Robertas Parazitas reports on one of the stars of this year’s NEC Classic Motor show.
Grim commerce and ‘investment car’ mania now dominate the annual NEC Classic Motor show, but search hard, seek the wisdom of the crowds, and strangeness and delight is there to be found. In Hall 4, a Restoration Theatre had been setup. I sat for a while, hoping for a performance of one of Congreve or Wycherley’s lighter works, but all that was on offer was a video of two elderly men in a dingy workshop explaining the intricacies of panel beating in what I imagined to be a satire on Puritanism.
If there had been fewer demands on my time, I might have waited long enough to be treated to a masterfully updated version of “The Provoked Wife”, with defter observations on the preoccupations of our times.
My disappointment was short-lived. Not far away, on the Vanden Plas Owners’ Club’s small, out-of-the-way stand was a legendary artefact of the early British Leyland era, a rolling prototype of a Vanden Plas 1800 built using adapted boot and C-pillar panels from the BLMC Australia Tasman / Kimberley.
The car was registered on the first of August 1971, but the description provided by the car’s owner, Sandy Dalgarno, states that the one-off body – which started out as a Wolseley 18/85 and was reworked at the Vanden Plas works at Kingsbury – was “not unlike the soon to be announced Leyland Australia Tasman / Kimberley X6”.
The X6 cars went on sale in Australia in November 1970, so at a reasonable guess, the Vanden Plas prototype originated the middle of that year. British Leyland as a corporate entity had by then existed for two and a half years, but the ex-BMC component of the business managed to build a convincingly complete and attractive prototype before the project was terminated on the grounds that it would bring unwelcome competition for the Rover and Triumph 2000s.
And thereby was lost possibly the best realisation of the Vanden Plas ethos. I’m not even convinced that Vanden Plas was a cause worth pursuing in the British Leyland era, but this prototype presents a strong case for its survival.
I find myself imagining what the car’s prospects would be had it arrived in, let’s say, early 1972. It would soon face competition from the mighty Granada and Vauxhall’s Victor and Ventora FE. Volvo, Saab, and Audi were giving the ageing Rover and Triumph offerings a strong challenge.
The prototype has a single carburettor B series, but it’s certain that it would have had the 2.2 litre E6 in production form. Match that with a Borg-Warner 35 transmission and possibly the best application of Hydrolastic suspension to have gone into production, and it could have been a convincing compact luxury car, a front wheel drive counterpoint to its Canley and Solihull stablemates.
It was not to be. There’s an intriguing suspicion that if BL were considering using some of the Australian car’s panels for the Vanden Plas, they may have been considering adopting them for a home market ADO17 update.
As we well know, they chose not to bother. Continuing the timeline, the final update of the series arrived on the UK market in late March 1972.
Motor reported as follows:
“The Australian six cylinder 1800s (sic) – known as the Austin X6 Kimberley and Tasman have considerably modified 1800 bodies with restyled nose and tail treatment which increases the overall length from 13ft. 10in. to 14ft. 6.6in. Even the most modest restyling these days costs a small fortune in body dies, and rather than incur such charges for the British versions, their sale price has been kept right down to a very competitive figure by retaining the 1800 shell with only grille and trim modifications.”
Should we applaud the firm’s self-effacing altruism? I think not. The development cost of the X6 has been reported as A$4.5 million, and the entry level six-cylinder Tasman was priced at just one Australian dollar more than the outgoing four cylinder 1800. An opportunity was missed, not least to buy time to sort out the upcoming ADO71, a.k.a 18-22 Series, a.k.a Leyland Princess, which was launched in the UK in March 1975.
It is relevant to note that ADO71 development and tooling costs were reported as £22 million, cheap by early to mid ‘70s standards.
Despair at the decisions of British Leyland is a useless emotion. Far better to thank Mr. Dalgarno for his impressive restoration work, and the time he spent with me at the NEC. His car enthusiasm extends far beyond the ADO17 and 71, but they hold a special place in his affections; he also owns an ADO71 ‘Wolseley Saloon’, and is restoring an Australian 1800 ‘ute’.