Is it an exaggeration to say that the English English translation for “truck” is not the traditional “lorry” or “wagon” but “Leyland”? After all, what was a provincial bus and truck builder, one of several and not always one of the largest motor manufacturers in the country, ended up not just controlling the vast majority of the UK truck industry, dominating the truck, bus and tractor sectors but also the car market, with over 40% of the UK market at the peak, and was a significant player in tractors and fork lift trucks as well, as well as in military vehicles. From 1951, Leyland bought, amongst others, Albion, Standard-Triumph, AEC, Scammell, Rover and, ultimately, BMC including Jaguar, to create (by some measures) the fourth largest motor manufacturer in the world. Was there ever a combine with a longer list of active brand names and a more complex family tree?
Of course, there are still visible remnants, some doing quite nicely, COVID-19 permitting. MINI and Land-Rover come to mind, but what of Leyland Trucks, where it all started? Surely, the business that started all of the above has made it through?
The fact is if you want to buy a truck now with a Leyland badge, you have to go to well known auction sites. We may think of the break up of Rover group in 2000 by BMW as being the end of the British Leyland we all knew and remember, but many parts had gone earlier. Leyland Trucks, into which all the truck interests were bundled, was merged with DAF of the Netherlands in 1987 to create the Leyland-DAF, 40% owned by Leyland and 60% by DAF. There was another complex series of corporate events before both DAF Trucks and Leyland-DAF ended up together in the PACCAR Group in 1998. Through all this, the Leyland Assembly Plant (known as LAP) continued building perhaps the last pure Leyland truck, the Leyland Roadrunner.
But, for over 100 years from 1896, Leyland trucks and buses had been almost everything.
They took troops to the western front in 1914.
De-mobilised and specially built trucks formed a basis for the haulage industry after the Great War.
And the buses that provided the public transport system of many, many towns.
Leyland lorries formed a backbone of British haulage between the wars.
The range was probably the widest in Britain, the reach not just national but also across many parts of the Empire and developing world as well.
After the second war, the buses carried people around the world, around the world. And the British on summer holidays.
And the people of British cities to work and play.
Paint? Leyland could handle that.
Taking a visit to London? And the taxis were the British Leyland product too.
To school and back on the innovative Atlantean.
Leyland used them to deliver their own products.
The 1970s Leyland National was a vehicle seen across Britain, doing everything a single deck bus should and could do, including being a railcar. A nationally significant product, in many ways.
The Marathon took British goods across the world, as we saw last month.
There can have been little debate about whose truck should carry Pope John Paul II around Britain in 1982.
The 1984 Roadrunner was the last and smallest of what was known as the T45 range. The T45 range was Leyland’s 1980s truck range, with the heavier versions (those over 10 tons) all using the same basic cab. Heaviest of all was the first, the Roadtrain 38 ton tractor unit, followed by the Cruiser tractor, Freighter mid range truck and Constructor big tipper (and Popemobile), all named for their allocated task within the likely buyers’ fleets. The cab looked, and was, new and modern, with a definite style and swagger about it, and the resulting trucks were much better equipped and able to counter their European competitors, even if the underlying chassis were mostly based on preceding trucks (the Roadtrain was based on the Leyland Marathon for example).
Still, Leyland were now building modern looking, capable and award winning trucks.
The last one to be launched was the Roadrunner, which had a different, smaller cab albeit sharing the doors with the larger trucks, although the style was clearly linked. The cabs of the larger trucks had all been designed by Ogle Design, more famous for styling the Reliant Scimitar GTE, the Rayleigh Chopper bike and various coaches, whilst the Roadrunner was an internal design.
It deliberately built on a feature of an earlier urban delivery truck, the BMC FG series, of having kerb and close proximity view windows. The FG had those in a unique style, and had novel doors as well, and the Roadrunner had the unique and practical second lower front screen. The Roadrunner also marked the closure of the old BMC truck factory at Bathgate in Scotland, once home to Europe’s largest machine shop.
Underneath, it was essentially a development of the 1970s Leyland Terrier, a perfectly serviceable if visually unexciting truck. The local distribution markets, the builder’s merchants, the utility companies and the caravan carriers all took it to their hearts, and many parts of it live on the current DAF LF series.
The LF series is still built in Leyland, where it was also designed and engineered, as well as the CF and XF for right hand drive markets. The UK is one of the largest markets for DAF.
Along with modern styling, perhaps the best remembered thing about the Roadrunner was the TV advertising, itself unusual for a truck but perhaps indicative of Leyland’s confidence. Getting the mid-week TV audience’s attention for a parcel delivery truck was never going to be easy, but Leyland managed it.
“The toughest truck on 2 wheels” was the slogan, and even the audience unfamiliar with truck advertising would remember it.
And they weren’t only the advertiser to have fun with it.
But now, 36 years later, any Roadrunner is more likely to be seeing out its days carrying horses. Not even Scampi fries.
But actually, any Leyland truck carries a lot more than that. A lot more.