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