For the latest classic car news, features, buyer’s guides and classifieds, sign up to the C&SC newsletter here
Surprisingly, perhaps, Sir Alec Issigonis considered the Austin/Morris 1800 to be his finest hour as a car designer.
A five-seater, wheel-at-each-corner piece of front-drive rationalism, what was codenamed ADO17 and colloquially known as the Landcrab, took his Mini concept of compact spaciousness to its natural – but not particularly attractive – conclusion: a 13ft 11in-long, 5ft 7in-wide family saloon with more rear-seat legroom than anything this side of a Rolls-Royce Phantom.
He made no such public utterances on the subject of the closely related 1967-’71 Austin 3 Litre, other than a few ‘I told you so’ type noises when, as predicted, the new ADO61 bombed in the arenas of both expert opinion and public acceptance.
Fewer than 10,000 sales across a four-year production run made the poor old 3 Litre a poster child of the British Motor Corporation’s 1960s incompetence. He didn’t need a crystal ball to see that one coming.
In fairness, Issigonis – architect of many of BMC’s most expensive product- and profit-related issues – was intentionally kept away from the ADO61 project, an early ’60s disaster in abeyance for which nobody wanted to take responsibility.
Not only a belated replacement for the ‘Big Farina’ models, the 3 Litre was also implicated in a short-lived dalliance with Rolls-Royce as the potential basis for a cheaper and more compact Bentley, although the idea didn’t get beyond the clay-model stage.
On both fronts the ADO61 tended to get pushed to the back of the queue in the corporation’s busy development programme, perhaps in an attempt at delaying the inevitable howls of disapproval from an increasingly critical specialist press, which was not so easily won over as it had been 10 years earlier.
The inheritor of a ponderous tradition of big six-cylinder Austins dating back to the early ’30s, the 3 Litre was first mooted by BMC’s George Harriman as a concept for a rear-wheel-drive Westminster replacement, using a modified ADO17 centre section with an extended quad-headlight nose and tail, the latter tidied up by Pininfarina.
The basic shape was settled by April 1963 – 18 months before the 1800 ‘Landcrab’ was launched – but the engine and suspension went through a variety of iterations before the sophisticated combination of Hydrolastic ‘springs’, semi-trailing arms and self-levelling were arrived at in a bid to give it a technological advantage over its Vauxhall and Ford rivals.
Had the Austin 3 Litre hit the ground running in 1965, many of its subsequent problems could have been avoided.
It might have stolen thunder from the nascent PC Cresta and Mk IV Zephyr/Zodiac, while diverting buyers’ attentions from the thirst and sloth of a car that had not really moved the game on from the Westminster.
Its visual relationship with the smaller, transverse-engined 1800 might not have been such a deal-breaker for 1965 buyers, if only because the basic shape would still have been ‘fresh’ rather than an obvious adaptation of an older, cheaper model.
In fact, there is a case for suggesting that launching the 3 Litre alongside – or even before – the ADO17 would have benefited both, particularly if better-looking, better-finished Wolseley and Vanden Plas variants could have been rustled up to give the shape the gravitas it lacked in Austin form.
Sadly, the 3 Litre was destined only to be sold as an Austin, and was not even fully sorted when it was (coyly) revealed at motor-show time in 1967.
With the Westminster and 6/110 by then so old they were almost beginning to smell, the launch of ADO61 was a bullet that could no longer be dodged if BMC was going to maintain a presence in the big-car field.
Still identified as a ‘Westminster’ in some very early promotional material, such was BMC’s 1967 hesitancy over the prospects for the 3 Litre, it was decreed that 100 pre-production cars would be loaned to ‘special’ customers for appraisal before a definitive Deluxe version – with quad headlights rather than the rectangular, HB Viva type – was put on sale in 1968.
Cast adrift into a shrinking market for large ‘own-brand’ 3-litre saloons, the big Austin (the last true BMC model to be launched) faced fresh internal competition from the Rover/Triumph 2-litre ‘executive’ breed, as well as the 3½-litre P5B Rovers and some cheaper Jaguars in the rejigged British Motor Holdings conglomerate.
The press – which didn’t road test the 3 Litre extensively until 1969 – was not slow in pointing out that, at nearly £1900 for the automatic version, the new flagship offered poor value in comparison to the twin-carb Austin/Morris 1800S.
These could equal its c100mph top speed and, with no transmission tunnel, were actually roomier than the bigger car.
But the road testers reserved their harshest criticism for the engine.
Shared with the MGC, it had originally been conceived as a high-revving ‘square’ unit, but to keep tooling costs in check it ended up as a seven-bearing version of the original C-series.
Except it didn’t really ‘breathe’ as well, and thus committed the dual sins of making the 3 Litre both thirsty and underwhelming in straight-line performance for a new luxury saloon in 1967.
Stuck with a product that was too far down the developmental pipeline to be aborted, the newly formed British Leyland marketed the 3 Litre as a car for no-nonsense people of the world: those who were dismissive of the flashy trappings of superficial, Detroit-inspired prestige cars but needed a big, value-for-money British saloon possessed of a certain practical luxury.
They were gentleman farmers, judges, civil servants or other pillars of society who required a dignified owner-driver five-seater that could double as chauffeured transport when required.
Unfortunately, other than a certain notoriety as a ministerial barge for politicians and Whitehall mandarins who didn’t quite merit a Rover, such customers were in short supply by the early ’70s.
Not even the police, which had run Westminsters and 6/110s in large quantities, could be persuaded to buy more than a handful of the cars.
Oddly, the 3 Litre was a surprisingly fertile basis for coachbuilders: three Crayford estates, 13 stretched limousines, a number of hearses and a single ambulance were built.
Had half-formed plans for a V8-powered Wolseley come to fruition, the constabulary might have taken a different view because the 3 Litre, with its sophisticated suspension and superbly rigid shell, could hardly fail to handle better than the unwieldy Westminster.
An easier route to making the 3 Litre the car it should have been probably lay with Mini tuning expert Daniel Richmond of Downton Engineering.
A 3 Litre owner himself, his gas-flowing magic – available to others for £213 – boosted the C-series’ output from 118 to 175bhp and added 15mph to the top speed.
But, like Issigonis, Donald Healey, John Cooper and various other colourful elements of BMC’s then recent past, Richmond was soon as out of favour with the new regime as the 3 Litre itself.
It had long since become an irrelevance within a BL distracted by the need to take on Ford with the high-volume Morris Marina: its 1971 demise likely had as much to do with a need for production capacity for the new model at Cowley as anything else.
Mooted as BL’s answer to the new Ford Granada, these cars were also, by implication, replacements for the 3 Litre – particularly in upmarket Wolseley form.
With the imminent demise of the Wolseley 1300, the Six was about to become the the sole keeper of the Wolseley tradition within the Leyland fleet.
It was built on the same Cofton Hackett transfer lines and drove the front wheels through the standard 1800 gearbox, now rod-operated rather than cable.
A tall, skinny and unfashionably undersquare unit, the overhead-camshaft E6 had its origins in Leyland’s Australian outpost where it was fitted to the Tasman and Kimberley models.
It weighed only 20lb more than the B-series ‘four’ and, with 106bhp-plus, was deemed potent enough to make the four-cylinder twin-carb ‘S’ versions of the Landcrab superfluous.
It ran a front- rather than side-mounted radiator with an electric fan and alternator, the beefier front discs from the ‘S’ and a larger 12.5-gallon fuel tank.
Owners of four- and six-cylinder Landcrabs could now thrill to the decadence of an electric windscreen-washer and a handier central handbrake.
All of this came at a cost of minimal retooling to give the eight-year-old ADO17 a new lease of life. More than 40,000 were sold, the majority in Wolseley guise, which demonstrated that there was still a market for a luxury Landcrab in a more rational form.
In the metal not even the Wolseley grille, with its nostalgic backlit badge, can give the Six much visual swagger, although its simple, snub-nosed lines are elegant in comparison with most of the modern horrors around it on 2022 roads.
Like the 3 Litre, it has the ‘beer and sandwiches’ appeal of an early ’70s Downing Street summit: a democratic ‘people’s limousine’ for a television age that made the optics of the old Vanden Plas 4 Litre Rs appear uncomfortably lavish.
The 3 Litre looks more important, if not quite pompous.
Although it’s no beauty, there is something almost majestic in its profile.
That assertive, chrome-laden front end is an odd contrast with the handsome tail, which has – dare I say it? – Bentley Flying Spur overtones, probably a hangover from the BMC hook-up with Crewe.
Its boot is much larger than the Wolseley’s and it feels bigger inside, the views out more commanding on well-upholstered front seats.
Vast rear legroom is common to both cars, and both have individual folding armrests on their front seats.
But the Bri-nylon cloth of the Wolseley seems more ordinary, and by the time this car was built it had lost the wooden door-cappings of earlier models.
High-quality carpets, an upmarket West of England cloth headliner and lavish use of wood give a more luxurious, almost Vanden Plas feel to the 3 Litre cabin, although the trim is Ambla rather than leather.
The dashboard, with its ribbon speedometer, is more early ’50s radiogram than late-’60s music centre, but the big steering wheel has rather less of a bus-driver angle than the Wolseley Six, whose circular dials sit in a more darkly veneered, less imposing dash.
The automatic-shifter arrangements are curious. The 3 Litre’s centre-change chrome quadrant looks like something you might find in a military scout car, whereas the Wolseley has a bent stick that pokes out of a vertically orientated gate on the dashboard, to the right of the steering wheel.
Neither works very nicely: the 3 Litre’s is stiff, the Wolseley’s vague.
Both cars have quiet and conspicuously smooth engines providing gentle but amiable acceleration, although Nigel Forrest’s late-model 3 Litre feels a shade more lively than I remember.
They would probably be nicer as manuals, yet the (optional) Borg-Warner auto ’boxes provide unobtrusive gearchanges.
The whirr of the torque converter in the Wolseley is louder than the engine at times, and the clonk from the diff when engaging ‘D’ was always an issue on the 3 Litre.
Kickdown in both cars is really just a way to use more fuel – and turn up the volume of engine noise – rather than actually go much faster.
Standard power steering makes the Austin feel less onerous to drive at lower speeds and masks the build-up of understeer at higher ones, while at the same time making any impending loss of grip difficult to judge.
You don’t miss it all that much in the Wolseley, in which it was optional.
Owner Robert Galloway, formerly of the BMC and Leyland development department, retrofitted power assistance to his car but found it lumpy.
All things considered, the Six changes direction faithfully with a resistance to roll and understeer that was rare in the early ’70s family-sized barge class.
But had I been forced to chop in my Austin 3 Litre for a front-drive Wolseley I might have missed the more grown-up feel of the bigger car, which also happens to corner undramatically for its bulk.
Perhaps by virtue of weight it rides rather more flat than the Six, which has the slightly bouncy feel common to most Hydrolastic BMC/Leyland cars.
Five decades on, both of these big cars have a faithful following but for very different reasons.
The pugnacious 1800/2200 series has always appealed as an unpretentious purchase for people with large families who cared more about ruggedness and practicality than looks, and who doubtless bought-in to the mythology of the Issigonis connection.
In an increasingly superficial world that was already becoming led by marketing, the Landcrab was a determinedly unglamorous underdog, an austerely rational attempt to give the customer what BMC believed was good for them, rather than what they thought they wanted.
The Austin 3 Litre is a charming anti-hero that seems to encapsulate everything that was wrong – and some of what was right – about the misguided regime that created it.
As a lovable lemon, a public display of corporate carelessness and self-harm, the 3 Litre has a lot going for it in my book.
In the 1970s and ’80s it appeared that only banger racers loved the already not very common Austin for its rugged build and crowd-pleasing rear-drive handling.
The rarity that was this activity’s natural outcome gave another dimension to the weird enchantment of a car that I know I shouldn’t like, but I do.
Images: Will Williams
Austin 3 Litre
- Sold/number built 1967-’71/9992
- Construction steel monocoque
- Engine all-iron, ohv 2912cc straight-six, twin SU HS6 carburettors
- Max power 124bhp @ 4500rpm
- Max torque 161lb ft @ 3000rpm
- Transmission three-speed auto, RWD
- Suspension independent, at front by double wishbones rear semi-trailing arms; interconnected, self-levelling Hydrolastic spring/damper units f/r
- Steering power-assisted rack and pinion
- Brakes discs front, drums rear, with servo
- Length 15ft 5¾in (4718mm)
- Width 5ft 6¾in (1695mm)
- Height 4ft 8in (1422mm)
- Wheelbase 9ft 7½in (2932mm)
- Weight 3377lb (1529kg)
- 0-60mph 16 secs
- Top speed 98mph
- Mpg 18-22
- Price new £1696 5s
- Price now £8-12,000*
- Sold/number built 1972-’75/25,214
- Construction steel monocoque
- Engine all-iron, ohc 2227cc straight-six, twin SU H4 carburettors
- Max power 110bhp @ 5250rpm
- Max torque 126Ib ft @ 3500rpm
- Transmission three-speed auto, FWD
- Suspension independent, at front by lower wishbones rear trailing arms; interconnected Hydrolastic spring/damper units, anti-roll bar f/r
- Steering rack and pinion
- Brakes discs front, drums rear, with servo
- Length 13ft 8in (4166mm)
- Width 5ft 7½in (1715mm)
- Height 4ft 7½in (1410mm)
- Wheelbase 8ft 10in (2692mm)
- Weight 2617Ib (1187kg)
- 0-60mph 12.7 secs
- Top speed 102mph
- Mpg 26
- Price new £1719.58
- Price now £6-10,000*
*Prices correct at date of original publication