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