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
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.
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
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.