In the more than 100 years since the first automobile spluttered into life, there have been some truly outstanding cars. The E-type Jaguar, the Ford Mustang, the Monaro, the Aston Martin DB5, the XC Cobra . . . the list goes go on.
But for every shining star in the automotive firmament there is a car that has been cursed with the label of ‘lemon’ and which has become the punchline to many an automotive joke. For example, the East German Trabant, Britain’s Austin Allegro and America’s AMC Pacer seem to rate highly on many ‘worst of’ lists.
Australian cars haven’t escaped the pointed finger of mockery either, and the much-maligned Leyland P76 has received plenty of scorn over the years.
However, more than four decades after its launch and quick demise, its reputation is being reassessed and there are more than a few who believe the P76 is anything but the ‘dud’ that former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam memorably called it.
His affection for the P76 goes back to the 1970s, when his father owned a car yard and encouraged Graham to use the car for a lengthy road-trip.
“When I was 18, I was planning to go to Sydney and my father wasn’t happy with me driving all that way in the car I had at the time,” says Graham. “He suggested I use a car from the yard and it just happened
to be a P76 V8 auto.
“It was stunningly good to drive! And that was the thing that really stuck in my mind – just how good it was. It was a nice, comfortable, powerful car with lots of room.
“I didn’t pursue one for years after that and then, in about 2000, I went to a swap meet in Toowoomba and I saw a P76 for sale and bought it. That car, my orange P76, is one I’m still restoring. A little while later I discovered the crystal white one – a 1973 V8 auto. It was more of a going concern and I ended up restoring that one first.
“It has had the bodywork re-done, the interior trim, and I’ve had the motor and transmission rebuilt. It didn’t have air-conditioning or power steering when I got it so I have had both of those fitted too. It’s a great car.”
An attempt by British Leyland to crack the Aussie big-car market and challenge Holden, Ford and Chrysler, the P76’s lifespan was a short one – just 18 months of production and 17,000 units built – and it soon became a byword for automotive disaster.
And yet things had started off so promisingly.
The Project 76 – a name given to the car during its development and one the company stuck with once it became public knowledge – was launched with a great deal of fanfare in 1973. Designed and built in Australia, the car was, despite a development budget of just $21million, a well-conceived vehicle with a number of advanced features.
Available with an excellent and economical all-alloy V8 engine, or a six-cylinder powerplant, across its three models, the P76 had a combination of features that included power-assisted ventilated front disc brakes, Macpherson strut and coil spring suspension and side impact bars in all four doors.
And it was truly a family car, with enough space for four with room to spare and, famously, a boot so cavernous that it could comfortably carry a 44-gallon drum.
The P76’s wedge-shape design was adventurous too, and the whole package caused a sensation when launched. The motoring media loved it. It picked up the prestigious Wheels Magazine Car of the Year award in 1974 and the public clamoured to get their hands on it, flocking to Leyland dealers and ordering more than 2000 of them in the first week on sale.
However, behind the scenes, things were not so rosy. Unrest within industries that supplied materials for the car’s construction caused problems in production, and the world fuel crisis struck just as the P76 was hitting the forecourts, with the price of crude oil quadrupling and leaving consumers questioning the worth of big-engine cars.
Leyland Australia’s UK parent company was in some financial difficulty and the investment of just $21million, along with pressure to bring the car swiftly to the market, meant development was not all it might have been.
Reports of quality issues soon began to surface.
Sealing issues on windscreens and door panels meant water and dust could enter the interior. Interior fittings shook loose, the padded top of the dash distorted in the hot sun, and the ‘wood’ trim would peel off. Door windows would come off their runners and fell to the bottom of the door if the door was slammed shut, while window winders would come off in customers’ hands.
There was even talk that the exhaust system was so close to the floor that the carpet would smoulder from the heat.
The problems seemed to be legion and, in the end, the P76, could not recover from them. Given all that though, the P76’s design and features did suggest that, if the quality issues could be resolved, then Leyland had a winner on its hands. The two-door version of the P76, called the Force7, hinted at what may have been.
“There were quality and fitment issues with some of the parts, that’s true,” says Graham. “But many of those existed in other cars of the time and the P76 does stand up very strongly against cars of that era.
In many ways they were actually superior to the Ford and Holden vehicles. They were Wheels Magazine’s Car of the Year after all, and the Wheelswriters weren’t stupid!
“If Leyland had been able to keep going, they would have rectified those quality issues for the next version of the car. Indeed, the Force7 was ready and Leyland did, in fact, produce a few. That car, I think, would have worked – it just didn’t get the opportunity to impress. In the end just 10 of them survived but they were very good and they are all still around today.”
In fact, there are enough fans of the P76 that the car is unlikely to disappear from our roads. With P76 Owners Clubs in every state, there’s enough experience around to keep the potential maintenance challenges of this industry classic in check.
“Being a member of the Owners Club means you have access to some important things, including the knowledge of club members,” said Graham. “Some members have been P76 people all their lives and their knowledge is unbelievable – they know everything there is to know and then some!”
In the end, the P76 is more of a ‘what might have been’ story than the punchline of a joke. A bit more time, a bit more development, a bit more investment, and things could have been much different. And as the car continues to be reassessed it may be that the old gag in which the car was called ‘the P38, because it was half the car it should have been’, can be put to rest.
For the moment though, being able to take a joke is probably not a bad thing for a P76 owner.
“The reaction from people when they see the car is usually pretty good,” said Graham. “You can get the occasional person who has a crack at it because they’ve heard the stories, but we don’t worry about them. You get pretty thick-skinned as a P76 owner!”