25 February 2018

More than an old car #56: Leyland P76

Recently, I had the opportunity to witness the flag-off for the Road to Saigon rally, organized by the Endurance Rally Association. Some of its more renowned events include the Peking to Paris rally which happened a few years ago. I did not know about the previous time they were in Singapore for the Road to Mandalay rally, and I almost missed this again had I not gotten wind of it through Facebook. Despite wasting $7 to go to Capella Hotel in Sentosa, the scene that greeted my eyes was worth the money spent.

There were a total of 29 cars taking part, which was lower than that of the Mandalay rally. I was able to recognise most of the cars there, having seen their variants before. However, there were a few that left me stumped. I was attracted to this particular car, partly because of its unrecognizable logo and its boxiness of course. It was only after the event that I learnt about this 1974 Leyland P76 Super.

It started out with the formation of the British Motor Corporation (Australia) in 1954, following the foundation of the BMC in the UK in 1952. British Leyland was established in 1969 and after a series of mergers, Leyland Motor Corporation of Australia was created in 1972. If you are not aware, cars produced in different divisions of the parent company were often not identical as a result of consumer needs and developmental progress.

For a car with a short production life, it has a relatively colourful history. Leyland executives started off with a plan to capture a slice of the full-size car market, which had been dominated by Holden and Chrysler. The little English cars offered were no match for the long distances and poor terrain of Australian roads. Various designs were thought out but were deemed unfeasible. In 1969, they were given the go-ahead to build a large car. It was also discovered that they were in severe deficit, and were hedging their survival on the car's success.

The car design was thought up on a clean sheet, with contributions from Giovanni Michelotti [a renowned car designer]. Its name was derived from the car's code name of "Project 76", while others have proposed that it was the first 3 digits of Lord Donald Stokes' National Service number [former chairman of British Leyland]. It had a wide, flat wedge shape and an exceptionally large boot that could store a 200-litre barrel!

Production began in 1973, but it quickly gained a bad reputation. There were difficulties maintaining quality controls and issues such as loose-fitting doors. Although people were attracted by the spaciousness and smooth driving, the initial failures led to much derision against it--even former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam called it a "dud". Imagine if the most powerful person in your country expresses his/her dislike about a certain car...would you still buy it?

Coupled with production problems at the Zetland plant and the oil crisis, demand for the P76 plummeted and production ended in 1975. There were two main variants produced, a Deluxe and a Super edition, although there were a few coupes and station wagons made. The Super model was distinguished from the lower Deluxe specification by its 4 headlights compared to 2 for the other. It was powered by a 4416cc Rover V8 engine, allowing it to reach a top speed of 180km/h with an acceleration of 10.3 seconds [0-100km/h]. It was 4878mm long and weighed 1305kg.

A total of 18,007 P76s were made, of which only 1,047 was the Super 4-speed manual V8. This specimen has featured in many races and is driven by Gerry Crown and Matt Bryson. Crown is currently the oldest member taking part in the rally, at 84 years of age! You can follow their journey here as they make their way to Saigon! It has a roll cage at the rear and it carries a New South Wales club permit licence plate. I believe most of you have not heard of it before--it was purely for the Australian market and I don't think any made it to Singapore. It's pretty cool tearing up the road in such a unique machine--despite its unremarkable looks, the P76 is "anything but average"!