Op­er­a­tion de­serted storm

Australian Muscle Car - - Stillborn Muscle -

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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