It’s 40 years since the Leyland P76 car

June 26, 2013

Leyland P76 Super V-8, 4-door sedan finished in Aspen green, engine No.  076D4SM44/16461, build date 21-5/74. Powerhouse Museum collection, 92/301, purchased 1992.
Leyland P76 Super V-8, 4-door sedan finished in Aspen green, engine No. 076D4SM44/16461, build date 21-5/74. Powerhouse Museum collection, 92/301, purchased 1992.

Forty years ago today, on 26 June 1973 the Leyland P76 was launched to a waiting Australian public. The V-8 version was named ‘Wheels Magazine’s’ 1973 Car of the Year. It said:

The…totally new Leyland sedan emerged as a dynamic and remarkably fine motor car, surely destined to push Leyland up the ladder, both in Australia and in export markets.

but how wrong they were.

The timing of the car’s introduction was appalling yet the Leyland P76 was the product of its times. But times changed too quickly for the makers of this highly innovative car. It was a big car and looked distinctively different from the Chrysler, GMH and Ford offerings of the day. It consumed lots of cheap petrol, with a front bench seat it easily accommodated six passengers in comfort, and was meant for the ‘Dad’ of the family to drive. These very Australian requirements for a family car were to wane during the 1972-4 oil crisis.

Nevertheless the P76, named after its drawing board number, had innovative features like concealed wipers, side intrusion bars in the doors, a safety bonnet, front disc brakes as standard and an isolated fuel tank to meet public concerns about car safety. The design team wanted to make it uniquely Australian in character so an enormous boot was designed to carry family luggage and camping equipment on long Australian holidays. It could even hold a 44-gallon (194-litre) drum, perhaps a bid to get farmers to swap their Holden utes for a P76! To make the P76 different from its American-styled competitors, the Italian stylist Michelotti was employed to add some European flair to the appearance of this Australian-designed car. The package was completed by an unprecedented television and press advertising campaign to promote the car. Leyland even installed a telephone hotline for customers and gave away cufflinks, ties and tie pins.

Leyland P76 'Car of the Year' promotional pin, 1973. Powerhouse Museum collection, 92/1730, gift of Mr Jack Lawler, 1992.
Leyland P76 ‘Car of the Year’ promotional pin, 1973. Powerhouse Museum collection, 92/1730, gift of Mr Jack Lawler, 1992.

The Vehicle Builders Employees Federation of the day even said:

Working conditions at…Leylands are significantly better than those at Ford, General Motors and Chrysler.

Leyland revised work practices and introduced worker consultation schemes for the P76’s production. But the times were a-changing. In 1972 Australians had elected a Labor government and began a roller-coaster ride of economic instability and swift social reform. This affected the way Australians approached the environment, the role of women and the economy. Four important factors were to affect the P76’s demise: firstly, women became more influential in all matters and they thought the P76 was too big, and in response to the oil crisis opted for small to medium cars; secondly, rampant inflation through high wage rises and production lost through industrial unrest changed the economic viability of manufacturing; thirdly, in 1973 the oil crisis struck which doubled petrol prices almost overnight rendering the big V-8 engine uneconomical; and finally Leyland in the UK was in trouble. As a result, in a shock decision, British Leyland decided to cease production in Australia of all but speciality vehicles and the super-economic micro car, the Morris Mini. It would seem the P76 was the scapegoat and in late 1974 Leyland sold its vast Zetland plant in Sydney. (One of Leyland’s many plants around the world to close). The P76 was the baby which went ‘out with the bathwater’, even though there was a station wagon and sports version (the stunning Jensen-like Force 7 hatchback) in the wings.

P 76 production officially ceased in November 1974 after 7 years’ work, $21 million spent in development and almost 18,000 P76’s having been built. The closure became a focus of Sydney’s tabloid press and was accompanied by ugly scenes as 5,000 workers lost their jobs. After Leyland left its car an orphan in Australia resale values plummeted as dealerships and service centres closed without model updates and proper servicing. Quirky design flaws and poor early quality control saw doors not fitting properly, the instrument console being loose and the car letting in water, all of which totally coloured the public’s perception. The P76 was relegated to poor neighbourhoods and noisy teenagers. To make matters worse the car was eventually shamed in a television advertisement for tyres in the mid-1980s showing a P76 with its tyres outlasting the car!

The Leyland P76 in the Museum’s collection was purchased at auction in 1992. Its original owner was Jack Lawler of Jack Lawler Motors, Condobolin, in the central west of NSW. At the time of its acquisition the car had only 43,362 km on the clock. Mr Lawler had purchased the car in 1974 when he was a Leyland dealer and used it for about three years until he won a BMW in an Art Union lottery. He then put the car on blocks and stored it for 18 years until it was auctioned in 1992 with the dealership premises, workshop and stock.

Leyland P76 automobile mock-up body c. 1970. Powerhouse Museum collection, B2227, gift of Leyland Motor Corporation of Australia, 1975.
Leyland P76 automobile mock-up body c. 1970. Powerhouse Museum collection, B2227, gift of Leyland Motor Corporation of Australia, 1975.

Also in the collection are Leyland P76 timber mock-up body and parts made by a contractor to the Leyland Motor Corporation of Australia in England in about 1970. Known as panel checking fixtures, the wooden patterns were used in the manufacture of cars between the 1940s and the 1980s. Their main function was to provide patterns or precise shapes for the manufacture of press tools which formed the sheet metal panels of a car’s body. They were also used to confirm the accuracy of the early production run of each sheet metal body panel for a particular car. This panel checking fixture was an integral part of the tooling-up process for the P76 and probably would’ve been one of last cars developed in Australia to use this now obsolete technology.

Leyland P76 promotional serviette, promotional, 1973. Powerhouse Museum collection, 92/1729, gift of Mr Jack Lawler, 1992.
Leyland P76 promotional serviette, promotional, 1973. Powerhouse Museum collection, 92/1729, gift of Mr Jack Lawler, 1992.

In a final postscript it’s worth mentioning the promotional cotton serviette also in the collection on which is printed a logo which still sums up this famous Australia lemon-of-a-car, ‘P76 Anything but average’.


Post by Margaret Simpson, Curator, Transport


5 responses to “It’s 40 years since the Leyland P76 car

  • Oh, the memories! I had a friend who was so loved these cars that in the 1970s and early 1980s he owned three P76s in succession. Although not a farmer he lived on semi-rural outskirts of Melbourne so the capacious boot and powerful engine were the main attractions.

    In the top photograph taken in Centennial Park the domed building in the background is the Federation Pavillion, built in 1988.

  • Thanks for the post! Indeed, the top pic is on Loch Avenue in Centennial Park, looking west. Regards, Craig at CP.

  • None of the four reasons given for the failure of the car is correct. The P76 failed because it was brought to market prematurely – before its many design and production faults had been fixed. Leyland Australia was almost bankrupt; in its last year (1974) its loss was over $50million ($350 million today). The company had grand plans – for a station waggon, a sports version (The Force 7 which could not be built because the roof would crack off) and a smaller car, the P82. All these ideas were ludicrous because there was no money to build them and the parent company in the UK was in as bad financial position. Leyland had 2000 orders for the P76, but at launch only 800 cars to send to dealers. Before the 3-month backlog could be caught up, the huge problems of water and dust leaks and overheating killed public confidence. Sales never recovered. It all comes of being over-ambitious and trying to make a car on a shoestring ($20million) when GMH and Ford were spending hundreds of millions just to re-engineer existing overseas designs. I bought a P76 made in the last week of production, when most of the problems had been overcome. Even then it went back to the factory to have a passenger door fit better – the cure was a few good blows with a rubber mallet! Let’s not get too nostalgic. Instead dig a bit deeper to understand the industrial troubles at the time, the rising interest rates, the high turnover of migrant labour, massive absenteeism and destructive management disagreements. The car should never have been built. The only good ones are those that have been re-built.

    • When I worked for Holden at the plant in Dandenong during the release of the Commodore in 1978 – if a door didn’t fit properly on a brand new Commodore – we hit it with a big rubber mallet to “bend it to the right shape” – if the top of the door was too far in the opening , we had to put a special mat on the outside of the door (to prevent further damage) – and literally bend the door top out with nothing more than our bare hands. If you bent it out too much then you just went around the inside and bent it back a bit …. what does this say about the Commodore – I suppose we should “not get too nostalgic” about them either.

  • Well – I have to say that this is one of the more disappointing assessments of the whole situation relating to Leyland Australia and the P76 that I have read.

    The Leyland P76 was never a bad car – yes of course there were bad ones (as there was bad Fords, Holden and Valiant’s) – but the P76 remains with a higher surviving percentage in 2016 then its oppositions “normal” cars made at the same time – which were made in far greater numbers (discounting the likes of special cars like GT’s, Monaro’s and Chargers).

    If you think that a 1973-74 , Ford, Holden or Valiant never had any problems then you either never owned any back then or you choose to forget their own “entertainments”.

    At the risk of being called sexist – in 1974, large cars were primarily purchased and driven by men with the wives/ladies being given a smaller car (if at all). I think its very unfair and inaccurate to blame the ladies as a crucial part in the demise of Leyland P76 production as in truth at that point they still had little input into the purchase of the “family” large car. In the early 70’s – most cars needed regular constant home maintenance (or expensive dealer servicing) and so the home servicing was primarily done by men which is part of the reason why they ultimately chose the family car exclusive of anyone else.

    Leyland Australia was a victim of a build up of a wide range of factors (most of which affected all the car manufactures of the time) – but a few important ones related to Leyland only.

    Everything ultimately be tracked back to the simple fact that Leyland England was in fast growing – increasingly larger financial trouble in the many years of lead up to the P76’s release (not caused by the P76 or Australia).

    Despite many attempts over many years – Leyland Australia were never allowed to make the cars they wanted and knew were suitable and could sell in Australia – until the P76.

    Like all companies controlled by overseas interests – Australia had to sell what the “parent” company allowed them to make. This led to a string of cars that were not truly suitable for the Australian market and modified as best as they could.

    Leyland’s Australian market share was a constant falling needle long before the arrival of the P76. In England – with most of their “current” cars dating back to the ‘50’s in styling and design, and with little money available for development of new models – British Leyland hurriedly created a “new” small/medium car (yet still primarily based on some old design’s).

    Although Leyland Australia had developed their own design for a Australian competitive medium car – this “new” British designed small/medium car became the car we had to sell and very significant resources from Leyland Australia were diverted towards the production of this “new” British car – which like nearly all other British designed cars of the time, struggled to match the competition in the Australian market and ultimately failed to be the sales success and monetary “shot in the arm” that Leyland Australia needed it to be – ultimately failing to arrest the consistent fall in Leyland’s Australian market share long before the P76 was released.

    The P76 was designed by some of Australia’s most creative design people, and they did a fantastic job – and inside the available budget, and created a car that was truly on a par with the competition. Yes, there were compromises – but actually all the American owned car makers had to make compromises too so please do not forget that.

    The six cyl P76 ultimately used a modified English motor that was a bit smaller in capacity and lower in power than the all Australian V6 that Leyland Australia had already designed and built some examples of – making the six cyl cars less popular than the Australian designed alloy V8’s.

    Production of P76 cars ultimately worked out to roughly be a 50/50 spread of six vs V8 and considering V8 production was restricted by industrial action – it could have been greater – 50/50 is a far higher percentage of V8’s than anyone else and clearly not dramatically restricted by the well publicized country wide fuel strikes.

    Industrial actions, parts shortages and the like – which affected everyone – did not help, nor did the poor overall sales of the medium car – arrest Leyland Australia’s slipping market position, , but it became the parent companies inability to properly finance themselves or Leyland Australia that ultimately ended Leyland’s manufacturing in Australia.

    Originally – with surprisingly little money in the bank , British Leyland had borrowed money to finance many new projects including their medium car and the P76.

    By 1974 – British Leyland was in serious financial trouble of their own making, and Leyland Australia in the 12 months of P76 production had not gotten to a profitable point as the “British” medium car they were selling was not giving good returns and Australia had not yet got to the profit break point for the P76 (from the local creation of a such a completely new car).

    In a horrifyingly short period of time – articles in the Australian papers in ’74 identifying British Leyland’s true financial position – cast doubts on the Australian arms manufacturing future and with the consumers losing confidence about Australian production continuing and so the sales dropped, sackings followed, the Managing Director of Leyland Australia suddenly resigned after a disagreement with British Leyland, an Australian government report caused further doubts about Leyland Australia’s ability to keep manufacturing and with consumer confidence falling – so did sales.

    A “new” Managing Director for Leyland Australia was appointed from England to sell off what he could and then shutdown Australian manufacturing as British Leyland could not support any further production on a monetary basis. He ultimately turned Leyland Australia back into an assembler / importer only.

    Although hiding it well – British Leyland, unprofitable, cash strapped and bordering on bankruptcy right from the start – sold or shut down everything they could in an attempt to save themselves – Leyland Australia and the P76 was simply a victim of that.

    It didn’t work – British Leyland effective died a year later from the own problems – becoming nationalised by the British government in 1975.

    The Leyland P76 became the last mass produced – all Australian designed large car created in Australia. Many Australian firsts were included in the P76 design and it caused the other Australian manufactures to change their thinking about what we expected from our cars.

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