The Leyland P76 has been considered a joke by the motoring fraternity and public for over three decades now and I am wondering if it is a reputation that the Leyland giant really deserves?
During the 70’s big collars and even bigger flares were in and I never understood why the equally oversized P76 failed. Maybe the interior designers should have trimmed the seats in paisley?
Thirty years on and big collars and flares are once again cool, but what of the Leyland P76? How does the P76’s retro ‘barge’ styling and 70’s acid tripping colour schemes shape up in a new century. Can a thirty something P76 actually be cool?
It may be hard for some to believe but I actually think the P76 is cool, in one form, the “Targa Florio” model.
You see there were two versions of the P76, a V8 and six cylinder. The six-cylinder engine was an enlarged unit borrowed from the Austin Tasman and Kimberley and taken from 2.25-litres out to 2.6-litres, while the V8 was a development of the Rover 3.5 litre V8, with a stronger block and longer stroke. The longer stroke meant the engine was close to square resulting in a more free revving nature and an increase in capacity to 4.4-litres. The engine was fuelled by a Bendix Stromberg two-barrel carburetor, in place of the twin SUs used in Rovers, and power climbed to a heady 161kW.
The styling for both V8 and six cylinder models was almost identical. Designed by Giovanni Michelotti both variants shared the same wide panels, square edges, wedge shape nose, flat rear end and high sides, a look that was very different to anything else in its day.
Suspension was ‘floaty’ by today’s standards, and could ‘turn’ even the hardest of sailor’s stomachs. Up front there were struts, coil springs and an anti-roll bar which was a bit of an oxymoron. Brakes were the other issue.
Power assisted brakes were standard and a big selling point in their day but the 270mm front discs and 230mm x 38mm drums in the rear just didn’t do a good job of slowing the big Leyland down.
In July of 1973 “Wheels” magazine said this of the P76. "For Leyland it is the most important car in the company's history. It has cost $21 million and taken 500,000 miles of development and five years to get into the showrooms." Thirty-five years on and inflation has taken its toll with “Wheels” more recently dubbing the VE Commodore as Holden’s “Billion dollar Baby!”
Then in September of 1973 “Wheels” magazine in their usual format did a four car comparison featuring the Valiant, Falcon 500, Holden Kingswood and P76. With these large family sedans costing no more than $3,500 fully optioned, the P76 was the clear winner in this segment.
Early 1974 saw the motoring journalists at Wheels name the P76 V8 the 1973 “Wheels” Car of the Year. This is what they had to say about it;
"It is in the V8 version that it really shows its potential. It sets new standards for medium-sized local cars in its ride/handling/road-holding compromise; it has fine brakes, is comfortable, very roomy, and practical and, with the all important V8 engine, has excellent performance and superior fuel consumption compared to the V8 opposition and the larger competitive sixes. Of course, the car is not perfect but in reaching its design objectives the P76 V8 has contributed to the engineering standards of Australian cars."
The award was also given to the V8 P76 for its roominess, as the car had a cavernous interior and its famous boot. People still talk today about the P76 boot and its ability to swallow a 44 gallon drum like a cheeseburger at a Biggest Loser temptation test.
The P76 was at first well received, but one thing that hasn’t changed in our relatively small Australian car market is the fickle nature of new car buyers and it was no different 30 years ago. Over 2,000 P76’s had been pre-ordered, resulting in a shortage at the dealers, particularly of V8 versions, which resulted in the P76 being slow to get onto Australian roads – and the car buying public became a little suspect.
The Leyland dealer network didn’t help the situation either. On the rump of the Leyland was a difficult to read P76 badge that looked like PIG from a distance and the Leyland salesman soon had a pet name for the new car. It didn’t take long for the lack of stock and the dealer’s nickname to result in whispers that brought into question the reliability of the P76.
Rather than buy a PIG, Australian buyers stuck to their Holdens, Fords and Valiants and the P76 was eventually axed. Even Australia’s Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam called it a dud and Bill Hayden joined in by calling it a lemon. All up around 16,000 P76’s were made in various guises, however the actual official number of P76’s built remains a mystery.
However, the news was not all bad for the P76, which enjoyed a brief and successful motorsport career. Evan Green drove one to success in the 1974 World Cup Rally and made the fastest time around the leg in Sicily. This included part of the former Targa Florio course and Leyland celebrated by introducing a limited run of 300 P76 Targa Florio’s to celebrate.
The P76 Targa Florio had a large sticker down the side to commemorate the win but it wasn’t just livery that made this car different. The Targa Florio came standard with options that included power steering, five-spoke alloy wheels, radial tyres, a four-speed auto transmission and even a limited-slip differential. This was enough to make it quite special and in my opinion rather cool. Much like my 70’s velour suit, I would be happy to be seen out and about in a Leyland P76 V8 Targa Florio in 2008. It has too rich a history to continue being considered a joke.
Until next time ~ Happy and safe motoring
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