The history of the British owned elements of the motor industry in Australia is not as straight forward as you might have expected. The story is not simply of cars being built up from knocked down kits in facilities near the docks in Sydney or Melbourne; there were almost always variations aimed at increasing sales by increasing the suitability and compatibility to Aussie needs and tastes. One observation could be that as the manufacturers tried harder at meeting those preferences and needs, the further they seemed to be from satisfying them.
Prior to the second world war, Morris, Austin and Rootes all either imported built up cars or assembled cars with locally produced bodies on imported chassis on a contract basis by Australian businesses, which for Rootes included Holden, just as Vauxhalls were also assembled by Holden. After the war, and to meet Australian trade and tax policies and industrial ambitions, the model changed to building cars with increased local content and soon more specifically tailored to the Australian market.
Between 1945 and 1949, Rootes, Morris and Austin all established or purchased existing local assemblers and started building and adapting cars for the local market. GM, through Holden, Ford and, a little later, Chrysler also established factories capable beyond assembly, building adapted versions of European and US vehicles for the Australian and New Zealand markets principally, though some from all of them got to places like southern Africa and even into the North America and occasionally Europe.
Rootes Australia assembled versions of British designed Humber and Hillman models, frequently sold under mangled versions of the familiar British branding. Aside from the branding, changes were minimal, and as sales faded the venture was absorbed into Chrysler Australia in 1965. Rootes Australia’s fate was not helped by Chrysler also assembling Simca Arondes in Adelaide.
William Morris, personally, purchased a site at Victoria Park in Zetland, on the edge of Sydney and home to the city’s racecourse, in 1947 and by 1950 the Nuffield Organization was assembling Morris Minors and Oxfords for the local markets.
By 1958, BMC Australia, a combination of Austin and Morris and headquartered in Zetland, was building cars specifically tailored for the local market. Specification changes for an Australian market were initially fairly minimal: some toughened suspension components, a bigger (or the biggest engine) and some monsoon window rail deflectors and sunvisor, and expect it to sell. The competition from the likes of Ford and Holden, with North American raw material and local design teams was too much for this to endure.
Typical of this period was the 1957 Morris Marshal – more familiar to the UK market as the Austin A95 Westminster. Trim details and the front bench seat were the main differences.
Then came first real Australian specials – the Morris Major and Austin Lancer. These were derived from the Wolseley 1500, itself derived from the 1948 Issigonis Morris Minor, but fitted with the 1496cc B series engine and a new body. The Australian Austin quite closely matched the Wolseley; the Australian Morris (above) had more specifically tailored sheet metal, and both went through a variety of changes, before the ADO16 Morris 1100 superseded both.
BMC Australia followed up with the Morris Nomad, which to be kind, looks like a prototype Maxi crossed with an ADO16. In some ways, it was – the Maxi, initially at least, was a blend of ADO16 and ADO17 Landcrab with a hatchback for ergonomic, not space efficiency, reasons, and the Nomad was that visually. It was an ADO16 with the taller E series 1500cc engine and a rear hatchback.
BMC also offered the ADO17 Landcrab , in Austin 1800 form, which by 1968 had achieved a local content level of 95%. There were differences to UK cars, especially in ride height, sump guards and gearing. But BMC had bigger ambitions, to tackle Holden, Ford and Chrysler.
The car developed for this task was the Austin Tasman and Kimberley – a six cylinder derivative of the Landcrab (the name sticks and rightly so), but with new front and rear bodywork, a revised roof line and rear window and new door skins, with a three inch wheelbase stretch. (Once you know that’s the origin, you can’t not see it.) The squared off style matched well with the contemporary products from the competitors, and size wise, it was also comparable, especially if you factored in the efficient packaging of the Landcrab.
But while it was a six cylinder engine, it was only 2.2 litre (developed from the Austin Maxi four cylinder), with no larger or V8 option. BLMC, as it was by now, knew Australia needed more. It needed a truly bespoke, Australia-first car. But BLMC, worldwide and not just in Australia, had limited resources. Fortunately, there were options in the cupboard.
By 1970, there were two projects of potential relevance to this requirement – one just finishing and one just starting. And this is where the story gets a little murky.
From 1967, Rover, backed now by Leyland money, had been developing a large saloon to replace the Rover 3.5 lite P5 saloon, to take on Jaguar and Mercedes-Benz. This was to be, by European standards, a close to full size car, with a wheelbase of 108.5 inches, powered by the Rover, ex-Buick, V8 stretched to 4.4 litres and styling by David Bache, Rover’s long standing design chief. Bache was always keen on his cars creating an impact, and the P8 was no exception. The car had a definite North American feel, and has been described as imposing, even brutal, and had some intriguing, even complex, engineering under that skin.
The car was built on a base unit structure, like the earlier Rover P6 (2000, 3500), a de Dion rear suspension with self-levelling, double wishbone front suspension and a ring main hydraulic system powering the self-levelling suspensions, the steering and brakes, Citroen style, and a Girling anti-lock brake system. This prototype P8 has survived in the back storeroom of the British Motor Museum, and is now a little worse for wear, but you can see where Bache wanted to be with it.
Testing the P8 stared in early 1970, by which time Rover was in the BLMC group, with Jaguar, and the tensions started to rise. Here was the company that had bought Jaguar planning to build a Jaguar competitor. An unsuccessful crash test in early 1971 is now quoted as the end date for the P8, but a lot of effort and money had gone into this car, and naturally BLMC would have been loath to see that go to waste. This is when the P10 project took a new and central importance
In mid 1970, BL started the development of the P10, later known briefly as the RT1 and then as the SD1, at a different point in the market to the P8. Rather than a full premium product with complex engineering to compete with Mercedes-Benz and BMW, the P10 was to be pitched lower in the market, competing more with the Ford Granada, Peugeot 504 and Opel Rekord/Commodore, possibly using Triumph branding.
The SD1 as we know it now, was to be a car to contrast, not compete, with Jaguar. Through an internal design competition and a lot of Rover vs Triumph politics, a very different car appeared, with a much more modern style, a hatchback, covering a lower and wider price range with the 3.5 litre V8 being the largest option, and no wood and leather interior. David Bache provided another very modern shape, which made a huge impression in 1976 and has stood the test of time.
In 1969, Leyland Australia had made a pitch for funding to develop a specifically Australian market full size saloon, to take on the Holden Kingswood, Ford Falcon and Chrysler Valiant. Leyland granted AUS$21m, around £150m now, so there was not a huge amount to work with.
Given this desire to compete with the American Big Three, the engine choice was the obvious one of the Rover (nee Buick) V8 or the 2.6 litre BLMC E series six cylinder, the rear axle and transmission came from Borg Warner in Australia, and were common to the Holden, Ford and Chrysler as a consequence of the local content rules. Michelotti is usually credited with styling, and there were long-standing links between Michelotti, Triumph and Leyland of course. But that still left a lot of work to do.
There are two main theories on the engineering origins and execution, neither of which has been fully proved or disproved. The first is that the car was the Rover P8, with a Michelotti styled body, which may have been commissioned by BLMC as an alternative to the Bache proposal. The second theory is that it was a rebodied SD1/RT1/P10, which may itself have been a severely de-contented P8, with Australian or a Michelotti styling. Above, clockwise from top left, the production specification P76, a prototype Rover P8, a P76 Force 7 Coupe and Michelotti’s proposal for Rover-Triumph P10.
Taking these in sequence, the wheelbase of the P76 and SD1 was 2.5 inches longer than the P8, and many aspects of these cars were much simpler than the P8, including the suspension. That, plus the fact that the styling does not look like 2.5 inches were added to the wheelbase (if anything, it looks like they were taken out) suggest that the idea of the P76 as Micehelotti’s P8 is probably not accurate, at least as put as simply as that. But could it be a derivative of a Michelotti P10 proposal? The nose of the Force 7 Coupe suggests something.
The second option has stronger evidence – the wheelbase of the P76 and SD1 are the same, as are the front and rear tracks, and the suspension layouts are also very similar, with MacPherson struts at the front and a live rear axle with coil springs and radius arms at the back, though of course, the manual transmission and rear axle are different. There are credible records of Leyland Australia decamping senior people to Michelotti to finish the styling, including the nose and the rear profile. Does that account for the long overhangs and bulky tail? Another tale talks of Michelotti reworking some Leyland Australia styling in a week, and Leyland shamelessly utilising the association. I can’t arbitrate, other than to say both cannot be accurate. What is accepted is that the Australians insisted on a larger boot (trunk), dictating the rear profile and giving Leyland bragging rights, as the only car to take a 44 Imperial gallon drum in the boot. How you were supposed to handle 450lbs in and out is another issue.
So, I suggest good money could be put on the following scenario – a common floorpan and shared suspension principles with the SD1, possibly derived from the P8, Borg Warner transmission (manual or automatic) and rear axle, steering from Jaguar, mounted to a Michelotti styled and Leyland Australia finished body, powered by a development of the Rover V8 engine or the 2.6 litre straight six version of the BLMC E series engine, which was also used on South African assembled SD1s rather than the UK built Triumph developed six of the UK Rover 2300 and 2600. Fitting a different straight six into an engine bay may not always be easy, but if it’s already been done it’ll be easier.
Looking at the basic layout of the Leyland P76 against its competitors, you are struck by many similarities. They were all within 6 inches in length, one inch in width and a quarter of an inch in wheelbase, at 111 inches, relatively large for Europe and at the cusp of compact/intermediate size in the the North America market at the time. The 1976 Mercedes Benz W123 was 110 inches, the 1977 European Ford Granada (probably Europe’s closest equivalent) was 109 inches. Engine ranges were not dissimilar either – Chrysler Valiant 3.5 to 5.9 litre six and V8 engine, the Holden 2.8 to 5.0 litre and the Ford 3.3 to 5.8 litre – Leyland were clearly trying to compete directly with these, adding a lightweight aluminium V8 into the mix.
This scenario, based around a pre-prepared style, also gives an explanation into how the P76 came to market three years earlier than the SD1, although you could suggest that the SD1 is actually a rebodied P76, developed as a reaction to the failure of the P8. Also, you can sense that David Bache at Rover probably didn’t mind the relatively long wheelbase Australia asked for, as it would have eased fitting passengers into the low slung SD1.
Much of the development work was completed, not by Leyland Australia, Rover in Solihull or Triumph in Coventry but by MG in Abingdon, an organisation that had spent fifty years taking items from the parts bin of a larger parent and producing something credible, if not always complex or even complete. Taking the pot-pourri of parts that we suspect are under the P76 and creating a viable car is not a world away from process that led to the MGB, for example.
So, in June 1973, the P76 came to market, with a range of Deluxe (simple headlight, bench front seat and column gearchange) and Super (four headlights, bucket seats, better carpet and so on) in six cylinder and V8 forms, and the Executive, V8 only, smart interior and power steering as standard.
The six cylinder cars had around 120 bhp and offered a 0-60 time of around 14 seconds. The V8, with 195bhp, could do this in 10 seconds, and the car was generally accepted to have fully class competitive handling. Rack and pinion steering and servo disc brakes helped separate it from the competition as well. Leyland made much of the aluminium engine’s relatively low weight, contributing to making the car perhaps 500lb lighter than the competition, with commensurate benefits on performance and handling.
Leyland had some fun with the marketing, naming the paint shades in a unique and memorable way. Home On Th’Orange, Am Eye Blue, Bold As Brass, Peel Me A Grape (a metallic purple), Hairy Lime and Plum Loco were all offered.
The P76 got a favourable press reception. It was Wheels magazine Car of the Year for 1974, getting credit in comparison with its competitors for being lighter, more powerful, in V8 form at least, spacious, comfortable and a good cruiser. Some reports called it technically advanced – I’m not sure I’d use that term but it may well have been a step ahead of the competition in various ways. Leyland seemed to have built a relatively advanced and well performing car, on a tight budget, which showed all the signs of being able to truly compete with the major competitors, without excuses, and within Australia’s home content guidelines. Early demand was strong.
So, what could possibly go wrong? Well, not everyone went for the styling with the long overhangs, visually undersized passenger cabin and oversized rear boot counting against it. Less subjectively, the build quality quickly got a poor reputation, with excessive panel gaps causing leaks, cars started rusting, the exhaust was inadequately insulated and burnt the carpet whilst the flimsy interior fittings came loose, as did the windows, the six cylinder was considered slow by some and the V8 prone to overheating. There was industrial strife in the Leyland and in the supply chain, and rumours persist that one or more of Holden, Ford and Chrysler put some pressure on Borg Warner over supply of the transmission and rear axle to Leyland. This is not definitively demonstrated but there is often no smoke without fire….
Leyland’s ambitions for the P76 can be measured by the fact that one was entered for the 1974 London–Sahara–Munich World Cup Rally, and it did well, finishing 13th of 19 finishers, from 70 starters. Leyland were sufficiently impressed to market a special edition Targa Florio version, with special paint and stripes, named of the circuit of Sicily known as the Targa Florio and on which the P76 won a stage of the rally.
By 1974, less than a year after production had started, things got very serious. The supply chain issues (whether through industrial action or inaction), were limiting production volumes, warranty claims were going up, there was an energy crisis and V8s don’t do well in those, there was a credit squeeze and Leyland Australia was consequently having cash flow issues. Back in the UK, BL itself was facing a full blown existential crisis, which resulted in a government bailout and takeover in February 1975.
To make it even that far, casualties were sacrificed, and in October 1974, BLMC had to close Australian production completely. Some 18,000 cars were built, 60% of them V8s, and it was sold only in Australia and New Zealand. Around 650 cars were assembled in New Zealand in 1975, from kits from Australia supplemented by some locally made items. That was the effective end of the assembly of British designed cars in Australasia, after around 60 years, and many changes in the relationship between the countries and the peoples.
In terms of production, there was only ever the saloon, but two other variants nearly made it.
An estate car was built in prototype form, with styling looking even more North American and less European and with a rather awkward rear passenger door profile. Only one example was actually built, and it still exists coming out for car shows and the like. There’s no reason to believe that this would not have been as competitive as the saloon could have been.
A three door hatchback coupe version, known as the Force 7, with completely revised though related styling that looked like a mash up of North Americana and European design elements. A similarity to North American products, perhaps a Dodge Challenger or AMC Marlin coupe is perhaps the easiest way to describe, with the added factor of a hatchback not dissimilar to the much smaller Ford Capri, and in fact very similar in several ways to the Rover SD1. Some may suggest this is more evidence of shared engineering, some may say coincidence; I suspect the answer is in between the two. Around 60 were built, most were scrapped but it is thought ten still exist, all in Australia.
The P76 has built a loyal, if relatively widespread, enthusiast base across Australia and New Zealand including our feature car’s owner, the cheerful and friendly Russell, who happily submitted to photos in Westport, South Island NZ, last Easter.
And the name? This was the first and only car explicitly badged as a Leyland, anywhere, since the luxury Leyland Eight 50 years earlier. And P76? The official answer from Leyland was that P76 was the start of Chairman Lord (Donald) Stokes’s army number; some say P(roject) (19)76. But, thinking about its hidden heritage, is it a Rover project code? Make your choice, but whichever way you call it, I don’t think anyone can deny that the P76, for all its strengths, lost out against Australia’s demanding operation and commercial environment, and that the root cause of that failure probably does not reside down under.