Blog : Night drive in an Austin 3 Litre

In case you hadn’t noticed, I’ve been away for a couple of weeks, leaving the site to fend for itself with a load of new stories told by the people who actually worked for the company during its long and turbulent history. The series, known as I was there, has been revealing, with new insights from within. I love it!

With that in hand, it was nice to be off the grid in Europe for more than a few days, while escaping events unfolding here.

There were many highlights of my trip, but I won’t bore you with those, as we all know just how nice and liberating it feels to be driving on the other side of the Channel. However, I will share one particular high point, which was an overnight stay in Aachen and an evening spent with long-time friend and AROnline‘s Deputy Editor, Alexander Boucke.

Lots of people know Alexander because he has a seriously impressive collection of BMC, Leyland and Rover cars, proving that there’s a huge amount of passion overseas for our cars. Undoubtedly the jewel in the crown of his fleet is his 3 Litre, which is highly unusual for being left-hand drive, and he keeps it in excellent, running, condition.

Regular readers may recall it was our Car of the Month in April 2002 (yes, really), and it has featured in these pages a few times over the years – as such, it’s part of the extended AROnline family, and we love it.

That’s a big deal for me to say as, way back in the early days of the website, I was not backwards in coming forwards with my disdain for these misunderstood cars. I called the 3 Litre ugly, pointless and a prime example of why BMC deserved a kick up the backside it ended up having. Today, my view has softened somewhat – yes, I am aware of its many failings but, equally, I am now fully conversant with its numerous positives.

A night ride was the perfect opportunity for me to reacquaint myself with the positives. For one, it was dark in Aachen, so I didn’t need to look too closely at the 3 Litre’s styling, even if I find it less irksome each time I look at one now. I recently opined that we might all think differently about the 3 Litre, had it been launched before the 1800, but there’s no escaping its ungainly proportions and lack of prestige badge.

None of that mattered when I opened the door and climbed in. The smell that envelops you is a heady aroma of quality leather, suffused with a little lamb’s wool from the thick and comfortable carpets. The seats are wonderfully enveloping, and the dashboard is a plank of glossy wood that looks lovely thanks to the reflected highlights from the streetlamps above.

Alexander fires it up, and it settles into a smooth six-pot hum overlaid with a little valve gear chatter, but underway it sounds both eager and refined – an interesting mix. Acceleration is, shall we say, regal and cruising is a quiet and satisfying affair. However, the 3 Litre’s pièce de resistance is its ride quality, which is quite simply superb.

It has all the compliance you’d expect from a 1960s luxury car, but the damping and overall body control really are superb, and a world away from what Ford and Vauxhall were doing at the time. Alexander, a keen Citroën XM owner, reckons it’s not quite perfect, with age stiffening up some of its rubber components and making its rear end a little less settled than he’d like. But he’s an Engineer, and I didn’t pick up on that, so perhaps he’s being a perfectionist…

Anyway, it was nice to catch up, and re-sample one of the best suspension systems to grace a production car of its era. The experience had me wondering how it would stack up alongside a Citroën DS – I’m sure I’m not the first person to wonder that…

Keith Adams

14 Comments

  1. As I previously said my Great Uncle had a 3 litre and loved it, only replacing it for a Maxi after the fuel crisis on 73. It was his fave car and I know he regretted replacing it, even though he did like the Maxi which he kept until the mid 80s. As Keth said, would we seen this differently had we seen the 3 litre before the 1800, or had received the styling of the Kimberly/Tamsin.

    • I wondered if BMC had any intention of applying the 3-Litre’s Armstrong self-levelling system to its other products.

      I presume not, although it looks like the system had an afterlife as Bristol Cars appears to have used it according to an article I found in the MotorSport archive.

      Here is the article:
      https://www.motorsportmagazine.com/archive/article/august-1975/75/bristol-of-filton

      And here is the relevant passage;
      “When Armstrong self-levelling was applied to the rear suspension the effective travel was increased from 8″ to 10¼”, which enabled superior damper-settings to be used”

      I can’t imagine Armstrong developed another system especially for Bristol Cars, so did a little bit of the 3-Litre live on?

  2. Purchased one of these from Queensland and had it shipped to Tasmania. One of only 6 in Australia. I have done lots of work on it. Still to do is some minor upholstery work, redoing the wood and getting the Armstrong self levelling to work. Having had a couple of 1100s in the 70s I have found the 3 litre quite stiff by comparison but it does ride well and handles like a sports car. Mine is an auto. and it is slow on the hills but cruises very well…on the flat. One thing it is lacking is that could cannot pull the BW35 back into second manually. All you can do is induce a kick down. I feel very privledged to own such a rare beast with such an interesting history. .

    • The 3 litre has stronger damping than all Hydrolastic cars before. Alex Moulton knew, that the original 1100 and 1800 where under-damped. The 3 litre was the answer to this.
      The auto-box should enable you to select 2nd manually while on the drive:
      Pull the lever back to L and it will switch to 2nd from 3rd – or stick to 2nd. If slowing to a halt or using kickdown, L will lock 1st. If starting from standstill in L, 1st will be locked. To get into second shift the car to D and then back to L…

  3. The 3 Litre is a classic example of the BMC/BLMC/AR paradox. On the one hand, this quite likely is a very pleasing car that can be enjoyed on its own merits. Perhaps it would have made sense with a Wolseley badge, but if you eliminate all the noise (it’s RWD so has less interior space than its cheaper siblings, you know the drill), you quite likely have a very competent Humber competitor.
    On the other hand, it should never have been built; it catered for a dying market sector, the styling was poor, it tied up BMC cash and resources, and was a feeble competitor for its soon-to-be stablemates like the P6 and big Triumph. Time and money that could have been spent on upgrading ADO16 or competing with Cortina was frittered away.
    It’s quite OK to hold both opinions alongside each other. We’re looking at events of over 50 years ago; what’s done is done. I’m glad there are few 3 Litres in good hands, to be appreciated in years to come.

  4. @ Philip, the 3 Litre was conceived in an era long before the merger, where a large car with an Austin badge or a Vanden Plas variant topped the BMC range. These 3-4 litre cars were seen as competition to big Fords, Vauxhalls, Humbers and Rovers and aimed at company executives and businesses like funeral directors. However, come 1968, when the 3 Litre was launched, BMC had become part of British Leyland and the car had massive internal competition from Rover and Jaguar and was a drain on resources. Also the controversial styling, high price and an engine that was leisurely for its size didn’t help.

  5. Would say the issue with the 3-litre from a styling POV is that it was already dated by the time it was launched and even if the 3-litre appeared earlier in around 1963 in Wolseley or Vanden Plas guise (with Facel Vega-esque front). The same also applies to the Vanden Plas 1800 in spite of being a styling success that could have had a similar production shelve-life til the mid-1970s as the Mercedes-Benz W114/W115 and Volvo 164.

    The 1960s was a period when styling themes were rapidly shifting to a more modern styling language (e.g. Cortina from mk1 to mk2), while BMC over the course of the decade opted to persist with a dated styling language rooted in Pininfarina’s 1957 Lancia Florida II concept that was being readily discarded by Fiat, Lancia and Peugeot for more modern exterior styling.

    • You are right Nate in that the frontal and rear aspects dated the car to the early 60s. However, if the 3 litre had been given the Kimberly treatment in the late 60s/ early 70s, and it’s engine either replaced or improved it was dynamically capable to hold it’s own against newer competitors. Volvo took the 164, updated the styling and floorpan and it became the 260 series, which ran forever. We know that one of the Wolsley prototypes ran a Rover V8, and I read somewhere on the net that the Daimler V8 was also tried in a 3 litre shell, so there was some thinking within the company that the car could be improved.

      • Was not aware of the connection between the Volvo 164 and 200 Series. In the 3-litre’s case could see an extensively updated version lasting about as long as the smaller ADO16-based Austin Apache before being replaced, which was roughly the same time the Rover P6 and Triumph 2000/2500 ceased production. Maybe it could have lasted as long as a Volvo 200 Series or Rover SD1, yet it is difficult to envision.

        What does stand out would be how the 3-litre was capable of being much smaller than it was, since the original prototype for what became ADO17 was rear-wheel drive and essentially a smaller Farina B-replacing development of Issigonis’s ideas for the larger stillborn Alvis TA350/175 project before it was converted to FWD.

        Ideally Pininfarina should have been involved with a new body along the lines of the Nissan Cedric 130 (that also featured a Nissan J20 Six – essentially a distantly related Japanese Blue Streak), Peugeot Project H proposal as well as the Peugeot 604 and Fiat 130.

        • The 260 used much of the body pressings for the outside, but underneath the 260 was based on an all new platform based on the 1972 VESC ESV experimental safety car, including crumple zones. The 4 cylinder engines had the same block but were converted to ohc, while the 6 was dropped in favour of the PRV.

  6. Even if updated, the 3 litre would have posed a problem for BL: It was a complex and therefore expensive to build car for the time. Hence we got the rather crude SD1 (and Marina in the smaller class).

    • You are right based on how events ultimately unfolded, though contend the formation of BL was not a complete inevitability. That said the 3-litre’s prospects without BL would have still been undermined due to the presence of Jaguar (or Rover depending on prior events) even if it was launched a few years prior in around 1963.

      That is not to say the 3-litre wouldn’t merit having a decent run had it been properly developed, been X6-sized, better styled / branded (e.g. VDP, Wolseley, etc) and appeared earlier with a wider choice of engines (2.0-3.0-litre) prior to being superseded by a more creditable upmarket brand roughly occupying the same sector.

      In that instance the 3-litre successor would either be an XJ6 that instead of the flawed 2.8-litre features the stillborn short-stroke 2.6-3.0-litre XK6s (considered during development) or a more P6-sized P10 displacing 2.0/2.2-3.5-litres.

      OTOH that did not stop BL in real-life from considering a booted Daimler version of the Rover SD1 loosely reminiscent of the Aston Martin Lagonda, so maybe BMC is that situation would similarly look at a Vanden Plas version of the P6-sized P10.

  7. It’s interesting to think of any cars that have been really successful in up – scaling. Vauxhall didn’t do it often but the PB was never appreciated like the original and smaller FB. Ford avoided it but in a moment of weakness upscaled the Anglia 105 to become the Classic – and that failed in the showroom too. Triumph downscaled the 2000 to become the
    1300/Toledo/1500/Dolomite confusion and that seemed to work. Generally though ‘up-scaling’ didn’t ever work well unless any of you can think of a rule breaker?

  8. Martin you forgot the Cortina to Corsair which wasn’t a success either, with Ford bringing the upscale range into the Cortina range when it became the Mark 3.

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