Leyland Force 7
The story of Leyland’s big two-door coupe, or the S2 as it was known in the factory – we’ll get to the Force 7 moniker later – begins with the start of the P76 project in 1969.
Indeed, a company report from April 1969 indicated the preferred range of cars and their proposed release dates were two-door coupe, January 1973; four-door sedan, June 1973; four-door station wagon, January 1974.
By the end of that year the timeline had been reversed and the sedan was to be the first released, with the wagon and coupe to follow at six-monthly intervals.
Leyland’s Advanced Model Group of five engineers, had already decided that the coupe would be visually very different from the sedan.
Italian design house Michelotti, German firm Karmann (who sub-contracted the design to Ital Design in Italy) and British Leyland’s own styling studio at Longbridge were invited to submit concept designs for the sedan and coupe.
[The company was in the midst of name changes from BMC Australia to Leyland Australia, via BLMC-A and British Leyland (Australia) at the time, so for simplicity sake we will just use Leyland Australia]
Leyland Australia’s own in-house stylist, Romand Rodburgh, was not invited to submit a design but, according to Gavin Farmer in his book Leyland P76 – Anything But Average, he slipped into the design studio at Waterloo early in the morning that the designs were to be viewed and added his own to the display.
It was Rodbergh’s designs that drew most praise but, says Farmer; “for marketing reasons it was decided to go with Michelotti.”
Rodburgh had gone beyond the original two-dimensional sketches and produced three one-tenth scale clay models of his ideas. It is clear from these that the basic form of the final coupe was already in evidence.
In reality Michelotti’s input was restricted to tidying up the overall concept and redesigning the front of the car so it was more in keeping with the sedan – much the same as his input with the sedan had been a reinterpretation of Rodbergh’s design.
Yet, it was Michelotti who got all the publicity for the cars, as the company emphasized the European input.
One substantial change was that the car was lengthened slightly at the front and shortened a little at the rear, giving an overall reduction in length of the S2 from the sedan by 50mm, while it was marginally wider (15mm), due to the flared guards, and 50mm lower.
One problem that always faced the Australian P76 design team, headed by David Beech, was a strictly limited budget, in the form of a Euro-dollar loan of AU$20 million. Peter North, who would later be appointed Managing Director of Leyland Australia, said in a recent interview that even 40 years ago, this figure was “manifestly inadequate” and well below half the bare minimum needed to design, develop and release even just one new clean-sheet model – let alone two or three.
Not surprisingly, cost became a major factor. Although Rodbergh had specifically made his coupe concept vastly different in appearance from the sedan, it was always envisaged that the mechanicals and the under pinning’s of the car would be shared as much as possible between the two.
The coupe, which the design team took to calling the S2, shared the front floor, bulkhead and windscreen with the sedan and the station wagon, while its rear floor, which included a well in which the spare wheel would to lie flat, was common with the wagon but differed from the sedan.
That meant that the rest of the panels, from the sills up, were unique to the S2. Even here, though, Body Engineer Graham Hardy was able to reduce costs by designing the body with as few panels as possible, in the same manner as the sedan.
“By using fewer but larger panels throughout the structure of the car we achieved significant cost savings”, he told Farmer. “Not only that, we were able to greatly increase the structural strength of the body. Fewer panels meant fewer welds and potential points of weakness.”
“Interestingly”, Hardy continued, “I had problems initially getting the concept accepted because, within the old BMC, a car body had traditionally been made up of hundreds of much smaller panels to keep tooling costs down. We broke the mould with P76.”
Leyland Australia did not have local facilities to make the tooling or build the initial prototype bodies for such a project, so Pressed Steel Fisher (PSF) in the UK, a division of Leyland, was commissioned to do all the tooling and initial builds of all three models.
The first S2 prototype arrived in Australia in early 1973 and was taken on three trips to Charleville in Queensland for durability testing. By this time the sedan was virtually ready for release and most design problems with the mechanicals of the cars had been ironed out.
As we quoted Roger Foy, former Road Proving Supervisor, in last issue, the P76 had previously only been considered in V8 specification by the Engineering Dept. Almost at the eleventh hour, Sales demanded a six-cylinder version, but little had been done in durability testing of that engine.
“The pressure was on to get as many miles on six-cylinder engines as we could, because they were, I suppose, a relatively unknown factor. We’d taken the Tasman/Kimberley engine and made the stroke bigger and turned it fore and aft and we only had a shortish time to prove it.”
“We were about to run the S2 and we got the bright idea of why don’t we run the six-cylinder engine, because there’s virtually no difference in the weight between the six-cylinder and the V8 engine, anyway, and for the outback testing it really is of little consequence what engine you’ve got in it. It’s the weight we were concerned about”, he explained.
Roger thinks that on the third trip to Charleville they may have run the car with a V8 engine, but is not entirely certain.
According to Hal Moloney in his book Leyland P76, the prototype was car number 541 (NSW registration GEO 921). As explained in last issue, Engineering Prototypes were allocated car numbers in the 500 range, for identification in test reports, etc. One of the last P76 sedans used for testing by the Experimental Department was car 537, with NSW reg GKZ 303 (chassis number 1001, being the first V8 4-speed manual Deluxe off the production line).
Moloney lists some of the company people involved with the test, which he says was carried out in February and March 1973, as: Roger Foy, Jim Stanley, Graham Laurie, Mike Medlock, Joe Docherty, Alex Richardson and Keith “Curley” Wells.
The car was painted white all over, including the normally black rear-quarter vents and a large rear window louvre. The car was further disguised with a P76 sedan front (there were issues with the correct nose cones) and plain-Jane generic trailer taillights at the back.
Modern Motor magazine broke the story of Leyland’s S2 coupe in their March issue, with scoop photos of a bare body shell (perhaps the original prototype in the UK) and proudly announced the photos and details of the car had come through an intense “spy” programme against the company.
While some of their information was well off the mark, most of it was very accurate, indicating there were at least some people within the company who didn’t have Leyland’s best interests at heart.
One problem that did show up after the first trip was cracking in the lower B-pillar. As it turned out, that was not a design problem but the fault of PSF in the UK, who had not added the specified stiffening plates. The fault was rectified on the prototype and did not reoccur on subsequent trips.
At least six other S2 cars were registered and used for a number of shorter tests for such things as dust sealing and the durability of the nose cones. As Roger Foy points out, these sorts of tests might be done over one or two days to such areas as Oberon in the Blue Mountains, weather permitting.
The nose cones were to prove a major problem in the early stages of development. Made of impact absorbing plastic, it was an industry first in Australia and still in its infancy globally. It was a bold move to try something that was still quite radical at the time – though these days is quite common – but there was much about the car that was seen as bold (some said foolhardy).
The problem with the nose cones was getting the chemical mix right, so that as the part cured it didn’t shrink too much, or warp, or otherwise lose its shape, and that paint matched that on the metal bodies when it dried.
Some early types that had appeared good to fit to cars were found to lose shape simply by sitting in the sun on a hot day. After many months of trial and error a good mix was developed which would cure predictably and remain stable.
Meanwhile, the release date for the S2 had been pushed back from March 1973 to February 1974. A “pilot” run of nine cars was put down the assembly line in December 1973 to check production procedures, which revealed some serious problems.
Although the S2 was dimensionally slightly smaller than the P76 sedan, the doors were considerably longer (for access to the rear seat). This apparently caused problems at some stations on the assembly line, with doors getting damaged when they were opened.
Meanwhile, the P76 sedan was going through its own production teething problems and was causing considerable consternation. It would take time to rectify most of these and the last thing Production needed at that time was another model to worry about.
Although the problem of the nose cones was the excuse, there were obviously other factors at play and the release for the S2 was pushed back to June 1974.
As the release of the S2 was getting ever nearer, a model name had to be decided so that the various workshop, parts and drivers manuals, brochures and advertising, as well as the badges for the car could all be finalized.
Around this time Sales Manager John Kay was driving one of the prototype cars through a typical Sydney summer storm, when a weather warning for a Force 7 gale (see side panel) was announced over the radio.
“It hit me immediately that there was the name for our new coupe”, Farmer quotes Kay as saying. “I did not like the name Marauder that Peter (North) was keen on and this seemed to roll off the tongue.”
In February of that year Peter North, who had been Managing director only since December 1972, was informed in a meeting in the UK that the Waterloo plant was to close, with the winding up of all local production. We will look at the reasons behind the closure of the factory in detail in the next issue.
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The BMC Experience Issue 11. Oct-Dec 2014 Magazine
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