Leyland Atlanteans by Howard Wilde
In my latest book I feature that stalwart of the UK bus industry, the Leyland Atlanteans. Entering production in 1958, the Atlantean became an established figure for the best part of thirty years, with over 15,000 examples entering service worldwide. It was the first double-deck bus on the UK market to feature the now familiar layout of rear-engine, with the driver sitting alongside a front entrance, ahead of the front axle.
Prior to that – and indeed for a number of years afterwards – the British double-decker was predominantly front-engined with access mainly via the back of the bus, usually an open-rear platform. In the book’s introduction, I remark that, for some, this is still the perceived layout for a British double-deck bus – no doubt influenced by the longevity of London’s iconic AEC Routemaster. And yet, the rear-engined bus has now been an established feature of British life for over sixty years. And it all began with the Atlantean.
So why the change in vehicle layout? Well, the main reason is probably one of basic economics. The Atlantean’s radical configuration – along with a newly legalised 30 feet length chassis – allowed for a higher seating capacity. The new Atlantean could seat up to seventy-eight, while previous, shorter designs accommodated only around fifty-six. Thus a service running, say, every fifteen minutes with a traditional decker could be run once every twenty minutes using new Atlanteans in lesser numbers, without a loss in carrying capacity. And, although not yet then legal on double-deckers, bus operators were without doubt looking towards the day when they could ditch the conductor who collected the fares and have passengers instead paying the driver as they boarded through the front door.
Two years after production started, the Atlantean had a rival in the shape of Daimler’s Fleetline. In some respects Daimler made better work of the concept: for instance, offering a true low-height option, with a dropped rear axle allowing conventional seating on both decks. Leyland conversely relied on a rather convoluted semi-lowbridge upstairs arrangement for the Atlantean. Also, it has to be said that reliability was an issue with some Atlanteans during the 1960s, which was not so much the case with the Fleetline.
The last new Atlanteans for UK customers entered service in 1984. It was true that, despite several updates over the years, the model was getting a little long-in-the-tooth, when compared with the newer, ‘second generation’ rear-engined double-deckers of the time. However, the Atlantean remained in demand until the end. It would be European noise control legislation that eventually sealed its fate – its O.680 engine being judged to be too loud. Production continued a while longer for export orders, finally ending in 1986. By that time the Atlantean had found favour with operators from the smallest independent to large municipal, National Bus Company and PTE fleets. It was also exported to a variety of countries, including the USA, Singapore, and Iraq.
The book concentrates on the later, ‘twilight’ years of Atlantean operation, focusing on the period from around the end of production, into the 1990s and beyond. Atlanteans of all different sorts and ages are featured, including some that passed into non-PSV use, or were saved for preservation and restored to their former glory. Today, of course, the rear-engined layout has become almost universal for UK double-deckers, with many other models having followed the Atlantean and Fleetline into production. Examples of these include the Bristol VR, the Dennis Dominator, the MCW Metrobus and Leyland’s own later Titan and Olympian chassis (the latter later taken up by Volvo, following their takeover of Leyland); all of this leading into a whole new generation of step-free-access, low-floor vehicles, such as Dennis’s Trident, Volvo’s B7TL and B9TL and the Alexander Dennis Enviro400.
As for my own personal opinion on the Atlantean, well, I’ll admit that I’m a big fan. I can’t claim to have either driven or helped maintain any of them: my regard is purely as an enthusiast and general passenger. There is something almost visceral about the Atlantean: the growl and wail of the engine and the occasional hisses and gurgles from the air-supported brakes and throttle seem to give it a character all of its own. And, when fully cranked up, an Atlantean at speed is truly a thing to behold. So, all aboard for a spirited excursion, to sample a colourful selection of these fine old workhorses.
Howard Wilde's book Leyland Atlanteans is available for purchase now.