Anything But Average: The Story of BMC/Leyland Australia

Most people will be familiar with BMC/British Leyland, the company that produced two revolutionary cars, the Mini and Range Rover, and countless dreadful ones. Well during the 60s and 70s they had a truly disastrous Australian operation, known mainly for the large P76 sedan. The advertising slogan for the Leyland P76 was 'Anything But Average'. For most of Leyland Motor Corporation of Australia and its predecessor, BMC Australia's history, average would have been an improvement. They had a some good ideas, but their parent company would never give them the resources to execute them properly.

In the early days BMC Australia was relatively successful. While nowhere near as popular as Holden,  their affordable small cars sold in healthy numbers against other rivals of British origin from Ford and Vauxhall. But BMC wanted more. In 1960 Ford went into battle directly with Holden, replacing the Zephyr with the Falcon. BMC thought they could do the same, this marking the start of a series of failures that would ultimately kill the company in 1976.

BMC Australia's first attempt at a large car was the Austin Freeway, and they expected their small car success to be easy to replicate in a large one. It wasn't. Ford and Chrysler had it relatively easy because the compact American Falcon and Valiant happened to be the same size as the large Australian Holden. All they had to do was make it tougher to withstand the Australian roads at the time.BMC didn't have a car that size in their British line up so they tried to to modify one. The Freeway was essentially a six cylinder version of the four cylinder A60. The engine, known as the Blue Streak, was created by adding two extra cylinders to the 1.6L four. Another issue was the outdated styling, which had 1950s proportions and 1950s tail fins in in 1962. Unlike its successors, there isn't a single positive thing about the Freeway. It wasn't innovative, attractive, reliable, refined or more affordable than its competition. This was reflected in its sales figures. BMC perceived Holden as their main rival, but they sold fewer Freeways in the first year of production than the number of Holdens sold every week. The advertising urged Australians to make way for the Austin Freeway, and they stayed well away from it.

The 1962 Austin Freeway

The 1962 Austin Freeway

Some good news came in the form of the Mini and Land Rover. In the early 1960s, these cars had little genuine competition and were selling very well. BMC Australia were selling over 1000 cars a week, mostly Minis and Land Rovers. That was enough to give them a third place market share of 13%, behind Ford and Holden,  but still ahead of Chrysler. The Mini and Land Rover however, were both expensive to build, so despite strong sales profits were low. In 1966 the Mini won Bathurst. The Morris Cooper S filled the first nine finishing positions. Race winners Rauno Aaltonen and Bob Holden were six laps ahead of the first car that wasn't a Mini, the Chrysler Valiant V8 Automatic of Jack Nougher and David O'Keefe.

The Mini's success was the start of BMC/Leyland Australia's undoing. In 1962 BMC rejected a proposal for a longer and wider version of the Freeway,  and established a study group to investigate building a uniquely Australian car. What the group recommended was a large sedan powered by the all alloy Buick V8 that later became the Rover V8. While this was happening the Mini became successful. The British were already reluctant to let BMC Australia develop a large car (they didn't understand Australia and didn't see the point), and this didn't help their case. The Australian designed V8 sedan was dropped in favour of adapting existing front wheel drive British designs with six cylinder engines. 

Leyland's second attempt at an Australian family car in 1970 was better on paper but not in practice. By shoving an inline 6 into the front wheel drive Austin 1800 to create the X6, Leyland had accidentally created a car well ahead of its time. The FWD Mitsubishi Magna didn't arrive until 1985, so you could say it was nearly two decades ahead of its time. The car itself wasn't particularly good. It handled and rode well, and performance was reasonable, but that's about all of the positives. It was unreliable, prone to stalling and overheating, it had controls that didn't work, steering kickback, and poor ergonomics.

The 1972 Austin X6 Kimberly. The right car at the wrong time

The 1972 Austin X6 Kimberly. The right car at the wrong time

It didn't really matter that the X6 wasn't a good car, people didn't like the idea of a large front wheel drive car. A restricted model range was also a problem in a period where the Big Three, Ford, Holden and Chrylser, were diversifying into every possible niche. There were no wagon or ute options, and no answer to the sports and standard and long wheelbase luxury models being introduced by the Big Three at the time. The Kimberly claimed to be upmarket but was hardly a match for the Fairmont, and there was no answer to the LWB Fairlane.  Having a coupe wouldn't have hurt either, even if the Holden Monaro and Chrysler Valiant Pacer hardtop (Dodge Dart to Americans) were doing more for image than direct sales. They didn't care that it was better packaged and more fuel efficient than the Big Three contemporaries, it was 1969, the year we got the first Falcon GTHO and Monaro GTS 350. Power was everything. Consequently, Leyland's market share dropped to 8% in 1970. Despite the failures in timing and execution and it's limited model range, Leyland should have had another go at the X6, because when it was replaced by the P76, people started turning to smaller cars.  

In 1972, one year ahead of the P76's release, Leyland began producing the Marina in Australia, initially as a Morris, before switching to Leyland in 1973. It was rear wheel drive, which should have increased its appeal to Australians and offered as a sedan or coupe. It had a choice of three underpowered four cylinder engines.  In 1973, along with the name change, the power issue was solved by following the trend started by Holden's six cylinder Torana and dropping the 2.6 litre inline six from the P76 in it. This hadn't gone well for the Falcon-engined Ford Cortina and Hemi Six Chrysler Centura, and it didn't work for the Marina. Leyland had improved performance but also added colossal understeer to a list of Marina faults that already included a lack of water tightness, a rough ride and poor interior build quality.

The Leyland Marina: Like a Morris Marina but worse

The Leyland Marina: Like a Morris Marina but worse

Work on the P76 began in 1968, two years after Ford had released the XR Falcon with its option V8 engine. Back then a large car like the P76 seemed like a great idea.  Leyland desperately needed the P76 to be good. British Leyland was still opposed to the project and only gave them $21 million to spend on developing the car almost from scratch. All they had to start with were the engines, and even they had to be heavily modified. To make things even worse, British Leyland made several attempts to cancel the P76 project. Leyland Australia's director of engineering, David Beech, fought hard to keep the project alive and at times had to simply ignore British Leyland to get things done. The enthusiastic engineers kept going and did the best they could with limited resources. It was the same work ethic  and sense of optimism that would keep the Australian car industry going for decades, stretched to its absolute limits. 

Leyland contacted a number of designers to submit proposals, and selected a design from a young Giorgetto Giugiaro. Beech went over to Italy to sign the contracts, but when he got there he didn't like Giugiaro much. He instead hired Michelotti. Michelotti was a talented designer with a well-established reputation so this wasn't necessarily a bad thing. He designed a good looking car, but Leyland ruined it. Beech had been in Michelotti's studio for three months supervising the design and had become bored. he complained so much about the front end of the car that Michelotti gave him the pencil and told him to do it himself. The same thing happened again when the body engineer came over and complained that the boot was too small. Michelotti had designed an elegant sloping tail but Leyland insisted that the P76 must have the biggest boot in its class. The body engineer resolved this by simply drawing another line above Michelotti's boot line. That's what gave the P76 it's bulbous rear end.     

Aside from the fussy grille and too big rear, the P76 was an attractive car

Aside from the fussy grille and too big rear, the P76 was an attractive car

In many ways the P76 launched in 1973 was a good car. It was spacious, comfortable, aerodynamic, and technically advanced. It featured a 4.4L version of the alloy Rover V8 and had a boot big enough for a 44 gallon drum, something they were rather boastful of. The V8 version even won the Wheels Car of the Year award in 1973. Then Wheels editor, Peter Robinson, described the P76 as being a mile or two ahead of the big three competition. It was lighter, more powerful and had standard four wheel disc brakes. making it easily the better performing car. So what was wrong with it? Well it was enormous, people didn't warm to the styling, it was prone to rust, it had panel gaps so large the cabin was draughty, it leaked, the poorly insulated exhaust burnt the carpet, the interior fell to pieces, the windows shook themselves loose on rough roads, the six was slow and the V8 overheated in traffic. All this earned it the nickname P38, because it was only half the car it should have been. The P76 lasted just 16 months and brought about the end of Leyland as a major manufacturer in Australia. Robinson summed up the P76 nicely in 1995. "It performed better, rode better, steered better. It took the Australian car two or three steps forward, but the way they subsequently threw the thing together ruined all that effort". The $21 million was enough to design a good car, but not enough to build it.

It's only redeeming feature wasn't a particularly useful one

It's only redeeming feature wasn't a particularly useful one

There was a coupe version of the P76 known as the Force 7. It was due to go on sale just as Leyland Australia shut its doors in 1974. Only 60 cars were produced and all but 10 of them were crushed. The Force 7 had the same Rover V8 as the P76 and a unique hatchback body. It was also the only large Australian coupe with unique body panels from nose to tail. But the Force 7 wouldn't have saved Leyland. Style, brand loyalty, motorsport pedigree and image were more important to coupe buyers than sedan buyers, and the Force 7 fell short of its rivals on all fronts. It would have been launched into a shrinking market segment with a reputation for unreliability and styling that, while an improvement on the sedan, had nothing on the Falcon, Monaro and Charger. Taking sales away from its competitors would have been difficult.

Three of the 10 Leyland Force 7s that weren't crushed when production was cancelled

Three of the 10 Leyland Force 7s that weren't crushed when production was cancelled

Even if they'd built it properly and given it more appealing styling, the P76 was destined to be a failure. Leyland thought that what they needed was a proper, large RWD sedan with a six cylinder or V8 engine. They did, but they needed it five years earlier. The P76 was a bigger car than the Falcon, Holden and Valiant of the time and they launched it in the middle of an oil crisis. If Leyland hadn't wasted all those years adapting small and medium British cars to appeal to Australian large car buyers and got the P76 out earlier against the XR Falcon and HK Holden, then it could have been a success.

One theory is that if Leyland had used an existing brand for the P76  and Marina like Austin, then sales would have been helped by brand recognition. The counter argument to this is that mainstream British brands were recognised, but for the wrong reasons. Shortly after the second world war, Australians had two choices of car. If you were moderately wealthy you had a big American car, if you were poor, you  had a small British car. The Holden 48-215 came along and slotted in between, and became massively popular with middle class Australia.   If you were young you knew Austin as weird and unreliable, if you were old, you remembered Austin, as well as Morris and Vauxhall as poverty pack cars as well. In recent years Hyundai-Kia has managed to turn its reputation around but they had low prices, home market popularity and a strong industrial machinery business to lean on while they did. Leyland had none of these things. The P76 was a make or break car so they took a gamble on a new name, and the car was well publicised and received glowing reviews. Brand recognition wasn't an issue.

The fallout from the Leyland closure was immense. The Australian government ended up buying the Zetland plant in Sydney, while the Enfeild plant continued to build Minis and Land Rovers for a few more years. 6000 Leyland employees lost their jobs, plus another unknown number of supplier's employees. Prime Minister Gough Whitlam labelled the P76 a dud and Bill Hayden called it a lemon. Leyland Australia would survive until 1983 building Minis and Land Rovers from completely knocked down kits, as well as Peugeot 505's and Rover Quintets (a rebadged Honda). In 1983 Leyland Australia was replaced by Jaguar Rover Australia Limited.

The Rover Quintet was the last Leyland product built in Australia

The Rover Quintet was the last Leyland product built in Australia

Today the P76 owners club is full of enthusiastic members keen to defend their cars at any opportunity. Their enthusiasm is understandable. The P76 had its merits but was a victim of its time and Leyland management. Go to a classic car show in Australia and you'll most likely find at least one Leyland product, usually a P76, Mini or Moke. Despite this, the P76 still can't shake its lemon image. Because although the P76 was a good idea, it was just as half baked as its predecessors.