Alan Firth tells how he acquired two of these large Ozzie saloons
For those that do not know me, I undertook a Rover Staff Apprenticeship from August 1959 ’til 1963, when I moved to the Pengam, Cardiff plant as a Quality Control Engineer. At Pengam we made P6 suspension and transmission units, including gearbox and axle, which were sent to Solihull by Rover’s own transport fleet. The trucks never travelled empty though, as they brought down Midlands-made spare parts to the Rover Spares distribution centre newly built next door.
I went to live in Australia in 1970 on the £10 immigration scheme of the time and, later on during my time living there, Leyland Australia began production of a car called the P76, part developed in UK and exclusively built in Australia as a competitor to the indigenous Ford, General Motors Holden and Chrysler models.
Leyland (formerly BMC) Australia produced unusual models such as a 1800 Land Crab Ute (pick-up). and the 1800/2200-based Tasman and Kimberley saloons, also a Nomad which was a 1100/1300 based hatchback but with the 1500cc E-Series engine which we had here in the Maxi.
In 1973 two of these P76s came over to BL International, Berkeley Square, London travelling on the same ship according to the Invoice and Bill of Lading. One car went to BL at Longbridge and was registered in Birmingham as JOE 526L where it was used for engineering assessment, and trial of a power steering option and a manual gearbox. The car was also used for styling and trim options by Vanden Plas at Kingsbury, who were owned by BL, and this was apparently considered as a possible replacement for the Rover P5 saloon.
There was also a 2 door Coupe called a Force 7 and a Station Wagon in the P76 range – consideration was given to how these might fit into the Rover family if imported. The London car was registered there (PLW 286L) and used for Dealer/Sales assessment over about one year.
After about 18 months the Leyland Australia Company had produced about 16,000 P76 cars and were about to launch the Force 7 having made about 60 or so of them when the UK accountants closed the Sydney Plant. Of the Force 7’s made, all but 10 were crushed as a decision was made that the company would get more for them than the full number. Sadly, that was not the case but those 10 are very collectable today. Sometime in 1975 both UK cars were sold off, the London one became lost in the mists of time but the Birmingham car was sold to an ex-Rover apprentice who had worked at Leyland Australia and had come back to the UK and worked at Triumph at Coventry. He later sold it to a Leyland Dealer in Salisbury who kept it for some years.
This car came onto eBay for sale just as I was browsing there and I arranged to see it in Farnborough where I bought it, with some spares, about three and a half years ago. I made contact with P76 Clubs in Australia and New Zealand for membership and spares information as there were some peculiar things about the car. Little did I know at that time but this was chassis no.1.
As further questions were asked and more information resulted regarding the history of the car, it was revealed that both cars sent here had been despatched without their Australian Compliance Plates (the equivalent of our VIN plates in Europe) and these had been brought over by a Liasion Engineer in 1973. A search with this person established that one of these plates had been left over here possibly whilst the car was at Rover, but the other had been taken back to Australia as the Engineer had no contact with the London car. About eighteen months ago a note was passed to me from the NZ Club’s records giving details of a person in Scotland who had purchased some parts for a car that was up there. This is about 25 year old info.
Donning my Sherlock Holmes hat, I followed up this lead and eventually made contact with a chap who had been the Workshop Manager of a Plant Hire Contractors, owned by 2 brothers, who had worked on the Leyland Bathgate plant site. The car from London had become the company car of one brother through his personal friendship with the local Leyland Dealer. The story from my contact was that, when the brother was due for a replacement company car, he liked the P76 so much that he kept it for himself and the company bought him another company car anyway.
Some years later, the brother became ill and sadly died. The rest of the family respected that it had been his personal property and it was left parked in the workshop. When I had made contact and had explained my interest, I was led to understand that the family might discuss this amongst themselves and they would be in touch.
Forward now to November 2010 when I am on the RSR stand at the NEC Classic Car Show and my mobile ‘phone rings – I am told that arrangements could be made for me to view the car. Now, I live in Devon, and I was going to catch the 6pm train home that evening, but as I could see the car the next day some 20 miles from Edinburgh then that was where I decided to go instead. Next surprise came from Lyn Thomas, standing by me, who picked out the P76 part of the call. ‘Do you know anything about them?”, he asked, ‘as I think I have something off one on my desk at home, a plate or something?” I gave him the details of the Chassis No. and thought no more of it.
I left the show and travelled north and, after taking in a B&B, I arrived at Bathgate station at lunchtime on the Sunday, and was met by a cheerful chap who was obviously delighted at the prospect of taking me to see the car. En route he said he no longer worked there but had a close tie with the family. We arrived at the workshop, he unlocked the door and we went in to find the car exactly as he had described it and as shown in some photos he had sent to me, taken and dated 2002.
I spoke to one member of the family and my new-found best friend then took me to his home to meet his wife and very new baby – after a cuppa he took me to Edinburgh, where I stayed overnight and caught the train home. There were all sorts of thoughts in my mind. How was the car still there after 25 years? What if it had been passed in for scrap? What a shame if it had been lost forever!
Imagine, then, my surprise when I arrived home to find an email from Lyn Thomas stating that the plate he had was the original un-fitted new one for my first car and not only that but his generosity extended to say that I should have it to put in its place on the car.
The next stage of P76 – UK history continues when, seven months after I visited Scotland to see the second car, I had contact from the family who invited me to make an offer for the car. This I followed up and arranged to collect the car using a Freelander diesel and trailer – a total mileage of 1100 in a return overnight taking 12 hrs, not exceeding 55mph with two drivers and a number of meal stops.
After a safe return, I sent details to the Australian and NZ Clubs. I had met the Engineer who came over here when the cars first arrived when I was last in Australia in 2010, so I sent him the details of the Scotland car and he replied in the same vein as Lyn – he still had the second plate and again this was sent over. Both cars are now at my Devon home, together, as they were on the ship leaving Sydney in May 1973.
Lyn Thomas adds
Having joined Rover’s Research Section in 1959, initially working on Noise and Vibration studies, in the mid-1960s I became involved with the rapidly-growing automotive safety legislation, first from the USA then in Europe and other markets. In the 1970s, I managed a group of BL engineers each dedicated to model groups responsible for organising testing, witnessing and producing reports to confirm vehicle compliance in order to achieve type approvals.
In around 1973, I was given the Australian Compliance plate for a P76. Our first job was to gather available test data from Australian sources to establish what would be needed for any potential European sales that were under consideration. When it became clear that the project had died, I just kept the plate as a piece of interesting junk through several years of office/job moves until my retirement in 1995. At some point it joined my memorabilia at home and lay dormant until that chance overheard remark at the NEC. What serendipity that not only should ‘my’ plate find its way back to the original car, but that an Engineer in Australia had likewise kept the plate for the second car.
Truly a Tale of Two Plates!
David Adams adds
I drove a blue Force 7… with white leather upholstery.
Going to near Shipston onside roads to Ebrington the track was the same width as the road, which did nothing for the ride. I had to show the car to the Customs and Excise in the service showroom. When I released the bonnet it burst open on gas struts and very nearly hit the Inspector.
The next problem was the Australians had not put a VIN plate on it anywhere. Driving it – accelerating, all the gauges went to the right and, on braking, they all went to the left. It went like a drunk rocket. I cannot believe it had its ride and handling fixed. There were supposed to be two more languishing in customs for ages because somebody in the London office was too scared to admit they had arrived after the project was cancelled…
- (Originally published in Freewheel, the Rover Sport Register’s club magazine, thanks to Ian Elliott)
- The cars : Talbot-Matra Murena (M551) development story - 12 January 2021
- Concepts and prototypes : Rover Oden/Land Rover Pathfinder (1992-1995) - 11 January 2021
- The cars : Matra-Simca Rancho development story - 11 January 2021