Blog : A childhood dream realised: Leyland National driven

Keith Adams gets behind the wheel of the Leyland National – and finds it a most interesting and nostalgic experience.

Leyland National - and me driving it!
Leyland National – and me driving it!

While the beautiful set were lording it up at Goodwood, I was doing something far more down-to-earth. Well, I say down-to-earth but, for me, a committed petrolhead, driving a Leyland National was like a dream come true. In fact, I’m still giddy from the excitement of it all!

Thanks to Mike Humble, who gets to drive one of these from time to time, I finally got my mucky paws on one of these sexy machines. Sunday was all about picking up my Polski-Rover SD1 from its southern fettling. However, after getting my keys off Mike Humble (who’s done a great job on the Rover, by the way), he suggested we wander down to the yard to have a look at some buses.

Now, ordinarily, I don’t do buses. They get in the way, they hog lanes that rightfully belong to cars, and they slow me down in the lanes. I have, though, always had a soft spot for that most BL of buses: the Leyland National. We’ve covered this one on the site before, but it has true heritage – Bache project management, Michelotti styling and what can only be described as one or two issues in service.

Getting behind the wheel of the National

However, this 1978 example that was in fine shape and I must admit that I was a little nervous when Mike invited me to get behind the wheel. First off, firing it up was easy enough – flick the plastic ignition switch down by my right thigh and let it idle while the air pressure builds up. The sound of that 8.3-litre straight-six idling took me straight back to my childhood – and holidays to my relatives in the Midlands.

First impressions at this point – the almost car like driving position (the wheel is far less horizontal than I thought it would be) and the Morris Marina column stalks. Then I saw the button to open and close the doors. Well, I had to do it, didn’t I. Pssst-cchhh… and they closed. Pssst-cchhh… and they open again. Without doubt the smallest things amuse and this simple action certainly made me happy.

Again, that evocative noise transported me back to my childhood.

Changing gear – not so scary

Now, the scary time, and it’s time for the off. Foot on the brake pedal, I flick the semi-auto into second gear (‘first is a waste of time,’ Mike tells me). Pull the pneumatically held off spring actuated handbrake, which is located handily on my right, and I’m just about ready to go. Slowly, I release the foot brake and, ever so gently, squeeze the throttle…

Effortlessly, the National creeps forward, and I yelp a little yelp. Wow. A little more throttle, and we’re moving forwards now, so time for my first gear change. Mike just tells me to go for it, and that it’s hard to get it right first time. He’s right. I slick the Marker Pen-sized lever up a ratio and we lurch forwards in a most unseemly manner. Oh dear.

Slowing down for a turn around, and I change down, foot off the throttle. Perfect. No problems. The secret is to squeeze the floor-hinged pedal ever so gently. Nice.

It’s surprisingly nimble, this National

In a big turn-round area, I apply full lock. More impressions: the steering is car-light and impressively accurate. Yes, there’s no road feel, but there’s no slop either. It’s clear this rack-and-pinion set-up (on a front axle a good six feet behind me) is designed for friendliness. Heaving the wheel to the right (it’s a full five and a half turns from lock to lock), it almost feels like we’re crabbing sideways, and it’s a most weird feeling.

But the bus turns round, and we’re on our way again, with me taking off the lock as quickly as possible to straighten up.

This time, for the up-change, I’m ready. It’s a one-pause-two action timed to perfection with a on-off-on the surprisingly sensitive throttle. The result – smoothness. Braking for a sleeping policeman (I love that expression), I do throw up one undesirable dynamic deficiency – the inconsistency of the air-operated brake pedal. You press and nothing much happens but, squeeze a millimetre of additional travel, and the National lurches to an undignified stop. Ah well.

Getting a feel for it – don’t be too confident!

A few more runs up and down the private lane we’re on and I’m beginning to get a feel for this. I even undertake a three-point turn, which is interesting.

After a while, it’s time to hand back the keys to Mike and ponder what we’ve achieved here. It was brilliant driving the National but, more than that, it’s dumbfounded me just how friendly it is to drive. Of course, it’s huge and I’d hate to negotiate a town in it but, in terms of how it feels on the road and the response of the controls, I reckon it feels far younger than 30.

The main revelation is the gearbox, which is just fantastic. I’d love to know why they weren’t putting such systems on cars back then… because it really does work, once you master the throttle management. So, another box is ticked in my driving career. Happy, pleased and excited. Would I want to do it for nine hours a day? Of course not, but I can well understand anyone who would…

Tickets please...
Tickets please…
Keith Adams


  1. Cool. I used to go to school on a Fishwick’s National. It was the 111 via Earnshaw Bridge. 11p to Fox Lane….

  2. Cardif Council had a fleet of Nationals and for 1977 only they sprayed them metallic silver to mark the Silver Jubilee. Happy Days

  3. most large commercials have very light controls. The steering on most modern trucks is far lighter than a car, the clutches are even air assisted.
    You do have to learn a style for using airbrakes, they’re a lot like hydropnematic Citroens, there is a small window of travel on the brake pedal. You just have to remember you’re releasing air not moving fluid, and you’re trying to stop a fair bit of weight, an empty bus must weigh at least 8 tons!

  4. @Dennis

    I remember the first time I drove a hydraulic Citroen. One I had just bought, taking it back to Belfast.

    It was happy cruising along the M6, then I saw traffic queues ahead, so tapped the brake as a usual car.
    I just remember it performed close to an emergency stop, the nose of the car diving down, must’ve gave people behind me a fright!
    Fantastic brakes in all fairness!

  5. Visually, the Leyland National is still a modern looking design. Follow the current trend of hiding the vertical pillars behind the glazing and introduce some painted fibre-glass bumpers that fit flush with the bodywork, and the National would not look out of place alongside the latest single-decker offerings from Scania or Volvo. Time has been immensely kind to the Leyland National in both Series I and II guise.

  6. I love these buses, I remember both United Counties and Northampton Transport running sizeable fleets of these single deckers.

    The town ones seemed more robust than the Counties types. Can Keith or Mike tell me why?

  7. From the photograph, this is an ex London Transport example, one of a fleet that eventually amounted to 505 examples bought between 1973 and 1980. Legend has it that the National was only available on three colours – National red, National Green and white. LT insisted on LT Bus Red being added to the colour chart as a condition of their purchase. All are long gone, but the MArk 2 variant used on the Red Arrow services were all converted to “Greenway” standard by East Lancs coachworks, which included replacing the Leyland engine with a Gardner 6LXB.

  8. From the photograph, this is an ex London Transport example, former fleet number LS193. This was part of a fleet that eventually amounted to 505 examples, purchased between 1973 and 1980. All were two door and the 1980 deleiveries were the Mark 2 standard. Legend has it that the National was only available in three colours, National red, National green and white. LT insisted that Bus Red was added to the colour chart as a condition of purchase. All are long gone now, but all of the Mark variants, used on Red Arrow services were converted to “Greenway” standard by East Lancs coachworks. This included converting the engines from the Leyland unit to a Gardner 6LXB.

  9. Well done Sir. Leyland Nationals bring back so many memories of my childhood living in Shrewsbury. Used to catch the Hotspur Midland Red to the town centre. Used to catch the S9 into town and S10 back as it was quicker that way round.. Its just a shame they have been replaced with soulless items. Good article. Love to drive one myself..

  10. I think from memory a few of these rattled around my area for a while but we generally got the slab sided models for the school runs which had to take a run up to get up anything higher than a speedbump.
    I recall from memory and your description – are you talking about that little box-on-a-stick shiftgate thing – if you are I think its a pre-select box and alot of the buses had them specially the double-deckers.
    They were fitted to alot of cars in the 30’s and 40’s – Rileys being a regular user from what I have read. I think they went the way of the dodo because they were seen as a compromise and complex – the overdrive as fitted to Stags & Sceptres (8-speed gearbox in 1964 anyone?) to name but two, being a sort of related last gasp.

    PS. I’ll have some more stuff to send in a while hopefully…

  11. Pre-selectors are coming back on a lot of trucks these days, we have the ability to do it on our Actros, basically they’re only really needed when you have a low power to weight ratio, so pre-war cars often did and most truck and agri tractors still do. They disapeared from cars basically because engines became more powerful and gearboxes became better, syncromesh was probably the biggest killer of the pre-selector idea.
    The main reason the National has the small stick is beacause it removes the need to a complex (and heavy to operate) mechanical linkage to the gearbox in the back of the vehicle, so it will use an electro-pnematic shift system instead. These days such systems often include a computer to inteligently choose the appropriate gear for you (in theory anyway!).

  12. @Alasdair Mackenzie
    Not all LT mk 2 Nashers were Greenway’d mate. Some got converted to single door & re powered with Volvo THD100 and fitted with semi coach seating for the 607. First Eastern Counties had at least 3 in this spec as driver training buses.Later phase 2 Mk2’s had a fully computerised gearbox control, but still retained the little ‘stick’. The rather large ecu for the gearbox was about half way down the bus behind a ceiling cove panel. There were some Mk1’s that had a ZF 2 speed automatic gearbox fitted as a trial, but were considered a flop.

    The Mk2 Phase 2’s Hydracyclic gearboxes also had an integral brake retarder fitted, which was activated by the footbrake. Nice buses to drive, unlike modern stuff, that are just point & squirt, with no hold gears!

  13. Greater manchester transport had these,i always loved the noise from the fixed-head 500 series engine and the smoke!

  14. The Leyland National ! When I were a lad, living in Cumbria, there was a plant assembling these just down the road – Lillyhall, near Workington. It’s an Eddie Stobart depot now…

  15. I’ve never seen one of those in red. “Satanlines”. We had them in Colchester but I think they were dark green – which was odd because if I remember all the other Colchester corp. buses were a different colour.
    Does anyone else get the visual effect I have with anything thats a red colour? Whatever item it is seems to pulse in my vision – it’s more noticeable with red light but even something painted red does it.

  16. I remember Northern General had a fleet of early and later Leyland Nationals. Then Tyneside PTE bought some to replace the former ageing “Economic” brand buses on the So.Shields to Sunderland routes (after they took over that private operator). Happy days indeed, a shame we don’t see them nowadays apart from museums and Bus shows.

    • The age of the vehicles and the fact that they are not wheelchair accessible are the main factors in that. One of my workmates used to own a part share in the first production National 2 (East Yorkshire LAG 188V)

  17. Our local operator (Crosville) had a few Nationals amongst their mostly Bristol fleet. One of the nationals had a prominent sign on the dash ‘This bus has just had a new engine at a cost of £xxxx. PLEASE BE GENTLE WITH IT’

  18. I remember going to school in Aberdeen in one of these. There were two little old ladies on the back seat, and the driver deliberately drove quite fast over a speed bump. The air suspension rose and fell, the bus pitched, and the little old ladies took off for a second as the bus “fell to earth”. Cue an “ooo” from the ladies, and a sadistic grin from the driver!

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