The German war-making capacity was dismantled by the victors following the end of the war in Europe. The Soviet Union took Berlin and the Allies moved in from the West. The German nation was eventually divided along a dividing line which created West Germany - allied to NATO - and East Germany - under the control of the Soviet Union. The situation remained status quo for much of the Cold War with each side spewing rhetoric and awaiting the other side to make the first fatal move. For NATO, World War Three would have to come through Germany and would have brought with it massed formations of Red Army tanks.
West Germany was accepted into NATO in 1955 and was then forced with the prospect of developing an all-new combat vehicle to fill the Main Battle Tank role in their inventory. The new design would become the first indigenously developed and produced combat tank since the close of World War 2 in 1945. Initial interest was split between the West Germans and the French for a common battle tank that would not only control development costs but make logistical sense to both nations and NATO. The two countries joined forces in 1956. For the West Germans, they sought a suitable replacement for their newly-minted American-made M47 and M48 "Patton" tanks. While this pair served their time well, they ultimately became limited by their technology and 90mm main gun armament. The agreed-upon project name became "Standard-Panzer".
In 1957, the Standard-Panzer was given a "face" of sorts through a "wish list" of requirements. Primary requirements included use of the excellent British L7 105mm main gun, standard NBS (Nuclear, Biological, Chemical) protection, excellent cross-country performance from its diesel engine and resistance to 20mm ant-tank projectiles. At this time, the projected tank design took on the name of "Europa-Panzer".
By this time, three German firms were involved in the initial proposals while a single French team joined them. In 1958, they were both officially joined by the Italians who also sought a next-generation tank solution at cost. Prototypes were constructed and evaluated for 1960 and testing soon expanded the design phase more. It was only a Porsche-designed prototype that was successfully evaluated against all other competition. not surprisingly, Porsche held much experience in the field dating back to their World War 2 days. The winning design was formally announced in 1963, paving the way for development and, ultimately, serial production. Before serial production would begin, however, the original design was revised to include a cast turret, larger engine hold, revised armor protection and an optical rangefinder as standard.
Of note at this time was the French having completed their own prototype tank system which they thought rather fitting for their armored corps. As such, the French elected to leave the French-German "Europa-Panzer" project and further develop their prototype which, in time, became the AMX-30 Main Battle Tank. At some point, the Italians also abandoned a joint combat tank project with the Germans as well.
With the new German design in place, production ramped up in September of 1965 out of the Krauss-Maffei facility of Munich. The tank was designated simply as the "Leopard 1", the name exuding speed in one's mind. Production of this first-run model spanned into July of 1966 with first deliveries to the West German Army commencing that same year.
Several years later, NATO clients and some Western allies all signed procurement contracts for the new capable tank including Belgium, Netherlands, Norway, Denmark, Australia, Canada, Turkey and Greece. Foreign sales would span from 1968 into the early 1980s which resulted in thousands being produced and stocking the inventories of the most modern and some modest armies around the world. For NATO, the arrival of the Leopard 1, coupled with the new British Chieftain, supplied a much-needed one-two punch and armored deterrent against Soviet aggression in Europe. Additionally, widespread use of a common system led to a natural logistical benefit of like-training, like-ammunition stores and commonality of parts within the NATO sphere.
Outwardly, the Leopard 1 followed conventional wisdom in regards to combat tank design of the Cold War. The vehicle was divided internally into three key sections made up of the front hull, the turret bustle and the rear-set engine compartment. There were two long-running tracks set to either hull side, covered along their top and upper side facings by thin armor plates. Each track side was dominated by six large road wheels with a drive sprocket to the front and a track idler at the rear. The glacis plate was well-sloped and led up to a shallow hull superstructure to which was affixed a 360-degree traversing turret. The hull superstructure and turret sported well-sloped sides for basic ballistics protection. The driver was seated to the front right of the hull while the tank commander, gunner and loader were featured in the turret. There were two hatches on the turret roof for the commander (to the right side) and the loader (to the left). Armor protection was 70mm at the thickest facing. An optional snorkel allows for fording of water bodies up to 13 feet deep. Additionally, a dozer blade can be fitted to the front hull for engineering work. Later combat Leopard 1s were given applique armor for improved survivability.
The vehicle sported an overall length of 31 feet with a width equal to 10 feet, 8 inches and a height of 8 feet, 7 inches. Weight was approximately 40 tons. Power was supplied by a single MTU 10-cylidner diesel engine developing 830 horsepower. This allowed for a top speed of over 40 miles per hour with a range of 373 miles.
Primary armament originally came in the form of the British L7 105mm main gun. This weapons could fire APDS, APFSDS, HEAT, HESH and Smoke projectiles as needed. Some 55 x 105mm projectiles could be carried aboard with 42 of these spread out about the hull and the rest within the turret. There was a 7.62mm coaxial machine fitted alongside the main gun and a second, optional 7.62mm machine gun could be affixed to the turret roof at the loader's hatch to counter both enemy infantry advances and low-flying aircraft threats.
Following the original Leopard 1 production model was the Leopard 1 A1 mark. This form was produced in three complete batches and introduced an all-new gun stabilization system allowing for improved "firing-on-the-move". Armor was also addressed in the form of side skirts. The tracks were simplified and a thermal sleeve was added to the main gun. The improvements in the Leopard 1 A1 production model made it the new standard for pervious production forms and these were appropriately updated in turn.
The Leopard 1 A2 appeared next and this production form saw its turret armor further improved. Of particular note was the inclusion of the PZB 200 series image intensifier to the main gun which allowed for improved night-fighting. Leopard 1 A2s with the PZB 200 system were further designated as the Leopard A2A1. The move to all-digital radio equipment created the similar Leopard 1 A2A2 designation. The Leopard A2 series first appeared in 1972 and production ran until 1974 numbering some 232 units.
The following Leopard 1 A3 sported a welded turret assembly. Interior space was expanded for the crew and the armor protection scheme was reworked. A new gun mantlet was installed at the base of the 105mm main gun while the commander's station was given a new TRP-2A sighting device. Leopard 1 A3s with included night vision equipment were marked as Leopard 1 A3A2s. The use of digital radios produced the Leopard 1 A3A2 mark. A production featuring both the night vision facilities and digital radios appropriately became the Leopard 1 A3A3. In all, 110 Leopard 1 A3 series vehicles were produced.
The follow-on Leopard 1 A1A4 was given a digital fire control system (FCS) and EMES 12A1 sighting device within a welded turret. A night vision device was installed at the commander's station. The first forms were made available beginning in 1974 and numbered 250 units in all.
The next Leopard 1 incarnation was the result of a program evaluation conducted in 1980. Taking the Leopard 1 A1A1 production models as a starting point, the Leopard A1A5 series mark was born. These appeared with an all-new turret assembly designed to improved internal spacing and welcome new equipment. A new modern digital FCS was installed as was an improved night vision suite. Applique armor was now optional and improved point defense against both incoming enemy projectiles and guided anti-tank missiles. A new projectile was also introduced and this became the kinetic energy-based Armor-Piercing, Fin-Stabilized Discarding Sabot (APFSDS) penetrating round which substantially broadened the killing-prowess of the Leopard 1 series. The Leopard 1 A5 marks came online in 1987 with many still in use today.
The Leopard A1A6 mark was a short-lived attempt at arming the Leopard 1 turret with a more powerful 120mm main gun - a larger caliber gun most commonly found on competing Soviet/Russian main battle tanks. The program involved modification of an existing Leopard 1 A1A production model and other changes included more armor at the turret facings. However, the more modern and much-improved Leopard 2 Main Battle Tank series was gaining a foothold in army inventories and this already utilize a 120mm Rheinmetall L55 series smoothbore main gun as standard making the 120mm-armed Leopard 1 something of a moot point. Any further work on the endeavor ended in 1987.
While West German exportation of military weapons was restrictive to an extent, those that were allied to NATO and West surely benefitted from foreign sales of the Leopard 1 Main Battle Tank. Operators (beyond West Germany) went on to include Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Denmark, Ecuador, West Germany/Germany, Greece, Italy, Lebanon, Netherlands, Norway, Turkey and the United Kingdom. The Australians received 90 units (as the Leopard AS1), the Belgians 132 examples, the Brazilians 378 examples and the Canadians 114 examples (as the Leopard C2). Chile took on 202 while Denmark operated 230 and Ecuador 30. Greece managed 520 examples, Lebanon 43 (by way of Belgium) and Norway 172. The United Kingdom purchased four Leopard 1 A5 series hulls for conversion to amphibious armored recovery vehicles. The largest operators of the Leopard 1 series became West Germany/Germany Proper with 2,437 to their name, Italy with 720 in service, the Netherlands utilizing 468 examples and Turkey taking delivery of 337 examples.
While their numbers worldwide have since dwindled, their reach and influence was very noticeable during the Cold War. Many have given way to more modern systems such as the follow-up German Leopard 2 (itself brought about by the failed American-German "MBT-70" project) and the American M1 Abrams. Despite its 1950s pedigree, the Leopard 1 remains the frontline main battle tank component to many armies even today (2012), a testament to its excellent design. Total Leopard 1 production managed 6,485 examples. The Leopard 1 saw combat actions in the Bosnian War and the 2001 Afghanistan War while, for some armies such as the Australians, combat exposure was severely limited - these units never having fired their guns in war.
The Leopard 1 chassis and hull went on to serve as the basis for the "Flakpanzer Gepard" self-propelled artillery system fielding an all-new turret with radar tracking facility and twin 35mm autocannons. This form saw its crew reduced to three and a second diesel engine installed to backup the primary power source - an MTU engine identical to the Leopard MBT version itself. The Leopard 1 was also modified to become the specialist Leopard AVLB bridgelayer vehicle - otherwise known as the "Bruckenlegepanzer" or "Biber" ("Beaver"). This variant was essentially the Leopard tank itself reincarnated without its turret. In its place was, instead, a two-piece steel bridging system with associated power works. A trainer vehicle for Leopard 1 drivers existed sans its turret. An ARV (Armored Recovery Vehicle) variant was also produced as was an AEV (Armored Engineer Vehicle).