Mike Humble pays tribute to the Leyland Olympian chassis which celebrates 35 years since its introduction. After some technological flops such as the original National and problematic build issues like those associated with the Titan, the Olympian pretty much worked straight from the box and it needed to…
Can it get more 1980s than this? An ECW bodied Olympian of the NBC East Yorkshire
fleet in 1982
The Leyland Titan was by no means a poor product – in fact, it was superb on paper and in practice. Where it went wobbly was in its lavish and exotic specification. The electrical systems, braking, independent front suspension and integral construction were just a bit too much for operators used to more proven designs of double-decker buses. The Titan would have sold better had Leyland got to grips with union matters and where to build the bus in the first place. A pleasing number of orders had, in fact, been placed but, by the time production was consistent, most interest and deliveries outside the Metropolis had been cancelled.
The Titan ended up costing Leyland millions by trying to cater for London Transport (LT) as well as National Bus (NBC) and municipal operators. West Midlands PTE had ordered 80 Titans with an option to replace their existing, ageing fleet of Daimler Fleetlines but, following the disastrous production delays, only five entered the huge West Midland fleet, and this was a massive blow to Leyland Truck and Bus. Quite simply, the specification was too lavish and the lack of options for bodywork and height switched off any local municipal interest.
Its bespoke cooling system, independent front suspension, hydraulic braking system (LT insisted on this) and diagnostic wiring system heralded an unheard of level of sophistication that’s commonplace today. What mattered back in the late 1970s was that many operators were still using platform deckers with conductors. As with the National a few years before, the Titan was met with curiosity and distain by dyed-in-the-wool operators who felt disappointed by Leyland’s take it or leave it attitude and were unappreciative of what was seen as LT’s unnecessarily complex specification being forced upon them.
Leyland also had too many models offering a similar transport solution. Chassis under the BL umbrella included the Atlantean, Fleetline and Bristol VRT, so rationalisation was the only key to long-term success, let alone survival. Work got underway with Project B45 – an air-suspended, rear-engined double-decker bus chassis of a much more conventional design comprising of a chassis backbone and live axles front and rear albeit using air bags and telescopic dampers as a suspension medium. Bristol Vehicles undertook the development work at their Brislington factory with powertrains coming from Leyland.
Engine options were the TL11 offered as standard with the legendary Gardner 6LXB as an option. Gearboxes came in the form of a new hydracyclic auto or semi-auto transmission operated by oil pressure rather than air with a built-in hydraulic retarder to extend the life of brake linings. This all-new chassis used proven running gear and, with it having a backbone chassis, it could be supplied with a number of bodywork options in both high and low bridge form. The driver’s cab followed a similar theme to the National’s by being fully ergonomic; all controls were positioned in operational priority.
Launched at the 1980 Commercial Motor Show alongside a prototype Tiger coach chassis, the Olympian was met with praise by critics and operators. It seemed the company was finally listening to its customers and this had been noted the year before with the introduction of the radically improved and mechanically simplified National 2. Greater Manchester PTE was the first customers to order and, in fact, one of their vehicles was proudly displayed on the Leyland Bus stand at the National Exhibition Centre. Despite encouraging orders, things were far from rosy in Leyland’s garden.
The Olympian had a much more user-friendly specification than the Titan and municipal
operators showed strong interest. Here is a Northampton Transport Leyland exiting the
cavernous gloom of the now-demolished Greyfriars bus station – check out that area
traffic division Sierra GLSi in the background
The UK recession had bitten hard and so, in 1981, Leyland Vehicles Limited (formerly Leyland Truck and Bus) was split into three distinct standalone entities. To slim down and rationalise bus activity, the decision was taken to shut down the Bristol plant and concentrate all chassis production up at Leyland along with heavy machining. This period also saw the end of the VRT and Leyland Fleetline, but the Atlantean was to soldier on for a couple of more years. The Olympian continued to be improved in detail and quality and it was soon to become the only double-decker chassis for the UK market in the product portfolio.
Most of the chassis built featured the Gardner power unit with semi-auto gearbox but, as the 1980s progressed. Leyland Bus entered into manufacturing contracts with outside suppliers. These included ZF which entered into an agreement allowing Leyland to build certain components of automatic gearboxes for ZF in return for more favourable buying costs. A similar arrangement had been agreed upon with Cummins and Leyland Trucks whereby manifolds and crankshafts were cast by Leyland for Cummins engines notably for the B and L10 engine ranges.
The hydracyclic transmission was eventually phased out and the ZF HP series gearbox became the standard transmission and by 1989 had ceased all in-house engine production. Leyland Bus (now owned by Volvo Bus) had, in fact, tried using a Maxwell gearbox some years earlier but found it problematic and unpopular. By 1992 new EU emission rules had forced the respected Gardner engine into retirement and, once again, Cummins became the chosen supplier with its L10 series power unit. This gave the Olympian brilliant performance and fuel economy that almost eclipsed the frugal Gardner unit.
Decades of miss-management eventually caught up with Leyland once Volvo bought the business and really went through the books. The colossal debt brought about by a costly re-engineering programme for the unreliable Leyland rail cars, a massive recession and dwindling sales were all factors in Volvo Bus’s decision to close the plant in 1993. The Olympian soldiered on as a Volvo but was built in the company’s own UK plant in Irvine and totally re-engineered to a Volvo design. Only the chassis itself remained the same and, even then, Volvo opted to use a different grade of steel.
The final Olympian chassis was assembled in 2000.