British Leyland pretty much had the UK bus and coach market sewn up from the late 1970s – certainly as far as double-decker vehicles were concerned. The big names on the roads at that time were the Daimler Fleetline – Bristol VRT – Leyland Atlantean with one or two others such as Foden and Ailsa (which became Volvo) nibbling round the edges.
Leyland had successfully introduced the high-tech Titan double-decker into London, a vehicle that bristled with new technology. However, owing to slow delivery thanks to union problems at its Park Royal factory in London, orders from other UK bus companies were dropping off with, for example, the West Midlands PTE (WM buses), which had initially ordered a large number, eventually taking just a handful.
Staying in the West Midlands, the Birmingham company of Metro Cammell (MCW) had quickly developed an up to date deck chassis offering the industry standard Gardner 6LXB engine with a rugged Voith automatic transmission which became known as the MCW Metrobus. London Buses, fed up with late deliveries from Leyland, experimented with the Metrobus, found the vehicle most satisfactory for the intensive London traffic and ordered more examples in large numbers.
However, in the late 1970s, bus operators outside London followed the capital’s example to some degree and so, as a direct result, Leyland started to develop a double-decker chassis which was simplified in production compared to the Titan thus being more palatable to operators in the provinces.
One further issue was that London Buses had changed its buying policy – from now on London were to buy “off the peg” vehicles, this spurred on by the overwhelming success of the Metrobus. A modern but fairly simple chassis needed to be developed if Leyland were to keep the crown as the UK’s number one people mover. Prototype chassis were designed at Leyland’s plant in Bristol and the idea was to rationalise the range in one fell swoop.
The hardy Atlantean, Fleetline and VRT ranges were all worthy vehicles but not exactly in the first flush of youth. A choice of three chassis, all different yet all part of the same parent company, no longer made sense and Leyland Bus – now a division that stood alone within the BL group – saw this and acted upon it. Even though the Atlantean and VRT were still selling strongly at this point, forthcoming legislation regarding frontal impact safety and external noise meant that extensive and expensive re-working would be required.
Leyland launched the Olympian at the 1980 Commercial Vehicle Show and, shortly after, stated that the Bristol VRT chassis was to be deleted. The Olympian was offered with either a standard Leyland TL11 turbocharged diesel or optional Gardner 6LXB unit driving through a semi-auto five-speed hydra-cyclic gearbox with internal retarder. Air suspension was standard as was a return to a full air brake system. The design of the chassis was semi-integral enabling the vehicle to be moved without a body being fitted. However, as far as coachwork was concerned, Leyland were keen to promote its own “in house” companies to supply bodywork in the form of ECW in Lowestoft and C.H. Roe in Leeds – both being Leyland-owned companies at the time. The start of this decade was not the best time to be launching a new product as the recession was biting, but interest in this new bus was strong upon launch.
Right from the start, the Leyland Olympian was bought in fairly large numbers by the National Bus Company (NBC) with operators including Cambus, Crosville and United Counties taking sizeable numbers into their fleets. Large municipal operators (Local Authorities) were more reluctant to embrace the modern Olympian, yet notable orders from Lothian and the once all Daimler fleet of Northampton Transport became customers of this one size fits all Leyland.
After the closure of the Brislington site of Bristol Bus, all Olympian production was moved to Leyland itself – this made commercial sense as the engines, transmissions and most of the castings were sourced from here. Shortly after this, a coach version of the Olympian was launched with a higher powered engine (260bhp) with features such as forced air ventilation and W/C – Alder Valley being notable customers. This was a brave effort by Leyland, but the coach version never gained the sales figures marketing had hoped for, resulting in the coach version being quietly dropped.
Overseas, the Olympian was popular in Greece and several even made it to the United States. Throughout the 1980s, the bus was subjected to various improvements and seemed to suffer none of the serious shortcomings of the early National that came before it. One thing that did hamper its success was the Transport Act, 1985. Council or municipal bus companies found themselves in competition from ex-National Bus operators and the market swung towards cheap, secondhand vehicles and mini buses. Sales of new vehicles hit an all time low between 1986 and 1988.
However, by 1988 the bus market was stabilising and the biggest bus group in the UK at that time was the Perth-based Stagecoach operation. They standardised their double deck purchases on Leyland Olympians with Alexander bodywork. At this point, the 11.6 litre Leyland power unit was deleted from the range along with hydra-cyclic semi auto gearbox. Engine options became the 10.4 litre Gardner 6LXB rated at 180bhp or the 10 litre Cummins L-10 with ratings from 210 – 250bhp coupled to either a Voith or ZF automatic gearbox.
1988 also saw Leyland become swallowed into the Volvo empire and, as the company entered the 1990s, just two vehicles were to remain in the portfolio – the single-deck Lynx and the double-deck Olympian. The Olympian was the very last vehicle to bear the Leyland badge – the last chassis was a tri-axle bus destined for Hong Kong. All Leyland bus production ceased in 1992 but the Olympian continued after this date. The overall quality of the Olympian, especially when fitted with Alexander bodywork, was that of a genuinely top class product. Hundreds of examples are still in everyday service, some now working with their fifth or sixth owners.
Finally, after the closure of the works, Volvo re-engineered the Olympian and fitted its own braking system, electrics and engines, though a Cummins option remained. The chassis itself – now built in Irvine, Scotland, was one that could not be improved on. Customers liked the Olympian so much that Volvo kept the name going as a token of goodwill to the many operators who had remained loyal to the brand and it remained a top selling product right up to the deletion caused by the trend of new step free, low floor buses.
Timeline – 1980 – 1992 (Leyland) 1992 – 2000 (Volvo)
Engine: Cummins, Gardner, Leyland & Volvo
Transmission: Leyland, Maxwell, Voith & ZF