Wednesday January 16, 2019
At first sight, the P76 looks as though it belongs in the background of Prisoner Cell Block H, The Young Doctors or any other fine/dire soap opera made by Grundy Television. Its looks are faintly reminiscent of a Falcon, Valiant or Holden of the early 1970s, and indeed these were the main competitors of the last product from British Leyland’s Australian division.
Austin had established assembly operations in Melbourne in 1947, and two years later the Nuffield Organisation built a major plant in Zetland. BMC-Australia was formed in 1954, but one of their major challenges was that their cars were widely perceived as adaptions of British designs rather than being created to meet the needs of Australian motorists.
Yet, this is not an entirely fair judgement. The Austin Freeway/Wolseley 24/80 (the mid-size “Farina” with a locally made 2.4 six-cylinder engine) and the Morris 1500/Nomad (a higher powered ADO16 with an OHC engine and a five-door option) were innovative designs that were arguably superior to their parent models.
As for the 1970 Austin Tasman/Kimberley, it may have looked slightly awkward, but it predated the 2200 “Landcrab” while the Australian-built Minis gained winding windows some years before their UK counterparts. That said, the Leyland Marina Six, which combined a 2.6-litre engine and a three-on-the-floor gearchange (!) was unlikely to appeal to many consumers
What the car market really demanded at that time was a big RWD saloon that was capable of enduring the considerable demands of rural motoring. Leyland-Australia commenced work in just such a car in 1969, with the early prototypes constructed in Abingdon, and on 1st June 1973, they unveiled their first car to be wholly devised for the Australian driver – the P76. The styling, courtesy of Giovanni Michelotti, was bold without being brash and the boot was famously able to accommodate a 44-gallon oil drum.
The choice of colours was about as “1973” as a Slade record; “Home On Th'Orange”, “Am Eye Blue”, “Bold As Brass”, “Hairy Lime”, “Oh Fudge” and “Plum Loco”. My own favourite is the shade of purple that is “Peel Me A Grape”.
The P76 was available in three trim levels – De Luxe, with its front bench seat and steering column gear change, was aimed at the fleet/taxi operators, the quad-headlamp Super and the flagship Executive with a ‘push button radio’ and ‘power aerial’ as standard.
The engine choices consisted of the 2.6-litre “six” and a 4.4-litre V8 which was originally intended for the Rover P8, the intended successor to the P5B. The latter plant had over 280 lbs ft. of torque while the fact the P76 also boasted power-assisted front disc brakes, and rack & pinion steering gave it a further edge over its competitors.
Initially, the P76 did look set to succeed. Wheels magazine tested the De Luxe against its three main competitors from Holden, Ford, Chrysler and General Motors and concluded ‘the P76 is right in there and capable of taking on the others. There are still rough edges to iron out, and it doesn't really live up to the European image bit, and we might wish for more power, but as a first effort in this class it works surprisingly well’.
There was also plans to offer the P76 in the UK and Harold Dvoretsky, Modern Motor’s London correspondent, wrote of BL’s hopes of selling 5,000 Executives per year under the “Vanden Plas” marque. British motoring writers grumbled about the lack of space on the rear seat and the car’s size but did like the steering, handling and its ability as a cruiser.
In the event, the P76 was never officially marketed in this country, and its heavy appetite for petrol would have almost inevitably limited its appeal in the mid-1970s. However, it is not impossible to envisage the Executive as the ideal car for a pub landlord who could not quite run to a Jaguar XJ6 and who wanted to practise one-upmanship on his Ford Granada Ghia driving rivals
Alas, the P76 suffered from being launched at a time of acute financial woes for Leyland-Australia. The build quality was poor, the V8 was prone to overheat, and the fuel crisis was already affecting sales of large cars.
In 1974 a P76 won the Targa Florio section of the World Cup rally but not even a limited run of 900 celebratory special editions (complete with a limited slip differential, “sports wheels”, PAS, automatic transmission and very groovy side stripes) was not enough to improve sales. A promising station wagon and the Force 7 Coupe versions never came to full fruition and in late 1974 Leyland finally closed its Zetland factory.
As it is, there are only three privately imported examples in the UK, the best-known of which is the magnificent Targa Florio owned by Dave Eadon. ‘It is based on the V8 Super, and I think it is a good-looking car – if you like that sort of thing!’.
And the P76 is an extremely likeable car – imposing, as softly sprung as any Detroit contemporary and with a rear seat that looks wide enough to accommodate four adults. Dave bought his P76 in 2001 and praises its ‘smooth effortlessness’ on the move.
As to the reaction the Targa Florio tends to attract, Dave remarks ‘people often say “you don’t see many of these around here!”’ although on one occasion it was immediately recognised at Tatton Park. ‘The chap on the PA was Australian, and when he saw my car, he told everyone at the show about it!’. In 2017 the Eadon car was one of two P76s that took part in the 50th birthday celebration of the Rover V8 - ‘the attention they received was amazing’.
From a 2019 perspective, the P76 appears to be yet another highly promising BL product that debuted at the wrong time and in the wrong circumstances. Had it been launched in 1970, it might have stood far more of a chance to revive the fortunes of Leyland-Australia, but as it is, the P76 is a fascinating reminder of a major automotive “might have been”. As the brochures claimed, it really was ‘Anything But Average’.
WITH THANKS TO: DAVE EADON