The Leyland P76 motor car was a product of its time. But times changed too quickly for the makers of this highly innovative car. Not surprisingly, as a product released in 1973, P76 typified Australian desires of the late 1960s when its development began with an emphasis on market research. P76 was big, it looked distinctively different from Chrysler, GMH or Ford offerings, it was economical for its size, but used lots of cheap petrol, it accommodated six people in comfort and was for 'Dad' to drive. (These very Australian requirements for a car were to wane during the "oil crisis" on 1972-1974, but were stronger than ever from 1979 onwards when Ford's bigger than ever XD-XF Falcon series gained market leadership). The car had innovative features like concealed wipers, side intrusion bars in the doors, a safety bonnet, front disc brakes as standard and an isolated fuel tank to meet public concerns about car safety.
In addition, the team who developed the P76 wanted to make it uniquely Australian in character so an enormous boot was designed to carry family luggage and camping equipment on long Australian holidays. It could even hold a 44 gallon (194 litre) drum, a bid to get farmers to swap their Holden utes for a P76!
To make P76 different to its American styled competitors, the Italian stylist Michelotti was employed to add some European flair to its appearance. He employed a 'flying wedge' shape, not used by other car makers such as Nissan until the 1980s.
The package was completed by an unprecedented television and press advertising campaign to promote the P76 as 'anything but average'. Leyland even installed a telephone hotline for customers and gave away cufflinks, ties and tie pins.
The Vehicle Builders Employees Federation of the day even said: "Working conditions at...Leylands are significantly better than those at Ford, General Motors and Chrysler". (Leyland revised work practice and introduced worker consultation schemes for P76 production).
The P76's time, however, was artificially short. Like Nissan's Australian made Pulsar in 1992, the car without a name was awarded the "Wheels" magazine "Car of the year" award in 1973. In part, the citation said: "The...totally new Leyland sedan emerged as a dynamic and remarkably fine motor car, surely destined to push Leyland up the ladder, both in Australia and in export markets".
In 1972, Australians had elected a Labor government and began a roller-coaster ride of economic instability and swift social reform. This affected the way Australian's approached the environment, the role of women and the economy. Three important factors were to affect the P76:
1. Women became more influential in all matters and they thought the P76 was too big, and in response to the "oil crisis" opted for small to medium cars.
2. Rampant inflation through high wage rises and production lost through industrial unrest changed the economic viability of manufacturing. At the same time, the Leyland production line took almost a year to 'settle in', and quality control became a problem. Despite this in 1973, Leyland had more orders than cars after the Car of the Year award. A comparison to this in car history can be seen with Ford's 1989 Capri production line which produced many faulty cars in the first year. However, Ford had a capital base in Australia that enabled them to produce a so-called 'half' model to rectify problems and re-establish lost reputation. Leyland also planned, but was not permitted to invest in a facelift, with a station wagon and sports car version of P76 to recover lost face.
3. In 1973 the "oil crisis" struck, doubling petrol prices almost overnight. By 1974, the panic made Australians buy small to medium sized cars. While Ford and GMH sold Cortina and Torana beside their big Falcons and Kingswoods, and Chrysler introduced a fully imported Centura to sell beside the Valiant, Leyland had no viable stable mate for P76. Even though it was 2km/1 more economical than its direct competitors, the P76 was no competition for small to medium cars.
As a result, in a shock decision, British Leyland decided to cease production in Australia of all but speciality vehicles and the super-economy micro car, the Morris Mini.
In October 1974, the P76 went out with the bathwater, even though there was a station wagon and sports version (the stunning Jensen like Force 7 hatchback) in the wings.
Production officially ceased in November 1974 after 7 years of work, $21 million spent in development and almost 18,000 P76's were built. The closure became a focus of Sydney's tabloid press and was accompanied by ugly scenes as 5,000 people lost their jobs. The Federal Labour government, elected for its new socialist ideals, refused to nationalise Leyland, the unions were disenchanted, the already straining public purse was relieved.
The P76 story reached mythical proportions after Leyland left its car an orphan in Australia. Resale values plummeted as dealerships and service centres closed, without model updates and proper servicing, quirky design flaws appeared such as door windows falling in! P76's were relegated to poor neighbourhoods and noisy teenagers. The car was eventually shamed in a television advertisement for tyres in the mid 1980s showing a P76 with its tyres outlasting the car!
By looking at a pristine example of the P76 today, however, and with the embellished hindsight of 20 years exposed, visitors to the museum may take a different attitude to the car, understand the circumstances in which it was produced, and see it as an example of a truly Australian innovation in design and production that was a successful product whose time was missed.