While ploughing through my extensive archive of all things bus and coach just now, I was staggered to notice that, 20 years ago this month, in July 1993 – and, after much diversification, rationalising and inevitable streamlining under the ownership of Volvo, the lights were finally switched out, the doors were locked and the gates were closed on arguably the world’s most famous builder of bus and coach chassis, Leyland Bus. The long and often turbulent history of Leyland can be traced right back to 1896 when the Lancashire Steam Motor Company produced its first chassis in the small market town of Leyland just outside Preston.
Until the late 1960s, Leyland Motors was a respected firm in England and much feared throughout the world by every other rival chassis builder. It was once said that Leyland exported vehicles to almost every country and continent on this planet. However, following some difficult acquisitions during a period of rapid expansion taking on Triumph and Rover, it seemed that Leyland was an unstoppable machine until the fatally-flawed forced merger with BMC turned a national treasure into a worldwide laughing stock which was seemingly out of control.
The Truck and Bus Division ended up providing the car side with a slush fund that was tapped from its profits funding cars like the Allegro, Marina and Maxi. Leyland top brass involved with Truck and Bus could only look on and weep while the heavy side of the business slowly withered like a forgotten plant pot as millions and millions of pounds were thrown at fighting unions on Merseyside and the Midlands. They developed the National, of course, but this was a solution to a problem that never really existed and it never reached its full potential.
The influence Leyland had on current products should never be forgotten, though. Current PSV chassis are built on a rolling production line which was pioneered at the then futuristic Workington plant in Cumbria. Other features such as radial tyres, air suspension, turbocharging and low floor construction are again the norm today yet all were first applied to the Leyland National way back in 1973. Had Leyland opted to use any other engine except the amazing yet fatally-flawed high-speed fixed-head 500 series engine, they most certainly would have produced the world’s best post war bus.
Leyland went from playing it safe to swallowing up every UK rival such as, for example, AEC, Bristol, Daimler and Guy, and slowly the operators grew tired of being forced to buy unproven and badly thought out products that allowed smaller rivals like Dennis and Metro Cammell to develop their own chassis which, after some initial scepticism, were well-received and popular. In next to no time, Leyland Bus was no longer a force to be reckoned with and more of a financial burden on every tax-paying resident following the nationalisation of British Leyland in late 1974.
It has been said that Donald Stokes was too nice a chap to carry out the slaying and sacrificial actions so badly needed to kick the car side into touch. Stokes was a Truck and Bus man to the core and, when he resigned from BL with his number two, Ron Ellis, a few years later, Leyland Bus top brass felt they had lost the most knowledgeable and influential leaders in the UK bus sector. Other badly thought out ideas like the Titan double-deck chassis never made the grade (more down to politics than product) and the point blank refusal to offer Gardner engines in the National until 1979 cost Leyland thousands of lost sales.
The company found stability as the 1980s came with the Olympian chassis and the National 2 became everything the original 1973 model should have been. But some brief changes of fortune came at the expense of AEC – Bristol and Daimler who were all closed down in order to keep the Leyland name on life support for a little while longer. 1981 saw the mid-engined Tiger replace the legendary Leopard chassis but, again, the idea of building an in-house, rear-engined premium coach, the Royal Tiger Doyen, to combat foreign rivals was ill conceived – it was initially badly made and too expensive irrespective of how impressive it may have looked.
In order to create extra income, Leyland entered an engineering partnership with British Rail to develop a new breed of diesel rail cars and multiple units to be constructed at the Workington plant in Cumbria. The initial products were not too bad from a construction point of view with many class members still earning revenue today, but serious problems with engines and transmissions were soon to raise their ugly heads thus biting Leyland well and truly where it hurt. The integral Lynx chassis that replaced the National was also a problem child with corrosion and quality related matters hampering sales.
By 1987, Leyland Bus had been sold off to its management only for them to sell out to Volvo Bus just 18 months later. Volvo quickly addressed the poor selling vehicles such as the Tiger Doyen by deleting them and new production methods were used that raised quality and shrunk operating costs. Leyland also started producing the Volvo B10M chassis to a level of quality that sometimes bettered the Swedish examples but more serious matters were to cloud any good news that a re-vitalised Leyland Bus may have generated thanks to some foul play by the previous management team.
In order to get Volvo interested in purchasing Leyland Bus, it had built up a sizeable number of chassis which had been put down on paper as sold units. They were, in fact, stock chassis based on forecasted sales that failed to materialise mainly due to the European recession of the early 1990s. This coupled, with an expensive re-engineering programme to re-power the problematic rail products cost millions to put right, that alone would have been enough to force Leyland into bankruptcy. Volvo reluctantly footed the bill but, as a result, threw out the existing management team and renamed the company V-L Bus Ltd.
Volvo closed the Golden Hill Lane chassis plant in Leyland and concentrated all activities that included chassis and bodywork construction at Lillyhall in Workington, Cumbria which had initially been constructed solely for the National production. The poor selling Swift midi-bus which had been based on the Roadrunner truck was killed off and brave plans to export the Lynx as a chassis for local body-building using Volvo’s global network were mothballed. Everything was closely scrutinised for viability and cost cutting with parts prices rising to generate extra income.
As the recession bit harder, the decision was taken in late 1991 that Leyland was to be wound down and closed. The Tiger coach chassis was deleted along with the Lynx in 1992. This left the Olympian as the sole chassis produced but, despite much local petitioning and one or two sympathetic UK orders coming through, Volvo refused to go back on its decision. Once the final orders were completed (tri-axle chassis for Asia), the final bus came off the line in July 1993. Volvo continued to produce the Olympian in Irvine, Scotland albeit in heavily revised form – only the raw chassis shared a common thread and was badged as a Volvo.
Many loyal fans of the brand mourned the passing of Leyland Bus and saw Volvo as the big bad wolf. In fairness, Volvo did everything they could to keep Leyland going in a dying marketplace. It kept the parts network going, coughed up huge cash lumps in the form of warranty payments and oversaw epic engineering re-work programmes at their cost to British Rail. De-regulation of public transport had effectively suffocated the market for new buses in the UK and Leyland Bus became a small specialist division within a huge corporate empire – sadly, there was nowhere else for Leyland to go other than into the history books…