New Zealand Classic Car - - Contents -

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.

Prom­i­nent run­ners

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.

Euro­pean stan­dards

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.

Aus­tralian-de­signed hatch­back

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

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