Gerry Crown’s incredible victory in the just-finished Paris to Peking Rally, driving a 45-year-old uniquely-Aussie Leyland P76 has captured the imagination of lovers (and haters) of the car.
As Jeff Whitten remembers, the Leyland P76 was more than ‘half a car’.
* * * * *
Gerry Crown and Matt Bryson won the Paris to Peking in their Leyland P76.
For the ordinary motorist in the early 1970s, the impending arrival of the Leyland P76 was exciting news.
Families wanting a large 6-cylinder car big enough to transport the family around and perhaps tow a caravan, were, until then, restricted to one of the Big Three – Ford’s Falcon, the Holden Kingswood or Chrysler’s Valiant. But there was one other choice – BMC’s Austin Kimberley.
The Kimberley was a direct replacement for the English-manufactured Austin 1800, kindly (or unkindly) referred to as the “Land Crab”. But like all English cars that were supposed to be ideal for Australian conditions, the 1800 proved to be most unsuitable as a family car “Down Under”.
BMC’s Australian factory in the Sydney suburb of Zetland decided to go it alone and build a car based on the Austin 1800 platform, but which would withstand the rigours of Australian motoring, and came up with the Austin Kimberley X6.
It was basically a remodelled Austin 1800, but with a 6-cylinder engine derived from the 4-cylinder Morris 1500 and with an extra two cylinders added.
The kindest thing that could be said about the Kimberley was that it was a stop-gap model. While it was a huge improvement over the 1800, it was still a front-engined, front-wheel drive car that didn’t gain much favour from an increasingly-discerning Australian motoring public.
So, the news of a real, family-sized, 6-cylinder alternative to the Holden/Falcon/Valiant domination was good news in the early 1970s.
When the P76 was released in June 1973, the motoring press went into raptures over the car. It was everything that customers wanted – and more. The only controversial aspect of the car was its styling – that large, bulky rear end was its least appealing aspect.
The P76’s greatest attribute was its neutral handling, which made it a real driver’s car, and when the V8 version came along, it was widely regarded as a very competent and well-designed car.
Problems with quality control and lack of dealer’s showroom stock meant that the P76 was never going to be able to match the Big Three, and when the fuel crisis raised its ugly head, it signalled the end of the Leyland, even though the P76’s fuel consumption was no worse than that of its competitors.
Leyland Australia had a couple more aces up its sleeve in the form of the Force 7V Coupe and a planned station wagon, but these never got to go on sale.
In a last-ditch attempt to get rid of slow moving stock, the Targa Florio was released just weeks before Leyland closed its Australian operations for good, and shortly after Evan Green and John Bryson had taken their P76 V8 to a fastest time on the Targa Florio stage in the 1974 UDT World Cup Rally.
Evan Green and John Bryson drove a P76 in the 1974 World Cup Rally.
THE P76 AS A RALLY CAR
In the days when rally cars were typically small 4-cylinder vehicles that were nimble enough to fit through the gaps in the trees, Leyland Australia’s P76 was anything but typical.
With a wheelbase of 2825mm and an overall length of 4878mm (192 inches), it was not only bigger than the current crop of Datsun, Mazda and Escort rally cars of the day, it was also bigger than its market opposition – the Holden, Falcon and Valiant range.
One of the manufacturers’ boasts was that you could put a 44 gallon drum in the boot and close the lid (and ideal for installing an LPG tank in later years), so, yes, it was big.
Yet, despite all the minus points (and the bagging it got from those who had never driven one), Leyland’s huge P76 turned out to be a very successful rally car.
The butt of many jokes, the P76 was a gutsy attempt by Leyland in Australia to slip into the domestic family car market in 1973. Unkindly nicknamed the P38 (less-informed critics suggesting it was only half a car), it was very advanced for its time and in a number of areas left the opposition in its wake.
The car received extremely positive reviews in all the local publications, was the subject of numerous comparison with the Big Three family cars, and was an instant hit with those who had bothered to take the time to have a test drive in one.
There were two basic versions of the P76 – a 6-cylinder version, and a V8 which had the famous Buick-derived aluminium alloy V8 that powered other British Leyland vehicles such as the Range Rover and the Rover 3500. The 4416cc V8 turned the basic car into a real weapon and, combined with brilliant handling, good ground clearance and 175km/h top speed, the P76 was just waiting to be rallied.
Several attempts have been made to rally the car in Australia, the first being an entry by Richard Hill and John Bryson who ran a P76 in the Regie Renault Rally in September 1973.
Hill also ran the car in a Clubman rally at Batemans Bay a fortnight later with Sonja Kable-Cumming (later to become Bryson’s wife) as navigator and followed this up with a run in the Rally of the Hills later that year.
Hill and Kable-Cumming entered the car in the very wet 1973 Southern Cross Rally and were the only finishers in the large-car class.
Hal Maloney crosses a ford during the 1995 Round Australia Trial. Photo: Stuart Bowes
But by far the most-publicised P76 rally car was the Evan Green/John Bryson P76 Executive V8 that was entered in the 1974 UDT World Cup Rally.
The rally started in Wembley, a suburb of London, and finished at Munich in Germany, celebrating the 1974 soccer World Cup.
Inspiring the famous Evan Green book “A Bootful of Right Arms”, the rally took crews through France, Spain and North Africa, into Algeria, Tunisia then back through Greece and Turkey.
Despite dropping back in the field after a strut broke on the road to Tamanrasset, Green and Bryson repaired the car and set the fastest time on the 72km old Targa Florio special stage in Sicily, thus providing an ideal advertising opportunity for Leyland in Australia.
In recognition of the car’s performance, the Targa Florio V8 was released and has since become a much-coveted version of the model.
In the 1974 Southern Cross Rally, two cars were entered for Evan Green and Hal Moloney, but by then the P76 death knell had sounded and as the two cars left on the first stage, news came through that production would cease.
In other events, Tom Barr-Smith ran a P76 in rounds of the Australian Rally Championship, achieving a 6th outright in the Warana Rally in Queensland and a remarkable 4th outright in the Alpine Rally in Victoria.
Barr-Smith and Rob Hunt brought their V8 P76 home for a win in the first round of the 1975 South Australian Rally Championship. The same car was equally successful in the fifth round of the SARC when Lou Rayner and Jeremy Browne took the Leyland to a further victory.
Around Australia there were a number of other less-well publicised outings for the P76 in club rallies and sprints, but by far the largest gathering of P76s was in the 1979 Repco Round Australia Trial when no less than five Leylands were entered.
According to Hal Moloney’s excellent book “Leyland P76”, the car continued to be rallied during the 70s and 80s and even into the 90s. Drivers such as Ted Dobrzynski, Bruce Garland, Hal Moloney, Bruce Ruggles and others regularly competed with varying success, and by then the car’s reputation had been well and truly cemented in history.
A good P76 could still be a potent weapon in club rallying. Great handling, strength and durability as well as a powerful V8 motor that lends itself to tuning for more power, are all “plus” points in the P76’s armoury.
And the Targa Florio is a highly desirable collector’s item for classic rallying or just for storing away as an appreciating asset.
Had Leyland Australia not had so many problems during the car’s short two-year history, it may well have gone on to have been a solid alternative to the Big Three cars on the Australian market.
Sadly, like so many other cars sold here, it didn’t stay around for long. Had the Federal Government tipped in a few million dollars to ease its financial woes (as it did with Mitsubishi years later), it could have been a much greater success.
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