Wolseley (‘The car with its name in lights’) is a moniker that means very little to anyone under 50.
The brand died in 1975 on the Wolseley Six – the six-cylinder, wedge-shaped BL Princess – yet somehow the 6/80 is still one of our most unshakeable images of a now impossibly distant late ’40s/early ’50s austerity period.
In no sense were they ‘great’ cars, yet there is a little part of me that has always wanted one. Rarity and intrigue are part of the appeal: I was born in 1966, but I don’t ever recall seeing a 6/80, even under a tarpaulin in someone’s garden.
Instead, it was through watching ’70s afternoon TV that these cars got under my skin: the staple fare of almost every black and white British ‘B’ feature, but most notably Scotland Yard.
Here, in the opening credits, the vision of a 6/80 police car motoring along dark, rainy 1950s London thoroughfares (accompanied by a peril-laden theme tune) remains hugely evocative of a time and a place.
Even in the early ’70s, this seemed like a long lost world; a world of burly, trenchcoat-and-trilby-wearing coppers shrouded in the smog of full-strength cigarette smoke; men who moved seamlessly between the wooden-panelled offices of Scotland Yard, and the cosy rear seats of these big, rounded black saloons in the pursuit of justice.
Scotland Yard was a totally straightforward procedural crime drama: no ‘love interest’ and no sympathy for the criminals who more often than not are subject to ‘the full force of the law’ – ie hanging. They were acted out by a set of players so magnificently wooden you could redo your kitchen floor with them.
Russell Napier – inspector combover of the yard – was a Scotland Yard regular, but the presenter Edgar Lustgarten was every bit as integral to the show’s appeal. A real-life criminologist and former barrister, Lustgarten was a slightly sinister and mildly camp figure, much lampooned in later years for the barely concealed relish he took in some of the juicer cases.
The real stars of the show, though, were the Wolseleys.
Well over half of the 25,000 6/80s built went for export, so the car would have been deemed a reasonable success by any measure. But it was as a police car that the 6/80 really made its mark.
The Metropolitan Police are thought to have had more than 1000 of them, usually as ‘area cars’ with low-ratio back-axles to improve acceleration – although contrary to popular belief they were not tuned for police use, though they did come fitted with extra batteries to power the wireless sets plus beefed up suspension. It was also police mechanics who solved the valve-burning problem the engine became famous for.
The last 6/80s were built in 1954, just as bacon was coming off ration, but the police kept some of theirs in service until 1961; for many years they were used as skid pan cars at the Hendon training school.
Quite why the 6/80 became such a favourite with the Metropolitan Police (and many county forces) is not clear but, given that Ford and Vauxhall were American-owned, a general policy favouring homegrown products would have given the 6/80 a head start.
The Wolseley 6/80 was a proud product of the Nuffield Organisation and one of the first all-new post-war models on its 1948 Earls Court debut.
Outwardly, it looked like a giant Morris Minor – although its rounded appearance probably owed more to pre-war American styling. It shared panels and general underpinnings with the now even more obscure Morris Six and the four-cylinder Wolseley variant the 4/50.
Under the split bonnet was a ‘new’ overhead camshaft straight-six engine that on 72bhp would push the 6/80 to just over 80mph. Intriguingly, the design was derived from a biplane engine produced by Wolseley for Vickers during the 1914-’18 war under license from Hispano.
Inside, the wooden dashboard and door cappings, leather seats and cream instruments gave the 6/80 cabin a pre-war feel that was a cut above the painted-tin dashboards of the Ford and Vauxhall competition.
Legend has it that the ones supplied to the cops didn’t have heaters, so as to encourage the plods to get out and feel some collars on a cold day.
My long-held ambition to drive a 6/80 was finally achieved five years or so ago. It entirely lived up to my (low) expectations, renewing my admiration for the men who had to drive these cars day in, day out.
Without actually being in any way poky, the Wolseley, as I punted it through its four-column shift ratios, had a sense of purpose about it with hefty, low-geared steering that gave both a mental image of burly ’50s traffic cops (‘feeding the wheel’ in the regulation manner) while evoking the true spirit of those rainy afternoons in the company of Mr Lustgarten.