On 26 June 1973, Leyland Australia took a big gamble and released its long-anticipated P76 model – and the initial response was overwhelming.
Much has been written about the failure of the P76 over the ensuing 40 years – a large proportion of it misinformed diatribe.
In upcoming issues we will look into more detail about what really went wrong, what problems did exist with the car, how production was hamstrung by undercapitalisation and how the eventual failure of the car and the company was caused by other events beyond the control of either.
This is not that story. This is a story of optimism. The design, development and release of a car that came so close. A car its makers and all the people who worked so hard to see it through to reality were proud to describe as, “Anything But Average”.
Meeting the market
As we detailed in Issue 3, BMC Australia had long believed that to be truly successful, it had to build cars that could compete with the Holden. The Austin Freeway and Wolseley 24/80 were a good try, but mainly hampered by the necessity to adapt an English design that wasn’t really appropriate.
Ford and Chrysler believed this too, and by 1967 had the XR Falcon and VE Valiant, while Holden had the HR and was about to release the HK (January 1968).
BMC knew to be successful in this highly competitive market it had to have something designed specifically for Australian conditions and, being the newcomer in the medium/big car segment, it had to be a long way better than what was already on offer. Otherwise the whole exercise would be futile.
David Beech was born in England and worked at Longbridge before coming to Australia as part of the team to set up the Zetland plant. By 1966 he was Director of Engineering and Manufacturing at Waterloo. With approval from BMC Australia’s MD Bill Abbott, Beech set up the Long Term Model Policy Group (LTMPG).
Gavin Farmer explains, in his book Leyland P76: anything but average; “This group of people was handed the task of exploring future model possibilities for Australia only. This followed on belatedly from studies done in 1959 and 1961. Its recommendation was again for a two-model program [sic] using high component commonality.”
Recognising that BMC was best known in Australia for its small and medium cars – Mini and Morris 1100 – the LTMPG did detailed studies of available engine options and what would be required from the two-model programme.
“The small car segment was becoming increasingly competitive”, Farmer continues, “through the appearance of numerous Japanese models which would significantly reduce BMCA’s volume. Hence the need for a new strategy.”
At the end of 1967 the LTMPG was replaced by the five-man Advanced Model Group (AMG); consisting Graham Hardy as senior engineer, Barry Anderson as his deputy, Don Imison and Sid Ferguson from Manufacturing Engineering, and Ross Weber from the Experimental Department.
They reported to a steering committee, made up of Chief Engineer Bill Serjeantson, Reg Fulford, Kjel Eriksen and Ken Haw. “Senior personnel from Sales, Marketing and Product Planning were progressively added to the committee as plans developed”, Farmer explains.
AMG further verified LTPMG’s two-model plan, with Model A to be a competitor to Ford’s Cortina and Holden’s recently released Torana, and a replacement for the Morris 1100. Model B would be in the medium/large car market. It was realised, though, that rather than take on Holden and Ford directly, BMCA would have a better chance of success in producing a better product and charging a slight premium for it.
One important aspect of AMG’s work was to conduct costing surveys on every part, to be able to produce accurate cost forecasts for any new model. Farmer quotes Barry Anderson: “Every component that had a cost of more than 10 cents was examined. It was something we had never done before – we never knew exactly how much a car cost to produce until we completed these studies. And more to the point, neither did Longbridge.”
It was envisaged that a four-door, V8-engined automatic would find the largest portion of customers and that Model B would need to be able to fulfill that criteria.
At the time, BMC’s product line was still under the overall influence of Alec Issigonis, and was fairly wedded to front-wheel-drive. In Australia it was understood that rear-wheel-drive would be more practical for both models, would be cheaper to produce and was more in tune with market demand.
However, Marketing insisted on FWD and Hydrolastic suspension so, keeping an open mind, an Austin 1800 was fitted with a 3.5lt Rover V8 engine for evaluation, but was found to be very unsuitable.
Various engines had been examined and after careful consideration of what was available through the British parent company and what could be achieved locally, it was decided that a 4.2lt aluminium V8, based on the same Buick engine that the 3.5lt Rover had evolved from, would be most suitable. This was later revised to 4.4lt to provide more torque – considered essential for the average Australian’s driving style and the expected demand for automatic transmission.
A fundamental reason for the choice of the aluminium V8 was the weight saving, which would in turn mean significant cost savings for the rest of the car. “Studies had shown conclusively that the weight and cost savings benefit of using an aluminium engine had a 3:1 multiplier effect throughout the whole car”, Farmer reveals. “There was no need to carry excess weight throughout the structure to cater for heavier optional engines as was the case with the P76’s rivals. In addition, the major mechanical components like the suspension, steering and brakes could be made lighter as well.”
Leyland takes over
British Leyland Motor Corporation (BLMC) came into being in January 1968, being incorporated on 14 May. As BMH (British Motor Holdings – formed when BMC bought Jaguar in 1966) was financially in trouble at the time and Leyland in a strong position, it was the latter that effectively took over, under the leadership of Sir Donald Stokes.
The Leyland takeover led to many changes in management, both in the UK and in Australia, and AMG had a whole new board to convince about the merits of the Australian programme.
In August license restrictions for the Rover V8 were lifted, allowing the Australian proposal to go ahead.
By late 1968 it was felt that the forthcoming Marina would be close enough to AMG’s proposed Model A to get something on the market early to replace the front-wheel-drive 1100/1500 range. This would allow the majority of funds available to be channelled onto developing and releasing Model B, with the “proper” Model A being developed after the launch of Model B.
By the end of the year the engineering requirements and much of the costing had been worked out. In November, Bill Abbott and David Beech went to Longbridge to present their proposal to the new board. Apparently the board was divided as to the validity of the project, and it was Stokes who cast the deciding vote to give it the green light. However, where the Aussies had been asking for AU$30 million, they were provided with $21 million through a European bank loan, with the remainder to come from the profits from the 1500 (about to be released), the 1800 (only moderately successful), the Mini (never very profitable) and the upcoming Marina.
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