London’s Routemaster is Britain’s most famous bus – it lasted in frontline service for 50 years and is recognised worldwide as the symbol of London. But there is another vehicle with origins in the 1950s that I think is more significant – the Leyland Atlantean. It was more modern and flexible than the Routemaster, and outsold it by four to one in a bewildering variety of styles. It was the workhorse of almost every municipal fleet in the country for more than a quarter of a century, and took Leyland from one of the pack to market leader. It was perhaps the greatest product of a great company that has now sadly disappeared in shame.
Leyland had been building buses alongside its lorries (as we say) since before WW1. By the 1930s, it was earning a profitable living from a succession of single deck buses and coaches – notably the Leopard, Tiger, Lioness and Lion models – and the Leviathan and Titan double deckers. The Titan went through TD1 to TD7 series by 1939, all 26ft long and 7ft 6in wide, which was the maximum then permitted. It was a favourite of Britain’s municipal bus fleets, alongside vehicles from AEC, Daimler and Guy – and back then most towns and cities had a municipally run bus network.
Engines in the Titan TD reached as far as an 8.6 litre diesel, with torque converter transmission. Unlike most bus builders, until the mid 1950s Leyland supplied complete buses – chassis and body – while its competitors supplied a chassis and engine to specialist bodybuilders, who then built bodies to the user’s style and specifications.
After WW2, the Titan returned, in a new PD (Passenger Doubledeck) series with only the front axle shared with the TD. The PD1/3 of 1946 expanded to a width of 8ft, as the previous maximum of 7ft 6in was relaxed, but still at the pre-war 26ft length. The PD2 of 1947 debuted a new Leyland diesel engine, known as 0.600, for ‘oil, 600 cubic inches’. Derivatives of this powered Leyland buses for 60 years, notably the O.680 version. This was the impressive fleet of Oldham Corporation Transport, an industrial town outside Manchester, and about 30 miles from the town that gave Leyland its name.
The Titan was not a flashy bus, but it always had a strong reputation for ruggedness and reliability which suited municipal operators across Britain, except London where the AEC company dominated the market, with the RT and then the Routemaster from 1956.
All Titans (and all its competitors) were built to the traditional British bus concept – front engine, a half cab above it and isolated from the passenger saloon, and an open platform at the rear with stairs in the right rear corner. The layout’s weakness are myriad – hot and noisy for the driver; draughty and cold for passengers, as the open platform creates a wind tunnel up the stairs and into the lower saloon; and no option for one person operation – a conductor was needed to sell tickets and supervise boarding. But the limited length precluded a passenger entrance at the front, and tradition dictated the rest. This is a PD2 at Preston Bus Station in Lancashire, a futuristic 1960s concrete beauty.
In 1954 Leyland showed the Lowlander, which had the engine mounted transversely at the rear, while leaving room for the traditional rear entrance. It was purely experimental, and not intended for series production – but it got a warm reception. But the conservative bus market was not yet ready for a rear engine.
In 1956, the Construction and Use Regulations which governed bus operation were updated to allow buses up to 30ft long – and builders began to use the extra length to experiment with front entrances, allowing a better interior environment. The big obstacle, however, was what to do with the engine, to create space for doors and circulation at the front of the vehicle. Various permutations of front engine / front entrance appeared, such as this Leyland PD3 of Glasgow Corporation, but none really convinced – the layout sacrificed too much valuable seating space. Maximum capacity of a PD was 68 – compared to 90 of a tram or trolleybus – making the bus a poor replacement for the latter as the heavy costs of renewal of the electrical infrastructure loomed in many cities.
In 1956, Leyland tried the rear engine idea again, with a rear engine prototype known as the PDR1 (code for rear engined PD). The entrance was now ahead of the front axle, with pneumatic folding doors and a low step, which necessitated independent front suspension. It was an integral design, with a distinctive body designed by Metro-Cammell Weymann (MCW) The engine was transversely at the rear, mounted within the body. This particular aspect was not a success, as the engine generated unacceptable levels of noise and heat in the lower saloon.
Finally, in 1958, Leyland got it right, with a new chassis called Atlantean. This is the first production Atlantean to go into service – Glasgow Corporation’s LA1, with bodywork by Scottish bodybuilder Walter Alexander and now preserved at the city’s Transport Museum. The engine was still transversely mounted at the rear, but not within the body of the bus; instead, it is mounted on the end of the chassis, and much better isolated from the passengers (but not fully, as anyone who has sat on the rear bench seat on a cold day will testify).
Celebrating the 40th anniversary of Merseyside Transport, Liverpool
This gave rise to the distinctive notch in the rear profile of the Atlantean, as the bonnet was hinged to allow maximum access to the engine.
Ribble Motor Services, Lancashire
The early Atlanteans were 30ft (9.4m) long, on a wheelbase of 16ft 3in (4.95m). As well as the rear engine and front overhang, the design featured a pneumo-cyclic semi-automatic gearbox located beside the engine, with a small and light gear lever close to the steering wheel – the traditional clutch and gear linkage of the Titan would be impractical with a rear engine. The engine was the proven Leyland O.600 9.8litre six cylinder diesel producing 130bhp. Suspension was coil springs, but the chassis lacked the drop centre rear axle that would have allowed a lowbridge body style – something that wasn’t addressed until PDR1/2 of 1964.
Teesside Fleetline; Newcastle Atlantean; Plymouth Atlantean
These early Atlanteans had a seating capacity of 44 upstairs and 33 downstairs – 5 more than the 30ft Routemaster, and with a better passenger environment and the option for one man operation, with the driver issuing tickets. Alongside one of these, you could perhaps see the Routemaster as like the last steam engines which emerged at the same time – the perfection of an obsolete technology, and looking old compared to the modern alternative. And, in 1966, Leyland brought out the PDR2/1, which could accommodate a body 33ft long, taking seating capacity to 85. Hence Leyland’s claim that ‘Rush Hour isn’t Crush Hour anymore’
By the late 1960s, Atlanteans were everywhere, with the municipal and nationalised fleets from Aberdeen to Plymouth buying new, and the smaller private operators snapping up older ones second hand. This one is from Sheffield, in Yorkshire.
The AN68 of 1972, with the O.680 engine of 11 litres and 174bhp, better brakes and more circulation space around the front door was perhaps the definitive Atlantean. Available in 30ft and 33 ft versions, it also attracted a range of more modern designs from the body builders – compare this Park Royal one to the earlier Sheffield Atlantean above.
Inside, Atlanteans were fairly standard in layout. This one is a West Yorkshire PTE 1977 AN68 – upstairs passengers had vinyl rather than moquette, but could still smoke! Some operators, notably Edinburgh, preferred two doors – entrance at the front, exit in the centre, with the door aligned with the foot of the stairs; others choose just one, for the greater capacity.
The other big choice would have been whether to fit an inward facing bench seat for 3 over the rear wheels (above, in Portsmouth), or pairs of forward and backward facing seats.
The driver’s cab of the Atlantean betrayed its age, with very rudimentary instrumentation and a big flat wheel – power steering wasn’t standard until the AN68.
As well as my green Dinky, there were several notable fleets across the country; let’s quickly look at three of the most significant.
Manchester adopted the Atlantean in 1966 – the higher seating (and standing capacity) compared to traditional designs was crucial, as it replaced the last of the city’s trolleybuses. In 1968 the city developed its own body design, known as the Mancunian, with seats for 73 and room for 23 more to stand. It was perhaps the first Atlantean body to be carefully styled inside and out for good looks, and was it was also designed for one man operation with entrance and exit doors. But, as the picture above shows, although the floor was level, there was still a step inside the front door.
Eventually, the Corporation, its neighbouring Councils and their merged successor Greater Manchester Transport had over 1,100 Atlanteans, half of them Mancunians, which lasted until late 2002.
Edinburgh was also a big fan of the Atlantean, almost exclusively with bodies from Walter Alexander, and in a smart and traditional maroon and white livery – colours which still dominate the streets of the Scottish capital today. By the early 1980s, the new Lothian Region Transport had a fleet comprising over 600 Atlanteans and a few single-deckers – and nothing else. Elsewhere, Glasgow and Liverpool both had fleets of over 700, and West Yorkshire over 600.
Edinburgh gradually abandoned the centre door, and even converted some two door vehicles to one – whether for capacity, to avoid fare dodgers boarding in the centre or to eliminate the safety risk of the door being invisible to the driver isn’t quite clear – perhaps all three! Edinburgh’s last Atlanteans also made it into the new century – this is the proud driver heading back to the depot with the last one on 3 January 2000.
Glasgow continued the numbering sequence from LA1 all the way to LA1449, although many were badged for Leyland’s Scottish subsidiary Albion
Newcastle upon Tyne used the Atlantean to replace its trolleybuses, which had moved the crowds to and from the shipyards and the football since 1935. The Atlanteans inherited the wonderful cadmium yellow and white livery of the trolleys, which was devised to make the silent electric vehicles more visible in the industrial gloom of the north east; Union Pacific did the same with its new diesel streamliners in the same year, for the same reason.
Newcastle’s bus operations were consolidated with neighbours Gateshead and Sunderland in the late 1960s as Tyne and Wear, and the yellow Atlantean with Alexander bodywork spread across the north east, mostly on the 33 ft chassis. To my mind, these late 1970s / early 1980s vehicles with a body by Walter Alexander of Falkirk are the best looking Atlanteans of all, with the large panoramic front screens, the long side windows and the dramatic livery – hand painted and almost always clean (at least in my memory of the no 1 route in Newcastle.)
The bus network also linked into the Tyne and Wear Metro, in the first British example of a properly integrated public transport system – bus routes operated as feeders to and from Metro stations, with through ticketing, until the government forced through ill-thought out deregulation in the late 1980s.
The Atlantean was also a strong export success for Leyland, with sales in Australia (these two are in Sydney), Kuwait, Iran, Iraq, Ireland, the Philippines, South Africa, and Sweden to name but a few.
Of course, the Atlantean did not have the market to itself. Daimler (then independent, later taken over by Jaguar, then into Leyland in 1968) offered the Fleetline from 1960. Not many people can spot the difference between the two buses, as the body builders offered (and the operators demanded) the same bodies on both chassis. But if you caught a bus in Birmingham and Coventry, home of Daimler, it was almost certainly a Fleetline and not an Atlantean, and, at times in the late 1960s, the Fleetline outsold the Atlantean.
Its advantage over the Atlantean was a drop centre rear axle, which allowed a low floor and thus a lowbridge profile. It lasted until 1983, ultimately becoming the Leyland Fleetline, with production moved from Coventry to Leyland and Leyland engines replacing Gardner diesels.
Bristol Commercial Vehicles, which originated as part of the city’s tramway undertaking, offered the VR (‘Vertical Rear’) range from 1968. Bristol was then part of the nationalised Tilling Group, one of the two state owned bus conglomerates (the other was British Electric Traction – BET), and restricted to selling to Tilling operators only until it was taken into British Leyland in 1969. The VR was then more widely available, almost always with bodywork by Eastern Coachworks (ECW – also part of Tilling and then Leyland) but it never matched the Atlantean’s popularity with municipal operators.
And, from left field, came this, the Guy Wulfrunian – an over ambitious attempt to design a double decker for one man operation. It was developed from an idea devised by the West Riding Automobile Company, one of the largest independent operators and centred on Wakefield, in Yorkshire. The engine was at the front, beside the driver, and it featured a drop centre rear axle, air suspension and disc brakes – in 1958!
It was a commercial disaster – only 137 were built, of which 126 ended up in Wakefield. I remember them well from my youth, for being different and therefore special, but in reality they were poorly designed, over complex, unreliable and hated by drivers and mechanics alike. It bankrupted the venerable Guy Motors company, and led to its takeover by Jaguar in 1961.
In total, over 15,000 Atlanteans were built, over half of them the 1970 to 1986 AN68 version. The Atlantean ended production in 1986; UK sales ended in 1982, as it fell foul of European safety legislation, replaced by the new Olympian – which became the Volvo Olympian, as Leyland was broken up and sold off through the 1990s. Today, bus manufacture at Leyland has ceased, and the market is dominated by others, but for over 40 years, the Atlantean was the backbone of British bus operations. There are plenty of preserved Atlanteans around, and every bus show or rally will include several, either privately owned or retained by operators like Lothian Buses for their historic value, as the first modern bus.
So, if you went to school or work, cinema or shops by bus in a British city outside London in the 60s, 70s, 80s or 90s, you almost certainly spent many hours in an Atlantean. Some preferred downstairs – always smoke free and no stairs to navigate; others wanted the front seat on the top deck, which was the place from which to see the city centre or admire the skill of those driving these large vehicles through busy city streets – not as easy as it looks!
Or maybe you just hoped you hadn’t missed the last one when you came out of the pub!
Impressive. I may have ridden on buses like this when I visited England a few years ago. Whenever I ride on British buses, I’m like “damn! If only our American buses were like this. They’re small enough to navigate the narrow streets of Plymouth or other British cities, but are comfortable for American riders to ride on.
I’ve seen a few Atlanteans here in Toronto, Ontario pulling sightseeing duty for tourists during the summer. I’d like to take a ride on one with my wife sometime just for the experience of riding a classic English double decker.
Beautiful coaches, thanks for the post.
Please, buses not coaches. A fine distinction, but one that matters in Britain. Atlanteans were almost exclusively used on bus routes i.e. regular timetabled travel across or within cities or towns; coaches are used on longer distance, lower frequency services.
Internally, a bus is functional – designed for maximum load and fast entry & exit. Almost all double decker are buses.
Coaches are designed for longer journeys, have more space per seat and better seats, and, nowadays amenities like WCs, TV, coffee machines, and almost always single deck (but perhaps with a large boot (trunk) underneath and the passenger level elevated.
Thanks for reading
Weren’t we talking on CC just the other day about unusual rear spoilers? Not sure I’ve seen one on a double decker bus before….
Were these buses ever used in Hong Kong? I’ve seen double deckers in Hong Kong and wonder if they were British imports, especially with Hong Kong’s history as a British colony.
Yes they were, but there were even bigger types built especially for HK – possibly the biggest capacity buses anywhere in the world.
Atlanteans were certainly used in Hong Kong, but the funny thing is that all of them were secondhand. In the 70s, it was the used ones from the UK (some from Ribble and others, and London Transport’s XA class), in the 90s it was some AN68s used from Singapore that were refurbished when they arrived in HK with a new front clip from Leyland Olympians. I had a couple of rides in AN68s in their last days in HK (by then these buses were about 20 years old) – they felt quite old and rough but nonetheless satisfied my thirst for nostalgia.
Hong Kong’s large passenger capacities and axle weight restrictions caused the development of 3-axle double deckers, examples of which are the MCW Super Metrobus, Leyland (then Volvo) Olympian 11m and 12m, and Dennis Trident (in 10.3m, 10.6m, 11.3m and 12m variants!).
Thank you, Big Paws, for this article. It’s brilliant! Care to do an article on the Leyland Fleetline some time down the road? I grew up with those buses! 🙂
Thank you – brought back many memories from my days as a student at Essex uni – had the fortune of travelling on those as well as Colchester Borough Transport’s rougher Bristols which I believe were only pensioned off in the early 2000s.
Just a small pedantic point: Leyland did offer chassis-only for the export market and 99.9% of all Leyland Tigers and Royal Tigers assembled in Israel had local bodies.
Having grown up in the UK in the 70s and 80s, this shape feels as familiar as my own front door. Many hours spent daydreaming on the top deck…
Ive never been to England however my first ride on a double deck bus was in Sydney easter 1984 a city tour done in a Leyland Atlantean theres even a ex Sydney Atlantean doing tourist duty in Napier or there was Ive only seen the Daimler double deck recently, While Leyland cars were mostly rubbish their commercial vehicles were actually quite good and many of the brands vacuumed up by Leyland saw service in NZ with the odd one still on the road being used gently by farmers.
I well remember schoolfriends in Edinburgh using that centre door to their financial benefit.
Lothian Buses actually put some Atlanteans into service on one route recently – I think it was part of their open day, but they were actually being operated on one of the main routes, not just touring.
Wonderful post. Really enjoyed all the pics and details. Beautiful coaches. Thank you. Jim.
Never rode on one of these, but I did have a splendid ride on a Routemaster. My two sons and I had just arrived in London in 1999, and were a bit bleary after the flight and didn’t quite know what to do to keep us engaged and awake, so we just hopped on a bus (Routemaster) and managed to get the front top seat and just rode it, having no idea where it was going. But it was a fab ride, and we eventually found our way back to the hotel on either it or another one. A most memorable ride, especially in the very tight sections. Great driving skill to navigate some of the trickier sections.
Still on route around Oxford St for tourists but even with Iveco Euro compliant engines the have been legislated off main routes around London due to emissions. Still to be found In Victoria , Victoria Island, BC,Canada.
Emissions…oh, the emissions of the Routemaster…exhaust exiting low on the right side…my wife and me trying to cross the road near the British Museum, only to get trapped on a median with a row of Routemasters lined up in front of us, scant inches between them, blocking our escape while they gassed us. Eventually a couple of motorcycle cops noticed us turning green and stopped short to let us cross.
Am I the only one that reading this made me think of Flanders and Swann “Transport of Delight”
Flanders: It’s worth it just to ride inside,
Swann: That thirty-foot long by ten-foot wide,
Flanders: Inside that monarch of the road,
Swann: Observer of the highway code,
Both: The big six-wheeler,
Ninety-seven horsepower omnibus!
Thanks, but I’ll take the GNU.
I remember when Sydney, Australia got the Atlanteans in the early 70s. The plan was to introduce single person (i.e. driving and ticketing) operation, but the union wasn’t happy and went on strike.
In the end, two-person operation was maintained, but the Atlanteans were a doomed species. Single-operator, single-deck buses were subsequently purchased and, when the Atlanteans were retired, two-person operation went with them.
The Sydney buses had a ‘periscope’ for the driver to keep an eye on what was happening upstairs (did they have this elsewhere?). A vertical tube above the driver led to a small horizontal window just in front of one of the front seats. The driver could see through it to a mirror on the roof.
Perhaps. Upon boarding the bus, us kids would run upstairs and immediately put a schoolbag over the small horizontal glass window at the top of the tube…
As I recall, all double-deckers had that periscope, now replaced by CCTV.
CCTV and digital destination displays ended the fun that could be had by unscrewing the panel below the upper deck front window and changing the destination blind en route without the driver knowing.
I remember becoming aware of these funny “notchback” buses on holidays in South Wales in the early 60’s , as Western Welsh were using them. The motor seemed to be tacked on the back as an afterthought. A bus without an open deck at the back was really no fun. If you had to travel by bus then a Routemaster was the way to go, or if you got really lucky an RT might come along.
By the time driver-only buses came along I had my own transport – it made no sense to be stationary at the roadside while the driver collected fares, you wanted to get moving.
That was an absolutely fascinating lunchtime read Big Paws, thank you. 🙂
Good stuff, Big Paws, and a good call on the significance of the Atlantean. The Atlantean is without doubt the definitive rear engine double decker in the UK. The Fleetline came after, and came second.
One point that you hint at is the regional nature of the British bus market up to the 1980s.
London had AEC, building London Transport specified vehicles, the regions had Leyland or Daimler (always no 2) or maybe Bristol if there was a good reason, or Guy or Dennis for the left field, hard to get at choice. Scotland liked Alexander bodies, England liked ECW, NCW or Charles Roe. The Midlands liked Daimler, and Midland Red bus co built their own, London style. If Coventry’s municipal service selected Leyland or Preston’s picked Daimler, then cover your head.
After the Atlantean’s heyday, MCW came up with the Metrobus, and the major user was West Midlands transport , and they were used into the 2000s.
The Guy Wulfrunian was a big left field choice. I recall that the tip deck front 2 rows (8 seats) were removed because of the extreme rolling of the bus, and the emphasis being ahead of the front wheels had on this.
Just came across this and had to read it as I drove Atlanteans for about four years in Surrey, south of London. It was the late 80’s – early 90’s so they were getting on and poorly maintained by the recently privatised bus company. I had plenty to compare them with, having driven Routemasters in London and the variety of other buses in Surrey – Leyland Olympians, Nationals, Tigers, Dennis Dominators, Volvo Citybuses and B10s. Out of this lot, I have to say the Atlanteans were the worst by a long way. They were underpowered, had a horrible lumpy ride, perilously vague and wandering steering and the bodywork was prone to leaks. The only way to demist the windscreens was with electric elements that never seemed to do much. They felt prehistoric compared to everything else, even Routemasters. The Olympian on the other hand was a real pleasure to drive.
Well, absolutely nice buses, great for cities, massive people and slow speed.
Although, I heard, coaches should carry the baggage on the top, so the heaviest part
(which is Passengers layout, should ride lower, in order to balance and handle more stability.
I wonder when the buses fabricators will realize, hope won’t be to late and more
people will continue getting hurt, since in freeways, open road and long distances, require more velocity.
I’d always loved this high buses, hope one day, will ride in one of then (in U.K.).
To correct a point in this article, Wallasey Corporation AtlanteanFhf451 was the first of four pre-production examples produced, it was exhibited at the 1958 motor show and its chassis number precedes that of Glasgow LA1.