As the once all-conquering BMC spiralled down through 40 years of decline towards ultimate implosion, the monolith and its successors left behind numerous examples of an unrivalled ability to repeatedly snatch defeat from the jaws of car-making victory.
Well inside the top ten of expensive white elephants and spectacularly mismanaged money-squandering failures left at the side of this road to ultimate ruin must surely come the convoluted tale of the Austin 3 litre, its origins traceable back to 1961 and a busy year for BMC.
That Autumn, with the badge-engineering era in full swing, the Farina-styled, rear drive Austin Cambridge and its Morris Oxford equivalent were upgraded, along with their bigger, classily styled upmarket Austin A99 Westminster and Wolseley 6/99 relations. The resulting “110” range, along with the later Princess 3-litre, came to be loved in the 1960’s by everyone from police forces to politicians. All inherited BMC’s ‘C series’ six-cylinder engine, first seen in some of BMC’s largest 1950’s saloons
Beginning its development in 1961 was a new front-drive alternative to the smaller Farina styled saloons, which emerged in 1964 as the spacious new 1800 model line. Also around this time BMC began a four year association with Rolls-Royce, which led to much development work and several cancelled prototypes, some of them apparently featuring body styling themes later utilised by Rolls-Royce itself.
Though this work might have been expected to lead to new upmarket BMC models, only one made production – and that was far from entirely new. The Rolls-Royce-engined Princess 4 litre R was effectively last gasp in the Westminster/110 model line, and a separate heroic failure: production ended in 1968 with just 6555 units sold…
What has any this to do with the Austin 3 litre? Well, also in 1961, a new large car project was born at BMC – internally coded ADO61. Today, its generally believed this started out as an eventual replacement for the Westminster 6/110 and Princess ranges – certainly credible given the project timing.
What happened next isn’t clear, but spooling forward to 1963, tantalising pictures exist showing the Rolls-Royce sub-story had acquired itself an extended bodyshell. This was clearly evolved from the centre section and doors of the then unlaunched Austin/Morris 1800, using its hydrolastic suspension, with separate rear self levelling added – and rear wheel drive.
Sadly the mists of time obscure many events during the BMC/R-R association, but this pictorial evidence clearly suggests the vehicle, launched years later as the Austin 3-litre, was was under development for some of the time as a potential joint project.
Whether a Rolls Royce engine was intended to power it we’ll probably never know, but after the association crumbled in 1965, the car lived on – and the only suitably powerful BMC engine then available was the six-cylinder 2.9 litre “C series.” Born of an age when strength and reliability mattered most, at almost 600lbs (267kg) with clutch, it was always too heavy – and never powerful enough. By the mid 1960’s – as engine development moved rapidly forward – it was an engine already out of time.
Though there were then no high volume cars on BMC drawing boards needing such an engine, somehow a major redesign was approved – at what must have been formidable cost – demanding output above 200hp, and at least 170lb (75kg) weight reduction. The redesigned cylinder block, head and crankcase benefited from new thin-wall casting techniques, there were new manifolds, and seven main bearings – requiring a new crankshaft and new connecting rods, while diecast aluminium was used for many engine ancillaries.
The result was a very expensive waste of time, for the unit only ever appeared in the MGC and Austin 3 litre. Arguments over this engine continue even today – its doubtful anything close to 200hp was ever achieved on production engines, some believe the weight actually increased – and fuel economy seems to have suffered…
Work continued towards an Autumn 1967 launch as BMC became BMH. With major investment committed, neither dared to pull the plug, and – apart from interminable delays before production began – nothing changed following the BLMC merger.
Listed at £1418, the Austin 3 litre was in showrooms midway through 1968, presenting an image well downmarket of the respected and lamented Westminster range. It faced competition from Ford’s Executive (son of previous Zephyrs and Zodiacs) and Vauxhall’s Cresta, where a football pitch-sized bonnet and mid-atlantic styling were fashionable prerequisites.
The 3-litre had the bonnet but not the style, appearing simply as an extended, rear-drive version of the established 1800 series launched long ago in 1964. The reworked engine was quite refined, the ride comfortable, and tidy handling outclassed its immediate competition, but the car’s character was alien to those weaned on the Westminster culture – and the press lukewarm. Customers stayed away in droves, though sales trickled upwards after an upgrade 10 months into production, which – despite leather trim being deleted – somehow delivered a rather more upmarket interior.
Some 9992 examples were eventually built: even including MGC production, return on sales can hardly have dented the cost of re-tooling the engine, let alone both cars’ production costs. Ironically, in 1968, the new BLMC empire accumulated two V8’s – and several other six cylinder engines.
Not that this halted development of three more ‘sixes,’ and another V8, before Michael Edwardes began reining in the uncoordinated profligacy practiced by the marque-specific fiefdoms that flourished in the decade after 1968.
The Austin 3 litre holds three other qualifications for the automotive hall of infamy. Its passing in April 1971 marked the end of big Austin saloons… It was also the only rear drive car to use Hydrolastic suspension, and the last to use the C series engine – amongst the least successful, most developed and most costly production engines in its maker’s history.
But let’s not forget that the post-BMC years delivered other engines capable of challenging hard for those same pinnacles of ignominy.
© Dave Moss
Further reading and references
The Cars of BMC – Graham Robson, Motor Racing Publications, 1987. ISBN 978 0 9479811 4 3
Vanden Plas the Austin years – Brian Peebles, Ferris Books, 2009. ISBN 918 0 9564047 0 1
British Leyland: The truth about the cars – Jeff Daniels, 1980. Pub: Osprey. ISBN 085045 392 5.
Dave Moss has a lifetime connection with the world of motoring. His father was a time-served skilled engineer from an age when car repairs really meant repairs: he ran his own garage from the 1930’s to the 60’s, while Mum was the boss’s secretary at a big Austin distributor. Both worked their entire lives in the motor trade, so if motor oil’s not in Dave’s blood, its surely a very close thing.
Though qualified in Electronics, for Dave it seemed a natural step into restoring a succession of classic cars, culminating in a variety of Minis. Writing and broadcasting about these, and a widening range of motoring matters ancient and modern, gathered pace in the 1970’s and has taken over since. Topics nowadays range across the modern motoring mainstream to the offbeat and more arcane aspects of motoring history, and outlets embrace books, websites national and international magazines, newspapers, radio programmes, phone-ins and guest appearances. Spare time: hard graft on the garage floor attending to vehicles old and new. Latest projects: that 1968 Mini Cooper S has finally moved again after 30 years, and when the paint is finished, the 1960 Morris Mini 850 will also soon be ready for the road again…