At first sight, the P76 Targa Florio owned by David Eadon resembles the sort of Holden, Falcon or Valiant you might see in the background of a 1970s antipodean soap opera of dubious merit. But, the grille sports a somewhat incongruous Leyland badge to denote that it is, in fact, one of three roadworthy UK-based examples of the car that British Leyland hoped would save its Australian division.
Austin established a Melbourne plant in 1947 to circumvent import duties. Two years later, the Nuffield Group opened their works in Zetland, near Sydney, to build Morris cars. By the 1960s, BMC-Australia struggled to compete in the country’s dominant market for large six-cylinder saloons.
The 1962 Wolseley 24/80 and the 1970 Austin Kimberley had their merits but were too obviously modified British designs. By contrast, General-Motors-Holden sold its products as created and built for Australians.
BMC merged with British Leyland in 1968, and in the following year, work commenced on the P76 - a A$21 million project specially devised for Australia. The vaguely Chrysler-like bodywork was by Giovanni Michelotti, and power was from the locally designed 2.6-litre straight six, or a 4.4-litre V8 based on the Rover 3.5-litre unit.
A company spokesman told Motor: “With the P76, we are not offering the customer just another Holden, Falcon or Valiant, but a car that is comparable in size and performance to the American type, with European standards regarding ride, handling and roadholding plus superior interior appointments.”
The Leyland P76… The car that was “Anything but Average.”
With trim levels ranging from the De Luxe, with single headlamps and a steering column gearchange, to the quad-headlamp Super and the flagship Executive, the company hoped that sales would amount to 30,000 per year.
Dealers could inform prospective customers of 96% local content, and the P76 initially appeared to have a promising future. Wheels magazine voted the V8 models their Car of The Year: “A dynamic and remarkably fine motor car, surely destined to push Leyland up the ladder, both in Australia and export markets.”
One sales feature was a boot that could accommodate a 44-gallon oil drum, and the paint finishes included the very 1970s shades of “Am Eye Blue” or “Plum Loco.”
The Telegraph reported British imports of the P76 would start in 1974, with prices ranging from £3,500 to £4,000. The Sydney factory despatched two trial cars to London, and British Leyland planned to brand the P76 as a Vanden Plas in the UK. Its role was an alternative to the Jaguar XJ6 3.4 S2 and the belated replacement for the Rover 3.5-litre P5B, which ceased production in 1973.
But the OPEC fuel crisis impacted the sale of all large cars, and the P76 acquired a reputation for unreliability. So, in 1974, Leyland-Australia attempted to raise its profile with the limited-edition Targa Florio, named for its success in the World Cup Rally. For A$4,890, the proud owner gained a Super with metallic paintwork, alloy wheels, a radio, an electric aerial, and automatic transmission. Not to mention the dynamic stripes befitting a car “born in the Sahara, and bred for Australia.”
But the Targa Florio marked the twilight of the P76. In July of 1974, Leyland-Australia’s MD told the press, “We are here to stay,” but sceptics were not entirely surprised when the Zetland plant closed three months later, marking the end of the P76 production. Just 18,007 examples left the factory, and BL never officially sold them in this country.
Eadon acquired his privately imported P76 in 2001, and to say he owns a rare car is somewhat of an understatement. In his words, “As far as I know, there are three P76s on the road in this country and two out of use. Mine is believed to be the only Targa Florio outside of the Southern Hemisphere. Some expatriate Australians do recognise it but most Britons either think the P76 is a Holden, or they just ask what it is.”
Fifty years ago, the P76 seemed the ideal car for its intended customer base, but its main problem was that by 1973 Leyland-Australia was a very troubled organisation. As for the proposed British Vanden Plas version, it would have certainly been an imposing sight when parked outside the local Berni Inn. Especially when finished in “Peel Me A Grape” purple.