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.
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.
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.
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