Opinion : P8 into P76 did not go…

Rover P8

The Rover P8 saloon started life as a set of ideas in 1964. Rover had just stopped production of the P4 range, the P5 3-litre introduced in 1958 held the top spot in the hierarchy, and the P6 2000 had just been introduced in 1963 as the less expensive Rover. It was not really a replacement for the P4, but deliberately took the company into a new market sector where there was more room for expansion.

It had all been rather expensive. Although booming Land Rover sales had allowed Rover to afford the technically advanced P6, and although the P6 itself proved a huge success, top management did not believe the company could afford to replace both Rover P5 and P6 in the longer term. By 1964, the thinking was that there should be just one new model and that this, through different engine sizes and different equipment options, should eventually replace both cars. This new option was the P8.

And then along came Leyland. This is not the place to go into how all that came about, but by early 1967 Rover had sought shelter in the arms of the Leyland Group. Leyland’s Chairman Sir Donald Stokes learned of the new technology that was under consideration for the P8, and realised that it would make an ideal flagship model for the Leyland stable. It would provide very strong competition for the big saloons from Jaguar, which by this time had got together with BMC in British Motor Holdings. So, he encouraged Rover to think big and to focus on the top models of the P8 rather than those that might eventually replace the P6.

Broken dreams

That plan fell apart when BMH and Leyland were persuaded by the British Government to amalgamate in 1968 as British Leyland. The P8 was now being developed in direct competition with the big Jaguars, which was plainly nonsensical. Something had to give – but nothing did.

Rover was allowed to carry on with the P8 with the aim of having it in production by 1972, spending several million pounds on development and tooling that all had to be written off when British Leyland eventually realised it was a car they didn’t need.

So much for the background to P8. From the beginning, it was designed within Rover to meet anticipated European market expectations, and with one eye on the US market as well. Its visual aspect was created by David Bache, Rover’s acclaimed Stylist and, although it might not have been to everybody’s taste, it was undeniably an imposing-looking car.

Rover V8 engine

Part of a V8-powered future

Thanks to the Leyland insistence back in 1967 on competing with Jaguar, it was slated to have not only the 3.5-litre Rover V8 engine but also a new 4.4-litre version that had been planned as an eventual enlargement back when Rover took the engine over from Buick. Early P8 prototypes had the 4.4-litre engine, but for reasons that even Rover’s chief engine man Jack Swaine didn’t understand, the V8 transfer line tooling had not been designed to cope with the anticipated larger-capacity engine. The 4.4-litre was therefore written out of the script quite late in the development programme.

Over now to Australia, where the grouping together of several formerly separate British marques under the umbrella of Leyland Australia was rightly perceived as a golden opportunity. BMC cars for Australia had largely been adapted versions of their British counterparts, typically with bigger engines and heavy-duty suspension, but they had never been quite what Australians wanted. By the mid-1960s, cars like the Ford Falcon were showing the way ahead, and there was nothing in the Leyland stable that could compete.

But now, there could be. In 1967, Leyland Australia gained approval from its UK parent for a new two-model programme. There would be one large family saloon – large enough to compete with the latest offerings from Chrysler, Ford and Holden – and, after that, there would be a medium-sized (by Australian standards) saloon. These were known as the A model and the B model, and were given development codes Leyland P82 and P76 respectively. The coincidence of the P prefix should not lead you to assume any connection with Rover whatsoever – although some commentators have fantasised otherwise.

Leyland P76

Australian plans

Let’s focus for the moment on the larger car, the P76. It was always intended to be sized to compete with domestic competition and was never a European or British-sized model. Designed around a wheelbase of 111.25in (2826mm), it was to have long front and rear overhangs that would make for an overall length of 192in (4900mm).

Just compare that to the dimensions planned for the Rover P8, which was a big car by European standards: it had a wheelbase of 105.625in (2683mm) and was to be 178.5in (4534mm) long. That is well over a foot shorter than the Australian car, which had to have a large boot so that outback farmers could carry a 44-gallon drum in it – if you don’t understand why they would want to, ask an Australian.

Leyland Australia wanted its new car to have distinctive looks, and it was decided that a European flavour was needed. So the company drew on existing Leyland contacts and asked for the Italian design house of Michelotti to put forward a proposal. Michelotti was more used to doing considerably smaller sports cars and saloons for the likes of Triumph, but he rose to the challenge magnificently.

The Design Engineers at Leyland Australia made some modifications that they thought would be better suited to their customers (remember Michelotti had a European orientation), and committed the design to production. Back at Rover, it is highly unlikely that David Bache and his team had any idea of what was going on Down Under, let alone any input to it.

Leyland P76

The Australian requirement was for two major specification levels in the P76. The less expensive models needed a big six-cylinder engine, and the Leyland engineers settled on an enlarged version of the E6-type engine that was then in production for Australian versions of the BMC Landcrab.

They also re-orientated it north-south to suit the rear-wheel-drive layout they wanted. Above that, they knew they needed a V8 because that was what the competition had. Where would they find a V8 that was big enough? Putting the question to their colleagues in Britain, they learned that Rover had designed a 4.4-litre V8 which was now not going to be used.

To cut a long story short, Leyland Australia grabbed it and made some minor changes to suit the Australian market’s requirements. The 4.4-litre V8 entered production in Australia for the Leyland P76 and, with 192bhp, did exactly what was asked of it. Job done: all work kept in-house and costs minimised.

So, what’s the answer?

So, how have the stories of two different cars, designed at different ends of the same organisation for two very different markets, become so confused?

Simple: it starts with the coincidence of that 4.4-litre V8. It goes on with the coincidence of Rover and Leyland Australia prefixing their model codes with a P. The timing of the P76’s appearance (1973) has led people to think that it was a follow-on from the Rover P8 (which was cancelled in 1971). And finally, to some eyes, there are similarities of shape between the two cars.

I find this hard to credit (and I’m sure both David Bache and Giovanni Michelotti would share that view). If there are similarities, such as the upward sweep of the waistline on the rear doors, they are simply those that come about between cars designed in the same era and subject to the same design influences.

Rover P8

James Taylor
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  1. How about this thought? Take a P8, decontent it of the complex engineering and fit it over a common floorpan with the SD1 (look at the sizes and suspension formats) with the V8 or E series 6 cyl inline (as used on the South African SD1…) and ask Michelotti to add a new nose and tail to the centre section of the P8?

    Get MG at Abingdon to bring most it together, and what could go wrong?

    And P76 must mean something, unless you believe the ord Stokes Army number story….

    • Well in fairness Lord Stokes told me the ‘old army number story’ to my face when I interviewed him. Doesn’t mean it was the whole truth of course but it’s not just an old wive’s tale with no provenance, unlike the one about P76 being based on P8 🙂

  2. An interesting little tangential fact is that even after the V8 Leyland P76 was killed off in late 1974 (1976 in New Zealand CKD assembly), Leyland Australia continued to use that 4.4 litre V8. It was used in the Terrier truck in Australia, with an automatic transmission option, until 1979.

  3. Fact is P76 has the same wheelbase and track as the SD1, same V8 engine, same automatic transmission and the South African SD1s had the same 6 cyl E series engines

    If P76 didn’t in some way evolve from a P8 /SD1 mashup where did it come from? Leyland Australia had never developed a unique platform from scratch.

  4. I read somewhere that the prototype used an hq holden rear axle as it used coil springs and trailing arms and acpairvofvyop links not leaf springs like the ford flagon…so quite on the cards that the floor and central body was made from something else.

  5. Whatever, they’re both horrendously ugly cars and we can be thankful we ended up with the SD1 instead.

  6. Yes, the P8-P10 proposals were all uglier than a badger’s bum.

    I wonder who ‘styled’ them, but could perfectly understand if nobody was prepared to put their hand up to it.

    BL really should have spent more money on professional stylists rather than trying to do the job in-house and ending up with horrors like the Maxi, Allegro, Princess, Maestro.

    A few million quid spent with someone like Giugiaro to produce something smart and crisply stylish, would have been money well spent in terms of sellability and image. Instead they used Harris Mann.

      • Ouch! That is a very mean thing to say! Sadly, it can’t be considered libelous though, because what you are saying is true. The Stag was such a beautiful car and the TR-7? Oh dear.

        • I agree that the hardtop TR7 was – and still is – an ugly, awkward looking car, but when you see it as a soft-top it’s totally transformed and looks a million times better.

  7. I think there was definitely some idea what was going on the UK? How did the Aussies know about the 4.4 V8? And wasn’t the E6 engine already moved to a North South config for the Marina prior to the P76?

  8. It is troublesome trying to separate the P8 and P76. Although there is not much to go by to back it up atm and despite differences in size / etc, would say the Leyland P76 in some respects has more in common with the Triumph Puma proposal then the Rover P8.

    Also cannot help notice the P76, Puma and SD1 were mechanically simpler in comparison to what was contemplated for the P8, when the latter was pushed from being a dual P6 and P5 successor to a P5 replacing Mercedes-beater by Stokes.

    Without the Triumph influence or Stokes meddling of the P8, it is likely the Alt-P10 would have been closer to being a Bobcat and SD2 type car.

    In retrospect the Australians would have had more success pushing Model A aka P82 than what became the P76, based on what Holden achieved with the 3rd gen Torana and also would have been an SD2 type model that BL could have brought over (like they contemplated with the Austin X6-based Vanden Plas Princess 1800).

    Michelotti styled both the P76 and the Puma (the P76 from my limited perspective being a warped recycling of Puma in some respects), he also styled the other Puma based family of models such as Bobcat replacement for Ajax, the Bullet sportscar and Lynx coupe. The Michelotti Lynx in particular features rather uncanny visual cues of what would appear on the P76 Force 7 coupe.

    The P8 was salvageable IMHO had someone like Leyland Australia designer Mark Cassarchis been involved. At least based on the latter’s twin-headlight ideas for the P82, which seem to capture what they were trying to achieve with the P8.

    The twin-headlight P82 proposal by Cassarchis also notably features similar front-treatment to both the P6 and Range Rover, both of which would have been pluses for a salvageable P8 and allowed it to benefit from the success of the Range Rover in terms of brand recognition for the Rover marque in North America.

    Whereas the SD1’s attractive Ferrari-esque styling became a hindrance due to being such a radical departure from what Rover made with both the P6 and Range Rover.

    The unproduced Leyland P76 Series II was a visual improvement over the regular P76, although waiting until any images of the front mock-up surface to see how similar they are to the Series II sketch at the front.

    Found a Shannons article that delves more into the P76 story.

    • It’s funny one of Rodenbergs designs has a wife of SD1 in its profile, probably because of the side swage. I always wondered why the car looked a bit weird, now I know it was a mixture of Rodenberg and Michelotti. Looking at the 4 models that were submitted, even though its a blurry picture, the front model looks really nice and a more “complete design”

  9. I’m glad the P8 was canned: it looks more like a big Datsun or an American police car than a Rover, and a 4.4 V8 would have been too thirsty for most European markets and would have faltered during the energy crisis. For all of its faults, the SD1 is a much better looking car and the design was more in tune with the European market, as two of its competitors were the radical looking Citroen CX and Renault 30.
    As for the poor old P76, it came too late to the Australian large car market as Chrysler, Ford and Holden had dominated the V8 and big six market since the mid sixties. Being launched just before the energy crisis and offering nothing over its rivals, the P76 was one reason Leyland Australia closed down.

    • I remember from another article comments the the P76 might have done better if it had been launched in about 1970 when the market for cars it’s size was bigger in Australia.

      Oddly while a lot of the larger Japanese cars in the 1970s looked light slightly scaled down American cars, they often weren’t sold in the USA. This trend continued into the 1980s with bigger Japanese models having a lot of chrome trim after it had dropped out of fashion in Europe.

  10. I agree with Glenn. The P8 looks a bit like a late 1970’s Datsun 200L Laurel saloon in particular. It wouldn’t suit a longship badge me-thinks

  11. The P8 just didn’t look very Rover and for all Americana was a big deal with Ford and Vauxhall at the time, the Rover seems to have done it very badly with its American police car sides and obvious P6 front end. It was probably better to wait for a better design to come along as the P6 was still selling very well in the early seventies.

    • The P6’s front end always puzzled me. It looked unfinished somehow though the chin intake on the V8 version helped to alleviate that. Amazing to see the same look on the P8. Like a badly customised Toyota Crown. I’m no admirer of the SD1 but even I have to admit that it improved on this.

      • I also thought the P6’s front end looked a bit odd, with vestigial fins on the wings & a high grille.

  12. Agreed Glenn, my brother’s ’68 Rover 2000TC looked excellent and had a wonderful interior. Those were the halcyon days!

  13. I’m still struggling to work out where the bumpers are!

    Especially at the front, none of the prototypes have any obvious bumpers, and this was before the era of energy absorbing plastics.

  14. From what I’ve read, Australians didn’t know why the P76 boot had to accommodate a 44 gallon drum either.

  15. Actually the P76 is lighter than the Rover P6 and significantly lighter than the SD1. Fuel economy was actually very good. Significantly better than even smaller fords and holdens of the day. Out here in Aus I’m sure there are still more P76s around than SD1s despite the small number built. I’ve owned all three cars and the P76 was by far the most trouble free and simplest to work on.

    Gavin Farmers book i think has photos of some of the series 2 front and rear changes. It also details the significant involvement of Rover in its development. As i’ve stated elsewhere on here, much of the similarity between the two cars, SD1 and P76, is more due to the P8 having preceded both, leaving behind a pile ready made engineering solutions – such as a floor pan that can be easily pressed with little alteration.

    The very first cars started life as various Holden models with various P76 items being transferred over till the floorpan and running gear was all p76 with just the Holden body on top. They were engineering development cars. The P76 development cars used all Leyland components or their suppliers – Borg warner gear train etc.

    The V8 engine looks very similar to a Rover V8 but aside from the front cover nearly everything else is different. The Cylinder heads use Holden stud and pressed steel rockers, the Manifold is Ex Edelbrock and carries a two (or four) barrel carburettor with american type circular air cleaner. The block is noticably taller and they only carry ten head studs. Likewise the crank is not exchangable and the flywheel is the same as the 2.6 litre E series six. The sump is similar but different, the truck version is about two inches deeper. Water pump pickup is on the opposite side of pump.

    The major issue whith P76 wasn’t that they couldn’t sell them. They simply couldn’t make them fast enough due to issues beyond their control such as supplier parts shortages. Closing the plant down was both very costly to BL (Over $100 million) and ensured sales of other BL products would tank for years ahead. The reasoning made no sense then nor now. The Local team had managed to do something that BL Board just couldn’t stomach. They showed them how to run a car company with a full product plan, Sharing of parts and development (The V8 was also intended as a low cost and lightweight L4 of 2.2 litres which shared most of its components with the 8) and a proper marketing strategy.Something I never saw from BL. The P82 proposals were years ahead of their time and shared most of their running gear with P76 and there was virtually nothing in them that was expensive to make. When I first bought my SD1 I noticed immediately how much easier it was to work on than the P6 and the vast number of similarities to P76. The Major difference was the SD1 spent most of its time off the road being repaired (only car I’ve owned where the copper in the wires was on the OUTSIDE of the plastic….).

    • That’s interesting to know, even though it’s been years since I started looking here I’m still finding things out about the P76.

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