Concepts and prototypes : Austin 1800 V8 (1968-69)

BMC Australia and its Leyland successor produced some interesting prototypes along the way. This front-wheel-drive, V8-powered Austin 1800 was seriously investigated in 1968.

However, it made way for the more conventional P76, which would go on sale in 1973.

Austin 1800 V8: Exceeding expectations

Austin 1800 V8 (03)

BMC Australia’s production plans were nothing if not ambitious. Throughout its existence, it had taken on production of a number of UK models, but developed them into something more suitable for local tastes. That invariably meant fitting larger engines to existing products – but not always.

The appealing BMC 1100-based Morris 1500 and Nomad were a great example of this – not only re-engined but, in the case of the Nomad, being made more useful by the fitment of a hatchback rear end.

However, the company wanted to go further and, as a result, an all-Australian vehicle line-up for the 1970s was formulated by the Advance Model Group of BMC Australia following a detailed study of the market in 1967 by J B Anderson, Sid Ferguson, Don Imison and Ross Webber.

A two-model line-up planned

The conclusion of their study was to create two unique-to-Australia models – the Model A and B. These would be sold in addition to the Mini, which was doing a great job at the lower end of the market.

Model A was what would end up becoming the mid-range P82 project via the Marina, while full-sized Model B would become known as the Leyland P76. This would be an expensive programme and, in order to secure the estimated A$35m funding, the Managing Director of BMC Australia, Bill Abbott, and David Beech visited British Leyland in the UK in November 1968.

As a result of the visit, the Model A programme was quickly paused when it became apparent it was remarkably close in concept to the then-secret Morris Marina. Instead, they agreed to accept the Marina for Australia and the ‘Red Six’ was subsequently born – before plans to replace it by an all-Australian car were exhumed in the form of P82.

Model B takes shape

However, the Model B, was given the green light, and it started out in the most interesting way. This was good news, as it had already been in development before Abbott and Beech’s UK trip, having been kicked off in February 1968 when it became clear the company would have access to the Rover V8 following the formation of British Leyland in January 1968.

Unfortunately, even as the first – and only – Austin 1800 V8 prototype was fired up in March 1969, it looked doomed, as Leyland Australia concluded that the only way the company could remain profitable in Australia was by producing conventional cars.

Despite that, work continued on the front-wheel-drive V8. Essentially, it was an 1800 Mk2 body reworked to accommodate a Rover V8 engine and a bespoke transmission unit. The only exterior differences between the V8 and the normal car was a 117mm extension of the front wings and bonnet (above), and it was virtually indistinguishable from the standard car unless they were side by side.

Technical details

A full description of the Austin 1800 V8 was shared in Wheels magazine in 1973, where it was revealed that the front seating and the control layout were designed to be representative of the proposed Model B car.

No changes were necessary to the rear suspension, but the position of the front Hydrolastic displacers had to be changed due to the width and length of the longitudinally-mounted V8 engine. These units were placed vertically in the new A-frame suspension carrier, which was rubber-mounted to the body.

A crossflow radiator was fitted with a separate filler and expansion tank.

Familiar power, unconventional gears

The V8 engine was the basic 3.5-litre Rover with the capacity increased to 4.2 litres by fitting a Repco single-plane crankshaft, increasing the stroke. Special pistons were manufactured and these changed the compression ratio from 10.5:1 to 9.56:1. Before installing the engine into the car, dynamometer tests showed the engine developed 154bhp at 4400 rpm and 236lb ft at 2000 rpm.

The transmission consisted of four separate assemblies which had only to be bolted together. The drive was taken through the standard Rover torque converter via a front pump into a gear-train which transmitted the drive to a Borg Warner 35 automatic transmission, although on production versions it was planned to use a chain in lieu of gears.

The transmission was located below the crankshaft and engine sump and off-centre to the left rather like the mid-engined P6 BS supercar prototype (below). The drive was taken out of the front of the transmission case into the final drive from which drive shafts transmitted the drive to the front wheels.

Trouble on the road

Rover P6 BS cutaway

The four major assemblies were: converter housing, gear-train housing, transmission housing and final drive housing. All four were cast in aluminium. The prototype weighed 23kg below the original target, but the final Leyland road test report on the vehicle summarised the problems involved.

It said: ‘While the characteristic vibrations for the single plane crankshaft were most pronounced it provided the vehicle with an excellent engine performance. The completed vehicle weighed 1225kg and the power unit 256kg.

‘The light steering efforts at parking speeds were most impressive but, under power with the wheels on lock, the efforts became excessive. Handling while cornering under full throttle was superb but with part or closed throttle the vehicle exhibited strong oversteer. With 4.5in rims fitted this was unacceptably severe.

‘The power unit design proved feasible but the development and manufacturing costs of the transmission and associated components when compared to the alternative ‘common industry’ rear-wheel-drive systems now available dictated that this scheme be discontinued.’

A failure to proceed

And that was that. The front-wheel-drive V8 was deemed too expensive to make it into production, despite there being some promise. According to contemporary reports, the cost to build the front-wheel-drive V8 instead of Leyland P76 would have added A$400 to the retail price of the car.

And on costings made in 1969 the P76 would have been $100 less to build than even the standard 1800, so Leyland decided the price of advanced engineering was intolerably high.

According to Gavin Farmer’s excellent Anything but Average book on the Leyland P76, Experimental Technician Ross Webber summarised the project, ‘the Rover V8 provided the vehicle with excellent performance. The light steering efforts at parking speeds were most impressive but, under power with the wheels on lock, the efforts became excessive.’

That, then, explains why the Leyland P76 emerged as a more conventional rear-wheel-drive saloon, while the front-wheel drive, V8-engined Austin 1800 became an interesting footnote in history – and a nod to the possible.

Leyland P76

Keith Adams


  1. A friend who used to work in Longbridge said they had a V8 1800 in nthe Experimental Department there. This must surely have been the Aus-built car – they wouldn’t build another one independently – would they?

  2. I doubt a V8 Landcrab would have sold at all over here as it would have been a very thirsty car and buyers could already buy a Rover V8 in 1969. The best development this car had was the E6, which gave the Landcrab an increase in power and was a very smooth engine, and the Wolseley Six, which was like a Rolls Roycew inside.

  3. A flat plane crank wouldn’t have been desirable in a such as this, I wouldn’t have thought. There’d be no burbling V8 soundtrack. More like two fours running at the same time. If my understanding is correct at least.

  4. Real Aussie thinking that. Stick a Rover V8 engine in a landcrab, but not the standard 3.5 as that clearly isn’t big enough!

    • That would have been Marketing thinking ahead. The opposition’s smallest eight was Holden’s 4.2.

  5. WHy did they stick it in a Landcrab and not the larger 3000? I know there was a version but why would you go to this trouble when Australia needed a larger car, which the 3000 was in length (if not interior), and was conventionally rear wheel drive? madness as ever!

    • Yes it sounds crazy when the 3 Litre had already been experimentally fitted with a V8 & would have probably been cheaper to produce with it’s more conventional driveline.

    • The Australians for whatever reason did not view the 3-litre as being suitable for the market nor was it mentioned in their product plan.

      In hindsight they should have stuck with getting Model A aka P82 into production first instead of adopting the Marina and going with Model B aka P76.

      As the Buick V6 was also offered to Rover and they were themselves thinking of developing their own (non-alloy later alloy) V6 from the V8, would an 1800 V6 have made more sense a la Renault 30 or transversely-mounted in the manner of other Buick V6 powered FWD GM models from 1982?

      • I based this comment on the story, that it was the UK business who did the v8 1800 not the Aussies. I can understand the Model A being dropped as the Marina probably looked on paper good enough to fill the market spot. The P76 Model B was the issue, it was needed for Aussie market but that is tiny. Either it should have been combined with other programs, ie. P8/P10 or had plans to export to US market.

        • It is said the Marina was forced on the Aussies and while ok in E4 form (not surprising since what became the Marina was originally envisaged with it), the E6 version would prove to be the straw that broke the camel’s back for the Australian branch followed by issues and the size of the P76 Model B.

          Had it been prioritized first, P82 would have had more promise as a de-facto ADO77/SD2/TM1 better able to cope with larger engines whereas the P76’s appeal was limited and also hampered by bad timing.

    • The 3 litre was never sold here. It would have been way too expensive to take on the American big 3, with not enough prestige (‘only’ an Austin, after all…) to sell above them.
      I guess Leyland Australia could have imported one for evaluation, and shoved the V8 in that. It would seem a more likely recipient for the V8, and surely would have been easier to accomplish in terms of engineering. But then you would still be left with a car that was obviously 1800-based, and while the ‘right’ length to be accepted as a challenger, still some four inches narrower than the competition. That’d be a hard sell.
      Now if they’d put the Tasman/Kimberley front and rear ends and C-pillar treatment on the 3 litre, with the V8, we might be getting somewhere. Now try selling it at a competitive price. Oops…..

  6. Was B(L)MC the most disjointed car company ever to stalk the earth? Bolshy unions and even bolshier management, engineering directors and design departments. Imagine if all of them had worked in conjunction and consensus.
    Together we stand, divided we fall.

    • Yes it seemed to be an unmanageable mess with so many companies merged together too quickly.

    • @ Keith Boothby, the company was riven with internal rivalries that dated back to the merger of Austin and Morris in 1952, and later there was hostility between ex BMC and ex Leyland staff, The whole company was a bureaucratic nightmare and too large and had too many overlapping ranges of cars. However, while slimming down British Leyland would have been the right answer in the seventies, no one would dare to take on the unions and the internal rivalries would have ensured nothing got done. It took until the eighties that a coherent range of cars was brought out and the model range slimmed down properly.

    • True, but it was a first prototype. The regular P76 V8 was rated at 192bhp from that capacity.

  7. I also doubt the Landcrab V8 would appeal to many car buyers. The existing engines of them would be quite adequate for UK roads back in those days. My employers Financial Director had a 2200 Landcrab and I drove it once… performance was okay to me at a younger age!

    • @ Hilton D, a V8 Landcrab might have been interesting as a one off, but I could imagine the engine would be too powerful for the body and would have worn out the front tyres every couple of thousands of miles. Also Rover would have objected to another V8 in British Leyland’s range of cars.
      I think the 1800 and 2200 line up was enough for a car that was aimed at the mid market and the E6 in the Landcrab gave the car enough power and acquitted itself well against the 2.3 used by Vauxhall and the 2 litre Pinto used in the Cortina.

  8. IMHO it’s questionable whether the P76 would ever have worked simply because that market was already so well catered to in Australia. But Leyland Australia virtually owned the small car market, and we’re still no2 to Toyota in 4WDs they could have built a business around those

    • The P76 arrived on the market just before the energy crisis and the Japanese invasion, so came out at the wrong time. The market for V8s and big sixes was badly hit by the energy crisis and recession of 1974-75, persuading Leyland to end production in Australia in 1975, and Holden, Chrysler( who would sell out to Mitsubishi in 1980) and Ford never regained their stranglehold on the Aussie market.

      • The Oldsmobile Toronado and the Austin Kimberley automatic shared the chain drive system developed by GM and Borg Warner.

  9. What I find most interesting is that the engine was mounted longitudinally, not transversely a la Issigonis. The drive seems to go back, down, then forward again, then sideways to drive the front wheels, with the final drive under the back pair of cylinders. Not unlike what GM used for the Oldsmobile Toronado. Good for balance, the engine wasn’t cantilevered way out front. I guess they assumed that with a V8, powertrain losses through all those changes of direction weren’t going to be an issue.

  10. Some strange choices, why engineer a plane crank, yes if you were going racing but in an intentionally stodgy saloon! But then why engineer an expensive FWD solution surely as people have pointed out use the 3 Litre, with the V8 and ditch the self leveling complexity at the rear end. My thought is that politically in British Leyland the 3 Litre was untouchable, it having been allowed to come to production to be a momument to why BMC/H needed to die. If it then got picked up by Aussies as a rather smart alternative to the yank tanks, it would not look good for the Leyland team.

  11. I never knew about this, but always felt a V8 Princess would have made a great car, and tried to work out how the V8 could have driven the front wheels. Interesting to know the work had already been done! I just don’t get why the Austin 3 litre wasn’t accepted by the Australians and fitted with A V8. The work had pretty much already been done. Must have been some big egos down there.

  12. Cost is the reply Tim, P76 was much cheaper to engineer also they would have known about the development issues with the 3 litre.

  13. It was a shame the Austin Kimberley could not have been delayed and the ADO 71 body used. The Kimberley was a well handling and very comfortable along with reasonable economy. The PBR brakes were also used in the Holden Monaro 350. The Auto transmission was the Borg Warner 35. A few journalists suggested if Leyland developed the car to compete with Citroen and other Europeans it may done better by pricing it in a different segment of the market.

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