The Tale of a Tiger

An affectionate tribute to the Leyland Royal Tiger coach, once the king of the highway jungle.

Leyland Royal Tiger. Image: Classic Buses

Some enjoy vintage cars, some vintage commercial vehicles, others vintage aircraft. I have been fortunate enough to enjoy all three as I myself, a 1941 model, was attaining my own vintage status, yet one old warhorse still shines among many happy memories.

Browsing Dick Gilbert’s Classic Buses website, I jumped on the brakes upon seeing my old friend, Leyland Royal Tiger NCD 662. Dick himself had taken this photo in his younger days, and remembers the coach working out of Eastbourne.

In the mid-60s, Belfast Lions Club bought this very Royal Tiger for charity work, and I was one of her volunteer drivers. I had learned to drive on a Leyland Hippo 6×4 tipper, so the move to a coach gave no problems and from the outset I loved the solid, well-built Leyland feel. The Tiger’s ride was excellent, loaded or empty, even by today’s air-suspension standards, thanks to her high unladen weight which from memory was close to nine tonnes. I don’t recall one sick passenger, and clearing up a puddle of sandwich chunder is something you don’t forget. The coachwork hadn’t a rattle even after 12 years of service in England.

Leyland’s well-proven 150bhp 600 engine was mounted horizontally under the floor, driving through a constant mesh four-speed box with crash first. Her hefty gear lever moved precisely through its cast metal gate with no play despite the 15ft linkage past the engine to the gearbox. Double-declutching gave a fast change except when cold, when the lever felt as though it was set in tar.

Tiger was comfortable for driver as well as passengers. Her fully adjustable seat, leather of course, gave an excellent driving position, Leyland’s lovely square instruments were set in a cast alloy dashboard, and massive switches went clack-clack in their cast alloy switchbox, all proudly carrying the Leyland badge. Every fitting spelt quality.

There was no power steering of course, although the cross-ply tyres of the time steered far lighter than today’s radials and the wheel was an easy pull, even when loaded – far lighter than the Hippo. The steering was accurate and kickback was negligible even over bumpy roads. I found Tiger’s air over hydraulic brakes were totally up to their job. The handbrake was another massive lever and very effective even without power assistance.

The coach was limited to 45 mph which was plenty for the roads of the time, and once up to speed Tiger loped along as silently and effortlessly as her namesake. Of course speeds were much lower then, and in 1966 the average speed of traffic on Northern Ireland’s first motorway was 50 mph.

Her 37 seats were upholstered in heavy green moquette with leather facings. Entrance was by sliding door amidships, with a couple of steep steps up to the saloon. This was a big disadvantage when carrying disabled persons, as we often did, but willing helpers simply heaved them in and out, stowing wheelchairs in the capacious rear boot. Apologising for this undignified treatment brought the reply: “Son, if you didn’t lift us we wouldn’t get out at all”.

Passengers often praised the comfortable saloon, which was well heated, but with no front radiator the air was cooled by the time it reached the front, and demisting was a problem in Ireland’s damp climate. My hi-tech solution was a Ford 10 wiper blade attached to a broomstick, so I could reach across and clear the nearside window to see the hand-sized mirror. For summer days there were two opening skylights and upper window vents, who needed aircon?

One trip stands out to this day. In 1967 the Not Forgotten Association asked me to take 30 old soldiers to the Guinness brewery in Dublin. Many had served in the trenches of World War I. They were wonderful men and an instant hit with the staff, and a fine party developed in the sampling room. (At such times one may regret being the driver). Eventually we began heaving the happy old soldiers up Tiger’s steep steps.

After a time we realised that we had loaded at least 50 passengers and there were just as many still enjoying Guinness’ hospitality. We caught them helping each other down the emergency door on the offside and going back for more. Eventually I had to back Tiger against a wall to block the door.

Meanwhile the Guinness staff had quietly stowed a crate of XXX under the seats and all this liquid had an inevitable consequence even without the elderly plumbing which, 55 years later, I now understand only too well. Dublin to Belfast is 103 miles and we stopped at least 12 times. Tiger and I made it home long after midnight, I was exhausted from hauling the old soldiers up and down the steps, and then I had to hose down her nearside to remove the fearful smell. But I wouldn’t have missed that trip for anything.

Alas, the civil unrest which was to devastate Northern Ireland began in 1969. It impacted on all our lives, and even the Lions Club which had done so much charitable work for the community could not continue. The Club was wound up a few years later and some 15 years of charity bus runs came to an end. Tiger was sold to a building contractor for works transport and I last saw my old friend in a breaker’s yard, in terrible condition.

Of course I have driven today’s heavy vehicles, so easy with finger-light power steering, air brakes and automatic transmission. The difficulty now is the vastly increased traffic volumes and fitting their increased size into roads that are often no wider than they were then. I nearly came to grief finding that a Volvo with five-abreast seating will not fit alongside another vehicle at the same traffic island that once easily accommodated two buses.

I loved that old Tiger from the first time I took the wheel and covered countless miles with passengers aged 6 to 80, often disabled, always a pleasure. Then in my mid-20s, they made me appreciate how lucky I was to be fit and well. Today I enjoy my memories of a great piece of British engineering, of empty roads and happy times in an age long gone.

17 thoughts on “The Tale of a Tiger”

  1. Thanks for this charming trip down the memory lane! It brightened up this otherwise foggy morning.

  2. Good morning Michael. What wonderful memories, and so delightfully recorded. A fine debut on Driven To Write. Chapeau!

  3. What a lovely story, even with such a sad ending, with the club falling victim to the “troubles”, and thanks to Michael for sharing it with us.

    I can’t claim to have driven any bus, but I do remember trips the shops with my grandmother on Leyland Tigers in the late seventies/early eighties. CIÉ in the south of Ireland had a substantial fleet of Leyland Tiger single decker service buses. Funny how I can recall the pattern on the formica and the appearance of the driver’s survisor. I was fascinated by the gearshift – there was an open gate with a little lever sticking up from it. Gearshifts appeared to be as much a matter of flicking one’s wrist as moving one’s arm. I have read since that this was some form of electro-pneumatic system, but I can’t recall the supplier. CIÉ bought large numbers of Leyland products for decades, but frustrations with the Atlantean double-deckers and the Tiger’s Leopard successor led them to cast their net wider in the eighties – with mixed results, it has to be said. Sad that the Leyland build quality Michael mentions could not be maintained.

    1. Michael, that strange gearchange was the Leyland Pneumocyclic or Hydrocyclic (air or hydraulic respectively) which used a derivative of the Wilson preselector. Starting was handled by a torque converter so no clutch pedal. Changing gear was via a little lever working in an exposed gate. The driver was supposed to lift the accelerator while changing gear but in my experience few bothered and the result was a dreadful jolt and a short service life for the gearbox.

  4. Congrats with your debut article on DTW, Michael, and what a fine debut it is, thanks.
    Your writing triggered memories on this side as well. Growing up in the Dutch city of Amersfoort, i was ferried around quite regularly in Leyland buses. Amersfoort, mind you, was the home of Molenaar, a company that imported and even assembled Leyland (and all sorts of related UK brands) for several decades.
    I also recall a smaller-than-normal Leyland bus that was rather unique and not seen anywhere outside of Amersfoort. There must be some interesting history there as well…

  5. Thank you for your debut article here on DTW, Michael. Well done.

    I grew up in the rural north of The Netherlands. Den Oudsten made the buses on a Leyland chassis. No moquette and leather for the passengers there, though. The seats were covered in an oxblood shade of vinyl. Not very comfortable, but hardwearing.

    1. Right! It never registered with me that they were built on a Leyland chassis. I grew up not far from where Joost grew up in the centre of The Netherlands but my I never sat in many buses back then. I probably sat in one once I’d relocated the west of the country for university, though.

      I remember well that in my first year, I lived a busride (well, or a bike ride, depending on mood and weather) away from the university town. That busride passed an old bridge (many of those in The Netherlands) that made a sizable bump in the road. Newer buses took that bump nicely, but older buses (possibly a Leyland-Den Oudsten) had cruder suspension, meaning that you were physically launched off your seat when you sat in the back and the bus driver was impatient. Great fun.

      From Wikipedia I gather that Den Oudsten used many different chassis and eventually built its own before going under in 2001.

    2. Yes, Tom, in those days you could get launched from your seat. Another thing I remember was the sound of the hydraulic shifter you could hear when you sat close to the driver. I can still picture the way the bus driver would move the lever through the gated shifter.

  6. Thank you for a vivid and happy memory, well told. Shame about the current condition of the bus. Nice going for a debutant. 🙂

  7. Very enjoyable piece. Am I right in thinking the Tiger had the engine at the back ? I don’t remember noticing rear-engined buses until the late ’60s ( Western Welsh double-deckers ).

    1. A delightful piece Mr McRitchie – thank you very much. It evokes many memories, although my own recollection of Royal Tiger brakes does not quite tie in with yours…… As I’m sure you know, NCD662 began life with Southdown Motor Services in Sussex and had coachwork by Duple Motor Bodies of Hendon. Your description of mastering the constant mesh gearbox instantly tells me that you were a driver of high skill – for those who weren’t it could be very unforgiving!

      Mervyn asks where the Tiger engine was positioned – brief summary coming up: The Leyland Tiger was a pre-war chassis design with the engine mounted vertically at the front; the driver sat alongside it and most had bodies of traditional half-cab design. The Royal Tiger, however, had an under-floor horizontally mounted amidships engine – as described in the article. It was a “heavy-weight” design and was soon augmented by a lighter weight model, the Tiger Cub, also under-floor engined. Although the vertical-engine Tiger continued in production for export markets until 1970, it had no place in the home market by the mid-’50s. In time the Royal Tiger & Tiger Cub were replaced by the Leopard – and to confuse things even further the Tiger name was revived in 1980 for the Leopard’s replacement…

      As for Freerk’s photo of the gearchange – that’s an air-operated control for a pneumo-cyclic semi-automatic gearbox (no clutch pedal), not to be confused with the similar electro-pneumatic gearchange (made by CAV). Both controls encouraged driver laziness (the other Michael’s “flicking the wrist” observation is most apt) resulting in rapid band-wear and gearbox failure. But driven properly (you treated the gearchange as if it were a crash-box but without having to press a clutch pedal up and down) they were an absolute delight. The aim, for a good driver keen to demonstrate his/her skills, was to make the passengers unaware of any gearchanges.

  8. Congratulations on your first post here, Michael; quite a privilege! I love old buses and coaches.

    Years ago I worked as a homologation engineer for a Spanish bus/coach bodywork builder. There I once ran into some old photo albums of their beginnings (1960s and 70s) and it was like finding a treasure. I remember appreciating the pre-fiberglass craftmanship and style; everything was hand-made and fitted. There I met other classic bus/coach enthusiasts who introduced me to their community, with old buses, either restored or just frozen in time. I remember seeing how most of the old city buses had Wilson semi-automatic transmissions, which featured a sort of tiny gear lever through which the driver pre-selected the gears before shifting at the right moment by pushing and releasing the throttle, o something to that effect.

    Looking forward to more articles like this.

    1. cesargrauf, you have me intrigued! I’m trying to work out which firm you were working for…. the Wilson transmission you describe was commonly associated in the UK with buses built by Daimler (of Coventry) and coupled via a fluid flywheel to a Gardner engine. Also AEC. It was indeed pre-select but the actual gear change was made by the driver operating the left hand foot pedal. The driver needed to make a fast positive action – if he tried to treat it as if it were a clutch pedal it had a tendency to kick back out of the floor, leading to an occupational injury known as Daimler knee. Very painful!

  9. When I offered editor Eoin this piece I never expected such a response, and from so far away! I wasn’t sure whether an old coach would be of interest among so many fascinating car articles, maybe it’s partly the memories it evoked? Thank you for your kind remarks, I’m really glad you enjoyed it.

    @Michael, the Tiger you remember was a much later version with its semi-automatic gearbox. My Tiger’s gearlever was 800mm long with a manual handbrake to match, I didn’t need a gym in those days. However, CIE (the Irish transport authority) operated a fleet of Tiger coaches identical to mine for their tour operations, and we used to flash one another when passing. Liveried in cream and blue they were nicknamed the Banana Boats, and one is preserved in the Irish Transport Museum. Oh how I wish …

    @Joost and Freerk, interesting that Leyland did so well in the Netherlands, if ironic that it should be taken over by DAF which now has a fair slice of the UK coach market.

    @daleward, the Tiger mirrors were indeed tiny compared to today’s panoramics, and the mirrors on the trucks of the time were even smaller and circular. But then traffic was single-lane even in cities, and the only difficulty was restricted vision when reversing. Unlike today’s kamikazi cyclists, one just didn’t ride up the inside of a large vehicle.

    @JTC, Tiger air-over-hydraulic brakes were considered pretty good for the 1950s, maybe you are comparing them with full air brakes? Even in the Sixties newer trucks carried a tailboard warning ‘Caution, Air Brakes’. Ulsterbus chief instructor Paddy Deehan, in between giving me a hard time, said that air brakes were a Bad Thing in that they discouraged anticipation and passenger comfort. Watching a line of passengers being fired to and fro like shuttles on today’s fingertip-steering, automatic, air-braked and powerful Volvo inclines me to agree with him.

    @cesargrauf, I too remember coachbuilder craftsmanship in the days of Duple, Harrington and Plaxton. My Royal Tiger had polished wood surrounds to the windows, and a clock mounted in the polished panel above the windscreen for many didn’t possess a watch in those days.
    Belfast Corporation had a good number of Daimler double-deckers purchassed from London Transport because of post-war shortages. These had Wilson pre-selectors as you mention, and were very pleasant to handle in traffic but they didn’t have power steering so drivers had fine biceps.
    By the mid-sixties coachwork was all about fibreglass mouldings and shiny bling. Ford pitched for the Ulsterbus coach market with this Duple-bodied 45-seater, which I borrowed to take some of my regular passengers out for the day. Ford’s D-series truck engine was angled so the floor was almost flat, and I found it pleasant to drive with an engine note just like the old petrol Bedford buses. But it lacked the Leyland solidarity, and passengers and myself were glad to get back to our old Tiger next weekend.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: