On this day : Austin 3 Litre road test (1970)

On this day in 1970, The Guardian’s Eric Dymock tested the Austin 3 Litre, and came away with more questions than answers…

Austin 3 Litre

Eric Dymock tests the Austin 3 Litre

Depending on your criteria for style, you may describe the Austin 3 Litre as functional, or plain, or perhaps an architectural catastrophe.

You may stretch to well proportioned or even well intentioned. But if you call it handsome you are either impressed by size or else you have not looked at cars for a good many years.

Replacing at one fell swoop in 1967 the Vanden Plas Princess R and the Wolseley 6/110, the Austin 3 Litre inherited the centre body section of the Austin/Morris 1800.

Three-litre adversaries

It also fell heir to the six cylinder three-litre engine used in the Princess 3-litre and then discarded, the Wolseley it replaced and eventually employed and discarded again in the lamentable MGC sports car.

In a concession to modernists, the Austin 3 Litre adopted Hydrolastic independent suspension to smooth out the ride, but otherwise it remains something of an anachronism; a big, strong leisurely saloon with sumptuous furnishings and a huge, muscle bound, cast iron engine.

Redeeming features of the 3 Litre came to light only when I took it to France to attend a sports car race, even though at 15ft 6in, it qualified for the second most expensive rates on the excellent Thoresen Southampton-Le Havre ferry (£21 return instead of £9 10s for a Mini: think about it). Also, at 8s a gallon, 15 to 18mpg was a little tiresome, a bare 200 miles between French petrol pumps with the 14.5 gallon tank.

Impressive suspension

None the less there were more attractive features. The suspension soaked up bumps in exemplary fashion, and the Austin turned out to be an extremely restful and comfortable car to drive.

It was restful for two reasons. First, it was quiet and smooth, and secondly, it was rather slow. Acceleration is a leisurely business and the top speed of around 95mph takes time to achieve, albeit with little fuss and not much noise.

The living space of the 3 Litre is elegantly furnished with deep leather upholstery and lavish use of highly polished walnut, but it is carried out in somewhat passe style more appropriate to the early fifties than the bustling seventies.

Transmission woes

A jarring note is struck by the automatic transmission quadrant set high on the central tunnel. It looks as though British Leyland entrusted its design to its Leyland rather than any of its passenger car divisions.

At £1770 the Austin is a bargain in many respects. It has power steering, self levelling suspension, and automatic transmission, although for £104 less, a four speed manual gearbox is obtainable.

Rationalisation, with an old engine and 1800 model body does probably explains the plain styling, but this might not sound very convincing to a customer choosing from a range which includes the Citroën DS20, Ford Zodiac Executive, Opel Commodore, Vauxhall Viscount, Triumph 2.5 PI (a little cheaper), or a Jaguar XJ6 manual 2.8-litre, a little up the price scale at £1999.

Room to lounge

The Austin’s luggage space is cavernous. The boot would swallow the chattels of five people on a summer holiday with ease. They would be less well catered for in winter because the car inherits a shortcoming of every saloon equipped with this engine, poor output from the heater.

Fresh air ventilation is good, but slow warming up means you wear an overcoat all the way to the office these chilly mornings. Unless your office is a very long way off.

Roomy even in the back; lethargic but quiet, the Austin 3 Litre’s appeal is probably in the hire car class. It certainly seems strong, a survivor perhaps of the over engineered saloons of a decade ago when there was more space on the roads.


To succeed in the 3-litre category nowadays needs something more than luxury, or luggage space, or even the lasting qualities which it seems reasonable to assume the Austin possesses. It needs style, and performance, and refinement.

Something like a Jaguar…

Keith Adams


  1. An XJ6 only cost 13% more – albeit with the 2.8 engine, which tended to burn holes in its pistons. This is an unusually frank road test for 1970 – which explains succinctly why the 3-litre should never have gone into production. Austin should have spent their (presumably scarce) money and other resources elsewhere.
    The Vauxhall Viscount was quite similar to the Austin, but a Commodore would be rather more dynamic – as would a Rover 3500.

  2. I think I’d have gone for a DS instead (expensive servicing requirements notwithstanding).

    • The DS is certainly a good alternative choice – despite being over 10 years old at the time. It just shows how far Citroën were ahead after the game at the launch. But the 3litre was built to match the DS in ride quality and exceed it in handling. A interested DS owner once told me from the passenger seat of one of my 3 litres that they seemed to have had success. He found the Austin rode better at speed than the DS.

      • it was 15 years old in 1970 and the platform was worthy enough to be used for the SM..Speaks volumes of the chassis engineers at Citroen in the 50s that a GT car that was launched in 1970 used a 15 year old platform(albeit suitably modified)

  3. Interesting road test, if a shade patronising. Re poor heater, yes mine was the same until I “discovered” that there was no cable connecting the heater control to the heater! Since I had owned the car from 3 years old I had every reason to suspect that no cable had EVER been fitted – good old BMC. Once a cable was sourced and fitted heater worked perfectly…

    • I had the same heater problem problem in a 2nd hand 1971 MGBGT purchased in 1978. The heater cable had not been connected from new !

  4. Someone once said there a plumbers nightmare (fluid suspension-power stearing- self levelling system) True big car cornered like a mini, coming up to a roundabout hardly breaking through her in- round-an out no problem watch there faces in the rear-view great fun. best driving in a big car ever! Shame it did not sell to well, needed deep pockets for fuel.

  5. Slightly bemused to see a road test from 1970, pretty late in this car’s career. I guess it was a final attempt on the part of BLMC to try and get some sales. Great read though.
    “Austin Anachronism” wouldn’t have a been a bad name for a car that ignored all the lessons from other BMC cars of the 60s, and all the lessons from other participants in its broad class, from Triumph to Jaguar to Ford.

  6. I had the same heater problem problem in a 2nd hand 1971 MGBGT purchased in 1978. The heater cable had not been connected from new !

  7. If going back to 1970 and looking for a new car from this group, I would opt for the Jag XJ6 2.8. Worth the extra £200+ over the Austin

    • They had engine problems though, didn’t they? Bit of a gamble. I liked the Viscount but like the Austin it had a venerable, and none too lively engine. The Z-cars were too ugly, loved the Triumph PI but again reliability concerns. Maybe the Commodore for me then. Mind you, I was only eight in 1970!

  8. Eric Dymock states leather upholstery, the 3 litre was only ever trimmed in ICI “Ambla”. Posh plastic to you and me.
    Having said that most cars with Ambla still have presentable trim 50 years later.

    • My Dad’s VX4/90 had Ambla seats which (from memory) looked like leather. Cheaper Vauxhalls got Vynide

  9. You might laugh at the colossal thirst for petrol of the 3 Litre, where the car would struggle to better 200 miles between fill ups, and then look at the mileage you get from an electric car. Most electric cars have a range no better than a typical petrol car from 1970, with most unable to go beyond 300 miles before the car needs to be recharged or stops suddenly.
    I’d much rather stick with petrol for now, where I can get well over 400 miles from a tank, and only having a 10 gallon tank, filling up is very quick.

  10. 1970 – Petrol 8s a Gallon
    8s = 40p
    A Gallon = 4.5 Litres
    1 Litre Petrol = 8 pence

    (50 Litre Tank full = £4.00)

  11. So even then they knew there was a good car struggling to get out. The comments about the c-engine being binned in the princess and mgc just show how crazy the decision to use it in the three litre was. Imagine this with a 2.8 Daimler V8 or with the RR 4 ltr or with the 2.8 E6 or with the 3.5 rover V8. And after spending all that money building a decent (possibly great) chassis why discard it and use a basic live axil in the SD1. Why not use this chassis or use it in the Marina. My understanding is that Hydgogas/hydrolastic was cheaper to manufacture than most live systems. As for styling using the Tasmin/kimberly rear and a slight tidy up at the frount would have transformed this,

    • The 3 litre was competing against superior British Leyland products from Jaguar and Rover, as well as the big Fords and Vauxhalls, and was rather pointless, but work on it had started before the merger so the 3 Litre had to go ahead. Surely, it could have received a more modern and attractive front end, more power and a better level of standard of equipment that might have given the Austin a chance. Possibly handing it to Vanden Plas, as was suggested, could have helped.

  12. It was a car that wansn’t really needed and bombed during its short life. Also for a supposed luxury car, the 3 Litre was very sparsely equipped: leather seats were an option, there was no radio as standard, and the dashboard was lifted from the ADO17. It rode well, was fairly quiet and was spacious inside, but that was all that could be said about it.

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