Blog : Raise a glass to… 35 years of the Leyland T45 Roadtrain

Carole Nash Classic Insurance Specialists

Mike Humble

Roadtrain was launched 35 years ago - Happy Birthday T45!
Roadtrain was launched 35 years ago: Happy Birthday T45!

One of the biggest projects ever undertaken by BL has reached the grand old age of 35 this year and, in the BMC>MGR scene, it’s one of the most forgotten vehicles. The very first member of the Leyland T45 range was the Roadtrain, but had plans turned out the way they should have, the truck could have been on the market two years earlier.

Born from a massive £350m engineering triumvirate comprising of Leyland Trucks, Ogle Design and Motor Panels, the Roadtrain quite literally re-invented the wheel so far as trucks mattered and came at a time when the commercial arm of BL was arguably at its lowest ebb.

Using data supplied from drivers, dealers and operator forums from companies such as BRS, Longs of Leeds and Swains of Kent, Roadtrain was destined to be the most proven, modern and efficient tractor unit ever produced in a British factory but the fact it ever actually got launched was a miracle in itself.

The head honcho within Leyland Trucks was Lord Stokes’ second in command Ronald Ellis, a man who truly knew his commercial vehicles and customer base. As the truck design and project was taking shape there was a change at the top that shook the whole project to the core.

Ron Ellis was moved aside to head up the Government’s MOD sales force and was duly replaced by Desmond Pitcher, a man with little experience or empathy towards commercial vehicles or its customer base. Engineering boss Bill Lowe and other key Leyland brass had to really fight their corner as Pitcher was all for a cheaper range of trucks based on heavily re-styled current Leyland or Scammell offerings.

Common sense eventually won through but the project had been set back by a whole 18 months, and the Roadtrain was eventually launched to critical acclaim at the 1980 International Motor Show.

The T45 in Tractor and Rigid form on this 1976 Tom Karen / OGLE artwork. Just how modern do these look even today?
The T45 in Tractor and Rigid form on this 1976 Tom Karen/Ogle artwork. Just how
modern do these look… even today?

Motor Panels of Coventry put a design request out to tender in the mid-1970s and Ogle of Letchworth was the eventual winner. Chief Stylist, Dr. Tom Karen, wasted little time in producing some adventurous sketching of what this new truck range should look like.

But it was much more than a simple styling exercise, Karen undertook some innovative experiments of which Leyland grandly called The Human Factors Study. This was a long study into ergonomics and led to the prioritising of the controls’ reach and ease in accordance with operational importance or regularity.

The cab itself was quite clever. It used a modular approach to assembly whereby tooling amounted to 120 parts in total but every subsequent T45 option, once launched, shared a common number of 80 parts – a feature never seen before on a British truck.

Strict attention was paid to service bay staff with items like instrument clusters changed in under one minute, wiper motors changed in under two and pedal box or footbrake valve assemblies removed and replaced in well under twenty. A streamlined parts system, rebranded as Multi-Part, meant a first-time pick statistic of almost 99% at the 1980 launch.

Artist’s impressions were signed off and Ogle had a full-scale mock cab ready for viewing by 1976. Karen was keen to stress that they virtually worked night and day with cloaked cabs going back and forth with regularity between Hertfordshire and Lancashire.

What is noticeable is the fact that the agreed mock cab and drawings both look almost identical to the production version – something sadly not mirrored on other smaller BL products such as the Allegro or Princess. Leyland had Roadtrain running gear hidden under Marathon cabs during extensive on-road testing.

But there was much more to Roadtrain than just its sleek aerodynamic looks. Part of the aforementioned cash injection was a truly state-of-the-art test track, scientific development labs, engine dynamometer rooms, paint spraying booths, machining and casting facilities not to mention a brand new factory itself in which to build the trucks.

It was then, as it still is now, one of Europe’s most modern truck assembly plants being one of the pioneers of the now commonplace just-in-time lean manufacturing processes – a method used by all of the volume car assembly plants throughout the world as well as commercial vehicles.

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The chassis was a refined and improved Marathon unit and massive research into braking systems in partnership with Girling brought a new roller cam-type air braking system to fruition and turned Leyland’s braking reputation from one of the worst (ask an old Marathon driver) into that of an absolute class leader.

Initial engine options at launch were the TL12 (based on a proven AEC AV760 design) rated at 280bhp or the Rolls Royce Eagle 12-litre rated at 260bhp. The only gearbox at launch was the constant mesh 10-speed Spicer unit and the rear axle was Leyland’s own epicyclic-geared hub reduction design.

Eventual options included a high or low roof sleeper cab and driveline offerings from Cummins, Perkins, Eaton and Fuller – the in-house TL12 engine option was deleted in 1983. As with the rest of the British Leyland car range, rampant corrosion was a major killer of the Roadtrain, but models built after 1987 featured galvanised panels.

It’s a shame that the Roadtrain never reached its full sales potential despite winning the coveted Truck of the Year award for 1981. But, soon after launch, Europe entered into a severe recession. European rivals went on a price offensive and this completely clouded all the feel good that its original reception received.

By 1987, Leyland Trucks had been privatised and merged with DAF Trucks to form Leyland DAF in what was really a reverse takeover, although Rover Group did retain a small shareholding, and the boss of the UK side was none other than George Simpson.

The Roadtrain moniker was officially killed off in 1990 to make way for the Leyland DAF 80 series which was nothing more than a simplified low cab height Roadtrain with an Eaton gearbox, a standard hypoid rear axle and DAF ATi engine. This was a simple, rugged no frills driveline that appealed to the fleet user and continued in production until 1993 when it was deleted and replaced by the Dutch-built DAF 85 series.

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The old and the new. The 1980 Roadtrain and the little BMC built Terrier that was
to end up becoming the Roadrunner.

Mike Humble

Upon leaving school, Mike was destined to work on the Railway but cars were his first love. An apprenticeship in a large family Ford dealer was his first forray into the dark and seedy world of the motor trade.

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

12 Comments

  1. Congratulations Leyland !!! The T45 is still my favorite truck.

    Thanks Mike for sharing the celebrations.

    As an appendix to your story… The Roadtrain was again built after 1993 during the Management Buy Out period, before the takeover by Paccar. They were built for Export markets. After all… Leyland was also still busy with the DROPS order for the MOD if I am not mistaken and used the High mounted T45 cab anyway.

    Next to that the Leyland DAF 45 and 55 with the smallest T45 Cab of course continued until they were superseded by the LF in 2001. Without the succes of the Roadrunner, 45 and 55, based on quality of design and build, the LF would never have been the succes it is today.

    Mike, any update on the publication date of your Leyland T45 book? All the best with this challenge.

    Kind Regards from a Leyland fan from Eindhoven, Netherlands

    • mhhh.
      Yes it looks modern and favourite is a subjective term.
      But just to air my thoughts.
      Any favourite truck of mine would have to have the 2 stroke Detroit diesel engine.
      the screaming Jimmy or Drip-Troit.
      There was a Bedford articulated truck the the Bedford Tm.
      Just crank up the volume on this here YouTube Video.
      not a bad looking truck either!!!!
      And see what you think.of this beast!!!
      I love this engine note.
      It sounds like god is using ball bearings to gurgle with.

  2. A well deserved tribute! The T45 cab does indeed still look incredibly modern

    Since they dropped the Leyland badge, I’m sure most people assume DAFs are foreign trucks, but apart from the UK designed LF models, the CF65 and RHD CF75, CF85 and XF models are also assembled in Leyland in one of the best legacies from the 1970s, the Leyland assembly plant.

  3. Yep, they look modern even by today’s standards. I like the twin round headlamps, as I always did on cars too. Is it true that they now build an “XF” named truck – a’la Jaguar XF?

    • Yes, the DAF XF badge dates back to the 90s, well before Jaguar used the badge as well. I assume both sides realise that nobody is likely to confuse an enormous truck with a sporty executive car!

  4. I too am Big fan of the T45 having driven a few especially during my time in the Army with the bespoke for the MOD vehicles such as the Scammel S26 Self Loading Dump Truck (Plenty of good memories of my time in NI ) The DROPS MMLC ( Remembering following a an AFV 432 down a valley and up the other side whilst carrying a 5 bay Medium Girder Over Bridge in BATUS in Canada and the T244 4 tonner models. The last of those those 3 got a lot of bad press due to design faults such as the rear body (built by EDBRO)having holes in the floor directly above the rear wheels so those poor souls travelling in the back when it was raining got absolutely soaked in a way that never happened with the Bedford MK/MJ models. Strangely enough the same design error is present on their Replacements The MAN SV, quite how that was never rectified at the design stage I will never know.

  5. “the Roadtrain quite literally re-invented the wheel so far as trucks mattered.”

    I believe you are missing the word “British” truck here as by 1980 British Truck manufacturers were well behind the curve compared with Scania and Volvo where multi adjustable seating, ergonomic interiors, air conditioning, turbo engines and synchromesh gearboxes etc were the norm since the mid 70’s.

    The Roadtrain was in reality little more than an attempt to catch up by making a smart reskin of the Marathon 2.

    It did produce a pretty truck for the UK fleet market with its shorter running distances and lighter loads. But if you were a driver stepping out of a Scandinavian Truck in 1980 you were struck first by the poor quality and lack of comfort of the interior, the engine noise because of the cabs relatively low level of sound proofing, the relatively low level of power and the crude crash gearbox.

    It deservedly found a market in the UK, but it never was or could have found a market in Europe lacking both the qualities and a service network to win over new customers.

    In many ways it can be seen like the Maestro and Montego, in reality just a stop gap to keep the business alive on domestic sales whilst alternative forms of employment could be developed for those dependent on Leyland and a buyer could be found for what remained.

      • I don’t mean to be harsh, the T45 was a brillant looking truck, but it was a catch up to where the market was, rather than moving ahead of it.

        When the Maestro / Montego was discussed by the Cabinet was split because the advice was that they were no more than “adequate” as cars and could never be built or sold in the volumes needed to compete with the major European and Japanese manufacturers.

        I suspect if or when the T45 was discussed at Cabinet the advice would have been the same.

        Interesting for those who see Thatcher as the destroyer of British Leyland, as she and Tebbit stood firm against the Treasury (Howe)demand to not fund, because of the need to provide employment until the alternatives were developed (the alternatives being getting the Japanese to open factories in the UK).

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