Monday July 30, 2018
The words “Leyland Sherpa” and “glamour” go together about as well as Love Island and “programmes that do not make you want to throw your TV set out of the window” – but the sober-looking commercial is a part of so many people’s lives. In minibus form, it would convey yet another school party of bored Fourth Formers on an educational trip to the local margarine factory and in the early morning a Royal Mail Leyland van would deliver bank statements. In August there might be a holiday journey to Bude in the Auto Sleeper motor caravan and on the silver screen, one Sherpa was even driven by Roger Moore.
The Sherpa came about due to British Leyland’s urgent need to replace their J4 and JU series vans and create a viable rival for the market dominating Ford Transit. According to Keith Adams’ fascinating article on https://www.aronline.co.uk/ the Longbridge engineer Stan Dews created Project CV300, a new FWD light commercial with power from the “Austin/Morris/Wolseley Wedge” saloons. However:
“in those days there was the powerful Trade Distributor Panel that had input to product plans. These ‘expert’ gentlemen (who probably couldn’t even spell the word Citroën) all held their hands up in horror and said “you can’t possibly have a front-drive van; it wouldn’t get up hills in winter”.
For some reason I envisage every member of said panel resembling Arkwright of the 1980s John Smith’s Bitter advertisements (younger readers may need to resort to YouTube for this reference), with all them wearing a Two Ronnies style brown shop coat. CV300 was rejected on the grounds of its decadent ways and another promising idea was abandoned on the grounds of funds, which, by that time, BL severely lacked.
When the Sherpa was finally launched in September 1974 it was obvious to many potential buyers that it was formed of an assortment of existing components. The bodywork was derived from the J4, although the forward control layout had been thankfully abandoned, the underframe was from the JU with running gear from various Leyland cars. Being a BL product of the 1970s, there was naturally the standard marketing confusion, with the very first models being known as ‘The new Leyland Van from Austin Morris’ - a phrase that was memorably unmemorable. The relief of BL dealers when a more sensible name was finally employed must have been immense and although the van would be subsequently branded a Morris and a Freight Rover it would forever be known as the Sherpa.
In appearance the new van was best described as ‘functional’ but not unpleasant to behold. It lacked the contemporary looks of the Transit and the Bedford CF – Ford and GM innately understood how a smart light commercial could be a sales’ tool in its own right - but was at least more up to the minute than the Commer SpaceVan. However, the BL offering was robust, available in panel van, pick-up, mini-bus and chassis-cab guise and features such as the interchangeable front and rear bumpers saved the operator money. The sales copy claimed that it had ‘more practical load space than any other van in its class’ and, as a crew bus, it could transport ‘up to 14 burly, building-site workers’. As for cab comfort, ‘the Sherpa can stand comparison with the best’ - i.e. the de luxe version had adjustable seat backrests.
The first-generation Sherpa was succeeded in 1982 by facelifted K2 version and today sightings of the original version are rare. So, as a reminder of just what this mighty van was capable of enduring, here is some eyebrow-raising footage of one on duty in Egypt...