Operation deserted storm
It’s 40 years since the untimely death of the Leyland P76 also killed its coupe derivative, just as it was poised for mass production. The axe fell on the Force 7 a matter of weeks – even days – before its press and dealer launch back in October 1974. It was a casualty of Leyland Australia’s own demise as a local car manufacturer.
With the announcement in 1974 that Leyland Australia was closing, emotions ran pretty high among the workforce. It signalled the end of yet another chapter in Australia’s automotive history that would see the country lose valuable engineering and manufacturing skills.
Nothing short of a miracle could have saved Leyland Australia. Certainly not the parent company in England because it was fighting for its own survival. Ironically, British Leyland was saved from extinction by a buy-out from the British Labour government.
Despite a product line that was being totally revamped by Australian engineers to better match what Australian buyers wanted, the local company was walking the proverbial financial tightrope in developing the P76 program that included the sedan, station wagon and the S2, as it was coded internally, which would later to become the Force 7.
At the time, many pundits suggested that the ailing company’s saviour was waiting in the wings, production-ready, in the form of the stylish
Force 7 coupe. But could the Force 7 have really saved the company?
That was the question which was put to retired former Leyland Australia, and BMC, engineer Bill Serjeantson who quite forthrightly replied, “No, no way! The coupe was only ever going to be a low volume image product.
“No, the car that might have helped us along was the P76 wagon that was undergoing prototype durability tests at the time of the closure. Australians have never been big buyers of coupes but have traditionally been big buyers of station wagons. I honestly believe that our wagon would have been very successful in meeting the needs of a great many families. It, and the P76 sedan, were both going to be the volume models that would have generated the profits for us to survive.”
The original plan – as devised by Graham Hardy, Barry Anderson and the other members of the Advanced Model Group (AMG) set up in late 1967 during the BMC days by engineering director David Beech – was for a two-model range of vehicles, known as A and B. Model B was to be a traditionally-sized Australian car available with three types of bodies – sedan, coupe and wagon – and would be a direct competitor to the Holden Kingswood, Ford Falcon and Chrysler Valiant that at the time dominated local sales. Model B became the Leyland P76.
For years, managing director Bill Abbott and his team had been trying to convince the powers that be in England to allow the Australian branch of the corporation to design and build cars uniquely suited to the local market. The high-tech frontwheel-drive Mini, 1100/1500 and 1800 might have been fine for the English market but they were expensive to build here because very few high-volume components were shared. And their reliability record in Australia was pathetic.
“What was drastically needed,” said former MD (the late) Bill Abbott, “was a range of conventionally engineered cars using as much locally-sourced componentry as possible to keep costs down so we could be profitable.”
Top: Things have changed at Zetland, in inner Sydney, since the Leyland factory closed in 1974, but there are still signs, quite literally, of its automotive and horse racing (see Tote Building bottom left of p4) past. The site is dominated today by high-density housing. Right: Leyland’s in-house stylist Romand Rodbergh created the early sketches that were reworked by the famed Giovanni Michelotti.
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