Back in 2013, enthusiasts gathered in Canberra to celebrate 40 years of Australia's most controversial car, the Leyland P76

Photographers: Kristen Nutting

Back in 2013, enthusiasts gathered in Canberra to celebrate 40 years of Australia’s most controversial car, the Leyland P76

This article was originally published in the October 2013 issue of Street Machine

Leyland -P76-40th -anniversary -4LET’S shoot the elephant in the room. The Leyland P76 is regarded by the broader motoring community as a bit of a lemon. Much maligned for its highly publicised quality control issues, it’s perceived by many as the car that took on the might of local giants Holden and Ford — and failed. In truth though, that’s a bit of a narrow-minded view.

The P76 was in many ways ahead of its time, and far from being the albatross around its parent company’s neck, it was brought down by the wholly unrelated demise of Leyland in the UK. It was very much a victim of circumstance, a large car launched in tandem with the first real oil crisis. That, along with the Whitlam government, did precious little to aid Leyland Australia’s cause.

There were plenty of positives in the P76. Its 4.4-litre bent eight was the first all-alloy engine fitted to an Australian-built car, and a host of design features, including concealed wipers, recessed door handles and a forward-hinged bonnet made it a uniquely modern alternative to more traditional Aussie offerings. Our mates over at Wheels even saw fit to bestow the P76 with its prestigious Car of the Year gong in ’73, so it couldn’t have been all bad, could it?

The first of many things we learned at the Leyland P76 40th Anniversary Celebration is that there are plenty of people who reckon they’re anything but lemons. They’re as fiercely passionate about their chosen marque as any Holden or Ford fan, and love nothing more than a chance to share that passion with others. They’re acutely aware of the way in which their cars are perceived, and they’re eager to tell their side of the story. After all, it could be argued that the biggest problem the car faced at the time of its launch is that demand far outstripped supply.

The Leyland P76 was officially unveiled to the Australian media in Canberra in June of 1973, before being released to the public on 26 June that year. During the launch, the journos were invited to sample the new car on a series of drives around the Canberra district.

On the 40th anniversary of the launch, P76 nuts came from far and wide to celebrate the car they love. Ever conscious of the history surrounding the vehicles, there was very much a sense amongst the Leyland faithful that they were returning to where it all began, and many elements of the original press launch were included in the program.

Leyland -P76-40th -anniversary -14An informal dinner on the Friday evening was a chance for fans to catch up and press the flesh, while a cruise on Saturday took in many of the original destinations visited during the launch, including Honeysuckle Creek, Tidbinbilla and Gundaroo. For the record, out of 50 cars there was but one minor mechanical issue all weekend — a problem with the points on a freshly completed car. It was fixed in a flash and back on the road before we heard of it.

Leyland -P76-40th -anniversary -7Saturday night’s formal dinner was held at Rydges Lakeside, the same venue that hosted the official launch. The evening was MC’d by ex-Leyland PR man Will Hagon, who organised the original launch, and he had plenty of interesting anecdotes to share with the crowd.

The weekend culminated in Sunday’s concours show on the front lawn of Old Parliament House, where the cars were proudly displayed to the public. There we caught up with anniversary organiser Damien Haas of the Canberra and Districts Leyland P76 Owners Club.

“We had a total of 156 people registered for the event, which was a combination of current P76 owners and people who used to work for Leyland,” he said. “There are about 80 cars taking part in today’s concours, and I’m absolutely stunned by the turnout. I appreciate that P76s may not be as good-looking as some other cars, but once you strap yourself in and go for a spin in one, you realise that they’re great.”

Leyland -P76-40th -anniversary -13“They copped a lot of bad publicity,” Steve Maher, president of the Leyland P76 Owners Club of NSW, said. “They were called lemons and all sorts of things, which is unfortunate but worse than that, unfounded. They are no less reliable than any other car of the time.”

We spent the day shooting the breeze with Leyland owners from all walks of life, and the enthusiasm they have for the cars is contagious. Where the P76 is concerned there are plenty of knockers out there, and there probably always will be. But it takes all kinds, and regardless of whether or not a P76 is as fast as an XY GTHO or as sexy as an HK Monaro, there’s nothing we enjoy more than seeing people passionate about their rides.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder after all, and perhaps they’ll be the ones having a quiet chuckle the next time you’re forking out $10K for a rusty Torana shell.