The cars : Austin 3 Litre development history

Celebrated as one of BMC’s greatest white elephants, the Austin 3 Litre emerged the way it did because circumstance was not on its side…

Here, we tell you why…


Misunderstood

The cars : Austin 3 Litre development history

The Austin 3-litre was a disaster. There is no other way of putting it. The thinking and ideology behind the creation of the 3-litre was straightforward enough – there had been a continuing need for BMC to have a representative in the 3-litre class. This was a marketing requirement for the company and in the UK, this market was split five ways between the Austin Westminster (and its badge engineered derivatives), the Vauxhall Cresta, Ford Executive, Rover P5/P5B and Humber Super Snipe. It was quite simply (Rover aside), a totally unremarkable bunch of cars built in order to satisfy a demand.

BMC’s offerings in the class were the C-Series engined Austin A110 Westminster, the Wolseley 6/99 and the Vanden Plas 3-litre. Basically, they were 3-litre versions of the Farina saloons and as they were based on a saloon that had never covered itself in glory, it went as read that these cars were not the most inspiring cars on the market.

However, during the early-to-mid Îsixties, Rolls-Royce began to investigate the idea of moving downmarket into the market sector just above this, and began talks with BMC. The idea was that they could use the Vanden Plas 3-litre as the basis for their own smaller car, thereby providing Rolls-Royce with the suitable basis for a downsized luxury car; BMC would also benefit from this work, because they would be able to call on much of Rolls-Royce’s work to benefit themselves and strengthen their own executive car offerings.

Bentley Java prototype was developed using the Vanden Plas 3-litre as a basis – when the project was scrapped in 1962, its engine was used in the Vanden Plas 4-litre R, and its suspension founds its way into the ADO61.

Bentley Java prototype was developed using the Vanden Plas 3-litre as a basis – when the project was scrapped in 1962, its engine was used in the Vanden Plas 4-litre R, and its suspension founds its way into the ADO61.

In 1961, work began in Crewe on the Bentley Java – an idea conceived through the need to develop a luxury saloon on a shoestring. Rolls-Royce used the Vanden Plas 3-litre as a basis, but in place of the C-Series engine, they used the 4-litre 6-cylinder F-60 engine – a power unit derived from a previous Rolls-Royce and at one time earmarked for the aborted Bentley Burma. Rolls-Royce management were still concerned about the effect on the marque’s prestigious reputation, by this move downmarket, and so, as a result, the Java was conceived as purely a Bentley model. Work on the Java continued apace, and by March 1962, the first running prototype hit the roads – basically a ‘cut and shut’ Vanden Plas 3-litre with the F-60 engine now fitted (and it was this car that BMC later used as a test bed for the Vanden Plas 4-litre R).

The styling of the Java showed some variance from the Farina based Vanden Plas, but not nearly enough to disguise its origins completely. It has to be said that the styling was reasonably successful effort, with an imposing frontal treatment that reminded commentators of the Facel Vega FV from 1954.

By November 1962, the Java had been subject to second thoughts at Crewe and the project was cancelled. Once the Java was officially dead, the company released the F-60 engine to BMC, and the work undertaken on the Java would go on to benefit BMC. George Harriman was very keen on the concept – and pushed ahead with the development of the Vanden Plas version, the 4-litre R, which would subsequently appear in 1964.

Prototype of the Vanden Plas 4-litre R – the car that George Harriman insisted that BMC could sell 200-per-week of: the concept of the car was fundamentally sound, as was the Kingsbury developed interior and exterior restyle. Despite this, it failed to live up to Harriman's ambitious sales targets.

Prototype of the Vanden Plas 4-litre R – the car that George Harriman insisted that BMC could sell 200-per-week of: the concept of the car was fundamentally sound, as was the Kingsbury developed interior and exterior restyle. Despite this, it failed to live up to Harriman’s ambitious sales targets.

In fact, with the Vanden Plas 4-Litre R, BMC learned a lesson in humility because it was created specifically to fall into the company director part of the car market, but was priced just below the important £2000 purchase price tax break point. Any company car purchased that cost over this price was subject to a swingeing increase in taxable duty – and so, BMC thought they had pulled off a marketing masterstroke when they secured a supply of 3.9-litre Rolls Royce F-60 engines (called FB60 in the BMC application) for use in the car. Equipment levels were hiked massively and this car was expected to sell in comparatively large numbers – the Rolls-Royce link being seen by BMC is being a positive selling point.

Unfortunately, this plan was scuppered on one major point that overshadowed the upmarket image the car was supposed to convey. The problem with the 4-Litre R was that its all-alloy engine, was well known for having its roots in the military field – and although it was lighter than the C-Series engine, its origins were a subject that could not be shaken off. Like its 3-litre cousins, the relatively heavy engine made the balance of the car somewhat nose heavy, and as such, made its handling understeer-biased and steering cumbersome – acceptable perhaps in lower priced versions, but not so much in the range topping Vanden Plas. The driving experience was considered underwhelming by the press and the image of the car was completely undermined by the fact that most prospective buyers were all too well aware of the engine’s origins – in fact; a B40 version of the engine was used in the Austin Champ!

Sales were resultantly dismal and one would have thought that maybe the company would have learned an important lesson from this car.

The Bentley Bengal clay model: The doors from the ADO61 are clearly visible. The car would have used the suspension and 6-cylinder engine from the aborted Java proposal, but in fact did not get beyond the quarter-scale model seen here. However, that suspension system did eventually see the light of day – in the Austin 3-Litre.

The Bentley Bengal clay model: The doors from the ADO61 are clearly visible. The car would have used the suspension and 6-cylinder engine from the aborted Java proposal, but in fact did not get beyond the quarter-scale model seen here. However, that suspension system did eventually see the light of day – in the Austin 3-Litre.

But they did not. The psychological need for BMC to remain in the ‘director’s car’ market was such that they continued to press ahead with a new model in the sector, codenamed the ADO61. By the early sixties, the BMC design department was becoming increasingly dictated to by the accountants of the company and so, soon imposed their influence on the new car. When BMC were in the early stages of the planning for the new car, the decision was made to use the entire centre section of the yet-to-be-launched ADO17, but with unique and elongated front and rear ends, styled by Farina with help from. In fact, during the development of the Java, Rolls-Royce also looked at developing a version of the ADO61 for their own use – the car, called the Bentley Bengal and Rolls-Royce Rangoon was quickly quashed by the company, but only after the decision was made to use the Java’s suspension and engine in it – something that BMC, again, found rather appealing. At this stage of development, this may have looked like a pleasing economy for both companies, but a questionable decision when one looks at the styling of the donor car.

Styling aside, the ADO61 was developed in a logical and predictable way. Unlike the previous three BMC designed cars (Mini, ADO16 and ADO17), the new car would be entirely conventional in its engineering – there would be no room for unconventionally engineered cars in this most conservative of markets.

Initially, the plan was for the C-Series unit to be used in the new car as it had already seen service in the Westminster/Wolseley 6/99, but in the interests of increased refinement, it was deemed necessary to redesign the power unit’s bottom-end internals – as it was also being planned to use the engine in the MGC (ADO52). Where a four-bearing crankshaft sufficed before, a new seven-bearing crank was installed.

The transmission of the ADO61 was four-speed and the driven wheels were the rear wheels, which was a retrograde step for BMC. By the time the car had reached an advanced stage in development and its design was set, the cost cutting measures that the accountants had put in place may as well have not been undertaken: commonality with other cars in the range was minimal apart from the most obvious sheet metal and so, economies of scale through component sharing were minimal.

Unlike the engine/gearbox set-up of the ADO61, the suspension system adopted for the car was rather less than conventional: Like the ADO16 and ADO17, Hydrolastic was the springing medium, used all round. Unlike its smaller brothers, however, the rubber springs at the rear were separated from the Hydrolastic displacer units.

The idea of this was to smooth the ride even further, which BMC managed with some aplomb – which partially explains its excellent ride quality, along with the ADO61’s much greater weight – but also because a change in the pickup-point of the connecting pipes into the displacer-chamber reduced the typical bounce to near zero (it should also be noted that this modification was later incorporated into the Maxi’s suspension setup).

The rear suspension used the now-familiar Hydrolastic spring and damper units, supplemented by a self-levelling facility. This height adjusting rear end was a system that was completely independent of the car’s main suspension set-up and in a nutshell, the height was, regulated via a set of hydraulic rams. The pressure output by these rams was regulated via valves that sensed the level of the car – lowering it if it is too high, raising it if it is too low.

An engine driven-pump powered the system, but as the system was regulating the ride height whether the engine was running or not – as long as there was residual pressure in the hydraulics. This was seen as a ‘must have’ by BMC, who saw that this small splash of ingenuity would set the car apart from its domestic rivals. It must be said that this philosophy of trying to offer something more advanced in the chassis department did result in a car blessed with superb ride quality.

Unlike the previous three BMC new cars, Alec Issigonis had no hand in the development of this car – in fact, Issigonis positively wanted nothing to do with the car. Ron Nicholls would head-up work on this car, but he had no involvement in the concept of the car. Whereas ADO15, 16 and 17 were the product of Issigonis more or less single-handedly, the ADO61 was the brainchild of George Harriman, himself – and the finer points of the design were hammered-out by the BMC board and Rolls-Royce. Such muddled conception was the father of a rather confused big car.

Alex Moulton would be closely involved with the suspension, though. He bought one of the earliest cars – 3 Litre de Luxe Automatic, registered MAM222F – evaluating Hydragas suspension set-up. The two images below, from Guy Vincent of The Dr Alex Moulton Archive, show the car under development. The first is on Moulton’s test rig in October 1968 undergoing body shake tests as part of a project investigating Body Boom and Harshness at 90mph. The second image is at Keevil Airfield, Wiltshire, showing the car undergoing ‘Clotoide’ tests with a fifth wheel attached to the back of the vehicle.

Austin 3 Litre De Luxe MAM222F Moulton Developments Sept 1968 GV Austin 3 Litre Auto MAM222F Moulton Developments Testing at Keevil c1970-72 GV

It would appear that the first full-size prototype of the ADO61 was produced in 1963 (before even the ADO17 was launched) and what is very striking about this was that it looked almost identical to the Austin 3-Litre in its final production form. The styling even at this early stage could only be described as imposing, but the obvious question of how the car would compare with the Austin 1800 was, it appears, left unuttered. As events transpired, it actually took four years from the appearance of the first prototype (below) to the car being unveiled to the world – events in the wider world of BMC had obviously overtaken the ill-fated ADO61.

Prototype from 1963 shows BMC's big-car thinking of that time. The shape is remarkably similar to the final version, launched five years later.

Prototype from 1963 shows BMC’s big-car thinking of that time. The shape is remarkably similar to the final version, launched five years later.

Development appeared to drag on through the ’60s and like all products from BMC before and afterwards, the press were well aware of the car’s existence long before any official announcement had been made. Interestingly, the launch of the car to the public was a long and drawn-out affair because its announcement to the press took place almost a year before the car actually went on sale – something Triumph were also guilty of with the 2000 in 1963.

The press launch took place at Longbridge in the lead-up to the 1967 Motor Show and in a professional presentation given by Raymond Baxter (the then BMC/BMH Public Relations Officer) the event was set-up so that the new car would be presented at the end of the show, to be the climax of the event. Raymond Baxter did his utmost to build up an air of anticipation in the assembled journalists, but when the Austin 3-Litre was wheeled onto the stage, it was met with a ripple of polite applause followed by an embarrassed silence.

The trouble was, of course, that the Austin 3-Litre was so obviously ADO17 based that it practically begged for the inevitable question to be asked: What advantages did this car offer over its smaller counterpart?

It was not until the following year that the press would find out – and of course, the news was not good. The main trouble was that the obvious ugliness of the car was (for many) an insurmountable problem and those that could get past its looks found that the Austin 3-Litre had so many dynamic shortcomings that it was impossible to think of anything positive to say about the car. For a start, the testers knew that the new incarnation of the C-Series engine was not going to be a sparkler, when they found that in the MGC, it was lugubrious in the extreme. This was the case in the 3-Litre, only more so – because of the vast weight of the new car, it meant that the car suffered from the same engine maladies, such as its unwillingness to rev, but it also had an astonishing thirst for petrol, too. However, the 3-litre was also an extremely comfortable car to drive – and if you could look beyond the breathless engine and thirst for fuel, there was little to touch it on ride quality. On that score alone, BMC did gain something from working with Rolls-Royce

By the time the car was released in 1967, it would only be to a select few trusted customers (one hundred of them), who were chosen to run the car for the company on an extended trial. Between the time of the initial launch and this first tentative step towards a full launch, BMH had been taken over by Leyland – and there was a real feeling within the new management to proceed with the launch of the new car, if only to demonstrate very graphically just how much BMH had lost their way.

ADO61 version as presented to the press in 1967: Versions like these were run in small numbers before the official public launch in order to gauge public reaction. The headlights were described as 'television shaped headlamp units', but these unsightly items were dropped in favour of the original arrangement for the final production models.

ADO61 version as presented to the press in 1967: Versions like these were run in small numbers before the official public launch in order to gauge public reaction. The headlights were described as ‘television shaped headlamp units’, but these unsightly items were dropped in favour of the original arrangement for the final production models.

When the Austin 3-Litre finally went on full sale to the public in 1968, it was already an embarrassment to the company. As it was, customers avoided it in huge numbers – and those that did not and chose to go into their local Austin showroom, were practically obliged to ask those same embarrassing questions of the car as the press had done over a year before.

As for the car itself, the interior had a nice, traditional wood and leather feel to it, but because it shared the ADO17 centre section and had a large transmission tunnel, it actually offered less space than the smaller car. In terms of ride quality, however, the ADO61 did set new standards of compliancy in its class – all the development work having been undertaken on the French Routes Nationale paying off handsomely.

The family resemblance between the two cars is most evident in this shot. Identical centre sections give the game away, although the 3-litre's proportions are quite a bit more conventional than its smaller cousin. Only the overly-long bonnet really counts against the ADO61 - the boot treatment looks as though it always should have been there.

The family resemblance between the two cars is most evident in this shot. Identical centre sections give the game away, although the 3-litre’s proportions are quite a bit more conventional than its smaller cousin. Only the overly-long bonnet really counts against the ADO61 – the boot treatment looks as though it always should have been there.

The interior of the 3-Litre was a nice place to sit, and although the on-paper figures suggested that it was more cramped than the 1800, it offered different qualities at the front, thanks to its much improved driving position. Extensive use of wood and high quality furnishings were abound...

The interior of the 3-Litre was a nice place to sit, and although the on-paper figures suggested that it was more cramped than the 1800, it offered different qualities at the front, thanks to its much improved driving position. Extensive use of wood and high quality furnishings were abound…

Unfortunately, there were ergonomic problems as well, not least the dashboard, which offered up a rather mean looking strip speedometer which appeared to have been lifted straight from the ADO16 – not exactly the thing that someone spending over £1500 would be looking for as a desirable feature (to put it another way, in those pre-inflationary times, the Austin 3-Litre actually cost nearly 50 per cent more than the Twin-carburettor Austin 1800S – a vastly better car).

Of course, the Austin 3-Litre was an outmoded dinosaur – BMH knew that, Leyland certainly knew that – as did the customers. The car was a victim of its own ugliness, for sure, but not only that, but the 3-Litre class as a whole was suffering under the two-pronged assault from the Leyland-produced Rover and Triumph 2000s. Customers in a position to buy such cars as the ADO61 quite rightly looked at the vastly superior new 2-Litre competition and drew the conclusion that this new breed of smaller ‘executive car’ would provide them with all their needs, without the extravagance of a 3-Litre car. After the merger, of 1968, BLMC quite rightly allowed the car to go into full-scale production – the tooling costs had to be justified, for a start. This is so, because they could justifiably say that the Austin 3-Litre is a prime example of why BMH so needed to be taken over by Leyland.

As part of the ADO61 development programme, Vanden Plas produced their own version for presentation to the company's management in 1966. Styling was suitably modified (although the wrap-around rear window is a mixed success), but the project was axed following the 1968 merger with Leyland.

As part of the ADO61 development programme, Vanden Plas produced their own version for presentation to the company’s management in 1966. Styling was suitably modified (although the wrap-around rear window is a mixed success), but the project was axed following the 1968 merger with Leyland.

Be that as it may, the 3-litre was a car of uneven ability and as a result, it possessed a great deal of character, a sentiment borne out by one former manager, who put it in these terms: ‘·the 3 litre had a lot of charm. Senior management at Longbridge (including one George Turnbull) hung on to theirs as long as they possibly could, to the despair of the Transport Manager. I loved driving them and all who rode in them liked them too. The V8 engined Wolseley was regarded by the test drivers as one of the best cars we never made, as it had better performance, economy and handling.’

Wolseley 3Litre: "...the best car we never made", according to BMC test drivers. This double-sided prototype demonstrates two different styling schemes, which could have clothed the Rover V8 engine - it looked interesting and would have made an interesting flagship for the BMC range. However, the existence of Jaguar, and then Rover and Triumph would make its production a luxury for the company. The return would not have justified the investment.

Wolseley 3Litre: “…the best car we never made”, according to BMC test drivers. This double-sided prototype demonstrates two different styling schemes, which could have clothed the Rover V8 engine – it looked interesting and would have made an interesting flagship for the BMC range. However, the existence of Jaguar, and then Rover and Triumph would make its production a luxury for the company. The return would not have justified the investment.

Once, the Austin 3-Litre slipped onto the market in late 1968, it sold disastrously – it never even reached the financial break-even point of 50 cars per week. In its three-year production run, a total of 9992 were produced and such was the magnitude of its failure, that the planned Wolseley version was dropped because it would have sold in negligible numbers. Some thought was given to the car’s development though, because plans were drawn up to install the ‘Rover’ V8 engine under the huge bonnet, but they were quickly shelved – the only prototype of note surviving was the V8-powered ADO61 that Harry Webster himself used. Apparently, it would become a familiar sight in the Longbridge workshops, due to its propensity to break down on a regular basis. British Leyland never even contemplated replacing the car, but with Rover, Triumph and Jaguar in the stable following the merger, why would they need to?


Thanks to Alexander Boucke, Declan Berridge and “an insider” for their contributions to this story.


Keith Adams

About the Author:

Created www.austin-rover.co.uk in 2001 and watched it steadily grow into AROnline. Is the Editor of Classic Car Weekly, and has contributed to various motoring titles including Octane, Evo, Honest John, CAR magazine, Autocar, Diesel Car, Practical Performance Car, Performance French Car, Car Mechanics, Jaguar World Monthly, Classic Car Weekly, MG Enthusiast, Modern MINI, Practical Classics, Fifth Gear Website, and the the Motoring Independent... Likes 'conditionally challenged' motors and taking them on unfeasable adventures all across Europe.

44 Comments on "The cars : Austin 3 Litre development history"

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  1. KeithB says:

    Despite finding the 3-litre attractive I don’t understand why I do! The Wolseley or VP versions may have been the better option and leave Austin to the middle ground.

    As stated Rover, Triumph and Jaguar had seen the way forward by chasing the more dynamic executives, big Austins were too stuffy and “old hat”.

  2. Felix says:

    love these items, SO interesting.
    Also surprised that wolseley and VdP versions would be quite so different(the 1100/1300 were just rebadged/new grill)
    Also does one remember the stick the company got for rebadging cars and have brands competing against each other and should be rationalised ? – seems to work with VAG these days

  3. Al Walter says:

    I think this statement is very true:
    “…the boot treatment looks as though it always should have been there”

    In fact, I can’t help feeling that the 1800/2200 would have been improved by sticking the 3 litre’s boot on the back, which presumably wouldn’t have been too difficult, considering the middle sections were the same!

  4. Glenn Aylett says:

    Looks good from the back, but is completely ugly from the front. Also by 1968 the Austin badge was synonymous with small and medium cars and a luxury Austin was doomed to fail, especially, as for the money, there were vastly better cars from Rover and Triumph with better equipment, performance and economy. However, my one abiding memory of the 3 Litre is of a tatty example being involved in a crash in an episode of Some Mothers Do Ave Em.

    • Andrew J Boulton says:

      The 3litre was the first car I ever remember that featured in its press adverts, photos of the BACK of the car, so “challenging” was the styling of the front. A great pity they did not “borrow” the front style of the proposed Bentley version when it was abandoned. That was so attractive it would not matter what it was “branded” as, Austin, Wolseley,or Vanden Plas !!

  5. Ken Lowe says:

    Hi, Very sad the comment’s on this great looking car, wished more people liked them!!. My father had two back then and i loved them as a lad [ still do ]. I have managed to find one for myself now to add to my collection. It funny but if you,or any [petrol head’s] saw one now you would still smile and be happy to see an example of BRITISH engineering out and about.
    There are it’s said,only two hundred or so left now? how true this is i do not know.
    I have a corniche as well and the rear of either car is not that far apart as far as the design.
    great article, many thanks.

  6. Glenn Aylett says:

    Hi, Ken, I used to love the 3.3 litre version of the Vauxhall Victor FD, the Ventora, but none of my classic car friends from the early 90s were delighted when I spotted one on the drive of a detached house in Coventry. To them it was a vulgar Americanised car and were even less pleased when I saw a 1968 Vauxhall Viscount a week later, regarding late 60s Vauxhalls with the same contempt many people have for the Austin 3 Litre.
    Yet both types of car are unique as they are rare classics, in the case of the big Vauxhalls rust killed more of them early on than the big Austin.

  7. Tim Wellington says:

    The same old British Motor Corporation/Leyland story; for every stroke of blinding brilliance, there was a complete cow-pat of a car. And here we have another example of the latter, a car with no discernable place in the market!

  8. Alan Hill says:

    Interesting article and i find these 1960s luxo barges fascinating ,My dad had a 3 litre Austin after owning a couple of Farina westminsters and Vauxhall Crestas and while it was a comfy old beastie the suspension leaked on the drive and he was disapointed by the enormous fuel consumption even compared to its thirsty predecessors .He then moved onto a Ventora which he loved .But when he bought a Rover 3.5 P6 it showed what the Austin 3 litre / Cresta /Zodiacs to be , old fashioned and dated .

  9. Dave Hird says:

    Certainly in hindsight we can look at some of the decisions made as being wrong,but was it such a bad car.l am led to believe that they were going to develop a much better square engine that would rev more freely but alas used the 7 bearing 3litre instead,even worse in the MGC.The 3.5 litre v8 of course would have transformed the car had it been available earlier but l am sure the Rover boys would rather have wanted to keep that for themselves.Also the lack of leather seats in a luxury car effects the appeal.As to the front end styling,l used to find it ugly but it has grown on me.They could have spent more time on that one,from the rear 3/4 it looks very classy.So if l had one now l would fit the 3.9 litre v8 AKA Range rover and leather seats.And that Gentlemen with it’s second to none ride qualities would make an exellent car.

  10. Tony Jackson says:

    I can remember these cars as my parents were in their own ways involved in the transport industry, my mother worked for Rootes group as a manageress. Looking back it is easy to see why these cars were not a success given the tinkering that had forced Rover into the BL fold in 1967 and it is worth bearing in mind that P5B was techinically another car that should not have been built. BL were to find themselves in a position not dissimilar from Ford when it intorduced the sierra. It felt held back by a conservative clientelle hence the A60 when the marina should have been introduced. Also the effects of Horsepower tax were catching up with British engine design when American and Europeans where already dealing with square and oversquare designs. The British motor industry were thus in a no win situation from which they were destined never to recover. My own view is that SD1 given the correct backing could really have made a name for itself. It was a brilliantly simple design ruined by the fact that it had to be made on a shoe string

  11. Anthony Sutton says:

    Why is it that the old big farina cars get so little respect they were big comfortable and surprisingly fast and for there time had good roadholding and brakes, BL should have used the wolesley and vanden plas names on the three liter and gone up market building on the good reputation these cars had back then. i have great memories of our old mkii wolesley, four adults towing a caravan up the m6 at a steady 70mph relaxed almost silent and 18mpg.

  12. Jan van Burik The Netherlands says:

    The 3 litre. I do’nt understand why everyone says the car is so ugly. I find the back even very beautifull. Maybe just the double headlamps give disharmony. I would have preferred the very first shape that was shown. I saw a 3litre for sale with less then 10000 miles from new. What a nice classic car to have now. Very special! Who cares about some petrol more and less acceleration in a classic car you have for fun and drive only for some special events in a year?

  13. Martyn Kelham says:

    I think Glen has a good point about the big old Vauxhalls versus these offerings from BL. I had a Vauxhall 3.3ltr Cresta 1967 ish. Of the 80 or so cars I have owned it is high on the list of cars I wish I had never sold! My dear father had a Rover 3ltr Saloon at the same time and there was only one thing that car did better than my Cresta – and that was giving you the feeling of utter luxury (like sitting in your lounge). The Cresta was definitely a luxury car but nothing compared to the big R. (I did have the full leather and walnut dash version). Everything else, including economy, road holding, ride, handling, top speed, accelleration, braking – the Cresta would run rings round the Rover!
    We did have some fun with both of them though – my dad and I. Wonderful days!

  14. Hilton D says:

    @ Martin… That sounds like a Cresta Deluxe PC series to me. When it was launched in 66, I was aged 11 and remember examining it with my Mother at a local Vauxhall dealer. My Dad owned a VX4-90 at the time.

    I also was given the Cresta’s launch brochure which had maroon suede finish to the outer cover. I vowed I would keep it forever but sadly down the years it disappeared! Shame

  15. Glenn Aylett says:

    Would the 3 litre have done better with better front end styling, the engine being uprated to offer better performance and economy, more equipment and a Vanden Plas badge? I’m sure the 3 litre’s good points such as its excellent ride, huge passenger and luggage space and quiet engine could have made this car a success if it didn’t look like a Ford Edsel from the front and have an engine that had no go and guzzled a gallon of petrol every 16 miles.

    • Andrew J Boulton says:

      Glenn, see above me response to your earlier post of 20OCT2011. A better front end, and more prestigious brand (Oh! how I hate that word!) name, would have sorted two of the problems. To quote “two out a’ three aint bad” !!

  16. Glenn Aylett says:

    The last big Austin also reminds me of another spectacular failure, the last big British Vauxhall, the FE Ventora, basically a luxury version of the less than successful FE Victor( a bit like the BMC 1800/ Austin 3 Litre story). While the FE Victor wasn’t a particularly bad car, and in VX 4/90 form looked good and went well, the reputation for premature rust, indifferent quality and being too big to take on the Cortina and too small to take on the Granada had pushed the Victor way down the sales chart.
    However, while the VX 4/9O would have made a capable flagship with its 2.3 litre engine and Chevy looks, someone decided to go one better and reintroduce the Ventora name for the range topper, with a 3.3 litre engine similar to those found on Bedford trucks. Basically this made the car even slower than the VX 4/90, it could barely crack 100 mph, with a massive thirst for petrol as the unrevvable engine struggled at speed. Also the usual slack Vauxhall build quality of the era, loads of cheap plastic and rust meant buyers stayed away in bigger numbers than the 3 Litre. Maybe this should be featured in the best forgotten feature.

  17. simon_hodgetts says:

    @16 – Yes please!! I’d love there to be some FE/VX action on this website – my favourite 70s British cars……

  18. Glenn Aylett says:

    Simon, the VX 4/90, a Chevy lookalike in FE form, is a seriously underrated motor and should have been Vauxhall’s range topper as the 2.3 is a good engine capable of 105 mph, very good 40 years ago. If you look past the rust and rather slack build quality, here was quite a good car with a decent turn of speed and quieter than a two litre Cortina. The last incarnation really is worth a look, as it came with a five speed Gertrag gearbox and a bit more power, Durham Constabulary traffic division were still using theirs as late as 1982.
    However, of the FEs. the 1800 isn’t up to much performance wise, it is basic with no trim variations( which probably really hurt sales against the L/XL/GXL Cortinas), and isn’t much more economical than the VX 4/90, which is a far nicer car

  19. Phil Simpson says:

    Too posh for the Austin name, would have been a ready made (BT the time of the merger) replacement for the then nine year old P5 with the Rover V8 engine. Could have sold until the introduction of the SD1 helping prevent the likes of BMW & Mercedes taking sales from Rover following the discontinuing of the P5 three years earlier.

  20. There was in fact looked into making a Rover from the 3litre. I know of a drawing showing it with a full Rover grille and very Mercedes like headlamps and a slightly squared off roof-line – it would have stood well next to a Mercedes 280E of the time. But this did did not get beyond a drawn out idea I think,

  21. Glenn Aylett says:

    Phil @ 19, the Rover P5 was still a big seller to the establishment and a far better car the Austin 3 Litre in 1969. I think British Leyland would have been mad to axe the Rover flagship esp as V8 power had made it a very capable car again and it had tons of class, unlike the 3 Litre with its cheap dashboard, cost cutting in places and awful looking front end. Also who would swap 115 mph and 18 mpg for 98 mph and 16 mpg?

  22. alex scott says:

    I think its only the front end styling which makes it unattractive, the side looks like its got those shared doors, The slopey rear is kind enough to the cars overall stlying.Perhaps it was simply brand confusion which let it down one badge – mid to upper market would have been enough. and then add an after sale trim pack to get around the tax issue.

  23. The Wolseley Man says:

    If only I had the room I’d have a 3ltr – for its sheer presence – and a Talbot Tagora for its speed (relative to alternatives of the day) and its wiredness.
    For those who have not actually sat in a 3ltr it is like sitting in your living room at 70 mph. Extraordinary machine! At the time of its production there were rumours of an Alvis version. Probably were just rumours. Could have been awful!

  24. JH Gillson says:

    Here’s the link to 3-Litres that might have been as alluded to by Alexander in post number 20 (you will need to scroll down about a quarter of the page):

    http://www.aronline.co.uk/blogs/blogs/blogs-april-2008/

    On another forum I did wonder if the 3-Litre might have had another life Down Under. In other words, if BMC Australia really wanted a large, RWD saloon why start from scratch with the P76? Why not simply adopt the 3-Litre? The Aussies were building the bit in the middle already.

    For the nerds…

    …compared to the P76, the 3-Litre had a 3″ longer wheelbase, was narrower in front and rear tracks by 3″, was 3″ taller, the thick-end of 5″ shorter, and about 9″ narrower (it does seem that the P76 was a bit broad of beam.)

    )

  25. paul says:

    The front of the 3 litre is the ugly bit. Those headlamps are too high, but the grille does no favours at all. It looks far better with the Wolseley grille, but even that has a sort of Edsel-look to the front.

    Btw, what is so wrong with ‘those doors’?

  26. Spyder says:

    When launched at the 1967 Motor Show it was referred to as the Austin Westminster 3-Litre.

  27. WarrenL says:

    Don’t care a jot for the interior, despite all the walnut etc. It looks like lipstick on a pig. Rover and others showed how to do it.

  28. Boo says:

    Interesting reading all the ‘ugly’ comments.. Remembering them in the ’70s, I always thought these were the only car that actually suited the famous doors.. The 1800 and Maxi having too short a bonnet and door to front wheel gap for them. Likewise the width… The 3 Litre’s twin lamps made the wide-mouth grille look much better than the 1800 Mk1 it was shared with.

  29. Andrew says:

    I see they used one of those dash kits. Very nice.

  30. Neil B says:

    To my eyes the old barge has decent proportions. A local insurance broker had an example in Damask Red really suited it.
    Perhaps Downton could have sorted the engine. Surprised and pleased 200 still exist.

  31. Glenn Aylett says:

    The 3 Litre couldn’t win as it was up against far better equipped offerings from Rover, Ford and Vauxhall for similar money. I think this was a BMC vanity project that should never have gone ahead.

    • Graham says:

      The problem was that it was BMC strategy of replacing what they had had before and not understanding how the market was evolving. The market use to buy these old barges like the Austin Westminster so lets do the same again and not understanding how the market had changed with the Rover P6 and Triumph 2000.

      They made a similar mistake with the Allegro, ADO16 had been a saloon and the estate only had two doors so why should we make it a hatchback or a five door estate.

  32. Paul Treloggan says:

    The statement:

    it never even reached the financial break-even point of 50 cars per week. In its three-year production run, a total of 9992 were produced

    Well, 9992 cars over 156 weeks = 64 vehicles on average per week.

    Over 4 years (208 weeks) would be 48 cars per week.

    So it must have reached its financial break even point and some more.

  33. bart says:

    hey there ..
    can anyone help me im going to do the conversion 3litre to 3.5 rover V8 .. has anyone done it? look forward to hearing from you

  34. daveh says:

    I never understood why BMC Australia did not use this as the basis for their Holden Ford basher than just facelifting the 1800?

  35. Jim Robertson says:

    Have to agree that gas consumption was something else again… I’ve had mine (auto) for 40 odd years but when used to commute into town I reckon it was getting all of 13 mpg -and that was 30 years ago when traffic wasn’t quite so bad!

    Not helped by a wildly under-recording odometer (Source: AA road test) of around 10%. But, even adjusting for this I never saw more than 19 to 21 mpg on a run. Mind you gas was cheaper in those days!!

    However, cross country on A or B roads, you’d be hard pushed to keep up in your Rover 3 litre…

  36. Geoff Ellis says:

    Interesting article! Very well researched and well written. Was BLC afraid to design new things? A good example is the redesign of the bottom end of this motor……changed from four main bearings to seven! Why not just design a new engine?

    • Richard16378 says:

      It’s the usual “long short cut”, bit like the O series engines having to use B series parts as the tooling had only recently been renewed, even though the O series was already in the pipeline.

  37. Nate says:

    Had ADO61 been successful under another brand (such as Wolseley, Vanden Plas and Bentley), it would have been fascinating for an early-70s Austin variant to instead be clothed in a radically-styled body inspired by both the Pininfarina 1800 and Maxi-based Aquila concepts, essentially a new Austin Sheerline with British Citroen-themed styling.

    • christopher storey says:

      Ah, the Sheerline . For me , the most beautiful Austin ever produced , and far more handsome than the Mark 6 Bentley of which it was said ( probably wrongly ) to be a copy

  38. Glenn Aylett says:

    It was Britain’s Volkswagen Phaeton, which has had an article published on this site. Badge snobbery was just as big in the late sixties, witness the relative lack of success of the 3 Litre against its stablemates from Rover and Jaguar, just big German cars were quite rare then. Also it wasn’t quite the done thing for professional men to go for a Ford Zodiac or a Vauxhall Cresta, even if these outsold the 3 Litre big time, one had to buy a Rover V8 or a Jaguar.

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