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!