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. 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 15 ft 6 ins 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.
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. 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 £1,770 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 Citroen 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 £1,999.
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.