The Leyland National

Richard Aucock

The Leyland National...
The Leyland National...

I took a cracking book on buses out from the library last weekend.

The book, in all its glory, is “The British Bus Today and Tomorrow”– which, seeing as it was published in 1983, should perhaps now be retitled “The British Bus Yesterday and The Day Before.” Ahem.

Unfortunately, the book’s largely incomprehensible. Complex things, buses what with the Barbara Castle-led politics behind them, the companies that made them and the way in which they were made. Largely, my eyes glazed as I flicked.

(Who else, like me, enjoys old pictures of street scenes, because it lets them peer at the cars, the shops, the buses and the amount of people smoking?)

Excitingly, though, I did find something to connect with – the Leyland National single-decker. You WILL know about this, as they were built from 1972 to 1985, and over 7000 them made it onto our roads. They were operated all over the country and, for their time, were blimmin’ clever.

The Leyland National was one of the first buses to use integral construction. Before then, chassis had come from one supplier, bodies from another. Hence the confusion. By merging Leyland with National, the new firm’s creation replaced a shedload of older buses and invented a revolutionary modular construction process while they were at it.

By the 1980s, the Leyland National had three-quarters of the single-decker bus market. It introduced ‘new standards of passenger comfort’ and was thus deemed a success. Mind you, it was almost killed early – the factory was barely building one a week in the early ‘80s. That’s in a factory designed for 40 a week. But things did pick up and the old bus continued. And carried on its market monopoly, too.

Six things you (certainly I) never knew about the Leyland National:

1: MkI models had an 8.3-litre straight-six Leyland 510 turbodiesel. Bus companies hated it, as it was thirsty and, if not religiously maintained, smoked a lot. Let’s face it, how many bus companies stick to F1-standard maintenance schedules? Leyland’s later solution was just as brilliant, though. Reduce the power to reduce the smoke. Great.

2: Models between 1972 and 1978 had a rear roof pod. This contained the heating kit, which heated at roof level. A bit daft, given how heat rises and so, from 1978, the interior was revised and given cheaper but more effective under-seat heating. They also reduced the interior light count of these models. Well, it was the Winter of Discontent.

3: Two lengths of Leyland National were offered. The shorter ones could be spotted from squarer windows. There was also, from 1979, a facelifted National 2. This had more engine choice, including a more reliable 680 engine, and a radiator in the front.

4: It was built in Workington, Cumbria, on car-type production lines. Leyland reckoned on building 2000 a year. Not like them to overestimate things – eventual demand settled down to, yep, half that. Also typically Leyland, early ones were unreliable, mainly from that fixed-head, maintenance-hungry engine.

5: It was launched at the 1970 Commercial Motor Show, where a model plated ‘BL 1971’ boldly took centre stage. This example had twin door exits on the side – such was the flexibility of the bus, single or dual doors could be fitted.

6: Nationals remained in service well into the Millennium, usually fitted with Volvo or DAF engines. It was replaced by the Leyland Lynx. That’s another blog post entirely.

However, there’s one reason above all why I love the Leyland National: it’s oh-so-distinctive engine rattle. You could tell when one was approaching without seeing it, every single time. For sure, that’s me off to a future owner’s club meet then…

Keith Adams
Latest posts by Keith Adams (see all)


  1. I know I’m going to sound like a complete bus nerd, but some of the points raised here ain’t quite right.

    The National was only popular because Leyland, who had bought out nearly every other chassis builder in the country, made it pretty much the only single deck city bus you could still buy. Bus companies then would have never ever had considered buying “foreign” yet, so it was the National or nothing.

    Another reason was the National Bus Company (which the National was designed for) forced it’s companies to buy it, even if it was totally unsuitable. This resulted in dual door city buses running around in the countryside, and vinyl plastic seated versions replacing coaches on the London to Home Counties Green Line commuter services. Which resulted in a massive loss of business as the City Gents promptly bought rail season tickets instead.

    The roof pod was actually standard during the whole production run. The podless variant was an option introduced in 1978 in an effort to make the National cheaper, less complicated, and more easy to maintain for small bus companies. It was called the “Series B”

    The bus may have been modular in construction, but during the first few years of production, Leyland would only offer it in one length, and inexplicably with dual doors only. Hence the dual door buses running around near empty in the countryside. To top it off, buses would only be painted in a single colour at the factory. The customer wants two colours? tough, they’ll have to paint it themselves! Eventually Leyland became less rigid with it’s specs, after bus companies protested.

    The National 2 was a well sorted bus however!

  2. I don’t recall the National, having grown up and gone to school on Leyland Leopards, Tigers and Bristol REs.


    The railbus variant of the Leyland National was trialled by NIR in the 80s. It proved to be unreliable.

    I remember seeing it in the Ulster Transport Museum in the 90s, I believe it is now at Downpatrick heritage railway.

  3. There’s a cracking Leyland commercial vehicles museum in the old truck factory in Leyland, Lanc’s. Its partly staffed by former employees too.

  4. I went to school on one of these.

    A Fishwicks’ 111 that was signed as being for Earnshaw bridge, via erm….somewhere or other. 11p one way.

    I think I just missed the railway version, they used to run them between Preston and Leyland (yes, the real place). Somebody a bit younger than me used to travel on them. They had a habit of going bang as they pulled away from the station…gearbox, I think.

    Museum definitely worth a visit If you’ve got a bit of imagination. The WW1 Leyland front-line vehicles are a bit chilling.

  5. If anyone really wants to get nerdy about interesting buses, try Googling ‘Guy’ buses. There was a fascinating ‘Wulfrunian’ prototype double decker trialled in service in Guy’s home town, Wolverhampton. It had air suspension and disc brakes – the ride was a bit like a boat, with huge tail lift under braking. Sadly too far ahead of its time. Guy was absorbed and eventually buried by Jaguar Daimler. Ah remember those Daimler buses….

  6. Great website on GUY buses just stuck it the favorites box Cheers – Wulfrunie is the local nickname for people from Wolverhampton I may be wrong but its something about a local entrepreneur called the Wulf’s, as a Brummie I have another name for them!!!@Ian Elliott

  7. I remember going to school on a brand new Alder Valley National in about 1973. Until then, the usual buses had been cramped, slow and noisy AECs. They seemed ancient then but were probably only 12-15 years old. By comparison the National was a revelation – quiet, airy, roomy and able to do 50-55 instead of the 30-40 that the AECs did. I’ve liked the sound and the look of them ever since.

  8. Bit of culture for Brummie Simon Woodward. ‘Wulfrunian’ comes from the Saxon name for what became Wolverhampton – Wulfruna Heaton, or ‘Wulfruna’s High Town'(being built on a hill).Not many people know that. A much maligned place, Wolverhampton, and a place with a lot of motoring historical interest – Sunbeam, Villiers, Meadows, Guy etc plus lots of component makers – a large percentage of all the UK vehicle chassis in the 20th Century were made by John Thompsons at Ettingshall.

  9. Again, like Mr Kipling, I am going to sound like a bit of a bus anorak here but a couple of other things to add.

    The Leyland National came about of Leyland’s desire to build a complete, integral bus. At the time, most buses were built as chasis and then sent to the bodybuilders for an actual body to be put on them. Leyland reasoned, not unreasonably, that if you build all the bus, you get more money and hence more profits. However, the bus industry has never quite liked the idea of manufacturers telling them what buses to use. They also like the idea of bodybuilders building buses to their individual needs. Hence, the buses in say London are different in style and interior to the buses in say Blackpool.

    Anyway, at the time the National was on the drawing board one-man-operated single deckers had just been legalised and Leyland thought there would be a large swing towards single-deckers in major cities. Hence the need for large numbers of single-deckers and a large factory to build them.

    As it turned out, the National was unwisely influenced by the needs of London Transport and the large city operators. When one-man-operated double deckers became legalised, those same operators all rushed to stock up on these vehicles and the planned market for single deckers never materialsied.

    At the same time, the National Bus Company (NBC) had been formed and so the government threw the two together to form a new company which would build NBC’s vehicles going forward – This company was called Leyland National Co. Ltd with Leyland and NBC owing half. Happily Leyland just happened to have a single decker on its books for NBC to buy. Hence the name of bus, the Leyland National

    However as NBC tended to run out of town routes and inter-urban routes for which the National was never designed NBC ended up with a bus that was not designed for it and totally unsuited for the routes it ran. Ho hum hoots.

    Couple of other facts. 1. The Workington factory was never really wanted as Leyland wanted to build it in a new factory near its base in Lancashire. However, like Rootes at Linwood, Vauxhall at Ellesmere Port and BMC at Bathgate, the government was pursuing a policy of persuading vehicle manufacturers to locate to areas where there was high unemployment and traditional industries were in decline. As a result, in order to qualify for the government grants it had to choose somewhere else and settled on Workington.
    2. There were actually three lengths of National built, although the middle one was generally built for export. Although a small few did sneak into service in the UK.
    3. With production of the National taken into consideration as well as exports, as recently as 1979 BL was the largest producer of bus and coach chasis in Western Europe. 15 years later, it had gone.
    4. This one, I feel is the most interesting. In 1973/1974 Ron Ellis held tenative talks with his counter part at Fiat, where there was discussions surrounding Leyland becoming one of the founder members of IVECO, which included along with Fiat, OM in Italy, Unic in France and Magirus Deutz in Germany. These talks came to nothing as a result of the failure to agree on respective shareholdings. Michael Edwards revived the talks in 1978 and they came so close to being signed off that Des Pitcher, who succeeded Ron Ellis, was halted at Milan Airport when on his was to sign an agreement. It begs an interesting thought as to what would have happened if it had been signed. All the buses, vans and trucks would have been eventually badged as IVECO and would the co-operation have also extended to cars….??

  10. Thanks for the culture!, I was looking at local history surrounding Willenhall(the lock industry in particular) recently and there is quite a few Saxon words knocking around such as Neachells lane meaning tree lined lane, not many tree’s there now!I have also read that the history of the area predates Saxons and has it origins in the iron age? Also I’m not sure but was there a Alvis factory in Ettingshall? not far from the new tram line.Missed the Mercia gold display though, always the same when its on your door step but a bit embarrassing when a customer from Newcastle made the 400 mile round trip to see it! @Ian Elliott

  11. Thank you all for the comments! Really interesting stuff here – more to it than I ever thought. Must give that museum a visit…

    That Railbus is absolutely incredible. And yes, Hilton told me, spectacularly unreliable.

  12. Nice article – I spent 4 years travelling from school to home on Leyland Nationals (Slough bus station to Amersham bus station, the 353 service to be precise) and those buses are etched into my subconcious.

    Anyone remember those complicated mechanical ticket machines where the driver had to line up rows of numbers on coloured dials to issue a ticket?

  13. Ahh, the National.

    I have fond memories of being on Midland Red National 1s. Hearing the unique sound of the 510 engine and the jerky ride from the semi automatic gearbox..

    To be fair the heating system worked very well. It also had demister slots in the ceiling panels so the side windows didn’t steam up. Something modern service buses could learn from.

  14. The original railbus version was an odd-looking thing, you can see it here:

    Three were built with what were basically bus bodies, with the second (LEV2) being sent to the USA to try and drum up interest in export orders! (Strangely enough, it wasn’t successful).

    In the UK they were criticised for looking too much like buses, so the production versions (dubbed ‘Pacers’) were given a redesign. Underneath they still relied heavily on the same Leyland National components, including engines and transmissions. Unreliability in service saw the engines of the production class 142/ 143s replaced with a new Cummins unit and a two-stage Voith hydraulic transmission

    Widely despised by both railwaymen and passengers for their bumpy ride, horrendous noise levels and questionable safety (their four-wheel chassis was notorious for failing to operate the ‘track circuits’ that detect a train’s presence and operate signals), most of them are still in service. There was some export success, though… the first class 141s were mostly sold to Iranian railways after withdrawal in the late 1990s, where apparently they are still going strong!

    I’ll get my coat…

    The Class 142/ 143/ 144 were introduced in the mid-80s and, despite being universally despised by almost everyone who travels on them, are still in service now.

  15. @Dave the Anorak

    As a youngster, I thought it was a tremendous novelty to see a train that looked like a bus. It certainly piqued my interest and I would have liked to have seen inside it had it not been locked up (unlike some of the other exhibits).

    More pictures

    It’s current home:

  16. The bus company where I grew up, the East Kent Road Car Company, had a large fleet of Nationals until the early 1990s. I will always remember their distinctive engine noise and the white-knuckle thrill of sitting in the seats above the rear wheels which every bump, dip and undulation in the road would be directly transferred to 🙂

  17. ref the jerky ride, when i was taking my psv in a national my driving instructor used to make me do a complete change of gears all from bottom to top and then back down again (gearbox exercise- part of the driving test) whilst standing with his thermos cup brimmed, you had to be good enough for him not to spill any. bloody hard on a semi auto!!!

  18. for me, a 1975 vintage youngster, the sound of these was very different to the usual Leyland bus fare, or cummins, deutz and perkins for that matter. Still, they made a better racket than the a-series/viva HC din I had to endure. Hmmmm, I’ll get my coat too!

  19. there are a few videos of widnes/ halton transport leyland nationals on you tube, WIDNES BUSES JAN 1989,and WARRINGTON AND WIDNES BUSES 1980s

  20. Great blog, I fondly remember Leyland Nationals. Styling designed by Italian designer (Giovanni) Michelotti of Triumph cars fame and penned designs of the Stag and TC saloons.

    I still think it’s the best looking bus along with those old US Greyhound busses and Airstream Excella RV motorhomes NASA used.

    I had a close pedestrian encounter with a National when a metal and glass bus stop I was standing bear was destroyed in a shower or twisted metal and glass shards as the back end of the National caught it while turning and leaving it’s bus stop.

    I notice the overhangs on modern city buses is much shorter now.

    Loved the noise and whine of the Nationals and it’s friendly face. Didn’t like the ride comfort though, why was is so poor? They rattled like hell inside more than the double Deckers like the Leyland Atlanteans.

    Memories… lol

  21. This is a very interesting article but I must disagree with some of you.

    I have driven the leyland national for both london country and alder valley.
    The green line nationals we had did have coach seats with the pods on the roof and the heating was so hot that even in the coldest winter you could not have the heating on for more than a few minutes at a time before it became so hot that it was like driving in the tropics in summer lol. I did find it odd that the switch for operating the heaters was at the back of the bus under one of the panels over the back window though. I assume this was to save a bit of money on the running a couple of wires to the cab from the back lol.

    I must also say that the leyland national was one of the best buses I have driven and I have never had the problem of jerking gear changes as reported on here. The london country buses would easily do 70 mph yet the alder valley ones wouldn’t but then they had screwed the governers right down to save money on fuel. I do think one of the bad things on them was that the front ends were so light and as a result it could be hard to steer in bad conditions.
    In fact the whole bus was light as was shown in Lincolnshire several years ago when a national was supposedly blown off the road on a windy day and sideways into a dyke.

  22. Oh silly me I forgot to say that the alder valley nationals that had the rooftop pods had heaters that were useless.

  23. Having had AEC long routemaster coaches on the 405/414 routes in Surrey before the new Leyland National was introduced by London Country, the passengers’ journey experience was awful! The noise and unreliability of the National was sickening; the engines smoked as well. The plastic seats were sticky and uncomfortable. The bodywork was cheap and rattling sliding windows were the norm. Worst passenger bus of our generation.

  24. More interesting facts:
    The heating system in the roof pod was designed to push out 60,000 btu of heat, blown down a fully insulated roof tunnel and down the windows. The problems were poor maintenance of the equipment which led to low output or excessive heat, not controlled. It was however a brilliant design concept, even pricing a curtain of warm air over the doors to prevent heat loss.
    The factory at Cumbria was led by the Labour government to create employment with the loss of mining jobs in the region, and heavily steered by the strong unions of the day. It was a fabulous factory, capable of far more capacity than it ever produced but stuck in an out of the way place meant supplying it with materials was expensive and difficult.
    The actual structure of the National was incredibly durable. This was in part why it was looked at for a railcar but that involved a lot of test work to meet British Rail requirements, including a massive press that they placed one in and tried to crush it. Each time some riveting popped, a strengthening method was derived and applied until BR were happy.
    Yes, the 510 engine was problematic and smokey but the Leyland 680 and TL11 versions were fast and very flexible.
    It’s early design was snubbed by London Transport who much preferred to influence the manufacturers design, as they had done with the ubiquitous Route aster and AEC and much effort was applied to even get LTE to take an initial batch. The chief objection was the National was designed with pneumatic brakes and LTE Chief Engineer would not accept that such a system would work in heavy London Traffic. They wanted a full hydraulic system which Leyland refused to do as it was greatly expensive and a major re-engineering exercise to fit, and so it took until 1980 to convince LTE to take a batch of 69 which went into service as Red Arrow express, a compromise as LTE thought where they were not expected to stop/start so frequently and hence consume less air in brake system. Once this stubborn stance was broken, Leyland pressed LTE hard with the proof of success to take more “off the shelf” designed vehicles.
    The majority were built with Leyland SCG semi automatic transmission, pneumatic operated but some fully automatic transmissions were supplied and these were idiot proof to prevent driver abuse. Different terrain, gearing, axle ratios demanded different programming and once properly set up they were smooth as silk but the peripheral equipment that it relied on was problematic which led to damages.
    The whole concept was to make an efficient and modern, adaptable vehicle with limited model options to mean that it could be profitable in what is essentially a low volume market. Once the dreaded Thatcher government de-regulated the bus market, broke up Leyland and NBC the damage was done. No one bought large fleet replacements for many years and it killed the home market, allowing foreign makers to get a foot in the door. With Mercedes and the likes huge global volumes they only could undercut Leyland and so our once dominating great bus industry was destroyed. The “gang of six” directors made a management buy out, got very rich quick and sold out to Volvo, who quite soon found out the once world leader in Bus export was only a ghost of its former self and was surviving on selling chassis (for Lynx) below the cost of production….the writing was on the wall!
    So, now you know who was to blame. Thatcher didn’t just ruin the coal industry.

  25. Having observed the early years of the National Bus Company, it was obvious Management were exceedingly frightened by the horrendous reliability and warranty costs of the 500 series (in trucks as well) and the unsuitability of the SCG style gearbox and its controls to this application. Leyland had compelled National to fit these units and I never did understand how they could have paired such a great body design (concept) with such bad mechanicals. Accountants and design-development in that period were whole planets apart. They would have fared much better with buying in trans-axle assemblies from whoever and thus farming out any warranty problems and customer flack.

    At the time, AEC had a rear-engined chassis for external body builders, the net cost/pricing of a complete vehicle was much less, – but being Leyland, they phased out this line and the factory itself. The AEC Swift and Sabre were pretty awful to drive too with their back bumper-biased weight distribution and like the National, never did get front radiators and over-hung engines at the opposite end to work in harmony. Much like an Imp. And just as reliable.

    I almost choked when I saw the National body and underpinnings had been adapted to become railcars which are STILL in service and STILL hated by commuters.

    I won’t rattle on about AEC railcars and their ultimate destination, Cuba. Just ….. does anybody know if they are still running in Cuba today?

    • I presume as Leyland owned most of the bus manufacturers they could dictate terms to the operators.

      The Bristol RE was another single decker rear engined design in their portfolio which they kept making for export, and which Ulsterbus managed to secure a large order for by threatening to start buying from Mercedes.

      • @richardpd In some respects the National 2 was a sort of updated RE, rear 0/680 and all.

        As to export markets, Sydney UTC/ UTA (one of Leyland Truck & Bus’ biggest export customers) had long bought Leopards but in the late 70s they were wearing out and parts were hard to get. When Sydney UTA put in for replacements, Leyland told them they could have the National or nothing. To cut a long story short, Sydney UTA didn’t want the National, told Leyland where to stick it and became one of Mercedes-Benz’s biggest buyers of O305 (and later O405 etc) chassis. Singapore (another loyal Leyland customer) did the same. Municipal operators in NZ followed suit after getting Leyland’s dregs (Bristol RE chassis with the 0.510)

      • The RE was succeeded by another model, the Bristol B21. A small batch were supplied to Ipswich Buses including the very last bristol to be built. They were built on a heavyweight chassis, with Alexanders bodywork and utilised many components taken from the National, such as steering and transmission. This was because Ulsterbus didn’t want the National and wanted a traditional chassis with Alexanders body. Interestingly, the B21 was the exact opposite to the national when it came to steering, because it used to get out of puff and become very heavy unlike the National which was very light at the front end. I forget which engine they ended up with, but they were quick. I think the National would have been better received by National Bus Co operators if it had utilised the Gardner engine of the Britol RE. The last incarnation of the National, I believe, was a rebuild by East Lancs Coachbuilders and called the Greenway. It produced a smart bus on a budget and was a testament to the enduring strength of the originl structure of the National.

  26. I used to be a bus operator between 1986 and 1996, the Leyland National was one of the first buses we purchased, I found them a great bus with a few possible exceptions. If you drove them properly and paused between gears going up, they were smooth, going down the box you should match the revs by pausing and ‘blipping’ the throttle before selecting the lower gear. It seems that few operators realised you could change the pressure in the air suspension, as such we ran them with less than full pressure, this gave a more compliant ride, and replace the rollers in the tops of the entrance doors as this cut out 90% of the rattles. The odd thing with the fixed head engine was that we also had a 510 engine Bristol VRT, in this it was vertical, starting was never an issue, yet in the laid down 510, we often had to use a Standard Fireworks procession Torch which we would set light to and hold over the end of the inlet pipe to get the buggers going, this was once the engine was over a year old, so obviously they did not like being laid on their sides, excess wear from the force on the sides of the pistons I guess.

    I found it still the best bus to drive and this despite we purchased new buses to a high spec as we became better established, still they were my personal favourite. I even started to look at how we could place a valve in the front suspension to drop the height of the entrance to make them low floor and wheelchair accessible. I think they were much maligned as a bus, great looking and very nearly the complete package for a bus operator, such a shame that Leyland never really carried on actually developing them properly and talked to real operators instead of just the National Bus Company, it was full of ‘Yes Men’

    I think I am correct in saying that the first development bus had what we would now call Can Bus wiring, in that less wires were used and a signal generator was used to send pulsed signals through less wires, on the same basis as became the norm for the Aladdin System later on. Again an innovation that was not really worked out. So as an operator of these vehicles, I felt they were ahead of their time, driven and maintained well they were ahead of their time, I am not even sure they are out of date today, with the right input and updating, they could still be operating well today. I know which bus I would rather drive given the choice now.

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