Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 26 October 2014

Classic Cars: Leyland P76

Leyland's worldwide empire produced some heroic failures, yet the P76 was Australia's car of the year.

In the 1970s, British Leyland (BLMC) became synonymous with dated design and thrown-together cars. Worst of all was the company's habit of "badge engineering" - the system where it would take a body shell and produce Austin, MG, Morris, Riley and Wolseley variants of the same thing.

But, beyond these shores, Leyland did things that few Leyland-buying Brits ever saw in an age before mass travel. In India, a five-door hatchback version of the Triumph Herald was sold, while in Africa and Australia, hatchbacked versions of the Austin 1100 were locally made.

The best - or maybe the worst - of all was a car named "Kimberley". Built in Australia by Leyland's antipodean offshoot, the Kimberley was the centre section of the Austin/Morris 1800/2200 "land crab" model, which then had a boxy boot tacked on to the rear and an aircraft carrier-style bonnet stuck on the front - under which lurked an enlarged transverse engine. It was an attempt to sell to the typical Australian market - which meant that it was doomed from the start. Any Aussie could have predicted such a fate. A lesser version, badged as the "Tasman", was also made.

Not long afterwards, a tweaked down-under version of the Morris Marina heralded the birth of "Leyland Australia" as a brand.

Trouble was, the Australians of the 1970s loved big rear-drive V8- or V6-engined cars with large boots, tough bodies and easily repairable mechanicals. Bench seats and big wheels were de rigueur - before the heady 1980s days of "poncy" Japanese coupés, as outback rednecks called them.

So Leyland Australia came up with the Kimberley. Realising its failure, it then came up with a "proper" Australian car - the P76 - which even the best-informed classic car enthusiasts tend to be unaware of.

In 1969, Leyland Australia was given the go-ahead to build a Leyland for Australia. With very little money to put into the project - A$20m - the Aussies got a new car.

Triumph's Harry Webster commissioned Giovanni Michelotti to style the oddly named P76. The cars could be had with either a 2.6-litre in-line Leyland engine or a 4.4-litre V8 unit that was a legacy of the still-born Rover P8 saloon - for the Rover 3.5-litre ex-Buick V8 was part of the BL parts bin.

The bigger-engined version had nearly 200bhp and more than 280lb/ft of torque, and Aussie farmers reckoned you could tow a plough with that. The handling was sorted by an ex-MG Abingdon man - a Mr Brocklehurst, who developed the car at the Mira test-track in Warwickshire.

The styling was superb, and was only dated by the 1970s fashion for chromed grilles and ornate trim. The lines were clean and elegant, helped by minimal use of panel pressings and features such as hidden windscreen wipers. The shape was a modern high-tailed wedge with presence; Michelotti had produced a truly international shape that, with only a bit of minor tidying, could well have lasted into the 1980s.

Launched in 1973, the car was a sensation for Leyland and was voted Australia's car of the year. There were Deluxe, Super and Executive versions, and a sporty Targa Florio model with alloys and side stripes.

The P76 had a massive interior, excellent handling, and a 36 cubic foot boot. It was also advanced in safety terms - every door contained a wide steel crash barrier plate to ward off intrusion in an accident.

The cars were built in Leyland's plant at Zetland, near Sydney. The orders poured in. Yet, as so often with Leyland's history, issues with parts supplies and the small matter of a strike took their toll. Within two years, the wheels began to fall off the P76 project, even though it was also built in New Zealand and the British motoring press were given UK spec cars to drive in London. The thought of potential British sales rose on the good write-ups the car received in Britain but, as so often with BL, it all fell apart.

By 1975, Leyland Australia's losses were mounting further and the P76 lost its way as BL closed its last Commonwealth outpost. Unsupported in comparison to home-grown Holdens and Fords, and then the Datsun invasion of the Australian market, the P76 wasted away and died quietly after less than three years in the market. Only 12,525 cars were sold. An estate version - a mainstay of the Australian market - was made but never marketed.

Before the P76 died, there was a sting in the tail of the story - a sting that to many observers, including car designers, represents one of the greatest and most typically British losses of the era. The P76's twist was that it had spawned a coupé version.

Labelled bizarrely as the "Force 7", the P76 coupé was tooled up and produced in low numbers - less than 100 were made before the factory was closed. The styling was European, aping the Audi Coupé of the time and the later Renault 17. A huge glass hatchback framed a fastback rear with muscle-car extractor vents. The side windows had pillarless construction and Michelotti gave the grille an Italian supercar style. It looked sleek in side profile, and wide from any angle, but it was stylish.

Both these designs are now rare. Only two P76s are known to be in the UK and a few of the coupés still exist in Australia. This is yet another tale that encapsulates the story of British Leyland.

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