Leyland ST

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A major manufacturer’s commitment to economic performance

At a time when performance-conscious manufacturers such as Ford and BMW have to make considerable sacrifices in their competitions and performance activities, Leyland are firmly pursuing the nauseatingly named “youth market” with the totally revamped Special Tuning Department.

Since our last article on the old Special Tuning section there have been tremendous changes, including a new building and a fresh manager, plus some worthy new products to occupy their attention. Aside from inspecting the latest facilities we were also allowed to drive the 200 b.h.p. Dolomite Sprint that is normally driven by Brian Culcheth in British events.

The old Special Tuning was initiated alongside the Abingdon Competitions Department in 1965. The brainchild of Stuart Turner, Special Tuning was planned to profitably exploit the tremendous successes then enjoyed by the Minis, MGs, and Austin Healeys of that era. In theory Special Tuning would make enough money to support the Competitions Department, but it seems that objective was never achieved. When Competitions was closed in 1970 Special Tuning received new emphasis under the management of Basil Wales. Meanwhile the hard-core of competition supporter inside the Leyland corporation ensured that the company’s products still appeared in rallycrosses and rallies (Culcheth finished 10th in the 1972 East African Safari Rally with a Triumph 2.5 PI that didn’t officially exist), either under a British Leyland International banner or one of the keener national Leyland companies, such as those of Belgium and Holland.

On November 1, 1974, Leyland were proudly able to announce the present Leyland ST. Housed in part-renovated and part-new office, workshop and warehouse, the purpose-built new home offered 20,000 sq. ft. of clean and efficient accommodation for the present 36 staff, eight of whom are retained purely on the workshop strength to serve the customers and develop new products. Within the re-housed department competition cars are prepared alongside customer and development vehicles, which inevitably allows a great cross-feed of information between those often-separated tasks.

When we called, the Leyland ST shop was undergoing substantial changes to ensure that customers (who are welcome to call via Gate 5 at the MG site in Abingdon) could see a representative display of the goods. There are 42 Leyland ST Stockists built into existing Leyland franchises at present, so most readers should be able to find source of what are now referred to as Plusparts and Pluspacs (yes, that is how they spell it) close to home. Incidentally the Pluspacs comprise complete kits that are said to lack absolutely nothing that the home installer could need, aside from a properly stocked toolkit. The packs are offered in A, B, and S designations, corresponding roughly to the old stages 1, 2, 3.

Plusparts cover all non-kit items and a large number of bits not intended for normal road use. In our experience many of these Leyland parts have been well-proved over the years – especially the A and B series engine-tuning components – and we would expect that most sensible people would encounter few problems in their use.

Few of the items require factory installation (certainly none of the Pluspacs do) until you get to the level of installing a modification such as the recently developed Panhard Rod and parallel four link rear axle for a Group 2 Dolomite Sprint. Because of the current extortionate price of fuel Leyland ST have to ensure that kits intended for normal road use – and 8o per cent of the Leyland ST parts go to non-competing customers – are designed for increased economy as well as performance. This obviously is not an easy task. Brisk, or even startling, acceleration for the crowded roads of Britain can be provided (in part) by a higher numerical axle ratio, but that is in immediate conflict with the lower axle ratio that can save so much precious fuel in Motorway use. The ‘magic’ method favoured by many performance-conscious manufacturers is to pin faith in the effectiveness of aerodynamic spoilers. Even mundane production models like the new Escorts include a small bib spoiler. Leyland ST have a demonstration Marina that is kilted out with front and rear air spoilers, but the results on the road do not always agree with painstaking artificial research conducted at M.I.R.A.’s wind tunnel.

Initial results with the aerodynamically aided Marina have been encouraging, and it is hoped that Leyland’s department will be encouraged in the development of reasonably cheap aids which could be incorporated on the production line at a later date. I can almost hear some of our more eminent motoring journalists thinking that Citroen needs none of this body shape fiddling for the shape is right in the first place … unfortunately the purchasing public do not show enough of a preference for the Citroen concept of total engineering, as that company’s chequered history of mergers helps to illustrate. Perhaps we can all look forward to the day when research like Leyland’s is rewarded by a general production improvement in body profiles without detriment to load-carrying abilities.

Heading the revitalised department is former Public Relations exponent Richard Seth-Smith. Unsurprisingly he is a protege of that other PR man turned manager, Keith Hopkins of Austin-Morris: in fact Leyland ST is part of the Austin-Morris Division. Other key personnel include workshop manager Bill Price (formerly a personal assistant to the previous competition managers until the closure) and John Kerswill, who is in charge of Leyland ST’s parts marketing in the UK and Europe. Liaising with all the details that accompany the company’s competition programme (which has been spearheaded by the Group 1 Dolomite racing Sprints, initiated 18 months ago) is another PR man, Simon Pearson. The capacious stores are under the care of George Hubbard, and Richard Seth-Smith has particular cause to be pleased that much of the inherited backlog of customers’ orders is now being vigorously tackled.

That Leyland and Ford thinking is currently opposed is further reflected by Richard Seth-Smith’s opinions of what is relevant in motor sport today. Seth-Smith regards his company’s business as strictly to do with the further development of production sports and saloon cars, preferably in the Group 1 and 3 stages of preparation, which equate to comparatively unmodified machinery because, Seth-Smith says: “No way can we afford development and homologation of highly modified Group 2 and 4 cars: eventually even British Group 1 racing will have to alter to make the cars as close to manufacturers’ specifications as is safely possible.” Seth-Smith concludes: “I fail to see the practical benefits of programmes such as the rally Lancia Stratos and Formula 1 in the current financial climate. I would dearly love to see us homologate special rally versions of the new TR7, but if it doesn’t look like the car we are selling, then how does it help Leyland improve its image and sell more cars? Those two points are what we have to be interested in today.”

In 1975 Leyland will race Dolomite Sprints in the British Saloon Car Championship through Bill Shaw Racing (driven by John Hine with an engine by the meticulous Don Moore of Cambridge) and Broadspeed, the latter entering two cars for Andrew Rouse and Roger Bell. Rallying is dealt with at the department. Leading driver is Brian Culcheth, partnered by Johnstone Syer, in the Dolomite we have driven. They are to be backed up on some events by Pat Ryan/John Omens in a 115 b.h.p. Marina 1.3: both cars are entered by Team Unipart/Castrol. In America there is a spectacle many Britons would pay happily to see, a pair of Jaguar VI2 E-types showing that the Coventry marque is still one to respect on the track.

Our outing in the works rally car demonstrated that the Abingdon equipe are practising what they are preaching. The Group 2 Dolomite Sprint has a large proportion of standard parts operating reliably at stresses far beyond those normally encountered: in short, the Sprint feels very much as though it is a careful improvement over the standard car, instead of the purpose-built racers used by many of the opposition. Items such as the brakes are uprated only in detail (pad and lining hardness, for example), whereas a factory Escort sprouts ventilated front disc brakes and solid rear discs to replace the drums. The production-based theme extends to the engine and gearbox too. Basically the bottom half of the engine is to Group 1 regulations, while the breathing is considerably improved via twin 45 DCOE Weber carburettors, 11:1 c.r., a reprofiled camshaft (drawn from standard blank) and opened-out 16-valve cylinder head porting: the valves are left at production sizes. The gearbox is from the Sprint with new gears inside the casing: overdrive is retained on the widely spaced third and fourth. The standard axle is augmented by a Salisbury limited slip differential and has a 4.5:1 final drive.

The car is beautifully presented, despite a long and unlucky rally history. It drives as though new, a comfortable Billover bucket seat, full Willans safety harness and 12 in. steering wheel contributing to the driver’s command of the agile Triumph. The limit of 7,500 r.p.m. in the gears stops all conversation within, but the Dolomite is otherwise surprisingly quiet. The large Webers gargle noisily, but the engine will bumble along happily at 3,000 r.p.m. (nearly 60 m.p.h.) in overdrive top and pick up with hearty swiftness. The gearchange, complete with reverse blank-off plate, is a bit notchy and stiff, but efficient. Underneath those glass-fibre wheel extensions the suspension’s comprehensive modifications (Bilstein dampers, export springs, the revised rear axle location) blend well with the quicker action rack-and-pinion steering. On the slippery grass and mud that we tried the car over the Triumph handled so easily that it could be slid into a corner with a vast surplus of power and exit safely with just the return action of the steering. Acceleration to 100 m.p.h. is excellent and this factor, combined with the superb handling, should be enough to guarantee rally results when fortune does shine on the team.

Certainly Leyland deserve some luck after all the recent troubles, and it’s nice to say “Welcome back to the competition club.” – J. W.