SURVIVING LEYLAND P 76 SALOONS ARE HIGHLY PRIZED IN BOTH AUSTRALIA AND NEW ZEALAND. DONNA ND ER SON SEEKS TO FIND OUT WHY…
Beating the Aussies at their own game was always going to be a mighty challenge. By the ’70s, large cars had ruled supreme for years, and the Ford, Holden, and Chrysler camps represented strong factions that would be near on impossible to break.
Still, British Leyland (BL) came up with an idea for a large family saloon to break the mould of a rather messy array of smaller vehicles that, with the exception of the Mini, usually failed to win an accord. But, four decades on, most have forgotten the Leyland P76, once named Australia’s most controversial car. Sure, there were problems along the way, but the fact the P76 was conceived and put into production for a bargain AU$21M is nothing short of amazing, especially as it was also the only full-scale new-car Leyland project completed outside the UK.
Leyland had high hopes of capturing a generous slice of the volume market across the Tasman, but, in a three-year model cycle, it sold just 16,915 examples. The New Zealand Motor Corporation (NZMC) put the car into local complete knockdown (CKD) assembly and announced bold sales predictions of 2000 P76s a year, but, when the final cars were retailed in 1976, the tally over three years was around 1050.
Hal Moloney, who wrote a definitive history of the car, believes that 650 CKD packs came to New Zealand, while another estimate puts this total at 800, with the balance of cars sold here being Australian assembled. The CKD units were built at the Austin/nzmc plant at Petone, which was recently demolished. Somewhat ambitiously, the P76 was also destined for sale in Britain, but these plans were abandoned following initial market research, and only a few units headed north, so total production amounted to 18,007. The big three American car makers based in Australia could rest easy.
President of the Leyland P76 Owners Club Andrew Larsen owns two P76s, including the only survivor of the Benson and Hedges (B&H) production racing series at Pukekohe. Four P76s competed in the B&H 1000, and the bulky, 4890mm long Leyland entered the 1975 race with a realistic chance of ending the Chrysler Charger monopoly. Experienced racers David Oxton and Garry Pedersen were prominent runners, until they lost seven laps when a broken exhaust had to be fixed. Even so, they finished fifth in a car that almost matched the Chrysler in straight-line speed, was better under heavy braking, and had trim handling.
Another P76 — driven by Dauntsey Teagle and Jim Murdoch — enjoyed a troublefree run in an untried car. The following year, Oxton and Pedersen encountered fuel problems, which cost a 10-minute pit stop that relegated their P76 well down the field. However, not only did the V8-engined sedan prove fast on the track, it was also reasonably frugal. Grant Howard and Ron Crabtree drove the same Oxton/pedersen car to a 9.9 litres/100km (28.4mph) result in the 1975 Mobil Economy run. In the process, they beat the competing Falcon 500, Holden Statesman, and Chrysler Valiant.
There probably aren’t too many people in Australasia like local club members Rob and Sonya Jones, who have four P76s — two sixes and two bent-eights — but you can judge the enthusiasm of owners by the impressive turnout of cars at a club gathering at Bushy Park, near Whanganui.
Three Leylands are known to be in New Zealand museums, including the British Car Museum at Te Awanga,
Hawke’s Bay, and the Vintage Car and Machinery museum in Geraldine.
The origins of this distinctive wedgeshaped four-door lay in a front-wheel-drive Hydrolastic-suspension Austin 1800, into which an alloy Rover V8 engine was installed. The alloy block V8 weighed less than the four cylinder pushrod B-series engine in the 1800. But the package was too costly, and a different direction was required to conceive the first Leyland-badged car since the Straight Eight of the ’20s, which held a world land-speed record in its day.
The P76 development began in 1969, and, by the time the car was in production, the local content was a remarkably high 90 per cent — more than an equivalent Holden.
This was never meant to be another conventional rear-driven car with a mundane suspension, but a big sedan with European standards of ride, handling, trim, and interior design, while fitting the Australian customer’s demand for room, mechanical layout, and performance. David Beech, director of product development for Leyland Australia, said at launch, “If we produced another Holden/ Falcon/valiant it would be a bloody failure.”
The traditional big three car makers held the keys to Australia’s large-car sector, which accounted for 60 per cent of all car sales. Leyland, with only an eight per cent total market share, had to grab a slice of big-car business to remain viable, since the locally produced Marinas and 1800/2200– based Tasmans and Kimberleys were not securing enough volume. However, engineers and market planners within the company could never have predicted the first oil crisis within weeks of the P76 being announced or, more important, the decision by British management in 1974, just a year later, to close down its Australian operation.
Two power plants were needed, with the less costly version using a modified Tasman/ Kimberley overhead-cam straight-six. A longer stroke gave a capacity of 2623cc and a modest 90kw (121bhp). When the P76 went into Nelson assembly in March 1974, it was announced that only the 4416cc V8 would be built in New Zealand, supported by Aussie-assembled sixes. Leyland Australia took the familiar Rover 3500 unit and produced a ‘square’ engine with identical bore and stroke, and a power output of 143kw (192bhp) at 4250rpm, and 386Nm of torque at 3500rpm. This was the largest-capacity version of the Rover V8 at the time, although it was later followed in the UK by 3.9- and 4.6-litre adaptations.
The P76 V8 has a deeper and stronger block than the Rover engine, with biggercapacity oil and water pumps, larger main bearings and water pumps, larger main bearings, and a Bendix-stromberg twinbarrel carburettor instead of twin SUS. Initially, raw block and head castings were imported from Britain, but, longer term, the plan was to produce local castings.
The smaller P82 project, a car to replace the Marina, was to use a V6 engine that was essentially the Rover V8 minus two cylinders. This stillborn V6 was planned
to replace the straight-six motor in the P76. However, the V6 was cancelled, as was the P82, when BL’S problems in the UK became so severe in 1974 that the company had to be nationalized.
Both P76 engines were available with a three-speed manual gearbox with column change or a four-speed manual with floor change. The optional Borgwarner 35 threespeed automatic was also offered with the choice of column or floor controls. Power steering and air conditioning were optional.
Significantly, the six- and eight-cylinder engines weighed almost the same. This allowed Leyland to offset high engineering costs by standardization of the suspension, with identical rack-and-pinion steering, brakes, dampers, and springs. The front suspension is Mcpherson strut, with coil springs, forged lower arms, and a rearward facing tie bar, plus a separate anti-roll bar with short connecting links. A light Borgwarner semi-floating rear axle has fourlink location with coil springs and separate dampers. Long suspension travel made a fine job of soaking up bad bumps, and the way the car sat flat and stable when working hard set an example to its rivals.
Giovanni Michelotti, best known for styling the Triumph 2000/2500, BMW 2002, and some Maserati models, penned the extravert P76 body shape with its handsome profile, long overhangs front and rear, and somewhat awkward rear end. Lower-grade versions, including a V8, came with two headlights and single wheel trims and lacked bright metal trim around the wheel arches, which was standard on Super and Executive grades. The more expensive versions are distinguished by four headlights and different grilles, with black finish along the bottom of the side panels.
Michelotti was also responsible for the Force 7, the equally dramatic-looking twodoor coupé prototype with a massive glass hatchback. Additionally in line for production was a P76 station wagon, but only one prototype was built before this variant was
canned. A total of 56 Force 7s came down the production line in preparation for a June 1974 launch, plus there were several prototypes.
When the axe fell on this project at the 11th hour, Leyland Australia decided to destroy all but 10 of them. These cars have survived — including one in Hawera, which was the actual blue-with-white-trim example used in Britain by Lord Stokes, chairman and chief executive of BL. Rumours that the Force 7 had links to development of the Rover SD1 seem unfounded.
Acclaimed as the first locally produced, Australian-designed hatchback, the Force 7 was so close to introduction that owner handbooks had been printed and were subsequently offered for sale by Leyland. With a high waistline, deep panels, and massive C- pillar, the Force 7 shared no exterior panels with the P76 saloon, but its wheelbase and tracks were identical. With a useful hatch and fold-down rear seat, the car would have been a formidable challenge to the less practical two-door Holden Monaro and Falcon hardtop.
In September 1975, eight survivors were auctioned by Leyland in Sydney, but, while 1000 people were expected, just 300 turned up, and prices fell far short of predictions. The cars sold at prices from $6250 to $10,010, plus a government-imposed sales tax of 27.5 per cent — not a huge amount less than their worth today, if ever one comes up for sale. Force 7 memorabilia — such as brochures, toys, coasters, key rings, and pin badges — is still keenly snapped up.
Car of the Year
The going rate for a P76 sedan in Australia is now around AU$15K, while almost all New Zealand owners appear to have no intentions of selling. The most expensive example listed recently across the Tasman was AU$19K, but it is difficult to find any example for sale.
Some armchair experts reckon that the Leyland should have been called a ‘P38’, since ‘it was only half a car’. Jokes abound, yet the motoring media of the day generally applauded the design, and Wheels magazine awarded it Car of the Year in its January 1974 edition. Wheels praised the V8 version “that really shows its potential”, and said that the P76 set new standards for medium-size sedans in its ride/ handling/roadholding compromise. It enthused over the front disc brakes; the comfort, space, and practicality; and the fuel economy that was “superior to rival V8s and larger sixes”.
Experienced rally driver and writer Evan Green drove one in the 1974 World Cup Rally, taking fastest time on one leg in Sicily. “This is a forgiving car, with no apparent handling vices. Make a mistake and it will help you get out of it,” he said.
Certainly, the V8 went hard, and the good weight distribution contributed to the fine handling. With almost five turns from lock to lock, the well-damped manual steering required a fair amount of work on twisty roads, yet the car was surprisingly light to handle at parking speeds. And there were few complaints about a lack of performance with either engine.
Enthusiastic about the down-under car, Stokes said at the 1973 unveiling, “The P76 is the most exciting overseas project yet undertaken by British Leyland, and we believe that its advent has not only revitalized our Australian company, but will also enable us to take a much bigger share of the Australian car market and
bring about an improvement in our financial situation in that country.” Unfortunately, these positive views never materialized.
More than 2000 orders were received during the first week of sales, but Leyland had only 800 cars in stock, and a fourmonth waiting list soon developed. A shortage of parts forced assembly slowdowns, and there were quality complaints about the early vehicles, with water and dust leaks, poor fit and finish, overheating, and loose instrument consoles. Yet build-quality faults were not uncommon among rival Aussie-built cars in the ’70s, so perhaps it is unfair to wrongly malign the P76, which would have such a short model life.
One ex-leyland engineer recalls how well the P76 performed at the Motor Industry Research Establishment (MIRA) in Britain, where the car was subjected to a rigorous 10,000-mile (16,093km) test equal to 100,000 miles of actual driving. At the time, the P76 and Porsche 911 were the only two cars to complete the test without any structural damage.
The spacious P76 was one of the first cars with wipers hidden below the bonnet line, and the rather heavy rear-end styling concealed a massive boot that would accommodate a 44-gallon (200-litre) drum. It was the lightest contender in the big-car class and had the tightest turning circle. Unusual for the day, the light, rigid monocoque body sported reinforcing bars in the doors for side-impact protection, and both bonnet and boot came with torsionbar counterbalancing.
The front and rear wings were easily replaceable, the body had only five more panels than a Mini, and the three-piece bumpers reduced repair costs. The Leyland was the same length as a Valiant and 152mm longer than a Holden Kingswood or Falcon, and all four rivals had a wheelbase of 2825mm. The P76 boasted a weight advantage of 182kg over a Valiant, and was 136kg lighter than a Falcon and 113kg trimmer than a Holden.
Home on the O’range
New Zealand launched only with the eight-cylinder engines, with the $6310 de Luxe manual the cheapest V8 on the local market. Automatic transmission added $341, and higher grade Super and Executive versions were priced at $7197 and $7680, respectively. By comparison, in 1975, a Ford Fairmont 302 V8 was $7798 and a Holden Premier V8, $7050. Local prices remained remarkably stable during the model life, despite high inflation and a devaluation of the Kiwi dollar.
Eight body colours carried bizarre ’70s names, including Home on the O’range, Bitter Apricot, Peel me a Grape, Bold as Brass, Hairy Lime, and Plum Loco. There were four interior colours, including dark brown leather, and the mid-range Super version proved most popular. While Leyland predicted the six-cylinder would be the best seller, the Australian market — like ours — favoured the V8 option. Final production figures saw a total of 9838 V8s and 8169 sixes.
Near the end of production in Australia, a run of 300 special-edition automatic Targa Florio–badged P76s were painted in metallic blue or green with silver stripe detailing and had power steering and a limited-slip differential. One of these is under restoration in Geraldine.
There is nothing like variety, and the New Zealand P76 club welcomes all vehicles with a P76 body, any Marina with a six-cylinder motor, and all vehicles powered by a P76 V8. One member has an RX-7 with a P76 V8, Toyota five-speed gearbox, and shortened Mustang differential. There’s a Datsun 260C with the Leyland V8, and even a P76 powered by a Nissan diesel.
Whatever time has inflicted on this car, the P76 remains a unique — if ill-fated — Australian project to revive a failing British automotive brand. But more than that, it is a car with merit that could well have done much better had circumstances been different. As early Leyland advertising for the P76 proclaimed, it certainly is “anything but average”.
1974 New Zealand brochure for the locally assembled Leyland P76. V8 models are distinguished by their four headlights, and the red example with two headlights is a straight-six
Below: A New Zealand–assembled P76 V8 with a suitable Wellington harbour as the backdrop Below left: The car’s boot was simply huge and came with a usefully deep lid Far right: Handsome, if somewhat plain, profile of an entry-level six-cylinder P76
Above: A really nicely restored car belonging to Auckland club member John Rossen. Photo taken in Raglan in March 2015
Far left: There was a distinctly ’70s look to the facia
Left: Relaxing in the spacious Leyland P76 — a scene from the New Zealand brochure for the car
Above: Graeme Storer and Dorothy Blair with their Executive V8 P76 at Lake Hawera
Left: Ron Butler and Rob Jones with their cars at a famous vantage point in Bluff
Above: Four of the less common models at Cromwell — a Bitter Apricot V8 (P and R Buchanan), Crystal White V8 (G Storer), Dry Red V8 (A and F Young), and Am Ey Blue sixcylinder (R and S Jones)
Right: Three Peel me a Grape P76 sedans owned in the South Island by B and L Morris, C and C Sweetman, and D and H Prouting
Left: Group shot at Lake Hawera club gathering