Concepts and prototypes : The Wolseley 3 Litre prototype (1969-1970)

In 1969, Austin-Morris investigated ways to increase the appeal of the slow-selling Austin 3 Litre. This Wolseley 3 Litre prototype, as photographed at the Longbridge Elephant House in 1967, was the result of that project.

Alexander Boucke, a leading authority on these cars, tells us about this important car…


Wolseley 3 Litre: another missed opportunity?

This is probably the only Wolseley version of the Austin 3 Litre produced, and it is interesting because it appears to be based on a prototype ADO61, indicating BMC was looking at badge engineering the car before it was launched. The prototype details are there to see – if you compare the press photographs of ADO61, you’ll find the very early ones show a car without side skirts and a chrome finisher along the sills. Also, the doors do not have the BMC 1800 Mk2/Austin Maxi style ‘safety latches’ but traditional door handles and locking pins. The front quarterlights are also missing. All of these details are to be found in the Wolseley pictured here.

The exterior picture (above) shows a running car, without the side skirts and featuring early 3 Litre wheels (later ones lacked vents). The front panel looks to be handmade – so, a prototype build, rather than using any production tooling. The petrol stain around the fuel filler and the oil cooler in the place of the right overrider indicate a car which was driven.

Wolseley 3 Litre interior pictures

Rear is as welcoming as a large Wolseley should be expected to be...
Rear is as welcoming as a large Wolseley should be expected to be…
The dashboard is a thing of real beauty, and is far more in keeping with its luxury car status than the production Austin version.
The dashboard is a thing of real beauty, and is far more in keeping with its luxury car status than the production Austin version

It is unclear as to whether the interior photographs are of the same car. Being black and white pictures, it is not possible to verify the body colour in each picture. However, if you look closely, you can see there is (just) the chrome strip visible that runs along the sill on the production cars. But then, the door trims are built around the early doors that never made it into the production 3 Litre as far as we know.

Assuming that this interior predates the introduction of the 3 Litre de Luxe, not all of this effort was lost: the seats seem to be the same as on the de Luxe cars, although one cannot say if the upholstery is in Ambla (as in the later Austin and Wolseley 18/85 MkII) or in real leather. Also the larger door cappings found their way into the ‘de Luxe’ and Wolseley 18/85 Mk2. The door trims lost the nice armrests (to be replaced with items from the VP Princess 1300) and door bins on the way to the production.

Thanks to Neil Kidby.

49 Comments

  1. I would like to have had one of these if they had been in production. I think it looks wonderful. The VdP version would have been even better. BMC/BL certainly made some strange marketing decisions.

  2. Almost certainly the 2.9 C Series, as used in the MGC, and the Austin derivative of this car.

    It really strains my credulity that BMC launched the Austin version of this rather than the more desirable Wolseley.

    Whilst Austin did have some track record of producing large cars, I’d imagine that most of these were most likely used by funeral directors, and for transporting senior policemen and other minor dignitaries rather than as aspirational purchases by private individuals. Perhaps the Wolseley, had it been launched as a ‘stand alone’ model instead of the Austin may have gone some way to redressing that. It still looked like (and was) a bloated RWD Landcrab, so probably wouldn’t have worried Jaguar overmuch…

    • Purportedly, the Austin was mostly produced out of spite by Leyland for the outgoing BMC management. Between this and the masterstroke of replacing everyone in management, I do wonder if Leyland had any intention of producing a sustainable business.

  3. Love Wolseleys (bit biased as I own a Hornet, mind!).

    The grille badge was always a source of fascination for me as a nipper in the 60’s, set them aside from other cars. I was too young to appreciate the otehr niceties of them at such a tender age, though!

    • “The grille badge was always a source of fascination for me as a nipper in the 60’s”.

      The only (???) grille badge that had a bulb to to illuminate it. Making Wolseleys instantly recognisable at night. Watching old films set in the UK on Talking Pictures TV, I’m on the lookout for Wolseleys, in the daytime or night.

      Having used electric clippers to clip horses when I worked in various stables, I knew of the Wolseley name in that area; also with sheep shearing from my time Down Under. Looking on Wikipedia about the origin of the Woleseley brand, I found this:

      Hiram Maxim, inventor of the machine gun that bears his name, and by then a member of the combine Vickers Sons & Maxim, had consulted Herbert Austin at The Wolseley Sheep Shearing Machine Company Limited in the late 1890s a number of times in relation to the design of flying machines, which Maxim was developing and constructing. Maxim made use of a number of suggestions made by Austin in Maxim’s activities at his works in Crayford, Kent. Once the sheep shearing company had decided they would not pursue their automobile interest, an approach was made and agreement quickly reached.

      The Wolseley Tool and Motor Car Company of Adderley Park Birmingham was incorporated in March 1901 with a capital of £40,000 by Vickers, Sons and Maxim to manufacture motor cars and machine tools. The managing director was Herbert Austin. The cars and the Wolseley name came from Austin’s exploratory venture for The Wolseley Sheep Shearing Machine Company Limited, run since the early 1890s by the now 33-year-old Austin. Wolseley’s board had decided not to enter the business and Maxim and the Vickers brothers picked it up. After his five-year contract with The Wolseley Tool and Motor Car Company ended Austin founded The Austin Motor Company Limited.

  4. Wolseley would certainly have been a more appropriate branding for the 3 litre. Doubt in reality it would have sold any better with it though. The car was still too visually linked to the Landcrab

  5. I think the problem of there not being a Wolseley or VdP version of this car is that the car was very far into the development phase when the merger with Jaguar occurred. Perhaps Jaguar put a spanner in the works as the cars could have clashed with their own.

  6. @13, Alisdair,

    I don’t think this would have impacted Jaguar greatly- it would have been more a thorn in the side of the P5. Both were ‘dignified’ albeit somewhat frumpy large saloons aimed at the bottom end of the carriage trade, eg senior policemen, lord mayors, MDs and CEOs who didn’t want to look too flash by being seen in a big Jag or Daimler.

    It probably wouldn’t have made enough money even to have put this plusher version into production though.

    • not forgetting the P5/P5b were used by a significant number of Prime Minister and Cabinet ministers for many many years, so not just the higher end of the dignitaries, even HRH QE II has a number of the Rovers, No Woooosleys were used in this fashion, and rightly so….. but saying that i think a Wooooosley version of the A3L would have sold better than the A3L.

  7. Hi, message for Alexander Boucke,from the editor of the Landcrab [LOCI] magazine.
    We’ve a few Landlobster owners in our club and would like to reproduce this article for our mag. Can you drop me a line and see if this is OK pls?
    Thanks Michael

  8. I always thought the 3 ltr was a beautiful looking car, even allowing for the sad interior that went into production, I still don’t understand why it failed so spectacularly. Had they built the version above, it might not have turned out to be their version of the Ford Edsel!! What a pity!

  9. As an early ’70s kid and unaware of the design lineage I always thought the Austin 3 Litre was the only well-proportioned use of the shared (1800 & Maxi) doors.

    • Agree, 1800 was a bit short in the arse department! The more I look at the 3 Litre the more I like it, feel the same way about the Jaguar MK X/420G..

      Must be an age thing 🙂

  10. This should really have been the flagship of the BMC range, not the Austin 3 Litre, and the Wolseley has a far more upmarket dashboard and front end. Yet would this have sold well as it would have been dogged by the sluggish engine that the 3 Litre had and its massive thirst for petrol. By the late sixties, big BMC cars were mostly the preserve of funeral companies and senior police officers whose transport budget didn’t stretch to a Rover.

  11. I remember seeing a Riley version of the body being finished off in 1968 in the body dept next to the experimental dept that i worked in, spotted it as i am a Riley nut and recognized the aperture for the grille!.

  12. To me the trick they missed in those pre Leyland takeover development, was on the merger Jaguar, to utilise the Daimler V8 instead of the asmatic 3 litre C engine.Given the cars excellent driveability, the Austin/ Morris 2.5 litre and Wolsey / Riley 4.5 litre would have caused Rover some headaches.

    • Is it known whether the Daimler V8 was an easy installation in the 3-litre or what its weight was compared to the revised C-Series?

      While the 140 hp 2.5-litre V8 has 15 hp more compared to the 125 hp 2.9 C-Series, it is some 13 lb·ft short at 150 lb·ft against the 163 lb·ft of the existing 3-litre. The MGC version of the C-Series increases the output to 145 hp and 170 lb·ft respectively.

      The 4.5-litre on the other hand actually put out something in the region of 260 hp since Daimler’s dyno equipment could only go up to 220 hp.

    • There was not the production capacity for the Daimler V8 in anything other than small numbers . Furthermore, as I explained elsewhere in reply to a question from Nate , it had a serious design flaw in that the main bearings were of inadequate length ( this was in an effort to keep the engine short ) and bearing failure and cracking of the main caps was a frequent occurrence . The average life of a 2.5 was probably about 50 to 60,000 miles , which by the late 1960s was well below par . An additional problem was that its torque curve was badly suited to automatic transmission, hence the very low axle ratios employed by Jaguar on the 2.5 litre V8 saloon ( it started at 16.6 mph/1000rpm, later lengthened to about 17.3 )

      • Am aware of the Daimler V8’s issues, just highlighting that even if those various obstacles were resolved the 2.5 V8 would appear to still come up short against the C-Series.

        • Don’t forget that the C-series offered a lot of potential for improvement. The setup as seen in the 3 litre is very relaxed – and very smooth. Downton has shown that the engine was capable of 150-170bhp without loosing smoothness or driveability. The Downton 3 Litre was a good match for the Jaguar 340 and even offered significantly improved fuel efficiency. So surely the engine could have been made to go better…

          Otherwise the engine is without too many flaws, yes it is heavy, but also very robust. High mileages are the norm. And it has well proven that many standard components are capable of keeping up with much higher engine output.

          So I think all the engine needed, would have been a good tune – probably to the levels of an Austin 1800S – so about 165bhp.

          • Agreed, have read Downton managed to achieve as much as 174-176 hp from the C-Series and that the engine could have been further lightened to reach its weight reduction targets via usage of aluminum and/or success at thin-wall casting.

            Know Syd Enever tried pushing for an extensive modernization of the C-series for what became the revised engine, including different bore and stroke dimensions of an oversquare design to make it more sporty and lighter in weight along with reducing the height of the engine by a further 1.75 inches (or 3.5 inches in total) in order to get it under the MGC’s hood without the bonnet bulge, but BMC technical director Alec Issigonis overruled him on cost grounds. Along with the fact George Harriman already spent a lot of money in Germany on a block-boring machine whose limitations meant the engineers were tied for bore centres and diameters.

            The ideal for the C-Series would have been achieving its target of putting out 150+ hp in saloon and 190-200+ hp in sporting applications, however at the same time there is that niggling thought that a theoretical 3-litre B-Series 6-cylinder could have been both lighter and just as capable as a C-Series that realized its full potential at a much lower cost (though it would be a close call between the two).

        • The Daimler V8 was a very thirsty engine, about 17mpg in the Mark 2 body IIRC. Having driven one, it felt very “busy” – a lot of pistons for such a small displacement, where six or even four cylinders could have been enough for volumetric efficiency and light weight, if not smoothness in the case of the four.

          • I believe this Wolseley prototype reportedly was Rover V8-engined, wasn’t it? Would have made a Greet Q-car, I guess…

  13. I should imagine Jaguar wouldn’t want to have any in-house competition, especially as the XK6 had a 2.9 litre engine, though it was mostly an export option.

  14. I think the 3-Litre has improved with age. I also find myself hankering after a Wolseley Six, another eccentric but strangely attractive vehicle. Could we have an article about that car, please?

    • The Wolseley Six turned the rather basic ADO 17 into a highly desirable executive car, with the 2.2 six giving the car plenty of smooth power, and in automatic form, would have been a relaxing motorway car. Also the wood, quality cloth on the seats and full instrumentation made the Six an interesting alternative to a Rover P6. While the Six was to live for only three years, the E6 engine lived on until 1981 in top of the range Princesses.

  15. Still a flawed concept (the whole ADO61 [project) but bizarre to launch just the base Austin version and not something more luxurious (with a higher mark-up as well hopefully) as well. After all its nearest rival, the equally flawed Mk4 Zephyr was also available in Executive form with all the trimmings.

  16. The missed trick quite obviously was putting the E6 engine which in 2.6 form must have matched the C for power and bettered it for economy and flexibiltiy. Which of course did not exist at the start of development in 1960. IF the car had come out then, perhaps it would have sold. But the real problem was the styling which which just was not very appealling

  17. Another benefit of hindsight comment but from a marketing perspective surely the benefit of badge engineering is to align the car with the customer. Thus a big expensive (relative term) car should be a Wolseley, the sporting one with luxury a Riley and the sporting one with little luxury, an MG. An Austin is the base Saloon model and the Morris could have been all the ‘estates’.

    I think badge engineering was a brilliant idea but it got fudged so that there was a lot of doubling up. Of course, in the day, internal politics ruled the day – it was precious little to do with actual marketing!

    With no actual knowledge at all I reckon the 3ltr had to be an Austin for political reasons – and this over-ruled the ‘what would sell better’ brigade!

  18. While the Wolseley version of the 3-litre is something that along with the Vanden Plas version would have improved sales of the 3-litre somewhat had they both appeared earlier then they did, at the same time BMC was simply not big enough like GM to engage in badge engineering to the extent it did and desperately needed to rationalise its marque portfolio to some degree in objective sales terms of which both Wolseley and Riley fell short in.

    Had Austin and Morris made better decisions in the pre-war to immediate post-war era prior to their formation into BMC (leading to the possibly of the company potentially closing in on being the World’s 3rd larger carmaker rather than the temporarily the 4th largest carmaker for a short time), then there was a remote change the company could maintain the badge engineering exercise a big longer while having a large presence in North America, Continental Europe and other markets.

    Though understand not everyone agrees. Of the view that a Vanden Plas which absorbs both Wolseley and Riley in a more Radford / Wood & Pickett like manner could have worked just as well if not more than 3 separate high end marques, with both Wolseley and Riley living on as preset specifications on Vanden Plas models followed by regular spec and cost-no-object high-spec bespoke one-offs.

  19. The Finance Director of my first Employers had a Wolseley company car in maroon. i drove it once but can’t remember if it was an 18/85 or a Six. It was big and felt powerful though!

    • The Six was more powerful and if it had cloth seats rather than Ambla or leather, would have been a Six. I always quite liked these as they had really comfortable seats, the E6 was a very quiet and powerful engine for the time, and the ride was excellent.

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