|Three years after Thoresen's groundbreaking Viking class of drive-through ferries entered service on the Southampton-Le Havre service, P&O established a similar venture, branded as Normandy Ferries. The two ships which were built specifically for the route were the twin sisters, Dragon and Leopard. The latter was French flagged and crewed and was built to the account of SAGA, although the operation was to all intents and purposes one entity from a passenger point of view, and from 1979 the Leopard was owned by P&O, the trading name from then being P&O Ferries. Additional crossings were made from Le Havre to Rosslare in Ireland as well as some from Southampton to Lisbon and as far south as Casablanca in Morocco. The former were terminated in 1971 at the same time as the latter were taken over by a dedicated ship, the brand-new Eagle (later the cruise ship The Azur).
Upon their entry into service, the ships were certainly up to the task of competing with Thoresen's original Vikings, but investment to match the introduction of their Super Vikings from the mid-1970s was not forthcoming and Normandy Ferries persevered with the original pair on their Le Havre service. The competition though was becoming unequal and, only a month after P&O had transferred their operations from Southampton to Portsmouth in December 1984, the entire operation was taken over by Townsend Thoresen.
The former P&O twins continued on the Le Havre route for one final summer (repainted in full TT livery), but this was never going to be a long-term arrangement and whilst the Dragon saw further service for her new owners as Ionic Ferry in the North Channel from Cairnryan to Larne, Leopard was sold to Marlines and became their Countess M for operations in the Adriatic. From 1992 to 1998 she was reunited with her sister (by then the Viscountess M). The gradual decline of Marlines through the 1990s ultimately saw both ships taken out of service and in 1999 the Countess M was sold to a Lebanese company who renamed her Sidon, but this was to be brief, as the ship resumed Adriatic work under the name Talya 1 for Five Star Lines. In 2001 and 2002 she operated for Mega Star Ferries between Brindisi and Cesme in Turkey. It was intended to repeat this in 2003, but the ship was detained by the Greek authorities in Perama and never entered service, sailing for scrap in 2004.
|LEOPARD (later Countess M, Sidon, Talya 1)
|Top: A contemporary postcard view of Leopard and Dragon at Southampton in the early years of the Normandy Ferries service to Le Havre.|
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|Click above for a deckplan of Leopard's sister Dragon as built|
|Below: (Left) Leopard at Southampton in her original livery with the Thoresen cargo ferry Viking IV alongside in the background.
(Right) A Normandy Ferries 'touched up' picture showing one of the twins in the blue livery adopted in the late 1970s.
|As built the twins were considered to be fitted out to an extremely high standard, with a capacity of 850 passengers in public rooms which included a 76 seat restaurant, a 163-seat cafeteria, saloons forward on each of the main passenger decks complete with bars, casino facilities, a disco-style clubroom with juke box and sleeping accommodation for 429 passengers (including 153 airline-style reclining seats on either beam on C Deck. Extensive use was made of tan leather upholstery and teak-like facings in the passenger spaces.
The most distinctive space was the main lobby with a mezzanine level reached by twin open tread spiral staircases located centrally. The upper level featured a wrap-around mural depicting the Bayeux tapestry.
|Below: (Left) A view of one of the ship's reclining seat lounges
(Right) A Normandy Ferries brochure view of the lower level of the main lobby on one of the twins with the Bayeux Tapestry replica visible on the upper level.
|Below: The main saloon on C Deck forward.|
|Below: Looking astern in the port side restaurant.|
|Below: A sad looking Talya I in July 2003. She was detained by the Greek coast guard and never entered service that season.|
|Below: Leopard in the early 1980s in the blue livery, but now with standard 'P&O Ferries' markings and the P&O quartered flag funnel logo.|
|Above & below: Located on of the lower level of the lobby were a series of counters for use as a Duty Free shop, information desk and bureau de change.|
|Below: The upper level of the lobby seen during the ship's period as Countess M with the Bayeux tapestry still intact. (Picture courtesy Richard Seville)|
|Below: The B deck bar.|
|Below: The Leopard and Dragon were stern-only loaders and hence all vehicles were required to turn around to exit - the width of the ships made this a relatively simple task (for car drivers at least). The mezzanine levels on either side were retractable, but when all the sections were in use it was possible for cars to be driven on in one corner of the car deck, right around at the same level around the bow of the ship and down the other side to be facing the stern door for disembarkation.|
|Below: The former Leopard as Marlines' Countess M in the early 1990s.|