This face brings a flood of memories. It’s so deeply imprinted in my memory from my childhood, it might as well be my mother’s face. And its sound is just as deeply imprinted too. The Steyr 380 was the truck of postwar Austria, which explains why this one is being used as a sightseeing bus in Vienna. It’s a national icon, and everyone above a certain age recognizes it. Mama!!
I hadn’t been back to Austria since 1969 when Stephanie and I went back in 1980. And the very first morning in Innsbruck, I woke up at the crack of dawn and I slipped out for a walk around town, and was very happy to see an old Steyr 380 Post delivery truck still at work; the equivalent of our UPS trucks. Now that made me feel like nothing had changed.
Its origins go back to the war, when Steyr developed and built the 1500, a light truck that was built in a variety of configurations and sizes. It was very advanced technically, with a torsion bar independent front suspension and all wheel drive. That was decades ahead of just about everybody else was doing. Got to have a smooth ride on the way to Russia! It was powered by an also advanced hemi-head 3.5 L air-cooled V8.
One of the variants was a Kommandowagen, with a proper top even. The Steyrs were highly regarded, and production was also undertaken in Germany to augment that from the Steyr-Daimler-Puch plant in Steyr, Austria.
After the war, Steyr developed a new tough and practical truck, from the ground up, even if it did use the familiar hood. The first version, the 370, arrived in 1947 using the 1500’s air-cooled gasoline V8. But that was just a temporary stop-gap. In 1948, the definitive 480 was ready, with an ultra-durable and efficient 5.3 L four cylinder diesel engine, making 85-90 hp. It was a noisy, slow-running affair, kind of like a tractor engine. Which in fact it essentially was.
As in a four cylinder version of the two-cylinder engine used in the also-legendary Steyr 180 tractor, another iconic face from my childhood. Its 2.6 L twin hammered out 26 hp @1500 rpm. There was also a smaller one cylinder tractor, and later larger four-cylinder versions. The Steyr engine was a modular design. And somewhat surprisingly, Steyr designed and built its own injection pumps.
Although the Steyr’s prime market was domestic, where it served in a wide range of duties, some were exported, like this one in the Netherlands. Oddly, Nigeria later became the prime export market for Steyr trucks, and the 380’s successors were built locally there for decades.
The 380 was used as fire engines, delivery vans, dump trucks, logging trucks, and just about every other possible use for its exceptionally tough frame and chassis that was rated nominally at 4 (metric) tons, but was commonly overloaded by 50% or more.
The 380 was eagerly adopted as the new post-war Post bus, which served every town and village, no matter how remote, with the daily mail and of course passengers too. Some of them had to be kept on for years after more modern buses replaced them on most routes, because they were small enough to get through certain tunnels and hairpin curves the bigger buses just couldn’t negotiate.
In the summer, the big canvas roof was rolled back, and the views of the Alps was splendid, even if it did go by slowly. They could negotiate the steepest and most challenging Alpine roads, but at their own leisurely pace. And they had a lovely multi-tone horn taht was sounded at every blind ahir-pin curve. Their lyrical ta-ta-ta-taa could be heard resonating off the valley walls.
Some have been preserved and are used for special nostalgia outings. Sign me up.
Here’s a 380 being taken down the Maloja Pass. It gives you an idea of what these truck and buses did for a living on a daily basis. Unfortunately, it’s just the downhill; I would have rather heard the Steyr diesel under full load working its way up than hearing its engine brake on the way down.
Of course Steyr-Puch’s well-know expertise with all wheel drive was not wasted on the380 and its successors.
In 1957, the model 480 arrived, with faired-in headlights and a taller cab with bigger windows. But still the same throbbing diesel four. Also, a model 580 with 6 ton capacity joined the party that year. Loads were getting bigger and heavier.
And in 1961, the hoary old four was supplanted by a brand new six cylinder diesel, which now churned out 120 hp (!) at a racy 2800 rpm. The Steyr engine at least had moved into the modern era. And by 1969, production was over, at least in Austria. In Nigeria, the 480 continued on for some time yet.
But in addition to this sightseeing bus, I understand that there are still a few working 380 and 480 trucks to be found in the more remote little towns and valleys of Austria. It just can’t be readily replaced for cheap and rugged hauling. Next time I go back, I’ll have to find one, or at least ride this sightseeing bus, to feel the vibrations of that big throbbing four once again.