If there is one name associated with Britain and trucks (or lorries as we used to say, or even wagons before that), it is Leyland, named after the town so many were built in and, of course, ultimately linked to most of the British owned motor industry.
Leyland is a fairly typical northern England town, close to the city of Preston, a major national centre of the aerospace, defence and rail industries and a regional centre for finance and administration, and home to one of the largest modern universities in the country. But for Curbivores, the name Leyland means something more specific – truck building still goes on in the town, as part of the PACCAR owned DAF brand at the familiarly named Leyland Trucks Ltd. Incidentally, did you know that the CEO of PACCAR is a chap called Preston Freight? I’m not making this up.
Modern truck building is on a separate edge of town site established around 40 years ago. Part of the old Leyland site is now the British Commercial Vehicle Museum, and I had brief visit a few weeks ago.
Let’s take a quick highlights tour, broadly in chronological sequence.
The oldest vehicle in my selection is this 1898 Thornycroft steam powered van, built by Thornycroft in Chiswick in West London. Thornycroft was a boat building business, which had built some of the earliest steam boats on the River Thames, and then branched into steam powered trucks. These were adopted by the UK military in the early years of the twentieth century. Subsequently, the company went over to diesel power and built an enviable reputation for specialist purposes heavy vehicles, and became part of AEC and ultimately the Leyland.
The first Leyland in our review – a 1917 Leyland S Type 3 ton lorry, built for the UK military, probably the Royal Flying Corps the precursor to the RAF. These were known as the Subsidy wagon, under which the owner was paid an annual retainer by the War Office (as it was called then) to make the truck available if and when required.
The Leyland was the most popular choice under the subsidy scheme and after the war the company purchased and refurbished many of them to limit the risk of defective “Leyland” equipment entering use and tarnishing the company’s reputation.
Another Leyland – a 1921 fire engine.
This one was bodied by the famous Merryweather Company.
Steam lorries remained in production at various manufacturers into the 1930s – this is a 1923 Foden built in Sandbach in Chesire, about an hour (now) south of Leyland. Foden is another name that was absorbed, into PACCAR in 1980.
But in the 1930s, the superiority of petrol and diesel had been established. This 1933 Bedford WLG 30cwt (1.5 ton) is an example of this. Bedford was GM’s UK truck brand and part of Vauxhall.
This is fitted with a 3.8 litre petrol engine, closely based on the Chevrolet Stove Bolt 6.
This is a 1933 ERF, indeed the first ERF built, after Edwin Richard Foden left the family firm and set up across town. The split was partly about diesel against steam, as well as family rivalries.
ERF built their vehicles around the classic low volume truck builder model, of purchased in major components. Engines came from Gardner (now part of Perkins/Caterpillar), gearboxes from David Brown (one time owner of Aston Martin) and axles from Kirkstall in Leeds.
A 1933 Leyland diesel powered flatbed, back on the site it came from alongside…
…this 1935 Leyland, also diesel powered.
Immediately post war, trucks looked much the same. This Bedford is a 1946 OL80, capable of a 5 ton payload.
Most of these, built from 1939 to 1950, including wartime production for the UK military, were exported.
A 1954 Albion Claymore, named after a type of Scottish sword. Albion was based in Glasgow and became part of Leyland in 1951, although the products did not really converge until the 1960s, and typically used regionally based names, such as Reiver and Chieftain.
Also later part of Leyland, and also from 1954, was this AEC Mammoth Major – this was an 8×4 forward control heavy duty truck usually configured for payloads of around 15 tons. AEC was the builder of the Routemaster bus, often with Leyland engines, and was based in London. It became part of Leyland in 1962.
Here’s one CC has seen before – a 1956 Bedford R type Green Goddess fire engine. Originally built for the military run Auxiliary Fire Service, these were retained for civil emergencies until very recently. Now all sold, at around 50 years old but with only a few thousand on the clock.
Leyland was market leader for buses and coaches as well. This is a 1959 Leyland Tiger Cub (a little smaller, but crucially, lighter than a Tiger, geddit?). The body for this one is the famous Burlingham Seagull 41 seat coach body and was supplied new to Preston based Ribble Motor Services.
Ribble was named after the River Ribble, which flows through Preston, and served an area from Liverpool to the Scottish border with bus and coach services, including direct links to London.
Look closely and you see that the Ribble branding was not painted but chromed letters.
And a vehicle logo to top any other.
This 1959 Leyland-MCW Olympian was a derivative of the Leyland Olympian bus fitted with a Tiger Cub power train, as a low weight alternative to the full duty Olympian. It was built in partnership with Metro-Cammell-Weymann (or MCW, one of Britain’s leading bus body builders) and sold in only small numbers, including this one to the Leyland based operator John Fishwick and Sons, which has only recently gone out of business.
A 1957 Leyland Comet, one of the earliest appearances of the semi-trailer, articulated or tractor-trailer combination (take your pick on the nomenclature) from the UK. The Comet was not Leyland’s heaviest truck, but this was the first generation of Comet to be available with forward control (English for COE), something now practically universal in Europe.
This vehicle was operated by Leyland Paints, from Leyland but entirely separate to Leyland Motors, and a name you can see still come across.
Leyland had a passion for animal kingdom names. This is a 1959 Octopus, bodied as a fuel tanker for Shell-BP. Shell-BP was a joint marketing and retail organisation run by Shell and BP in the UK for 40 years from the mid 1930s and unwound in the mid 1970s. The Octopus was a 22 ton 8 wheel chassis, and this was the classic format for the British heavy duty long distance truck until the articulated semi-trailer vehicles came in full volume in the later 1960s.
This example has A 9.8 litre Leyland engine, and was perhaps my favourite exhibit. Like all vehicles in the museum, it was presented very well, but there was something about the colours, shapes, presentation and presence that tipped it for me.
A 1960 ERF. As a smaller volume producer, ERF had fewer options in building their cabs and for many years relied on external body builders to design and build them.
A familiar sight in London in the 1960s was the Morris LD ambulance. This is a 1967 example and represents many hundreds that were in use into the 1970s by the London County Ambulance Service.
The LD actually dated back to 1952, and by this time was usually fitted with a 2.2 litre petrol engine. The ambulance conversions were built on chassis-cabs by specialist bodybuilders and a standard factory built van was also available.
And this attractive piece of 1960s film shows one in action.
Another truly British and slightly off-beat van conversions is this 1979 Dodge Spacevan. This one has been configured as a TV Detector van, one of the most feared vehicles in 1970s and 1980s Britain. Allegedly, the electronics in the van could detect if you were watching TV, and match that fact to a database of licence records, as well as boil the operating crew’s kettle.
I don’t remember seeing one for real, and this one was clearly decommissioned. There was no kettle in it.
And something unique to finish on – a Popemobile. In 1982, Pope John-Paul II came to the UK, and was driven in various situations on this Leyland Constructor chassis, featuring the then new and very contemporary (and well received) T45 cab. It seems quite a large and heavy truck for the person, but Popes don’t come to the UK very often. It was used for just 3 or 4 events, and has been stored in various places ever since. And yes, Popemobile was the official designation.
Actually, two Popemobiles were built – the other is now in a private collection in the Republic of Ireland.
So, the British Commercial Vehicle Museum, in the heart of the old Leyland factory with one of two Popemobiles. All in all, quite a collection. I think we need an ice cream, from this 1952 Morris Cowley.
Which, like every other brand mentioned, is now defunct.