Harriman’s Folly

If one 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? 

Quadruple headlamps quickly replaced the more modern looking ovoid units fitted to the car at launch. Image: Oldtechnology.net

An unwitting metaphor for a car company which had fundamentally lost its way, the 1967 Austin 3-Litre was an unmitigated failure both in 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 Received at launch with an embarrassed silence from the UK press corps, shunned by the buying public and withdrawn from sale in 1971 with a mere 9,992 examples built, the 3-Litre, along with the Maxi would prove to be the final nails in BMC’s coffinlid and all the evidence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 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 for money which fell woefully short of expectations. Coupled to this was the knowledge there were better, more attractive domestic alternatives available and really, the big Austin was on a hiding to nothing.

Image: the blueprints

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 himself seemed to want. The third and final one was when BL took control two years later. But by then, it was probably too late – the car had been announced, the costs of cancellation too high and anyway, launching an sure-fire lemon perhaps served Donald Stokes’ interests.

ADO 61 final assembly at Cowley. Image: curbside classic

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 it’s believed, 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 with 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 further underlines the failings of the BMC organisation. 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 competitors would have proven its undoing.

3-Litre interior. Image: curbside classic

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 quite reluctant to relinquish them.

Spot the join. Image: zwischengas

Further derivations were explored, including Vanden Plas and even Rover-branded versions – (to say nothing of earlier Bentley proposals). But it didn’t end there. A final nugget relating to ADO 61 came to light recently. During our conversation with Jaguar’s former engineering director last year, Jim Randle asserted that in the early ’70s BLMC management urged Jaguar to employ ADO 61 as the basis for the XJ40 programme, initiated in 1972. Recalling this with characteristic understatement, (and considerable mirth) he suggested to this author that the proposal, “…wasn’t treated with any great reverence”. Well quite.

But nevertheless, the Austin 3-Litre is not without its charm, as monuments to corporate hubris often are. As much for its slightly ungainly (if imposing) appearance, with its awkward nose treatment, oddly proportioned centre section through to its surprisingly elegant tail – (shades of Rolls Royce’s JP Blatchley?) as its aura of failed grandeur, the Austin 3-Litre despite the folly of its conception, remains a car which fascinates as much as it repels.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

21 thoughts on “Harriman’s Folly”

  1. Harriman had an uncanny judgement in proposing such a crop of inadequate products. It’d be fascinating to know where the records and documents are that might illustrate or reveal what the management did to arrive at a proposal like the 3-litre. I imagine much of the decision-making was informal and verbal so we’ll never know.
    On a design note, the grille and lamp arrangement is dreadful and for reasons not unlike those for the Jaguar XJ-S which also has ovoid lamps.
    How much was a 3-litre compared to a Jaguar? The Austin was £1,507 in 1969, the same as an Audi 100 LS. A six-cylinder Ford Zephyr cost £500 less (and lacked the wood and leather) and a Jaguar XJ6 cost £2000 exactly. The Rover 3500 cost £300 more than the Austin. And finally a Triumph 2500 (pick of the bunch) cost £1,449.

    1. I have come to love the hideous ‘face’ of the XJ-S with it’s ovoid lamps, but the similarity to the three litre is clear. With both of them it’s hard to imagine the dozens of people in the companies involved who must have stood back, looked at the finished product and in some way thought “spot on”.

      Interesting price comparison. It’s a big leap in price to the XJ6 or Rover, but you’d have to be certifiable to buy one of these over a Triumph 2500 and £58 left to spend on petrol.

    2. There was a 4-cylinder Rover for less, note. The Triumph or Audi 100 LS were certainly much better devices. The Audi still seems very fresh and modern compared to the frankly inept styling of the 3-litre. That Triumph was effectively dead about eight years later would have been hard to foresee in 1969.

  2. But for the constraints of the strong and space-efficient ADO17 centre section, the Austin 3 Litre could have been a four door Gordon-Keeble.

    Dwell on that delicious thought, if you think fit…

    1. Not quite, but the Vier Türen Elf Jahre zu spat is Pininfarina’s work, and there are pictures of a Maxi prototype said to have been fettled by Leonardo Fioravanti which has almost exactly the same ‘Hofmeister kink’ as the 411.

      There’s also this early Maxi sketch, not clear it was from ADO or Pininfarina:

  3. To the ADO61 / Gordon Keeble matter, I’m relieved that I’m not alone in recognising a resemblance.

    If only that centre section had been less wilfully hefty in its appearance – I’m sure it was deliberate, early ADO17 adverts promoted it as “The Protector”.

    Try to imagine a Gordon Keeble with another 300mm of wheelbase and another pair of doors. If it was done well, BMC could have had a big saloon as elegant as Jaguar’s best. The 3 litre came tantalisingly close to greatness; not for nothing is it regarded as “The Holy Grail” by many BMC / BLMC enthusiasts.

    1. The two cars have a similar rear design – I think they might be similar to a third car (and more). In side view I see different proportions and, especially about the bonnet I see that the GK’s extends further forward of the wheel and curves down more; the Austin suggests near horizontality and very much less overhang.

  4. What a chuckle I got from that sketch of an early Maxi. It had ground clearance to beat a Land Rover. Was there a requirement to ford streams and climb gullies? What an inept looking piece of rubbish; it surely takes inspiration from Buckminster Fuller’s 1930’s Dymaxion.

    Consider that both Jaguar and Rover managed to style cars that did not revolt at first glance, but the amateurish Riley Elfs and Wolseley Hornets, the 3 litre monstrosity, and the none-too-elegant 1800 SLC wth tinny body make me wonder what was up at BMC, BLMC or whatever that mutt of a company was called in the early to mid 1960s.

    I feel quite justified in slamming these cheap nasty underdeveloped cars. My Dad bought a 1965 1800, and it was a disaster, rusting at the seams, refusing to start at the hint of a chill, and using the famed Bostik glue to attach leatherette to the door cards. Two Canadian winters and the glue gave up, sensing it wasn’t at home, leaving the trim hanging forlornly into the door pockets. Lepage contact cement to the rescue. The front suspension leading struts also failed, leaving scalloped tires. Excrement really.

    Then I got to England, only to savour the Maxi whose boinging gas suspension was no better than the 1800, equipped with a engine only one step removed from a steam loco for length of stroke and not a happy runner, with a gearchange that was a perpetual jigsaw puzzle designed to make sure you were awake as a safety measure. That extra linkage for 5 speeds instead of 4 overtaxed someone’s design brain. Now is that 3rd or 5th? Should I release the clutch pedal and find out?

    Ford UK and Vauxhall managed to sell cars in Canada that, you know, actually worked until the tin worm got ’em. And while no stylesetters, they didn’t offend. But BLMC couldn’t even afford to get two blokes to make a couple of new stamping dies for bespoke doors for the 3 litre in four years of puttering about. How did Jensen turn out the Interceptor or Volvo the P1800 using Pressed Steel Company without bankrupting themselves, I wonder? It is a mystery.

  5. That Maxi prototype shown above is shameful. If indeed this was the result of being ‘massaged’ by Pininfarina, heaven only knows what a heap it must have been beforehand. I seem to recall some insider describing it as looking like a hen coop.

    There’s a nice story told by former Jaguar European Sales Director John Morgan, who accompanied Bill Lyons to Turin for the ’67 motor show, also paying courtesy calls to the likes of Bertone and Pininfarina. While visiting the latter, they found Sergio Farina in paroxysms of despair over the Maxi. Showing Lyons into the styling studio, he’s said to have wailed, “they won’t let me do anything with it. They want me to use the doors off this and the doors off that…” Morgan went on to vividly describe the two styling giants trying to make the best of a very bad job, using strips of silver paper…

    Dear Alec should never have been allowed within ten nautical miles of a styling studio.

  6. The Gordon Keeble was designed in 1960. The Austin 1800 was presented in late 1964, the 3-litre late 1967. And the 3-litre could’ve been a contender, if it had been presented before the 1800. Instead of beeing seen as an inferior 1800, the cheaper car would’ve benefitted from the connection with the more expensive one. But for 1968 it was at least five years too late to the market.

    1. Five years too late, yes, and full of poorly considered features. I do approve of the interior though and, like the Van Den
      Plas 4.0, it is now wierdly attractive (not visually). I do harbour a wish to have a museum of failed cars or to have a section in a museum of ordinary cars for fascinating flops. And people seem to love this stuff: Tagora, Trevi (in my view a misunderstood gem), 604, Scorpio, VdP 4.0, Alfa 90, Alfa Six etc. I haven’t included the American equivalents.

    2. Please include the Autobianchi A111. It’s so rare I have never ever seen one. It’s like a bizarro Fiat from a parallell universe, if I made a Science Fiction set in a retro futuristic 1960’s, I would fill it with cars like the A111 and people would be so utterly confused. Because it looks so generic and yet so familiar.

  7. According to Dante Giacosa, the A111 was the rather half-hearted relic of Project 123, and ended up as a 124 size body, although with no parts shared with the Fiat, and Primula mechanicals, leaf springs and all. There were definite upmarket pretensions in the interior and equipment levels, as if it was targeting Lancia and Innocenti.

    Was it a failure? According to Liepedia 56,984 were produced between mid -1969 and the end of 1972. These days the White Hen manages that in one bad year.

    Did the A111 exist? Like Ingvar, I’ve never seen one, so applying the Bielefeld principle,it very possibly never did.

    I’ve never seen an Innocenti Regent either, or an Australian Leyland Marina, despite significant lengths of time spent in their countries of origin. I can however vouch for the existence of the Ford Anglia Milano, the Morris Major and Nomad, the Austin Lancer, Tasman and Kimberley, and the Leyland P76.

    1. It did exist

      I saw about half a dozen over the years.

      And it doesn’t seem any strange to me as a product: As autobianchi is said to have been revived as a more upmarket group Fiat brand, and as competitor with lancia both stilisticaly and (fwd) technically, the 111 is the most logical outcome – Fiat ‘s lancia fulvia.

      It is styllistically similar to Fiat ‘s 128, the former using costlier sharp pressings and fixtures, the later more simpler and rounded ones.

      But they have visually exactly the same roots in terms of proportions and angles.

      But then Fiat bought lancia, and autobianchi ‘s raison d’etre ceased to be.

      They launched 3 or 4 new models between 1964 and 1969… and nothing else after that, until the end in 1986.

      Had Fiat not bought lancia, autobianchi would have been Fiat’s audi?

  8. That’s what I’m saying! It’s so weird. So familiar yet totally unknown. I was also surprised over the production figure, with that many made, they should be more known. I guess it was made mostly for the Italiano market, and I reckon the rust took most of them. It’s slotts in between the 128 and the 124, and Giacosa designed all of them, so that counts for the familiarity. But I have never even seen one advertised for sale, so perhaps it really is some kind of parallel universe unicorn.

  9. Makes one wonder what Joe Edwards would have done differently had he replaced Leonard Lord instead of George Harriman.

    Like the idea of the Austin 3-litre (or at lease the Wolseley and Vanden Plas variants) potentially becoming a Downton-tuned 2/4-door version of the Giugiaro styled Gordon-Keeble albeit with a significantly improved front-end (possibly more like the Maserati Sebring or something else) and less hefty centre section, appearing before the 1800.

    At the same time BMC should have developed a shortened lightened version of the RWD 3-litre platform of similar size to the X6, so as to better challenge the Rover P6 and Triumph 2000/2500.

    Apparently even a 4-litre 4-cylinder diesel was at one point allegedly considered for the 3-litre prior to being rejected, presumably a version of the 3.8-litre BMC 4-cylinder diesel used in commercial vehicles and tractors.

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