Selling your classic car? It's FREE to list your car on Honest John Classics | No thanks

Austin 3 Litre (1968 - 1971)

Last updated 3 April 2013

 
3

Model Timeline

January 1961
Work began on new BMC flagship

The psychological need for BMC to remain in the ‘director’s car’ market was such that they continued to press ahead with a new model in the sector, codenamed the ADO61. By the early sixties, the BMC design department was becoming increasingly dictated to by the accountants of the company and so, soon imposed their influence on the new car. When BMC were in the early stages of the planning for the new car, the decision was made to use the entire centre section of the yet-to-be-launched ADO17, but with unique and elongated front and rear ends, styled by Farina with help from.

Styling aside, the ADO61 was developed in a logical and predictable way. Unlike the previous three BMC designed cars (Mini, ADO16 and ADO17), the new car would be entirely conventional in its engineering – there would be no room for unconventionally engineered cars in this most conservative of markets.

Initially, the plan was for the C-Series unit to be used in the new car as it had already seen service in the Westminster/Wolseley 6/99, but in the interests of increased refinement, it was deemed necessary to redesign the power unit’s bottom-end internals – as it was also being planned to use the engine in the MGC (ADO52). Where a four-bearing crankshaft sufficed before, a new seven-bearing crank was installed. The transmission of the ADO61 was 4-speed and the driven wheels were the rear wheels, which was a retrograde step for BMC. By the time the car had reached an advanced stage in development and its design was set, the cost cutting measures that the accountants had put in place may as well have not been undertaken: commonality with other cars in the range was minimal apart from the most obvious sheet metal and so, economies of scale through component sharing were minimal.

Unlike the engine/gearbox set-up of the ADO61, the suspension system adopted for the car was rather less than conventional: Like the ADO16 and ADO17, Hydrolastic was the springing medium, used all round. Unlike its smaller brothers, however, the rubber springs at the rear were separated from the Hydrolastic displacer units. The idea of this was to smooth the ride even further, which BMC managed with some aplomb – which partially explains its excellent ride quality, along with the ADO61′s much greater weight – but also because a change in the pickup-point of the connecting pipes into the displacer-chamber reduced the typical bounce to near zero (it should also be noted that this modification was later incorporated into the Maxi’s suspension setup).

The rear suspension used the now-familiar Hydrolastic spring and damper units, supplemented by a self-levelling facility. This height adjusting rear end was a system that was completely independent of the car’s main suspension set-up and in a nutshell, the height was, regulated via a set of hydraulic rams. The pressure output by these rams was regulated via valves that sensed the level of the car – lowering it if it is too high, raising it if it is too low. An engine driven pump powered the system, but as the system was regulating the ride height whether the engine was running or not – as long as there was residual pressure in the hydraulics. This was seen as a ‘must have’ by BMC, who saw that this small splash of ingenuity would set the car apart from its domestic rivals. It must be said that this philosophy of trying to offer something more advanced in the chassis department did result in a car blessed with superb ride quality.

Unlike the previous three BMC new cars, Alec Issigonis had no hand in the development of this car – in fact, Issigonis positively wanted nothing to do with the car. Ron Nicholls would head-up work on this car, but he had no involvement in the concept of the car. Whereas ADO15, 16 and 17 were the product of Issigonis more or less single-handedly, the ADO61 was the brainchild of George Harriman , himself – and the finer points of the design were hammered-out by the BMC board and Rolls-Royce. Such muddled conception was the father of a rather confused big car.

January 1963
First full-sized prototype emerged

It would appear that the first full-size prototype of the ADO61 was produced in 1963 (before even the ADO17 was launched) and what is very striking about this was that it looked almost identical to the Austin 3-Litre in its final production form. The styling even at this early stage could only be described as imposing, but the obvious question of how the car would compare with the Austin 1800 was, it appears, left unuttered. As events transpired, it actually took four years from the appearance of the first prototype (below) to the car being unveiled to the world – events in the wider world of BMC had obviously overtaken the ill-fated ADO61.

Prototype from 1963 shows BMC's big-car thinking of that time. The shape is remarkably similar to the final version, launched five years later.

Prototype from 1963 shows BMC’s big-car thinking of that time. The shape is remarkably similar to the final version, launched five years later.

Development appeared to drag on through the ’60s and like all products from BMC before and afterwards, the press were well aware of the car’s existence long before any official announcement had been made. Interestingly, the launch of the car to the public was a long and drawn-out affair because its announcement to the press took place almost a year before the car actually went on sale – something Triumph were also guilty of with the 2000 in 1963.

October 1967
BMC launched the 3 Litre to the press

The press launch took place at Longbridge in the lead-up to the 1967 Motor Show and in a professional presentation given by Raymond Baxter (the then BMC/BMH Public Relations Officer) the event was set-up so that the new car would be presented at the end of the show, to be the climax of the event. Raymond Baxter did his utmost to build up an air of anticipation in the assembled journalists, but when the Austin 3-Litre was wheeled onto the stage, it was met with a ripple of polite applause followed by an embarrassed silence.

The trouble was, of course, that the Austin 3-Litre was so obviously ADO17 based that it practically begged for the inevitable question to be asked: What advantages did this car offer over its smaller counterpart?

It was not until the following year that the press would find out – and of course, the news was not good. The main trouble was that the obvious ugliness of the car was (for many) an insurmountable problem and those that could get past its looks found that the Austin 3-Litre had so many dynamic shortcomings that it was impossible to think of anything positive to say about the car.

For a start, the testers knew that the new incarnation of the C-Series engine was not going to be a sparkler, when they found that in the MGC, it was lugubrious in the extreme. This was the case in the 3-Litre, only more so – because of the vast weight of the new car, it meant that the car suffered from the same engine maladies, such as its unwillingness to rev, but it also had an astonishing thirst for petrol, too. However, the 3-litre was also an extremely comfortable car to drive – and if you could look beyond the breathless engine and thirst for fuel, there was little to touch it on ride quality. On that score alone, BMC did gain something from working with Rolls-Royce

By the time the car was released in 1967, it would only be to a select few trusted customers (one hundred of them), who were chosen to run the car for the company on an extended trial. Between the time of the initial launch and this first tentative step towards a full launch, BMH had been taken over by Leyland – and there was a real feeling within the new management to proceed with the launch of the new car, if only to demonstrate very graphically just how much BMH had lost its way.

January 1968
Austin 3 Litre launched to the public

ADO61 version as presented to the press in 1967: Versions like these were run in small numbers before the official public launch in order to gauge public reaction. The headlights were described as 'television shaped headlamp units', but these unsightly items were dropped in favour of the original arrangement for the final production models.

ADO61 version as presented to the press in 1967: Versions like these were run in small numbers before the official public launch in order to gauge public reaction. The headlights were described as ‘television shaped headlamp units’, but these unsightly items were dropped in favour of the original arrangement for the final production models.

When the Austin 3-Litre finally went on full sale to the public in 1968, it was already an embarrassment to the company. As it was, customers avoided it in huge numbers – and those that did not and chose to go into their local Austin showroom, were practically obliged to ask those same embarrassing questions of the car as the press had done over a year before.

As for the car itself, the interior had a nice, traditional wood and leather feel to it, but because it shared the ADO17 centre section and had a large transmission tunnel, it actually offered less space than the smaller car. In terms of ride quality, however, the ADO61 did set new standards of compliancy in its class – all the development work having been undertaken on the French Routes Nationale paying off handsomely.

The family resemblance between the two cars is most evident in this shot. Identical centre sections give the game away, although the 3-litre's proportions are quite a bit more conventional than its smaller cousin. Only the overly-long bonnet really counts against the ADO61 - the boot treatment looks as though it always should have been there.

The family resemblance between the two cars is most evident in this shot. Identical centre sections give the game away, although the 3-litre’s proportions are quite a bit more conventional than its smaller cousin. Only the overly-long bonnet really counts against the ADO61 – the boot treatment looks as though it always should have been there.

The interior of the 3-Litre was a nice place to sit, and although the on-paper figures suggested that it was more cramped than the 1800, it offered different qualities at the front, thanks to its much improved driving position. Extensive use of wood and high quality furnishings were abound...

The interior of the 3-Litre was a nice place to sit, and although the on-paper figures suggested that it was more cramped than the 1800, it offered different qualities at the front, thanks to its much improved driving position. Extensive use of wood and high quality furnishings were abound…

Unfortunately, there were ergonomic problems as well, not least the dashboard, which offered up a rather mean looking strip speedometer which appeared to have been lifted straight from the ADO16 – not exactly the thing that someone spending over £1500 would be looking for as a desirable feature (to put it another way, in those pre-inflationary times, the Austin 3-Litre actually cost nearly 50 per cent more than the Twin-carburettor Austin 1800S – a vastly better car).

Of course, the Austin 3-Litre was an outmoded dinosaur – BMH knew that, Leyland certainly knew that – as did the customers. The car was a victim of its own ugliness, for sure, but not only that, but the 3-Litre class as a whole was suffering under the two-pronged assault from the Leyland-produced Rover and Triumph 2000s.

Customers in a position to buy such cars as the ADO61 quite rightly looked at the vastly superior new 2-Litre competition and drew the conclusion that this new breed of smaller ‘executive car’ would provide them with all their needs, without the extravagance of a 3-Litre car. After the merger, of 1968, BLMC quite rightly allowed the car to go into full-scale production – the tooling costs had to be justified, for a start. This is so, because they could justifiably say that the Austin 3-Litre is a prime example of why BMH so needed to be taken over by Leyland.

As part of the ADO61 development programme, Vanden Plas produced their own version for presentation to the company's management in 1966. Styling was suitably modified (although the wrap-around rear window is a mixed success), but the project was axed following the 1968 merger with Leyland.

As part of the ADO61 development programme, Vanden Plas produced their own version for presentation to the company’s management in 1966. Styling was suitably modified (although the wrap-around rear window is a mixed success), but the project was axed following the 1968 merger with Leyland.

Be that as it may, the 3-litre was a car of uneven ability and as a result, it possessed a great deal of character, a sentiment borne out by one former manager, who put it in these terms: ‘·the 3 litre had a lot of charm. Senior management at Longbridge (including one George Turnbull ) hung on to theirs as long as they possibly could, to the despair of the Transport Manager. I loved driving them and all who rode in them liked them too. The V8 engined Wolseley was regarded by the test drivers as one of the best cars we never made, as it had better performance, economy and handling.’

Wolseley 3Litre: "...the best car we never made", according to BMC test drivers. This double-sided prototype demonstrates two different styling schemes, which could have clothed the Rover V8 engine - it looked interesting and would have made an interesting flagship for the BMC range. However, the existence of Jaguar, and then Rover and Triumph would make its production a luxury for the company. The return would not have justified the investment.

Wolseley 3Litre: “…the best car we never made”, according to BMC test drivers. This double-sided prototype demonstrates two different styling schemes, which could have clothed the Rover V8 engine – it looked interesting and would have made an interesting flagship for the BMC range. However, the existence of Jaguar, and then Rover and Triumph would make its production a luxury for the company. The return would not have justified the investment.

October 1968
Austin 3 Litre finally went on sale


Once, the Austin 3-Litre slipped onto the market in late 1968, it sold disastrously – it never even reached the financial break-even point of 50 cars per week. In its three-year production run, a total of 9992 were produced and such was the magnitude of its failure, that the planned Wolseley version was dropped because it would have sold in negligible numbers.

May 1971
Austin 3 Litre production ceased

Some thought was given to the car’s development though, because plans were drawn up to install the ‘Rover’ V8 engine under the huge bonnet, but they were quickly shelved – the only prototype of note surviving was the V8-powered ADO61 that Harry Webster himself used. Apparently, it would become a familiar sight in the Longbridge workshops, due to its propensity to break down on a regular basis. British Leyland never even contemplated replacing the car, but with Rover, Triumph and Jaguar in the stable following the merger, why would they need to?

Back: IntroductionNext: Specifications
 

Ask Honest John