Good Things Come in Small Packages: Meet the Leyland 154
The diminutive Leyland 154 tractor is something of a British icon. It’s a “classic” rather than a “vintage,” but our classic tractors are steadily growing in value as they age. Older British tractor enthusiasts recall the days when Standard Fordson and Ferguson tractors were used on the land, but we middle-age enthusiasts have nostalgic memories of the 1970s, and we remember the days when tractors like the Massey Ferguson 135, David Brown 995, Ford 4000 and, of course, the little old Leyland 154, were commonplace.
For a generation of enthusiasts, “classic” tractors are the tractors of our youth. We inevitably have a place in our hearts for them; they remind us of the “good old days.”
Bucking the trend
The Leyland 154 was made in Bathgate, Scotland, beginning in about 1969-’70 and ending in about 1980 (sources differ on those dates). Although it is now a favorite with collectors of small classic tractors, when the 154 arrived on the market it didn’t exactly send people wild with excitement. The problem was not with the tractor, but with its size. It was a lot smaller than other tractors then on the market. Other manufacturers had been gradually increasing the size of their tractors for the previous two decades. Bigger was better, and the Leyland 154 seemed to be a step backward, size-wise at least. Funnily enough, as agricultural tractors have continued to grow in size, a separate market for compact tractors has opened. Back in the 1970s, size was all that seemed to matter.
Technologically the 154 was a sound tractor, but it was much too small to be taken seriously by forward-looking farmers of the 1970s. However, it was an ideal tractor for horticulturalists and small-holders. If you ask anyone who drove one back in the day, they will tell you what a great little tractor the 154 was, and what fun these small, nimble, reliable little machines were to drive.
Standing the test of time
Terry Jones and his son, Dewi, are frequently seen at shows and rallies in North Wales, displaying their tidy little Leyland 154. Being light enough to be easily transported behind a medium-sized vehicle, the 154 is an ideal show tractor. What’s more, it is an absolute dream to drive, which makes it a great machine for road runs (or “tractor cruises,” as I hear they are sometimes referred to in the U.S.).
The 154 is a perfect tractor for collectors seeking an uncomplicated, user-friendly classic, but rest assured this is no “has been” – the 154 remains a great machine for the smallholder or hobby farmer. Of course, today’s budget-conscious smallholder can buy a new, “affordable” Indian- or Chinese-built compact tractor, but many people here feel that these machines lack the quality and durability once found in the classic, British-built tractors.
Many of these “affordable” tractors are only modern copies of the successful classics, but they are not as robust as the real thing. The British-made classic – like the Leyland 154 – has stood the test of time and appeals to the patriot within us. When buying a classic, there is always the hope that the tractor, if looked after, will hold its value. Who knows, if you bought it at the right time it might even increase in value! Those who bought a Leyland 154 more than a decade ago will certainly have seen their investment grow in value.
Finding the perfect match
Like many of today’s enthusiasts, Terry spent his youth around tractors. His father worked as a farm manager in the Conwy area, where the family still lives today. Terry, however, didn’t have a tractor to call his own until later in life when he bought a Ransomes crawler (made by Ransomes, Sims & Jeffries U.K.), but this interesting little machine proved extremely unreliable when it came to firing up, so Terry sold the crawler. He later bought a Fordson Dexta, but then sold that to a friend.
It was as if the right tractor hadn’t quite come along. Then Terry’s son, Dewi, started to get interested in tractors. It’s often the case that when a person gets an ally, his hobby really begins to flourish. So, with Dewi as his partner in crime, Terry decided to hunt down a tractor that they could restore together. “I saw a Leyland 154 in a show one day,” Dewi says, “and to me it was something a little bit different, and I thought, ‘I’ve just got to have one of those!’”
As soon as Dewi, then a teenager, left school and started working, he began saving for his 154. The father-and-son team went to view one example that was in pieces, but unsure as to how much of it was salvageable and how much was missing, they decided to hold out for the right machine.
They did right to hold back, because the right machine eventually came along. The tractor that the pair ended up buying had spent its life on a farm in the nearby town of Llanrwst, and Terry and Dewi both felt glad to be able to restore and preserve a truly local machine. The tractor was complete but scruffy and very well worn. The restoration ended up being a group effort. Dewi, who was then training to be a mechanic, worked on the restoration along with his dad and Brian Lewis, a close family friend. It went on to be a fun and educational project, and the result is a gleaming tractor that’s the pride of all the family.
Preserving a local tractor
In the good old days, when we could still shop locally, there was a Burgess tractor dealership in the little market town of Llanrwst. Llanrwst farmer David Davies bought the Leyland 154 new there in 1970. Following Mr. Davies’ death, the tractor, along with others from his farm, ended up in a dealer’s yard in Denbigh, just waiting for someone like Dewi to come along. Call me sentimental, but I can’t help being pleased that the tractor has not only been given a new lease of life, but also that it has remained in the area of its registration. A local tractor is indeed part of the history of its region, and it’s always good to see these machines being valued by someone who knows where and how they spent their working lives.
“We were lucky to get all the handbooks and a full service history with it when we bought it,” Dewi notes. Despite the fact the tractor was ripe for restoration, it had been well maintained in its working life. All the same, the lads decided they didn’t want to be slap-dash about it, and they decided to give the tractor a thorough going over.
“We ended up re-wiring the whole tractor,” Dewi says. “We replaced loads of oil seals and bearings, rebuilt the front axle, replaced the front king-pins, re-bushed the differential lock, replaced the head gasket, and sorted out the body work and repainted it.”
Because the tractor was not as commonplace as some classic tractors, the trio feared finding new parts might be a bit of a trick. “But Tim Blackburn in Chester, who runs a BMC mini-tractor company, helped us out with most of the parts that we needed,” Terry adds.
“An absolute gent”
It was all good training for would-be mechanic Dewi, and in the end all the work paid off, as the tractor has won several first prizes in shows throughout Wales and the northwest. It never fails to attract admirers at road runs and rallies. Even those who aren’t tractor fanatics are drawn to the 154. Because of its diminutive size, one can’t help but think of it as sweet. It has the look of a giant tractor in miniature, but in reality, this is no toy: It is a superbly engineered ’70s icon, and I couldn’t wait to have a go on it.
As some readers will know, I have very little experience driving modern tractors. I learned on older tractors and am still driving those machines today, some 30 years later. I am living, quite happily, in the land where time stood still. Out of every classic and vintage I’ve ever driven, I have always thought that, without fail, my 4-cylinder 1960 Massey Ferguson 35 was the most comfortable tractor of them all. It is user-friendly, smooth and quiet, but then I said all that before I’d had a go on a 154.
The 4-cylinder 154 is an absolute gent to handle. Even my smooth little MF 35 grinds a bit now and then as the slightly stiff gears shift into place, but the 154 has a gearbox that’s as smooth as a car’s, and it is even quieter at tick-over than my MF 35. Also, being that I’m quite short, the 154 is just perfect for me. I know the MF 35 is no giant, but even so it is made for someone with bigger feet than mine, because if the independent foot brakes aren’t clipped together, then I’m hard-pressed to be able to cover both pedals with one of my narrow, size 5 feet. The 154, however, fits me like a glove and it is such a pleasure to drive. I imagine that spending all day on this tractor (as long as it wasn’t raining!) would be no trial at all.
When it comes to work, the 154 has a gear for every eventuality – with nine forward gears (three in each range of low, medium and high) and three in reverse. It also has two PTO speeds: 540 and 1,000 rpm. The hydraulics are simple and efficient, running as they do via a pump from the engine. In fact, as Dewi says, everything on the tractor is quite straightforward. It seems that it was made in a perfect era, at a time when tractors had improved just enough to be user-friendly, but before they had evolved so much that they had become over-complicated.
Implement trail goes cold
A range of implements was made for the 154, but they weren’t actually made by the Leyland company. Dewi and Terry have been unable to find any examples of these implements or any information relating to them, but they would dearly like to. “There was a loader made by ‘Mill’ we think, and it seems that there were also ploughs, we think made by ‘S.K.H.’ but we can’t seem to find any information about these implements at all,” Terry says, “and it seems that most people simply used Ferguson implements instead.”
There’s no danger of Dewi and Terry selling the 154. On the contrary, it’ll be passed on down the family to Dewi’s children, so hopefully it will always remain a much-loved Conwy Valley tractor.
Leyland has a long and complicated history consisting of several mergers and name changes. Leyland Motors was a British automotive company famous for building trucks and busses. In 1968, Leyland Motors merged with the British Motor Corporation, Ltd. (which manufactured, among other things, Austin and Morris cars and Nuffield tractors) to form British Leyland. In 1969, under the British Leyland name, the old Nuffield tractors (which were orange/red in color) were reborn into Leyland tractors and given a new two-tone blue look.
Leyland was bought by Marshall Sons & Co. of Gainsborough, Lincolnshire, in 1982, and tractors were made under the Marshall name for 10 years until the company ceased production in 1992. FC
Josephine Roberts lives on an old-fashioned smallholding in Snowdonia, North Wales, and has a passion for all things vintage. Email her at email@example.com.
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