Leyland P76: Classic metal

By: Joe Kenwright

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Classic metal: Leyland P76 Classic metal: Leyland P76 Classic metal: Leyland P76
Classic metal: Leyland P76 Classic metal: Leyland P76 Classic metal: Leyland P76
Classic metal: Leyland P76 Classic metal: Leyland P76 Classic metal: Leyland P76
Classic metal: Leyland P76 Classic metal: Leyland P76 Classic metal: Leyland P76
Classic metal: Leyland P76 Classic metal: Leyland P76 Classic metal: Leyland P76
Classic metal: Leyland P76 Classic metal: Leyland P76 Classic metal: Leyland P76

Hit by supply problems, funding shortfalls and corporate apathy,the Leyland P76 was unfairly labelled a lemon.

Leyland P76: Classic metal
Classic metal: Leyland P76

 

Leyland P76

The Leyland P76 is not the usual Aussie Original. Its June 1973 release marked the first mass-market domestic family car since the first Holden that owed nothing to any overseas or previous model. But as local political instability collided headlong into offshore turmoil at British Leyland, its 1974 demise was inevitable.

It is now an unquestioned part of the Australian lexicon that P76 equals lemon. Back in 1973, though, nothing was further from the truth as a well-deserved Wheels Car of the Year award (for the V8) testifies: "It sets new standards for medium-sized local cars in its ride/handling/roadholding compromise, it has fine brakes, is comfortable, very roomy, practical and, with the all-important V8 engine, has excellent performance and superior fuel consumption, compared to the V8 opposition and the larger competitive sixes."

So where did the P76 get today's lemon tag? Is it still the victim of lazy, ill-informed journalism or worse, a scape-goat for one of the nastiest periods in Australian politics?  Or was it all true?

 

STYLING

Because P76 styling was no deterrent to sales in 1973, it can be scratched off the list immediately. After the Leyland badge and merger swallowed all BMC models built in Australia, there was no styling reference for the P76. Nothing in the disparate X6 Tasman/Kimberley, Marina or Mini Clubman ranges was applicable. The only local heritage that the P76 could draw on was its Holden-Ford-Chrysler rivals, and even then, it went one better.

By 1973, both Ford and Chrysler had failed to pick that Australian preferences had shifted from North America to Europe in the family car segment. In 1974, Holden also failed. Although GM-H did in fact strike the right balance between Europe and the US with the 1971 HQ, its slow initial sales spooked the company into dropping the planned HQ facelift. A last-minute switch to the obsolete 1970 Chevrolet Monte Carlo front for the HJ in 1974 was too late to change. It left Holden vulnerable.

Despite the substantial combined resources of Detroit and Ford Australia, the 1972 XA Falcon failed as a credible replacement for the XY. For the rushed '73 XB facelift, Ford applied a new front that could have been lifted from a 1970 Plymouth 'Cuda. The Falcon's 1976 XC facelift, styled locally and neatly balanced between Europe and the US, nailed exactly where Australia was three years earlier.

The 1971 VH Valiant sedan range was another brand-new design from a combined Detroit and Australian pool which also missed the Euro trend - something that subsequent facelifts couldn't address. Without the Charger coupe's big sales boost, the VH-VJ Valiant could have easily been another 1974 casualty.

Leyland Australia didn't even have a proper design studio, but it did have competent designers with a proven track record of updating ageing BMC designs for Australian consumption. However, the British Leyland structure gave former Triumph management the final veto over what happened in Australia.

Because of these Triumph allegiances, P76 proposals were commissioned from Michelotti (Triumph 2000/Stag) and Karmann (Triumph TR6 facelift) - the latter engaging Giugiaro's ItalDesign for extra ideas. After this process delivered large, boxy sedans similar to the Fiat 130, the E12 BMW 5-series and the Maserati Quattroporte, British management decided that the initial concept sketches from Australia were actually the best. Leyland's local design team had correctly identified that the NSU Ro80 was the way of the future. After they had defined a similar wedge shape, a subtle 'coke bottle' hip line was added to the rear doors to provide continuity with other local designs.

As the offshore design commissions squandered valuable time and budget, the on-again/off-again nature of the project meant that these Australian profiles were handed to Michelotti for detailing against impossible deadlines. Local management were excluded from this process, then handed the completed exterior pretty much as it went into production.

Local designers were only able to tweak the grille and taillights within very narrow parameters. The odd bonnet and boot cease lines, the inset wheels and oversized wheelarches, and the heaviness around the rear quarters were all locked-in by a British Leyland that was imploding at head office. No one moved more quickly than Leyland Australia to address it.

David Bentley's revealing sketches in Wheels February 1974 showed how easily and cheaply it could have been corrected given time and funds. They also previewed where Leyland Australia was heading as Bentley had been part of the team who had completed an early Mk II facelift which suggested a look that was a decade ahead of the competition. Although the facelift's revised rear was only ever seen on the stillborn Force 7V, Aussie buyers in 1973 were intelligent enough to work out that the P76 profile was still a generation ahead.

 

PRODUCTION

Leyland had publicly set up huge expectations for P76 quality after the outgoing X6 Tasman/Kimberley range had left the local BMC reputation in tatters. While all P76 rivals faced similar quality issues, Leyland had boosted expectations - guaranteeing a fall from a greater height.

Many cite a conspiracy theory suggesting rivals conspired to get rid of the P76. The growing number of incomplete P76 examples sitting on grass added weight to this. The truth is no less sinister.

In 1973, the Whitlam Labor Government could do little except stand by and watch as its core membership, including the many competing automotive unions, used the local car industry as an ideological battle ground. Even if the most traditional managers from this era acknowledged that worker-management relationships needed improvement, the local component industry became the stage for a much broader life-and-death struggle that took a decade to resolve. For hardcore anti-British and US unionists, bringing the local industry to its knees was acceptable collateral damage.

As Leyland was on the bottom of the supply pecking order, the random trickle of components went to rivals first, at a time when Leyland needed to maintain early sales momentum and deliveries. Yet according to insiders, this wasn't the sole hurdle. Because there were no funds left to widen the assembly line, it was pegged to the width of the Austin 1800. According to senior journalist Will Hagon, who worked at Leyland at the time, the entire profit margin on a P76 could be spent on rectifying panel damage incurred during manufacture as it bumped and scraped down the line.

After British Leyland's domestic troubles escalated dramatically, there was no lifeline to cover the component delays or update the assembly line. By October 1974, the pin had to be pulled. Although some within the Whitlam government lamented the loss, others were quick to label the P76 a lemon, as a cover for the industrial turmoil that was at least partly to blame.

In hindsight, the P76 demonstrated that Australia in 1973 had a sizeable lead in building big family cars over US, Japan and Korea, all of which were still locked into old-school 1960s designs. If any Australian government had the mandate and the connections to harness the local expertise shown in the P76 to make it a competitive export, it was the Whitlam government. By November 1975, it had also joined the P76, under less-than-dignified circumstances.

It would be fair to suggest that as long as the P76 was dismissed as a lemon, unresolved issues about a nation-wide commitment to a local industry were left ready to surface two decades later when the export Ford Capri met a similar fate - equally without foundation.

 

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