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Leyland P76 history

By Dave Carey | Photos: SM Archives, 04 May 2019 Features

Leyland P76 history

Released in 1973 and packed with advanced features for its time, the Leyland P76 should have taken the Aussie car market by storm. Instead, it became an automotive punchline. We find out why

THE Leyland P76 should have been a contender. Released by British Motor Corporation Australia in 1973, the P76 was roomy, economical and technologically advanced. It’s easy to view the Kingswoods, Falcons and Valiants of the time through rose-tinted glasses, but truthfully, they were all compromised in design and quality. If the developers of the P76 had adequately addressed these issues, the car might have changed the Australian automotive landscape for the better. BMC’s failure to do so left it remembered as Australia’s Edsel. It ‘could have’ and ‘should have’, but ‘clearly didn’t’. Where did it all go
wrong?

This article was first published in the April 2019 issue of Street Machine

Leyland P76Throughout the 1960s, British Motor Corporation Australia had enjoyed considerable sales success with compromised products; the Mother Country was seen as the go-to for economical buzzboxes, regardless of their technological and quality deficits. The Japanese were advancing on our market too, but were yet to prove themselves the automotive emperors they would become.

Yet despite the outwardly similar visages of BMCA’s products, very few parts were shared between the Mini, Morris 1100, 1500, 1800 and Austin Tasman/Kimberley. To find a solution to this cost-creating anomaly, the Advanced Model Group (AMG) was formed in February 1968, swiftly recommending that the company focus on grabbing a sweet slice of Big Three pie.

Watch next: Restoration of an original Leyland P76 - part one

Leyland P76Two major product streams were proposed: a confident medium-sizer (Model A) for release in 1973, and a super-profitable, rear-wheel-drive family car (Model B) to follow in 1974, with the pair sharing as many components as automotively possible.

But development of the ADO28 Marina back in the UK derailed the AMG’s plans, with an Australianised Marina scuppering the Model A project. However, although the move brought a smaller car to the Aussie market a year earlier, the ADO28 Marina was a woeful contraption, sitting on lever-arm suspension that was almost entirely unchanged from the ancient Morris Minor.

Read next: Leyland Force 7V - flashback

Leyland P76Still, the adaptation of the Marina allowed the company’s overstretched resources to concentrate on the larger Model B, which would eventually become the Leyland P76.

BMCA’s director of engineering, David Beech, headed to the UK with the view to securing AU$30 million for the Model B project, known internally as YDO26. Beech was allowed only $21 million, chump change considering the ground-up nature of the endeavour.

Read next: Leyland P76 40th anniversary, Canberra, 2016

Leyland P76Without a previous model under which to disguise their developing product, and no private proving ground like Holden’s Lang Lang facility, Leyland engineers purchased three then-current HK Holdens to use as incognito development mules. A six-cylinder Kingswood sedan, a V8 Monaro coupe and a six-cylinder Kingswood wagon were modified with an array of engine and suspension configurations, with a 3.5-litre Rover V8, MacPherson strut suspension, power steering, BorgWarner 35 automatic and E6 2.6-litre OHC straight-six all seeing service in the various Holdens. The ruse was so successful that four more HKs were modified for purpose, with the final car, built in June 1971, converted to full YDO26 specs under the skin.

It was 1969 before things got serious in terms of shaping the outside of the car. Insanely, BMCA’s facilities did not actually include a styling department, with chief stylist Romand Rodbergh working from a corner of the Experimental Department. Rodbergh and his team were normally called upon for cosmetic reworks and upgrades; they’d never penned a car from scratch.

Leyland P76Knowing GM-H, Ford and Chrysler’s facilities essentially shat on those of BMCA, David Beech visited Karmann in Germany and Giovanni Michelotti in Turin, hoping to use the former for the body engineering and tooling while engaging either company for the styling. Both European houses submitted proposals, as did BMC’s own studios at Longbridge, UK.

But Rodbergh was upset that he wasn’t even consulted about the project, so, working through his holidays, he created his own styling proposals for the YDO26 sedan and YDO27 coupe, adding them to a presentation for BMC UK head Lord Stokes. Bizarrely, it was Rodbergh’s wedge-shaped submission that created the most interest, with the Longbridge, Karmann and Michelotti designs largely ignored.

Leyland P76 frontThe marketing department were still keen to attribute a ‘designer’ name to the vehicle – something the Big Three could never claim – so Beech recommended that Michelotti finesse Rodbergh’s vacation-penned sketches. But regardless of the Michelotti name in the marketing, the shape of the new car, to be called P76, was Rodbergh’s more than anyone’s; Michelotti did nothing more than some minor revisions, turning around his final design within a single week.

A verbal agreement had been made with Karmann for delivery of the panel tooling, but come contract time, the Germans needed more time. Unwilling to delay the project, David Beech instead engaged Pressed Steel-Fisher, a wholly owned subsidiary of BMC. It apparently mattered little that the P76’s panels were to be the biggest of any BMC vehicle and Pressed Steel would struggle to create tooling of any quality; they had capacity and were handily positioned next door in Longbridge, so got the job.

Leyland P76The first car to wear a production-spec P76 body was assembled in MG’s Abingdon factory, the last prototype to be assembled by the veteran British carmaker. The P76 body was revealed to be exceptionally strong, although there were plenty of areas for improvement. Front barrier testing revealed better bonnet latches were required, as were some modifications to the inner structure. In an Australian first, side intrusion beams were integrated into the doors, despite ADRs not requiring them until 1976.

But as production began, Pressed Steel’s substandard jig tooling wreaked havoc, with the worst problem being the tendency of the A-pillars to shrink back towards the body when mated to the roof panel. With the P76 one of the first cars worldwide to wear bonded front and rear screens, water leaks, dust-sealing issues and cracked windows were rife, while the front doors struggled to fit within their respective apertures.

Leyland P76Further sealing issues, this time along the sills, were evident on the hand-built prototypes and carried over into production, with the inner door panels incorrectly shaped from the outset. At the firewall, the steering column cover plate and automatic clutch-cable blanking plate caused trouble, as did the boot seal, while unskilled line workers left out all manner of grommets and sealants, including bonding the troublesome windscreens on only three sides. The dashboard, designed by ZA Fairlane stylist Mark Cassarchis, gave a meaningful nod to ergonomics, but was not developed adequately. In fact, not one prototype vehicle was fitted with a production-spec dashboard. As a result, the final product quickly distorted in the sun and the fake-wood fascias peeled off soon after purchase.

Elsewhere inside the car, winder mechanisms proved to be weak, T-bar shifters fell off due to crappy clips, dashtop switches broke and centre consoles rattled like proverbial skeletons in a closet. Cars were stockpiled while awaiting supply of crucial components, often delayed by pressure from other customers like Ford, Holden and Chrysler.

Leyland P76Outside, dimensional variations in the Hella-produced zinc-diecast head- and tail-light assemblies caused fitment problems, as did inferior clips holding the C-pillar vents. Those who stumped for air con found the Smiths compressor not adequate for the large glasshouse, despite being the same unit fitted to competitors. If it rained, wipers were jumpy, which was not only annoying but placed a high load on motors, hastening early failure.

Engine-wise, the 4.4-litre V8 wasn’t a bad unit, weighing significantly less than the V8s of the Big Three and aiding the P76’s able handling prowess. Yet somehow, hot-weather testing failed to reveal to engineers at BMCA – now rebranded as Leyland Australia – that the sparkplugs ran too cool; most were changed at the first service. Buyers who went for the 2.6-litre E6-powered car were faced with blown head gaskets, oil leaks from the rear adapter plate and weak water-pump pushrods.

Leyland P76 engine bayIt’s not like the staff and management at Leyland Australia didn’t care about the quality and warranty issues; workers were retrained and immigrants taught conversational English on the job, while corporate types put out spot-fires like a scholar at a book-burning. However, when presented with a choice between stopping production or the spot-fires, Leyland Australia chose to burn. Cars requiring correction were initially funnelled back onto the line, creating a backlog and cooling buyer enthusiasm as waiting times blew out. Production issues stemmed from every quarter, with the line itself, designed
for the Morris Major/Austin Lancer, damaging the big cars as they were built. The P76 simply didn’t fit, and calls to spend some Aussie pesos revising the size of the line fell on deaf ears back at Longbridge.

With scant room on the factory floor and no money to fix the production line, Leyland Australia set up the Rectification Centre, a two-million-dollar facility with 60 highly trained staff tasked with making the cars fit for sale. Once established, almost every completed car went through the centre for repair work.

Leyland P76To add insult to injury, industry yardstick Holden experienced an 11 per cent slump in sales in the 12 months preceding the P76’s release, dropping to 22 per cent of the Aussie market. Likewise, Ford shed 7 per cent of its previous year’s sales, while Chrysler was languishing with 6.4 per cent of the total market. Leyland opted to jump into a shrinking market at precisely the wrong time.

Back in the UK, Leyland was in the hole for three-quarters of a million pounds thanks to chronic mismanagement and a poorly timed three-month coal miners’ strike that essentially crippled the United Kingdom.

The writing was on the wall, and in October 1974 it was announced that the Australian plant would close, with the last cars plated that November. The Leyland P76 alone wasn’t the reason for the Australian arm’s closure; in fact, Leyland outposts in Spain, Italy and South Africa were all kyboshed at thesame time.

Naturally, hundreds lost their jobs and buyer enthusiasm for the already-troubled P76 tanked, leaving a significant backlog of unsold vehicles.

Leyland P76Could the Leyland P76 have been a contender? Could it have challenged its market brethren – the Kingswood, Falcon and Valiant – and come out on top? If the P76 had suffered just one problem, one that could be solved with some rectification work and a sincere apology, then possibly. But with such a litany of issues – development compromises, budget problems, supply concerns, labour disputes, manufacturing woes and top-level management indifference – it didn’t have a chance.

As a result, the P76 has become the butt of every Aussie automotive joke since. It was technologically advanced, and, initially at least, the public and press wanted to it succeed, but ultimately a confluence of unfortunate circumstances conspired against it. 

Thank you to Gavin Farmer for his incredible book Leyland P76: Anything But Average (available at ilingabooks.com.au) and Ian Thomas for his insights from the coalface.

ENGINE ROOM

LEYLAND’S lightweight and tuneable all-alloy V8 started production life back in 1961, not with BMC, but with General Motors. But the 3.5-litre turned out to be expensive to produce and was shelved after only two years. Rover’s managing director later chanced upon the design and entered into a licensing agreement with GM to produce the engine. The mill was fitted to the Rover P5B and P6B, creating the quintessential British sports sedan, shaking off the company’s stodgy image in the process.

Leyland P76 engineFor its application in the P76, Leyland Australia was able to simplify and cost-cut the engine, replacing cast-alloy rocker covers with basic pressed steel items and the twin SUs with a single Bendix-Stromberg carburettor. The result was an engine quite different to the Rover and Buick parent, with only the camshaft casting being common to each.

The six-banger was added late in the program to appease buyers who may be have been put off by the notion of a V8 despite the apparent tech and power benefits. A small team of engineers developed the 2.6-litre six off the 2.2-litre E-series six fitted to the Tasman/Kimberley twins. Having many parts in common with the E-series four-cylinder made it cheap and easy to manufacture, but it was a compromised design that required a fair bit of re-jigging to fit in a rear-wheel-drive car.

Interestingly, each of the Big Three were invited to supply six-cylinder motors for Leyland, but none fit in the relatively short engine bay, which was designed for specifically for a V8.

Leyland P76WHAT'S IN A NAME

LORD Stokes, head of British Leyland Motor Corporation, had terrible trouble following the internal codes bestowed upon the various projects his company had in progress. BMCA’s Model B project was coded YDO26 for the sedan and YDO27 for the coupe. “Why don’t you call it something like P76?” he asked BMCA manager Roger Foy in desperation. Not wanting to disagree with the boss, Foy applied the P76 name to the project and it followed the car through to production. Legend has it that P, 7 and 6 were the first three characters of Stokes’s British Army ID number.

LEYLAND P76 TARGA FLORIO

THE P76’s success in Special Stage 8 of the 1974 World Cup Rally, a torturous event that saw competitors travel from London to Munich via Spain, the Sahara Desert, Sicily, Turkey and Yugoslavia, was cause for much celebration within the Leyland world. Evan Green and John Bryson smashed the stage, held at the Targa Florio circuit in Palermo, Sicily, by several minutes in the Brut 33-sponsored P76 sedan, ‘Big Brut’.

Leyland P76A limited batch of 500 P76 Targa Florio editions commemorated the win. Available in three colours – Omega Navy, Aspen Green and Nutmeg – with a silver stripe package, alloy wheels and a Force 7-style sports steering wheel, the V8-only Targa Florio provided a popular boost towards the end of the P76’s production run, quickly selling out.

FORCE FIELD

NAMED for a savage summer storm, the Force 7V was to be Leyland’s Monaro. Although a hardtop coupe in profile, the car featured a large rear hatchback, fold-down rear seats and completely bespoke external panels; visually, it shared nothing with the P76 sedan.

Leyland Force 7VInitially conceived in three luxury specs – the six-banger Force 7, mid-range manual V8 Force 7V and top-spec luxury automatic Tour de Force – budget constraints meant only the mid-spec model was greenlit for production. In the end though, only a handful were manufactured before the entire project was canned.

Although the press at the time was exuberant about the chances of the Force 7V turning around Leyland’s fortunes, it was never going to save the P76. The aggressive front end was markedly more attractive than that of the sedan, but the moulded plastic nosecone caused significant production issues. Supplier Elmarco took several months to perfect the manufacturing process, as the nosecone distorted as it cured. When viewed from the side, the large glasshouse and low hipline were thoroughly modern, but looked awkward compared to the wide, low coupes with letterbox-slot windows that Aussie buyers were used to.

Leyland Force 7VGossip abounds regarding the initial amount of built-up Force 7V coupes; official numbers cite nine complete vehicles, 56 near-complete vehicles and a further 47 in various states of assembly. Those within Leyland have since divulged that the number of near-complete cars may have been upwards of 120, hiding offsite in a disused woolshed.

Leyland Force 7VRegardless of the numbers, the survivors are well-documented. A mere 10 cars were saved from the crusher, with one retained by Leyland Australia and another back in England. The remaining eight were sold at auction in September 1975; at the time of publication, all survive.

CAR OF THE YEAR

Wheels magazineIT’S often speculated that Wheels magazine’s annual Car Of The Year award must be a farce, thanks to the Leyland P76 winning the prestigious award for 1973. Decades later, it’s easy to forget that the cars were highly likely to have had a significant amount of reworking before being handed over to the press; it was the same process for any Aussie manufacturer. Furthermore, Wheels was very specific that the award was for the V8 variants only. These days, all variants of a particular car must deliver the goods to win the award; a crappy base model is enough to strike a vehicle off the shortlist.

P76 PROBLEMS

IAN Thomas was Leyland’s state service manager for Victoria and Tasmania during the time of the P76, and has more than a few grey hairs to show for it.

He recalls that the P76’s significant sealing problems were his biggest headache. “There was no ledge along the sill for the door to seat against, so most days I’d arrive at my office at Airport West and there’d be a bunch of owners waiting, sometimes six or more. Sill to sill, the cars’d be full of bloody water! The owners would ask me what I was going to do about it, and I’d tell them that the first thing we’ll do is drill some holes to let the water out.

Leyland P76“The bodies just didn’t fit together well; we’d have heaps of troubles with bonnets, bootlids and things like that,” he continues. “The Poms didn’t help either; they’d build something and we’d be in the field copping all the feedback and they’d come back with: ‘Not a known problem.’ The company would compare the cost of rectifying the issue on the line with having the car come back under warranty. Unfortunately, the latter was invariably the cheaper option, so they’d just keep on building them! They totally ignored the most important thing: buyer satisfaction. That attitude was part of the reason they
closed up here.”

Despite Ian’s experiences, he remembers the P76 fondly, retaining a P76 Deluxe as his everyday car for 10 years after he left the company. “I have to say, unless it was the V8, it wasn’t much good. The E6 was gutless and didn’t have the drive it should have; it just felt under strain the whole time,” he admits. “Still, the V8 was great; you could hitch your house to it and tow it over the road.”