Looking back: The Leyland National

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The first pre-production bus, DAO 251K, sits outside the factory at Workington when new. BASIL HANCOCK COLLECTION











The Leyland National is a bus which has divided opinion since its introduction 50 years ago. Jonathan Welch speaks to former Leyland engineer Basil Hancock about the type’s early life, and looks at some of the unusual variants

Was it a success or a failure? The Leyland National has been the subject of many debates over the years. What isn’t in doubt is that it’s a very ‘Marmite’ bus. With over 7,700 produced, it’s hard to see it as a complete failure; though numbers alone aren’t necessarily a sign of success against a background in which for many operators it was the only choice. Some might say that, for a bus designed to be mass produced, 7,700 is a failure – after all, it was back in 2019 that we reported on the delivery of the 55,555th Mercedes-Benz Citaro, which makes the number of Leyland Nationals delivered in its 14 year production run look like a side-note in the history of single-deckers.

But love them or loathe them, they kept a large part of the country moving for decades, from the introduction of the type in 1972 through to the end of the millennium, with operators such as Chase Bus becoming known for their use of the type.

A brief history

The Leyland National has been written about in books and articles many times in the half century since its launch at the 1970 Commercial Motor Show at London’s Earl’s Court. Work had already been started by Leyland on a new generation of one-man-operated (as it was known at the time) city buses in the 1960s, but it was the company’s merger with the BMC car company and subsequent creation of the Leyland National Company that culminated in the new bus.

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With final styling by Italian car designer Giovanni Michelotti, the new model’s modular construction and signature roof pod was born as a joint product between the then newly-formed British Leyland and the National Bus Company. The Leyland National project aimed to create a single-decker bus that would be suitable for all areas of the country, and as part of efforts to ‘level up’ the national economy would be produced at a new plant at Lillyhall, near Workington, Cumbria – an area whose heavy steel and coal mining industry was struggling. The newly formed Leyland National Company itself was not actually a new company but was a renaming of the dormant Crossley Motors.

In a major departure from previous common UK practice, the new bus was of integral construction, without a separate chassis. Instead, it featured a rigid and robust bodyshell. Trials with prototypes proved it to be very strong and safe in comparison to other contemporary vehicles.
In another departure from previous practice, the bus would be assembled on a production line utilising techniques taken from the car manufacturing industry. The new factory required an investment of £8 million, in what was said to be the most highly automated manufacturing plant in Europe. It initially employed 300 people and was geared up to produce up to 2,000 buses per year; a figure it would never reach.

An aerial view of the factory. BASIL HANCOCK COLLECTION
The sections were put together on jigs before being assembled. BASIL HANCOCK COLLECTION













The first example of what was touted as a ‘revolutionary’ new bus, ERM 35K, was handed over to local operator Cumberland Motor Services 50 years ago this year in March 1972, one of ten pre-production vehicles. The first production bus rolled off the Lillyhall production line later in 1972; TXJ 507K would become EX30 in the fleet of Manchester’s SELNEC Passenger Transport Executive. Unlike the Cumberland bus, Manchester’s survives in the care of the Museum of Transport, Greater Manchester.

Production got into full swing but reaction from operators was mixed. Among the design objectives were to create a superior travelling environment for passengers, optimise working conditions for the driver, improve the ease of fitting and replacement of standard components and to be able to keep up with traffic.

For some operators and passengers alike, the new buses were a revelation, a step-change compared to what had gone before. Others were less enamoured, however, the vinyl seats and over-complicated blown-air heating systems being among the criticisms as well as poor weight distribution.

Orders, including a small number for export, came in steadily but, arguably like the model itself, the Workington factory’s production line never reached its full potential. Six years after its introduction, a lower-cost, lower frills ‘series B’ version was launched, most visibly lacking the distinctive roof pod; a more conventional heating system was fitted instead.

Seven years after Cumberland took the first National, the last year of the 1970s saw the appearance of the first Mk2 version, its most obvious external change being the more bulbous front end to accommodate a radiator, moved from the rear, whilst the fixed-head Leyland 510 turbocharged engine was replaced by a non-turbocharged 680. Subsequently Leyland L11 and TL11 and Gardner 6HLXB engines were also offered. Production continued until 1985, when Halton Borough Transport took the last example, C49 OCM, the factory then switching its focus to the new Lynx. Given fleet number 33, it was delivered without any seats at Halton’s request and fitted the operator’s own high-back seating, entering service in November that year.

The interior of the commuter National. BASIL HANCOCK COLLECTION
















At first glance, a run-down Leyland National at the end of its life – but look closely: this one has twin controls for driver training. This bus was first shown in part-complete form at the Commercial Motor Show in 1972. BASIL HANCOCK












The end?

Loved and hated in equal measure, the numbers sold never reached the levels predicted. Production at the large Workington site dwindled as upheavals in the industry and deregulation of bus services took their toll by the mid-1980s. Possibly with some irony, the deregulation that suppressed demand also saw second-hand Nationals adopted by a number of new operators as a tool to challenge the status quo.

The large production hall does survive, at least, though now a distribution centre for Eddie Stobart. It finally closed in 1993, its last products being tri-axle export Olympian chassis – by then badged Volvo.

Besides the familiar mass-produced examples, and despite its fairly standardised approach to production, Leyland did produce a number of bespoke and experimental versions of the National, with a coach-style version, a commuter bus, and articulated examples among them, not to mention the left-hand drive examples that saw service in France, the Netherlands, Venezuela and elsewhere – though not all ‘foreign’ examples were left-hand drive, Australia being a further destination for the type.

Not to be forgotten too, the life-extended Greenway updates and the experimental and later production series’ of railbuses and diesel multiple units, the initial versions of which used the strong National body structure almost unaltered, and which were built at Workington after production of the bus had ceased.

The history of the Leyland National has been well-documented in detail elsewhere, so rather than repeat that again, we spoke to Basil Hancock to find out more about the development of the National, and David Chambers, current owner of the two surviving Leyland National articulated buses.

Born in London in 1953, after graduating with a degree in Mechanical Engineering and a Masters in Transport Planning and Engineering from Leeds University, Basil joined Leyland Truck and Bus in 1976, working as a design engineer. He was involved in projects including the National 2, Titan, Olympian, National and DAB articulated buses, Tiger, Lynx, Royal Tiger Doyen and railbuses, eventually becoming Product Planning Manager for Leyland Bus.

What could have been: a mock-up of a proposed four-window version of the Mk2 front end.
An ambulance version used a rear-mounted lift to board stretcher-bound patients.
















Production memories

“I always wanted to work on buses and trains and went to university to study mechanical engineering before doing a Masters in Transport Planning. I managed to arrange to do my thesis on the design of a new double-deck bus,” explained Basil, recounting how he found his way into the bus industry. “This was at the time the B15 (Titan) project was underway at Leyland. I ended up with something that more resembled an AEC Q.

“I initially applied to Charles Roe in Leeds, and they forwarded it to Leyland who invited me for an interview. I got a job in body design in September 1976, then in December I was sent to spend a few weeks in Workington to learn about the National, as we were just starting on the Mk2. The very first drawing I did was for a bracket on the Mk2 windscreen, but for a version which didn’t happen; it would have had a four-piece windscreen and a flattish front, nothing like what we ended up with.

“Workington was fascinating. The factory was unbelievable. It’s still to my mind one of the most advanced bus factories in the world even now. I was involved with the Mk2, as well as productionising the B15 and spent many months there during my career. I loved it there.”

Another project which came about around this time was the first of the articulated versions. “Other manufacturers were bringing products to demonstrate, so Leyland decided to obtain a mid-engined DAB chassis, DAB being its Danish subsidiary,” Basil continued “It originally had a Saurer engine, but quickly gained a Leyland 690. We had to body it and had two options. One was to use ECW at Lowestoft, and they came up with drawings for it. I was tasked with producing a concept for the Leyland National body, which was the one that was accepted. We were given six months to build it after the chassis had been exhibited at the 1978 Motor Show.

“Workington had never built anything else at the time. The whole philosophy was to use unskilled and semi-skilled workers there, but they were a very willing workforce and they built it. Then they built another four for South Yorkshire with a slightly different layout; we’d originally believed we didn’t need a separate emergency exit in each section, then discovered we did, so it was more convenient to use different body sections for the other four. We did some airport ones after that.”

The prototype class 140 and first production series class 141 at Leeds Holbeck depot. Both types were based on standard Leyland National body parts.











On the rails

The railbuses have always been an even more ‘Marmite’ topic than the National, and often widely misunderstood. “Later on, I was involved with the railbuses. At the time I was a volunteer on the Keighley and Worth Valley Railway, including driving their 1958 railbuses, so when British Rail was making noises about wanting railbuses, I was volunteered as someone who knew something about them!” Basil continued. “I did a lot of the concept work all the way through. I know the ‘Pacers’ as they became known had a lot of bad press but I’ll say it now, I’m very proud of them. I think it was a very good project from a number of points of view.

“They were built down to a price. Margaret Thatcher wanted to close railways down; it wasn’t a case of ‘have a really nice train,’ it was something cheap or nothing. I think we did a really good job with what we had. At the end of the day, they were cheap and reliable, and stayed in service for 35 years. They did the job, and they led to better things. They could have been much better but the money simply wasn’t there, a thing that their critics tend to ignore.” After the railbuses, Basil moved on to work on the successor to the National, the Lynx.


I asked Basil more about the production facility at Workington. “Production started about half way down the main building, where all the jigs were. They built the underframes in three sections, and the bodysides and roof as three separate sections. There were automatic drills which could be set for each different length, then off it went and drilled all the holes at the push of a button – this was in 1972 remember.

“There was a massive jig where they assembled all the parts, on a four-wheel trolley, which was used to move it up and down each row. Every two hours it would move to the next station; they could have moved up every hour, that was the original intent, but they never reached full capacity.

“Then they’d reach the paint plant and get the full treatment – essentially red or green, although they did branch out a bit later on! After that they went into the finishing lines before reaching the high lift area, where the engine, axles and gearboxes were fitted before being towed across to the commissioning and testing shop. The reason behind putting the engine and axles in at the end was that there’s less risk of damaging an engine during build, and also that all the high value stuff goes in at the end so you had a smaller stock-holding as they weren’t sitting on the line for weeks at a time.

“Other components would come in as complete sub-assemblies before being dipped in anti-corrosion solutions and powder-coated by robots. Again, this was the 1970s remember! It was a fabulous factory. Nothing else at Leyland came close. At the time, the other big manufacturers were still a lot more manual in their production lines.”

Something else that people might not realise, Basil pointed out, was that as a result of the Government’s desire to locate the factory in a deprived area, Leyland needed better transport links, so upgrade works to the A59 were carried out to allow easier, faster access.

One bus for Saudi Arabia was modified to add a third door, to comply with strict requirements for segregation.














During its life, the National saw some upgrades and changes. Basil explained: “The Mk1, of which there were about 6,500 made, had the 510 engine. The standard bus was the 11.3 metre, with an option for 10.3 metres. There were standard sections common to both – the front end, the door/driver’s cab bay, the centre door bay, the short bay at the rear and the rear end. The remaining bays were standard or short lengths. All the major parts were standardised. You could have left or right hand drive, and one door or two doors.

“Some National Bus Company subsidiaries found the National too expensive to replace buses like Bristol LHs. David Quainton, the then Plant Director, came up with the B Series, which took away the roof-mounted heating, had some cheaper parts in the interior, powder-coated bumpers instead of painted, and other things.

“The problem with the National was the 510 engine though. There were moves to fit the 680 at the time, and to move the radiator to the front to aid cooling. Leyland resisted, then one or two operators did it themselves anyway even though Leyland were convinced it couldn’t be done. The Mk2 had a more bulbous front to house the new radiator, and the standard engine was the 680, although when that was replaced by the TL11 they offered that.

“By then, Leyland was moving towards the Lynx, though. The problem with the National is that it was a standard bus for standard customers, and unfortunately the world isn’t like that. Manchester wanted Northern Counties bodies, Leeds wanted Roe, Scotland wanted Alexander, Northern Ireland wanted Alexander (Belfast), and so on. It was difficult to sell overseas too. Even today, they want to buy the chassis and build the body locally, and with the National you couldn’t really do that. Even for the complete bus, you needed a set of jigs to assemble it, so it wasn’t a good bus for export unless you had a customer who wanted to buy the whole thing complete.”


Nonetheless, the Australian market took over 100 of the type, for which a 10.9m version was specially developed, essentially using the front half of the 11.3m version and rear half of the 10.3m bus to meet local regulations. The jigs at Workington couldn’t support that, so the two halves were assembled separately and shipped out as a kit of parts. Interestingly, Basil said that the Workington factory was set up to assemble a 12m version, using longer window bays, though none was ever produced. “They’d only just brought in 12m coaches, so operators were still very wary of the longer length,” Basil suggested. With a view to enabling further orders, an attempt was made at producing a separate underframe, named the C27, which was bodied by ECW. “The problem was, there was a lot of metal in it but it was very flimsy. It wouldn’t support itself without a body. It was one component of a strong integral body. The solution turned out to be the B21 chassis, built at Bristol with National running units. Leyland didn’t want to sell it here, as they wanted to supply the whole bus.”

“The National made sense from Leyland’s point of view, but it alienated lots of operators. When the NBC was set up, the idea was to have standardised buses in standard colours, and that is how they planned to run it. The National fitted in with that – though not all of their fleet engineers agreed!”

In next week’s issue, we chat more with Basil about the articulated Nationals, and find out what the future has in store for the remaining pair.

Mk2s on the Workington production line around 1981. BASIL HANCOCK