also opened up the marketplace for operators running continental tours – again Leyland had no real competitive vehicle to respond to impressive high line coaches from Volvo, Van Hool and DAF. By the mid-1980s Leyland’s presence on a world-wide scale had vanished and service back up was extremely poor in Europe. Volvo and DAF, in particular, were commonplace on the Continent and help was only a ‘phone call away in the event of a breakdown.
Both companies had a well advertised and effective breakdown service that was not seen as a weakness in the product, but instead seen as extra proof of how well-engineered the foreign vehicles had become. The sales of Leyland buses continued to fall as rival makes exploited the weaknesses but the final nail in the coffin came via another tragic Government blunder.
New markets bring new problems
Leyland blundered on with the 500 Series engine which also cost numerous lost sales in the truck sector. By 1979 Leyland finally decided to drop the engine opting to modernise some existing power units that were still held in high regard. The legendary 11.6-litre 680 was updated into the L11 and TL11 which were to become the standard engine fitment on most of the range until Leyland opted to fit out-sourced power units from Cummins and Gardner in 1988.
Another reason for the decline of Leyland Bus was the company’s insistence on supplying their engines over anyone else’s. Some parallels can be drawn with the Rover K-Series engine because higher-powered Leyland TL11 units were notorious for cylinder head gasket failure. Other engineering aspects also gave cause for concern too, especially the semi automatic gearboxes. Operated by air or hydraulic pressure, the pneumo or hyracyclic gearbox was good in theory, but required exacting maintenance.
Brave though Leyland were to try new things, these often ended in disaster. The B15 Titan bus, which was destined to replace the AEC Routemaster, failed to prove its worth on the open market. Constant Union upheaval at the Park Royal factory resulted in long delays and orders from other operators outside the metropolis were either cancelled or reduced.
The Royal Tiger Doyen coach was meant to be a force against the high-spec, integral coaches that were being imported from Europe, but again, problems with production and poor back up outside of the UK killed off any chance this actually good coach rightly deserved. Subsequent rail projects ended up costing the company more money than profit as Leyland-engineered railcars failed in service resulting in expensive rectification work in future years at a massive cost.
GM and BL – what could have been
The Conservative Government in 1986 made it quite clear that Leyland were to be sold off either in whole or in piecemeal. Following failed talks with Fiat and Renault, talks were engaged with General Motors which, like Leyland, had a failing bus and truck range. GM wanted to buy Leyland Truck and Bus which would have created a global-size operation, but this deal came with a condition.
The Americans also wanted Land Rover as part of the deal and old school xenophobic politicians were having none of it. Land Rover was viewed at the time of being akin to the Crown Jewels and the Government refused with both parties standing their ground. General Motors gave an ultimatum that, unless Land Rover was included in the deal, they would walk away. Again, the Government refused and GM, true to their word, walked away from further talks.
This rather foolish stance cost a lot more than a failed deal… Shortly after the stalled talks, GM announced they were pulling out of the UK bus and truck market. The Bedford assembly lines in Dunstable, along with various component factories, were closed down putting thousands of skilled men on the scrap heap – all for the sake of a little pride. The Leyland Truck division was eventually merged with DAF, while after talks with MCW failed, Leyland Bus were sold to its management.
Some years prior to that group brands such as AEC, Bristol, Daimler and Guy had been killed off to save the Leyland name and, as Leyland entered a period of independent ownership, the product range was slimmed down, leaving just the Lynx, Swift and Tiger as single-deckers and the Olympian double-decker along with current rail projects.
New independence and new confidence
Operators who had remained loyal to Leyland throughout the turmoil showed their appreciation by purchasing buses and coaches, things were far from rosy but looking promising. The new found independence was welcomed in the industry and some healthy orders from small and big bus groups boosted staff morale and operator confidence. By 1988 the Volvo B10M had overtaken the Tiger as Britain’s top selling coach and Leyland management quietly approached the Volvo board once again (Volvo had looked into buying Leyland before but backed off) with a view to joining forces. After being impressed with the slimmed down and efficient production lines, Volvo agreed to the purchase of Leyland Bus.
This could not have come at a better time for Leyland as, shortly after the buyout, they were forced to re-engineer some of the rail cars which included power unit changes and serious shortcomings with the passenger doors. This ran into millions of pounds which Volvo reluctantly financed. Volvo also discovered that a large number of chassis which had been built were actually stock units and not sold ones, again to the cost of large sums of money. Many operators were angered at the news, feeling they had been duped into patriotically buying Leyland only for the company to sell out 18 months later to Volvo. As a result, sales of the rival vehicles produced by Dennis in the shape of the Dart bus and Javelin coach rocketed from buyers who preferred to fly the flag
Years of mistakes take their toll
Volvo, in a bid to make Leyland cost-effective, started production of the B10M chassis alongside the Tiger while also entering collaboration with transmission maker ZF – in return for gearboxes with a reduced raw cost, Leyland produced some components for the transmission using spare engineering capacity. Following the Truck division’s merger with DAF, Leyland Bus had to rely on bought-in power units because engine production was the responsibility of the Spurrier works which was part of the DAF deal. The TL11 engine in horizontal form was the main option on the Tiger and Leyland DAF made it quite clear that there was no desire to produce that engine in penny numbers especially with Volvo as a parent company. Cummins stepped into the breach by supplying the highly-regarded L10 engine with power options up to 290bhp – the TL11 could only manage 260.
As with ZF, Leyland sold the patents and design rights to the semi-automatic gearbox to Cummins in return for favourable engine cost. Cummins by now were a highly-respected company that were keen to enter the rail market, so this deal provided valuable engineering and understanding along with all the contacts within the railway engineering business. Today, Cummins supply engines for many of the current branch line diesel trains along with the Voyager units first used by Virgin. Gardner were still supplying Leyland with their ancient but regarded 6LXB for use in the Olympian bus chassis, but up-coming emission regulations meant this engine was living on borrowed time. In response to this, all Leyland products – the Lynx, Olympian and Tiger – were engineered to feature a Volvo THD engine option as well.
Volvo’s final attempt
In a further attempt to save face and rescue a seemingly parlous situation, Volvo reorganized Leyland Bus and brought all control under their wing rather than it being a standalone business within the Volvo group. The new business title was VL Bus Limited with all financial and planning powers being moved from Leyland down to the Warwickshire HQ of Volvo Truck and Bus.
Despite some effort to export vehicles like the Olympian and Lynx with Volvo power units and build quality that had been drastically improved to a standard that pretty much met Volvo’s own, no real sales success came Leyland’s way. Another casualty came with the announcement that the Farrington plant in Leyland was to shut down with all future Leyland Bus activity to be concentrated in the Cumbrian factory at Workington.
As Britain entered the recession of the early 1990s, bus and coach sales hit an all time low. The Tiger coach was the first casualty, sales against the B10M were three to one in Volvo’s favour and the Tiger was an expensive chassis to produce. The B10M was the biggest selling coach chassis worldwide, so by 1992 Leyland was a producer of nothing more than buses in the shape of the Lynx and Olympian.
The cost of streamlining a dying company along with a multi-million pound re-engineering programme for British Rail was too much to bear for the Volvo board. The decision to shut down Leyland was made and the Olympian was engineered to feature as many Volvo components as possible. Subsequent production of the Olympian was moved to the Volvo Irvine plant and, after many years of being associated with transport, the Leyland name was dead.
Much has been said regarding Volvo and their actions prior to the closure of Leyland Bus, but one or two things must be taken into account before passing judgment. Firstly, the massive problems with the BR and BL railcar project cost millions in rectification – had Volvo not underwritten the cost of re-engineering the trains, Leyland would have, without doubt, collapsed.
Volvo did much to reassure that parts would remain available for operators using Leyland products for as long as there was demand for them and the company was true to its word on that. Secondly, when production of what became the Volvo Olympian was moved to Scotland, Volvo offered a relocation package to over 200 Cumbrian workers while also keeping their original terms and conditions of employment. This gesture was Volvo’s way of acknowledging the superb and tolerant workforce of Leyland Bus.
Moving on to Rover and then PSV / HGV, he has circumnavigated most departments of dealerships including parts, service and latterly - the showroom. Mike has owned all sorts of rubbish from Lada to Leyland and also holds both Heavy Goods & Public Service Vehicle licences, he buys & sells buses and coaches during the week. Mike runs his own automotive web site and writes for a number of motoring or commercial vehicle themed publications
Latest posts by Mike Humble (see all)
- News : Tom Karen awarded OBE in 2019 New Year’s Honours List - 30 December 2018
- Video of the Week : MG Montego (1985) - 30 December 2018
- Our Cars : Mike’s Saab 9-3 Vector Convertible - 29 December 2018