Reluctant To Fall – The National

Remembering the Leyland National.

Leyland National. Image:

The pall of smoke hung closely to the clattering, diesel din. The gruff acceleration, occasionally squeaking, yet hollow sounding brake alongside the hiss of the air compressor; these, more than any roaring car engines were the sound of my childhood as we rode the buses, and one in particular, the Leyland National, fifty this year.

By nature, Coachbuilt meant craftspeople hand building the bodywork onto a supplied chassis and taking anything up 1,000 man hours to complete. The National was “designed like an aircraft, built like a car” and took around 300 man hours, the idea being to create a complete modular unit, with metric dimensions, in house, at an all new production facility at Lillyhall, Workington, close to the Lake District in 1970. Giovanni Michelotti was responsible for the design.

Comprising assembly, pre-treatment and finishing areas, the George Wimpey Ltd construction (with input from Leyland in-house architect, David Laraway) was 300 metres long and 108m wide, with a height of 7.5m. Pillar gaps were set at 12m allowing for possible (and eventual) double decker builds. Horizontally orientated assembly lines not only facilitated component delivery, but those buses requiring extra rectification work would not divert the flow of the build.


Some important background. The Labour government of the 1960s introduced the Bus Grant, a subsidy to promote public transport production for new one-man operations[1]. Then prime minister, Harold Wilson sweet talked Leyland’s Donald Stokes along with George Harriman[2] into merging with a £50M reorganisation grant, resulting in the British Leyland Motor Corporation. The National was subsequently built in a joint venture with the National Bus Company. Lillyhall was chosen as the area suffered high unemployment levels, even though the nearest supplier of materials was over forty miles away[3]. Suppliers were given very little time to re-equip their factories and even with new tooling, Leyland made frequent changes to designs. Fortuitously, most turned out fine, first time.


BLMC commenced plans with the typically bland Leyland code name Forward Project Bus 7, in order to capitalise on the expected rush for new buses of up to 3,000 per year, a figure that was waywardly optimistic. Right or left hand drive could be specified with a keen eye for exports. Pressed steel panels of either 1,218mm or 1,421mm would arrive in bays according to the overall bus length; either 10.3 or 11.3 metres.


With a ring frame structure and corrugated roof, the bus would prove immensely strong. Entrance and optional centre apertures, front and rear wheel arches and the steel framework were standardised. 5,000 Avdelok rivets fastened the bus together. Assisting in keeping rust from the bays, Birmingham based Arthur Holden & Sons produced Duraplast, a semi-decorative epoxy coating, a first within the industry. Such treatments along with easily repaired panels gave the bus a long life – often rust free for twenty plus years.

Seven FBP7 prototypes headed out testing – the cold of Finland, Spain for higher mercury levels and closer to home, with Belgian pavé attempting to rattle the frame to destruction. Goodyear worked closely with Leyland to create a tubeless radial low profile 11/70 tyre, another bus first, the successful fitting of air suspension allowing for a lower entrance step and floor. Cabin heating was derived from heat exchangers housed in the roof pod found at the rear.


The rear fitted engine was a cause of the National’s distinctive sound, smell and often look. The straight six cylinder with turbocharger 8.3 litre, known as the Leyland 510 was unusual due to it having non-detachable cylinder heads; any repairs had to done from the bottom of the engine[4]. Poor fuel economy, increasingly expensive warranty claims from operators and a tendency to smoke heavily on cold start up led to the rear panels, where the exhaust lay, resembling a coal fireplace – any advertising here often besmirched by exhaust grime.

Ten pre-production Nationals were built between August and November 1971, and with several mechanical and paint processing teething problems ironed out, the first National (from an order of 498) was delivered in March 1972[5]. Initial reaction was favourable, leading in 1973 to a plethora of awards coming the National’s way. So too did increased UK orders, although it quickly became apparent that the limit of sales would hover around the 800 per annum mark.


Exports were sought and were not limited to South Africa, Australia (as CKD kits), Iran, Jamaica, Egypt, Venezuela, the Netherlands, Trinidad and Tobago and even the USSR. This last example was sent over as a possible solution to the forthcoming 1980 Olympic Games transport issues in Moscow. Residing there, a few questions were asked at Leyland HQ, but the Russian National was never seen again. Other Nationals were made, pressed into transporting prisoners and air passengers (though not together!), a mobile medical emergency response vehicle and even a battery electric version that required its power supply be carried in a trailer to the rear.


By the mid-1970s, noise and emission legislation loomed, forcing the a thorough re-engineering of the National. The National 2 was revealed at the 1978 British Motor Show, replete with 11.1 litre O.680 engine at the rear with a front mounted radiator – the roof pod, omitted. Incorporating a more bowed windscreen than the practically flat initial version, the National 2 was lengthened by some 300mm.

While Lillyhall and the National remained profitable for a time[6], morale began to slip as those profits were siphoned away into the turbulent BL car production waters. Another significant problem being Leyland’s lack of marketing prowess. A superb answer the National (its successor more so) may have been but few were asking the question. Leyland buses were favourably viewed in many areas, but few needed a bus so technically dense, or long. And many foreign countries wished to see their own manufacturing, as opposed to foreign imports or simply could not afford Leyland’s prices. From the seven thousand Nationals made, the vast majority plied the Queens highways.

Leyland chose to diversify, a costly change. External factors such as a reduced (and then ceased) Bus Grant, new and fierce competition and more orders for double deckers did for the National. A tie up with British Rail to use the bus chassis as a train carriage (Diesel Multiple Units) extended the National’s life (with carriages lasting well into the 21st century) but by 1985, the National was done for.

Image: Favcars

Many drivers lamented its passing, although examples were still shifting passengers as late as 2010. A 64Kph top speed, easy handling and “encouraging brakes” made for eventful journeys. Many drivers and operators lambasted the National for such idiosyncrasies, but now aged fifty, the bus enjoys a healthy level of interest, with many being refurbished. Cherished examples are often allowed out from museums and collections, with this year in particular enjoying several large gatherings – the largest being in and around Workington.

Lillyhall went on to produce many different buses under differing names and owners; Volvo being the last in 1992. The former factory is now part of the Eddie Stobart empire. And the National still looks modern, once more proving good design has longevity.

[1] Traditionally, buses had a crew of two – the separate driver and a conductor who would take fares and issue tickets. The thought of a double decker being operated by a single person caused a great deal of fuss with the government and bus companies.

[2] British Motor Holdings chairman. BMH came under severe criticism from the government for their dismal performance. Wilson believed that by merging would create a world beating engineering giant. Ponder on that for a moment.

[3] With many more over a hundred, centred in and around the Midlands, causing again a deal of consternation. The opening of the Lillyhall facility also brought with it an upgrading of the A66 arterial trunk route in order to free up traffic flow from already tourist-clogged major roads in the area; this went surprisingly well!

[4] Leyland engines had used Stellite valves, an enduring alloy lasting upwards of 300,000 miles before replacement. This encouraged headless variety engines use. Later Nationals we’re offered with uprated Leyland O.610 or the much preferred and trusted Gardner 6HL varieties. Leyland’s insistence on using the 510 lost them entire areas of sales, notably Northern Ireland and New Zealand. 

[5] Although it must be pointed out that all the pre-production models suffered from ineffective interior trim. Prototype components and cobbled hastily together led to internal criticism and from press and operators, alike.

[6] Upwards of £40M in 1974 and never suffering industrial action.

Final footnote: The National Bus Company along with many Passenger Transport Executives (PTE’s) were also a Wilson creation and the forbear of privatisation. Many PTE’s welcomed the National.

Data sources: Beyond Reality by Doug Jack. Gracious thanks too for additional information procured from the ever helpful John Cash, with inspiration for the piece deriving from Stuart Nyrenda.

Author: Andrew Miles

Beyond hope there lie dreams; after those, custard creams?

24 thoughts on “Reluctant To Fall – The National”

  1. Interesting that it had a longitudinal engine and independent rear suspension. The front suspension appears to be the trusty beam (a dead axle).

    In the USA there was a most compact approach wherein the engine and in-line transmission were mounted as an assembly transversely at the very rear of the bus. A transverse shaft with UJs at both ends took the drive from the transmission to the live axle where the differential was located. It is notable that there would be no asymmetric loading on the rear tyres from applied torque with this system. The unsprung to sprung mass ratio would be reasonable since the engine mass was right over the rear live axle.

    Some of the older buses and coaches with the transverse engine system and live axle had the two-stroke Detroit Diesel (either a series 71 or a series 92). Whether six, eight or twelve cylinders they sounded great, but they were loud!

    What was wrong with the Leland 510 which cost lost sales?

  2. I hate to be ‘that guy’ but ‘ 300 metres long and 108m wide, with a height of 7.5m. Pillar gaps were set at 12m ‘ seems to imply some error(s)- perhaps in metric/imperial conversion?

    1. I think those dimensions refer to the building at Lillyhall rather than the bus. For pillars read columns perhaps😊

  3. Good morning Andrew, Thank you for this enlightening article about a bus I also remember well from my childhood. I didn’t know the Leyland 510 engine had a non-detachable cylinder head, how very vintage! Another interesting fact is that the National was, in theory, the last Crossley. The original Crossley company, absorbed by AEC and then by British Leyland, was never officially wound up, after laying dormant for a decade or so it was revived and renamed Leyland National in 1969.

  4. That brought back some evocative memories Andrew, thank you.

    I well remember the grimy adverts at the rear of the bus. Also, the feeling of the vinyl seats on my bare young legs (we were too poor to afford trousers in the 1970s). The hot touch of the sunlit polished steel handrails at the top of the rather thinly padded seat backrests. Being allowed to press the button when it was our stop. The motion of the bus lulling me to sleep on trips home with Mum or Grandma.

  5. Another interesting article Andrew so thank you. I have no memories of the National as I lived in London from the age of 6. Vivid memories of RouteMasters though…

  6. Good morning Andrew. I remember these buses very well, but knew nothing about them, so another worthwhile school day at DTW. I’m sure the National was a fine vehicle, but “a whole new transport idea” seems to be overselling it somewhat! At least I now know what the box on the roof was all about.

  7. 10/10 Mr Miles – one of your best! Mind you, I have a vested interest…. When first launched, the National was treated as something of a joke in very poor taste by those of us not a part of the National Bus Company and therefore not obliged to buy it. Fuel consumption in single figures and as for that terrible engine. Many years later, we were to love it for its apparent indestructibility, especially if fitted with a Gardner or a proper Leyland engine.

    The 510 was reputed to be an AEC design intended to solve the perceived AEC head-gasket problem – whatever the truth of that, it was very noisy, thirsty and smoky. It was also fitted to certain Leyland goods vehicles, whereby hangs a true tale. I was called one day to observe a fully-laden artic which had limped into the local depot with severe loss of power. The tractor unit had a the then familiar Leyland tilt-cab which fastened down to a stout steel hoop over the engine. On this one the cylinder block had split horizontally just above the crank and the upper half was jammed up against the steel hoop with the con-rods, now visible, still purposefully going up and down. Then there was the National which one day emptied the entire contents of its sump via the filler tube over a Fiat 130 alongside it – but that’s another story…..

    J T’s comments on USA practice in bus/coach design are partly related to the differing regulations here and there covering construction of such vehicles. Transversely mounted rear engines & gearboxes were standard for double deckers in the UK, permitting a low floor level inside, but the problem areas were two-fold: keeping the unit cool and transmitting drive to a live axle – usually by angle drive (short diagonal prop-shaft). Space for accommodating mechanical components was alway at a premium.

    1. The bus that sets the standards – Setra in US version with big bumpers, US style mirrors and mandatory split windscreen

      Euro version

  8. Thanks for a great article again Andrew. It reminded me initially of my teenage years in Southport and seeing these new and very modern buses. I moved to Workington in the early 80’s, and seeing skeletal National buses out on road tests was a common site. There are a couple of preserved Nationals in the St Helens Transport Museum too.

  9. Thank you for writing this trip down memory lane. To think I took every journey for granted on those Leyland Nationals of my childhood and teenage years. Our town centre bus stop lost many a bus shelter thanks to the long rear overhang of these buses. Glass and twisted metal everywhere although I don’t recall much damage to the actual bus bodywork. I distinctly recall the whine and diesel fumes. Thanks to the Italian styling this is the best looking bus I have ever seen. I care for nothing before or since. I will say the seats were very thin and the driver seemed to be having a work out at the wheel. Every pot hole of broken surface sent the interior panels and glazing shuddering. I don’t think I ever saw one without the roof pod but I do remember the National II facelift model front grill so maybe I did. My wife doesn’t understand why I care so much about a long since discontinued British bus. Thank you once again.

    1. And there, thanks to Christian, we have recollections of the National’s other great problem – it was a very easy bus to drive badly! Prior to the National the development of driving aids in the bus industry had been slow. Vacuum and then air assistance for brakes; full-air brakes; power-assisted steering; semi-automatic gearboxes; all took many years to become universal and a driver might, during the course of a shift, find him or herself in charge of a series of machines lacking in one or more of such luxuries. The National, however, had the lot. Not only was it a one-foot bus (nothing for your left foot to do), it could be steered with one finger, happily twirling the wheel from one lock to the other, together with brakes that could stand it on its nose. For some drivers it was an all too easy excuse to treat passengers to a fairground ride. It actually became a serious issue recognised by the National Bus Company and one of their subsidiaries introduced a re-training programme complete with films demonstrating how not to do it.

    2. I always thought that buses had no pedals at all and instead had two push buttons in the dashboard, a green ‘go’ and a red ‘stop’. At least they are driven like that most of the time.

  10. Dave’s Setras are indeed very fine vehicles. They are not, however, buses; they are coaches – intended for long distance, limited stop journeys and unsuitable for multi-stop journeys in urban areas. Both types have to be fully wheel-chair accessible; buses achieve this by having step-less floors and fold-out ramps at the entrances. Coaches, with high floors like the Setras, will have a powered lift somewhere, the operation of which would be prohibitively slow on bus work. As for the US-spec Setra, the positioning of those mirrors would not meet UK or European regulations. Incidentally, the ‘rabbit’s ears’ mirrors on the Euro-spec Setra are now being superseded by cameras; likewise on heavy commercials. On a recent trip down the M11 & M25 I spotted at least a dozen examples.

    1. You’re right, of course.
      Here’s a Setra bus

      During the era of the German heavily standardised VÖV buses Mercedes and MAN enacted an engine boycot against Kässbohrer (inventors and makers of Setra buses) to keep them out of the public transport market.

  11. Good afternoon, Andrew. Thank you for todays article. I know very little about buses, but I’ve sat in them plenty times in my home country and abroad. These were the buses that were all around when I was a toddler. The Leyland Den Oudsten 1671.

    1. 1671 was the number of the bus, not the model. Slapping my own head in disbelieve. As far as I know the chassis of this particular is from Leyland. DAF used the same chassis and called it the MB200, I’m not sure which number the Leyland chassis had.

  12. Whirring engines, the sound of my childhood. As it happens I’m priveleged to live in the western Dales, served until a few years ago by Pennine Motor Services and their famous orange and grey buses. Penine were keen users of the National and I suspect were probably the last operator. I well recall walking along the towpath to Gargrave on the day of 2009’s great snowfall when most of the country ground to a halt. Buses in London had been halted allegedly for the first time since the blitz but when I left the Masons Arms to walk home, there was a Penine Leyland National waiting patiently at the A65 bus stop. I whizzed home on the bus and it scooted along as though the road was bone dry.

    One of their National’s was sold to a local collector after the company stopped trading due to North Yorkshire County Councils notorious tight-waddery when it came to public transport subsidies. There is an annual Bus Gala in town and it often makes an appearance. It has a little plaque to show that it has a Volvo engine retrofitted and it’s believed to be the oldest surviving National 1 but oddly no roof pod. I think it was used as a relief vehicle for it’s last years which probably explains how it managed to survive into the disability discrimination act era despite having a step up.

    They seemed such noticeable feature of Skipton and Settle that when I’m in foreign parts my mental picture of home is the sun setting against the limestone outcrops and a valley bottom road populated by Land-Rover Defenders and orange Leyland Nationals.

    1. A sad loss, Pennine Motor Services; the last of many such operators in the area….. Freerk, Leylad sold various bus models to The Netherlands over the years, including the Royal Tiger Worldmaster, Panther & Leopard and collaborated with Verheul. DAF produced and developed the Leyland 0.680 / TL11 engine after Leyland’s demise

  13. Good afternoon everyone and I’m glad to see the National has evoked some memories and comments.

    Why not try this 19 minute training video? The irrepressible Tony Bastible explains the techniques of driving the National, properly.

    The bus still maintains a presence (of sorts) on bus stops, if this depiction is anything to go by;

    As kids we paid the incomprehensible price of two pence for any length of journey within the city. The outcry when this rose to 5p ! We didn’t understand the idea of subsidised fares, of course. I do seem to remember the drivers taking more care of their vehicles and listening intently for them changing gears and looking to see if we would clear that corner/parked vehicle/ bus shelter. Innocent times…

    One final (and very early) memory being laughed at by both passengers, driver and parents alike when I pressed the red bell push to ask the driver to stop, twice! There were signs everywhere saying “push once to stop.” How was I to know? I was about three years old . It didn’t traumatise me…

    Thank goodness they gave the design job to Mr Michelotti, too. Fine fellow with the crayons, be that car or bus. I’m raising a glass to him and the National, tonight.

    1. As you noted the National lived on as a kind of Frankentrain, of National panels, glazing, heat pods with a British Rail wagon chassis. They lasted until a couple of years ago- far longer than their intended service life- and surviving examples were donated to commumity projects in a much derided government raffle arrangement. One went to Airedale General, our local hospital and I see another, which has become a sort of novelty classroom, when I pass through Huddersfield station.

      I always thought they were handsome beasties with an attractive functional “Face” that was obviously specific to the train, due to it being wider than the bus. The nose/face was so well integrated that I long assumed it was Michelotti’s own work but I see now that there was something like a six year gap between the great man’s death and Pacer train’s launch, so that seems unlikely.

      Incidentally everyone professed to hate Pacer trains but I loved travelling on them, barrelling along through the countryside to Lancaster, Settle and occassionally Heysham Docks. They bounced and swayed with a gentle rhythm and were probably the closest us modern Britons will ever get to travelling on a stagecoach.

  14. Thank you, Andrew – I have happy memories of the National, too. It’s a pleasing design – it just somehow looks ‘right’ – modern, well-balanced and friendly-looking.

    Here’s a short film of its launch at the 1970 Commercial Motor Show, which also features an EV as well as something called a ‘Range Rover’. It’ll never catch on.

    I too liked Pacer trains, Richard – they never seemed to stop accelerating and felt like they were going very fast.

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