Words: Mike Humble
If you think hard enough, there were many car adverts on the television that stand out in the mind’s eye. Ford had the Sierra had the XR4i with the strapline “Man and machine in perfect harmony” and our very own B.L had a patriotic televisual treat telling us all the Metro was “A British car to beat the world” – who can forget the gathering of Mini Metro’s parking at the tip of Dover cliff seeing off Johnny foreigner. But when it comes to commercials vehicles, has there been any truly iconic commercial vehicles on the small screen making small boys and transport managers slaver at the mouth? One certainly comes to mind – the Leyland Roadrunner, and it’s just recently joined the ranks of the Rover 200 series and Vauxhall Astra MK2 by celebrating its 30th birthday.
Roadrunner was the last member of the “T45” development programme and had its launch in September 1984 in a huge blaze of glory and publicity. The problem at the time was how to make a truck look sexy and have a genuine WOW factor and a Leyland advertising man had a brilliant idea. While throwing about strap lines and catchphrases, someone mentioned about the proving and testing it had gone through during development by saying it was quite possibly the toughest truck on four wheels. A brilliant eureka moment then happened when the thought of a truck driven by a stunt driver might be just what the public would appreciate.
After some phone calls to Belgium and some hurried development work from Leyland chassis engineers they were left with one of the most iconic and legendary TV adverts of all time. World record-breaking stunt driver Gilbert Bataille who was famed for his truck antics drove the specially prepared Roadrunner while the velvety tones of Anthony Valentine calmly boasted that Leyland Roadrunner was “The Toughest Truck On Two Wheels”. At the time of launch it was the lightest, most productive and aerodynamic 7.5 tonne truck on sale anywhere in the world – certainly something to boast about, yet the Roadrunner almost took on a very different shape.
The initial plan to replace the ageing Terrier model was to create a beefed up version of the Sherpa van in a similar manner to what Ford had done with the A series and Transit. After some disappointing results with mock up vehicles, some experimental ideas were put forward to Leyland bosses using the existing Terrier chassis. Eventually, the choices were narrowed down to two vehicles – one of which styled by Ogle – who had already created the Roadtrain, Constructor and Freighter range, the other being a design by Leyland’s own stylists. The design put forward by Bill Lowe – Leyland’s chief engineer was chosen over the Ogle / Tom Karen design purely on a cost basis – too much glass and expensive composite material was cited as being the drawback for Karen’s idea.
Using an updated Terrier chassis and proven Leyland running gear, the Roadrunner was originally earmarked for production at Bathgate near Edinburgh, but as the launch date loomed it was decided to concentrate assembly at Leyland. Despite the outwardly modern look it was very conventional underneath using a tried and tested Leyland 6.98 5.6 litre engine bolted to an updated Turner T5 gearbox. The Terrier braking system that used a system reliant on nitrogen charged spheres for braking assistance was deleted in favour of a standard air / hydraulic type which pleased engineers. But it was the cab itself produced by Motor Panels of Coventry where all the magic took place giving Leyland a useful payload advantage of around 500kgs over its closest competitor.
Extensive used of Computer aided design and manufacture (CADCAM) enabled a huge proportion of the development to be done via programme simulation. When a jig prototype was eventually produced and tested in real-time scenarios, Leyland found their design was only 10 to 15% out in terms of computer prediction which at that time was incredible. Other features included flush bonded glazing to the windscreen area, a unique passenger side kerb window, adjustable steering column and an orthopedically designed driver’s seat that weighed 25% less than a traditional item. Cab construction was sheer simplicity as the whole structure was made of just seven major components with the whole cab floor being just one pressing – the whole truck was designed in record time for a fraction of the traditional cost.
Original power levels were rated at 97 and 115bhp but for late 1986, Leyland entered into a joint collaboration with Cummins to adapt the 5.9 litre “B” series engine for the Roadrunner. In turn for some favourable unit costs Leyland used their spare foundry capacity to cast some of the components in house for Cummins and power options went from 115 to 130bhp with a 145bhp turbo becoming available soon after. At the same time ventilated disc brakes were fitted on the front axle which promised up to 60% longer pad life over the outgoing drum and shoe arrangement. Roadrunner was a cracking little British truck that sold in big numbers and it was this and the revised Ford Cargo that dealt the killer blows to our other remaining truck maker – Bedford.
After the merger that created Leyland DAF, the Roadrunner steadily developed and matured into a respected top selling truck. It morphed into the “Leyland DAF 45” series in 1991 gaining full 24v electrics, new seat trim, revised frontal styling and an intercooled 160bhp option aimed at the draw-bar sector but the most welcome feature was a new ZF manual gearbox that finally ousted the antiquated and cumbersome Spicer-Turner unit of old. The “45” continued albeit in a restyled form until 2001 whereby the old Motor Panels produced cab was dropped in favour of a new item developed between DAF and Renault. Its title now became known as the DAF LF but a little known fact is that this all new light truck was also designed and developed by Leyland engineers.
In practice, the Roadrunner was a good little truck that punched above its weight and also gave way to a bus design called the Leyland Swift. The huge cab doors gave superb access to the interior and its minimalistic yet stylish interior design offered loads of space for the driver and up to two passengers. Post 91 Leyland DAF 45 models were especially good little tools and felt a little more plush that the earlier models partly thanks to the introduction of a more common ISRI driver’s seat and more soft trim to the interior. On the whole, they were reliable and frugal trucks that sold in big numbers to every type of operator from self drive hire through to intensive parcel distribution companies – British Rail, Lynx Express and Tuffnells being notable buyers.
The ace up the sleeve of the Leyland Roadrunner was efficiency and was consistently better than its rivals when it came down to the two most important attributes in the cut throat world of commercial vehicles – fuel consumption and payload. Its spiritual successor – the DAF LF continues to sell strongly and is assembled by Leyland Trucks in the UK. The tried and tested lightweight but strong chassis allied to a Cummins / ZF driveline remains to this day.
Happy 30th Birthday to the Leyland Roadrunner!
You can see the epic 1984 TV commercial by clicking HERE
Some Leyland Roadrunner facts…
It was the first truck to feature on prime time TV advertising in the UK.
It was the first truck to use the “Gurit Flush Bond” glazing system – an adaptation of the process used by Austin Rover at Cowley on car production.
The cab was the result of the most intensive usage of IBM computer aided design ever seen on a commercial vehicle at the time.
Do the headlamps look familiar? They should do – they were the same units fitted to the Austin Maestro.
Stunt Driver Gilbert Bataille got the Roadrunner advert “in the can” on the first day of filming. He went on to feature his skills in Movies including: The Living Daylights, Ronin and The Bourne Identity.
Some of the facia heater vents were shared with Austin Rover group passenger cars.
Roadrunner had an amazing body and payload potential of over five tonnes.
To cut costs, Roadrunner shared its cab doors and brake / clutch pedal box with the larger T45 trucks such as Roadtrain and Freighter.
The Cummins B series engine was originally branded as the Leyland 300 unit, it marked the starting point of Leyland’s withdrawal from producing and developing their own power units. Its gone on to be the worlds most mass produced truck engine – over 8 million built to date!