In Australia, the Leyland P76 was billed as ‘Anything but average.’ Unfortunately (and unjustifiably so), it also turned out to be anything but successful.
Richard Gunn samples Leyland’s legendary leviathan from down under…
Words and pictures: Richard Gunn
Leyland P76 delivered a premature P45
Typical… You wait for a Leyland P76 for decades, and then seven turn up at once…
For fans of British Leyland – yes, Ford and Vauxhall enthusiasts, there are such strange creatures, and I count myself as one of them – the P76 is an almost mythical beast. After years of squirreling UK models down to the far side of the world, lightly modifying their bodies and mechanics, and hoping in vain Australian car buyers wouldn’t notice – which, unfortunately, they did, and so bought Holdens, Fords and Chryslers instead – the Antipodean arm of the British Motor Corporation finally decided to go the whole hog and build a proper car capable of withstanding Australia’s tough, unforgiving conditions.
Conceived in the late-1960s, it wasn’t until well into the BL era that the P76 was launched, by which time it was almost doomed to failure by the constant crises that were then dragging down the company in the UK. If BL couldn’t even cope at home, what chance its remote Leyland Australia outpost, 13,000 miles away?
What’s in a name?
Supposedly named after BL boss Donald Stokes’ wartime platoon number or, alternatively, a stillborn Rover vehicle – think P3, P4, P5 etc. – Project 76 was quite an animal. With its sprawling body designed by Triumph’s pet Italian styling guru, Giovanni Michelotti, the car came with two engine options. For the budget conscious, there was the 2.6-litre six-cylinder E-Series-engined model, but who cared about that when a monstrous 4.4-litre V8 was also on offer?
Granted, even though this overblown expansion of Rover’s ubiquitous V8 developed less than 200bhp, it offered vast amounts of torque. And that unstressed pulling power was more important than out-and-out performance in a country where popping down to the local pub could mean a 500-mile round trip through a dust storm and breaking down could be fatal if the crocodiles, spiders, snakes or koalas with attitude got to you before a human with a set of spanners did.
Like Citroën’s 2CV, the P76 was designed with the special needs of its homeland in mind. Forget transporting a couple of French peasants across a ploughed field without breaking any of their eggs though; one of the P76’s most notable features was its enormous boot, capable of holding a 44-gallon steel drum.
Presumably, this requirement was either for ensuring enough petrol to feed the P76’s mid-teens consumption, or simply a means for some Australians to make sure they had enough beer to last the evening. And, despite probably being capable of also fitting a Mini in its boot, this colossal car kept complication to a minimum by featuring two less body pressings than its tiny counterpart, or so Leyland claimed.
Lauded by the press
However, despite being critically applauded by the Australian press and orders outstripping supply at first, the P76 dream soon turned sour. There were teething problems, including overheating – something owners didn’t really care for in a nation which hasn’t quite got to grips with the concept of cold – and the usual industrial issues which BL managed to provoke wherever it operated.
Within months of the P76’s launch, the 1973 Fuel Crisis hit, but a major factor in the car’s failing fortunes was when component suppliers seemed unable to meet Leyland’s needs, thus stalling production. It’s still commonly believed that Australia’s Big Three – Ford, Holden and Chrysler – were covertly putting pressure on companies to slow down the flow of parts to Leyland in an attempt to kill off what they feared was a genuinely competitive and worthy rival.
Unfortunately they succeeded; the P76 was prematurely dead in Australia after only a couple of years, and limped on in New Zealand until 1976, just three years after its birth. In subsequent years, it came to be known as the P38; just half a car.
Tracking one down…
Plans to sell the car over here – as a Vanden Plas – consequently came to nought, something which has no doubt caused many a BL aficionado to weep into their chocolate brown wonky plastic dashboard ever since. So, during a trip to Australia, how could I resist getting my hands on one? Fortunately, the Leyland P76 Owners’ Club of New South Wales obliged and arranged a meet-up of seven owners with their cars, for me to take my pick.
Although highly tempted by a bright pink taxi version – well, who wouldn’t be? – I eventually settled on the 1973 P76 Executive of Tony and Kay DeLuca to try out. This Crystal White car was one of Leyland’s original press fleet, so it’s used to journalistic licence. And, had the P76 made it to Britain, it is the Executive model that would have been for sale in dealerships alongside our Allegros, Marinas, Maxis and Princesses. So, what did we miss out on?
You can’t really call the P76 an attractive car, not in the conventional sense. Imposing, certainly, and it’s definitely a vehicle that makes its presence felt. But Michelotti’s oft-delicate touch displayed on previous Triumphs is much less obvious here, on the bigger canvas of the Australian car. Styling is definitely in the American idiom with large overhangs front and rear, plus some distinctly non-European touches such as the thin, vertical repeater lights on the front and rear flanks and the snug-fit wraparound bumpers.
If it weren’t for the Leyland badges – and there are lot, on the wheels, the nose, and written in prominent capitals on the boot – there would be little to suggest European styling origins. With its external front sun visor and rear window louvres, this optional extra-loaded P76 looks even more unlike anything a Northern hemisphere Leyland product.
However, up close, certain trademark Michelotti touches manifest themselves; such as the ridges in the bonnet and the folds in the flat panels elsewhere on the body. And that nose; look carefully. There are distinct echoes of Triumph Stag in its narrow strip of a grille, framed by twin headlamps and combined indicator and sidelamp units at each end.
The chubby, sculptured tail-lamps are a distinctive feature not shared by any other car I’ve ever seen and, apparently, the first ever-use of chromed plastic on a car. Nice memorable first there, Leyland. Urban myth also has it that the whole light attachment was so large because the P76 was manufactured on the same production line as the Marina.
Which was a much smaller car, of course. And when the first P76s rolled down this line, they turned one particular sharp corner only to end up shaving their tails on a too-close wall. Rather than do something about the building, Leyland simply modified the car’s tooling so a significant chunk of P76 arse could be removed by hand beforehand, to save it being knocked off later by a bit of errant brickwork.
Before clambering inside – with cars this vast, that seems a more accurate description than simply getting in – I check out the legendary 44-gallon drum-capable boot. And I can well believe it’s capable of swallowing such an item and more besides, for it is absolutely gargantuan, with the sort of capacity that even some estates would kill for.
The vertically-mounted spare wheel barely makes a dent in the available space. No wonder the station wagon version of the P76 was stillborn – it simply wasn’t needed, the saloon being more than capable of consuming most loads in its own right. There’s a similar amount of space under the bonnet, albeit taken up with the mass of V8 and associated pipework. Bright blue rocker covers and a blue air filter give the engine a vaguely US air too.
The spacious cabin is almost a tribute to the highs (and lows) of Seventies interior design. Anyone who has ever revelled in the fake wood trim of an Allegro or Mk3 Cortina will go wild over the amount of plastic timber that decorates the P76 Executive.
What’s it like inside?
It’s everywhere; the dashboard, instrument panel, centre console, doors and even adorning the original radio (which proudly proclaims itself a ‘Leyland Premier,’ although that could, of course, just be the wish for what the company hoped the P76 could achieve for it in Australian sales charts). The deep-dish gauges are reminiscent of contemporary Fords and the fascia layout is quite advanced with sliding controls and curved switches, most embellished with yet more fake wood. It’s radiogram-tastic.
The intention was probably for a funky Space 1999/UFO disco appeal. To the Australia of 1973, this was what the future looked like and Leyland certainly went all out to embrace it. Buttoned-down pale blue upholstery with a honeycomb pattern completes the inside, although special mention has to be made of the prominent telescopic black padded steering wheel with fake stitching and an unmissable Leyland roundel plum in its centre.
Just in case the driver could possibly forget what he or she was piloting, the wheel in this car is actually from a Force 7 Coupe, but standard ones were no less outlandish and massive. It certainly makes an Allegro ‘Quartic’ item look sensible and restrained by comparison.
On the road
Turn the key – it’s a conventional column-mounted ignition lock – and the V8 lazily rumbles into life. Thanks to the sound-proofing, the noise is much muted; at rest, there’s little evidence that it is running especially if classic Rod Stewart suddenly invades the radio, as happened when we fired up this example.
Somehow, it seemed the perfect soundtrack for this Leyland. The loudest sound though was the rhythmic clicking of the fuel pump although Tony explained that this was an auxiliary unit fitted to overcome fuel evaporation at high temperatures and could be turned off if required.
The Borg-Warner three-speed automatic transmission is a straightforward slide lever, from park through reverse and neutral then slightly over to the left into drive. Letting off the brake pedal – which, in a very superior way, proclaims ‘Power Discs’ in its centre – results in a lurch forward as I adapt to 4.4-litres of Aussie-modified British V8 born in America.
There’s a lot of low-down grunt on offer, and even the smallest caress of the accelerator pedal piles on speed fast. As we’re in an urban part of Parramatta (a city near Sydney) with even more stringent speed limits – in kilometres per hour instead of miles – than British towns, and Australian traffic police are armed, I’m very conscious of trying to keep the mighty P76 in check. That’s not easy because it is a vast machine.
In Britain, it would probably feel like a giant, but Australia is blessed with a lot more space and an enthusiasm for generously proportioned cars; hence the wide roads are built to suit such vehicles. It’s an easy thing to drive and feels to me like an expanded Stag; there’s that same simplicity of use, coupled with a comfortable ride and oodles of power on tap.
Stab the right pedal hard when the opportunity allows and you can even make it sound like a Stag as well. There’s not a lot of driver feedback though; the floaty, soft suspension dampens out a lot of what would usually be transmitted back to passengers in a less-nonchalant car.
Power steering on the P76 came courtesy of Jaguar and it shows; it’s very light and makes the Leyland prone to over-steering before you get used to how much assistance there is. Australia is a nation where bends are far less frequent and severe than in Europe – set off south from Darwin in the Northern Territory and you’ll drive for well over a thousand miles before you come to the first decent roundabout (which just happens to have Ayers Rock/Uluru in the centre of it, rather like we put flowerbeds or abstract vandalised sculptures on ours) but, when a corner does creep up on you, it’s initially tricky not to turn in more than you need. This is a steering wheel it’s effortless to over-twiddle. Body roll is less than I was expecting though; there’s quite a bit of lean, but I was anticipating an unsettling tilt.
That’s not the case though; the ride/handling compromise seems to have been well-thought out by the Engineers. Braking is very sharp indeed; despite the size and weight of the P76, the front disc/rear drum set-up is very successful at reining in this large slab of mobile metal. Perhaps trumpeting those Power Discs on the brake pedal isn’t overstatement at all?
The overall impression I’m left with is of a car that tried hard to meet the requirements of the Australian market, and probably did so just as effectively as, if not better than, its Ford Falcon, Holden Kingswood and Chrysler Valiant rivals. As much as I’ve enjoyed trying out this legendary Leyland in its native land, I’m not convinced it would have caught on in Britain if it had been exported here; it feels like a creation that needs more wide open space than this small island could offer it.
But who knows? Sadly, we never got to find out, and neither, really, did the P76’s homeland, for it was killed off long before its time by the many difficult circumstances conspiring against it. Yet another Leyland ‘What if?’ that turned into a tragic ‘If only’ far too soon.
1968: For years, the British Motor Corporation has been producing modified versions of UK cars to compete in the lucrative large car segment of the Australian marketplace. But models like the big-engined Morris Marshall, Austin Freeway and Wolseley 24/80 had proved little match for native Ford Falcons, Holden Kingswoods and Chrysler Valiants.
Finally, with the advent of the brave new era of British Leyland back in the motherland, the go-ahead was given to finally develop an ‘All-Australian’ model. As an interim, the six-cylinder Austin and Morris Tasman and Austin Kimberley were launched in 1970, closely-related to the Landcrab but with more square-cut looks. Meanwhile, work continued on the ‘clean sheet’ P76 project, envisaged with six-cylinder and V8 engines – the latter based on Rover’s V8 but vastly expanded – and a completely original body design by Giovanni Michelotti.
1973: After delays due to union and supplier problems, the P76 saloon was launched in June by what was then Leyland Australia. The base model came with a 2623cc six-cylinder overhead-cam engine, higher-spec models sported a 4416cc V8. All were available in a variety of intriguing and loud paint schemes such as Hairy Lime, Home on the Th’Orange, Am Eye Blue, Peel Me A Grape and, our favourite, Oh Fudge – which was brown.
The advertising slogan for the car, which soon became known as the Wedge – yes, Princess fans, the P76 got there first – was ‘Anything but average.’ In a major promotional scoop, Leyland made its own James Bond-style movie The Carmakers and got it shown on a number of Australian TV networks before anyone realised it was actually one long advert for the company and its new car. It hasn’t been shown since…
1974 Although it has won Wheels’ Car of the Year award, it soon became obvious that the P76 wasn’t living up to sales expectations due to reliability issues, production troubles, the Fuel Crisis and problems with component availability, rumoured to have been provoked by Chrysler, Ford and Holden secretly putting pressure on outside suppliers.
Nevertheless, Leyland presseD on with its P76 plans. After the car achieved success in the 1974 World Cup Rally, a special edition Targa Florio was unleashed, complete with garish body graphics. The sporty and awesome-looking hatchback Force 7 Coupe was announced but only 56 were constructed and most of these ended up getting crushed soon after birth. In addition, an estate was also pencilled in and plans were even revealed to sell the P76 in Britain as a Vanden Plas model, with sales of over 5000 a year envisaged.
However, Leyland’s worsening financial problems in both the UK and Australia resulted in the P76 plug being pulled at the end of the year after a mere 12,524 have been constructed. Leyland’s Zetland (Sydney) plant closed down the following year. However, New Zealand continued to build the P76 in V8 form only.
1976 Production of the P76 drew to a close in New Zealand; in total around 22,000 examples were constructed, less than half of the 50,000 Leyland had hoped to sell each year.
1976 Leyland P76 Executive
|Maximum torque||285lb ft@2500rpm|
|0-60mph||Approx 9.0 seconds|
|Suspension||Front: Independent by MacPherson struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar, telescopic dampers.
Rear: Live axle, coil springs, telescopic dampers