If a car can embody the legacy of its creator, the 1967 Austin 3-Litre will forever be linked with the fall of BMC boss, George Harriman. Hubris or simply bad timing? Driven to Write investigates.
An unwitting metaphor for a car company which had fundamentally lost its way, the 1967 Austin 3-Litre was an unmitigated failure in both creative and commercial terms. Received at launch with an embarrassed silence from the UK press corps, shunned by the buying public and withdrawn from sale in 1971 with a mere 9,992 examples built, the 3-Litre, along with the Austin Maxi would prove to be the final nails in BMC’s coffinlid and all the evidence Donald Stokes and his Leyland cohorts needed to enact what amounted to a coup, wresting full control of the combined businesses in 1968. Because if ADO 61 illustrated anything it was that developing cars in a vacuum almost always means trouble.
Other sources have documented ADO61’s development, so I will not reprise it here. Suffice to say, the car never remotely looked like being anything other than something of an orphan, owing to a combination of damning factors. It arrived very late to market, with looks that were, lets just say, contentious. Furthermore, it offered performance, fuel economy and value which fell well short of expectations. Coupled to the fact there were better, more attractive domestic alternatives available and really, the big Austin was on a hiding to nothing.
ADO 61 was one of several pet projects overseen by BMC Chairman, George Harriman, others being the Vanden Plas R and the two-seater ADO 30, otherwise known internally as Firebird XL 5. None of these programmes were enacted with much enthusiasm within BMC’s engineering department who could see how wasteful and ill-conceived they were. Even Harriman ought to have seen the warning signs when it became apparent that the 1964 Vanden Plas R had proven a commercial flop, and with development of ADO 61 meandering along, (the first prototype was completed in 1963) there was ample time to press abort.
A second opportunity came in late 1966, when BMC acquired Jaguar. With the Browns Lane car firm well established within ADO 61’s intended market, there was little reason to persevere with a car only Harriman seemed to want. The third and final one was when BL took control two years later. But by then, it was too late – the car had been announced, the costs of cancellation too high and anyway, launching an sure-fire lemon perhaps served Stokes’ interests.
One area however where ADO 61 did excel however was its chassis. BMC (in conjunction with Rolls Royce engineers, it’s believed) and consultant Dr. Alex Moulton employed a more refined and I believe unique form of Hydrolastic suspension, which in conjunction with front mounted double wishbones and rear semi-trailing arms (with a self-levelling system employing a set of engine driven hydraulic rams) maintained a constant ride height. It resulted in a very comfortable ride, coupled to fine handling which belied the car’s size and bulk. However the downside was that both suspension and variable ratio power steering systems proved troublesome in service, with a high proportion of 3-Litres requiring rectification in these areas.
This aspect is one which underlines the failings of the BMC organisation during this period. While cars like the Mini, Austin 1100 and 1800 were advanced, pioneering designs, both detail design and build quality fell woefully short of adequacy, fatally undermining the clever engineering underneath. This disdain for the customer effectively sealed BMC’s eventual fate. Because even if ADO 61 hadn’t been fundamentally flawed, its lack of competitiveness against far more thoroughly developed European competitors would have proven its undoing.
In 1970, UK consumer journal, Motoring Which carried out a dispassionate assessment on a 3-Litre, which didn’t particularly mince words. “We do not think the 3-Litre has enough advantages over the (Austin) 1800 range to justify its high price,” they said “and this price pushes it into the middle of some very strong opposition.” They sharply criticised the car’s wet road handling, describing it as ‘suspect’, and suggested its control layout was ‘not good’. They also made reference to the car’s high running costs and likely heavy depreciation. Overall, they concluded, “We do not think the 3-Litre is good value.”
Value or not, it could be made into a reasonably swift device. Downton Engineering extracted considerably better performance and by default, fuel economy through a combination of better breathing, an additional carburettor and a reduced back pressure twin exhaust system. BLMC themselves went further still, a proposed Wolseley version employing the Rover/Buick 3.5 litre V8 engine to notably vivid effect. This prototype became engineering chief, Harry Webster’s personal transport for some years; indeed, its believed that BLMC staff who had 3-Litres’ as company vehicles were most reluctant to relinquish them.
Further derivations were explored, including Vanden Plas and even Rover versions – (to say nothing of the earlier Bentley proposals). But it didn’t end there. A final nugget relating to ADO 61 came to light recently. In conversation with Jaguar’s former engineering director last year, Jim Randle stated that in the early ’70s BLMC management suggested Jaguar employ ADO 61 as the basis for the XJ40. Recalling this with characteristic understatement, (and some mirth) he told this author, “It wasn’t treated with any great reverence”. Well quite.
But nevertheless, the Austin 3-Litre is not without charm, as monuments to corporate hubris often are. As much for its slightly ungainly (if imposing) appearance, with its gawky nose treatment, oddly proportioned centre section through to its surprisingly elegant tail – (surely the work of Rolls Royce’s JP Blatchley?) as its aura of failed grandeur, ADO 61 for all its flaws, remains a car which fascinates as much as it repels.