The 1970 X6 Austin Kimberley and Tasman ushered in a fresh start for British Leyland’s Antipodean outpost. But it would prove a short-lived one.
Even prior to becoming part of the British Leyland conglomerate, the BMC motor company was not renowned for making astute product decisions. Certainly, from the point when the ADO 17 (Landcrab) series was introduced, little or nothing to emerge from Longbridge was entirely fit for its intended purpose. ADO 17 entered the UK market in late 1964 as the Austin 1800 (its identical Morris equivalent arrived a bewildering two years later) and was met with a decidedly lukewarm reception from the domestic market, who were not clamouring to purchase an underdeveloped, overinflated Mini.
Overseas sales were equally sluggish, with European (common) markets (widespread perplexity over its appearance notwithstanding) imposing tariffs on British cars, and the 1800 proving inadequate for both customer needs and the often inhospitable terrain of the Australian, Canadian, New Zealand, and South African markets. Given that the car was allegedly introduced without any meaningful overseas proving hardly aided its cause either.
But while the newly enlarged five-bearing 1.8 litre B-Series engine was deemed somewhat over-large for the target UK customer, the opposite was true for his Australian equivalent, who was used to traversing vast distances, often carrying large payloads, and generally favoured six cylinders. BLMC Australia (as it was known post-merger) concluded that what was required was an indigenously developed car aimed directly at the needs of the local market. With this in train (the P76 of 1973), a stopgap was required to give beleaguered BLMCA dealers something to sell in the interim.
Allegedly styled at BLMC Australia’s Victoria Park headquarters in Sydney, (although it’s difficult to envisage how the hand of Roy Haynes at Pressed Steel Fisher in Birmingham wasn’t involved), the X6 models, as the cars were termed, received revised nose and tail sections, incorporated onto a broadly existing centre section, which by necessity retained ‘those doors‘. Actually, the door skin pressings were different to their UK equivalents owing to local rules on door handle design, so in effect, (had the money been available), a full reskin might have been within the bounds of possibility.
Still, given its proposed short-term nature, it was comprehensive enough. With an enlarged and more upright C-pillar and the removal of the sixth light, the canopy was more formal looking and arguably, better resolved. The X6 bodyshell was 8.5 inches longer than ADO 17, with a 3 in longer wheelbase. This latter figure was concentrated forward of the bulkhead, with the remainder being accounted for by the longer nose and tail – aimed at passing the car off as a full-sized offering against more conventional rear-drive Chrysler, Ford and Holden rivals.
The changes to the nose saw the adoption of either a Maxi-inflected single headlamp arrangement for the entry-level Tasman model, or a more chintzy, brightwork-laden four rectangular headlamp/grille confection for the more upscale Kimberley. Certainly, whatever one’s view of the styling changes, it can be said to have mitigated ADO 17’s unhappy external proportions, at the expense of a certain blandness. Particularly at the rear, where the cleaner bootlid and tail lamp arrangement appeared somewhat redolent of contemporary Ford Escorts and Hillman Arrows.
Technically, the major innovation lay within the X6’s needlessly enlarged engine bay, where a 2227 litre six cylinder version of the E-series engine now resided. Initially developed for the Maxi and other applications, when this powertrain was first envisaged, BMC, Technical Director, Alec Issigonis dictated that the larger capacity versions should have six cylinders, which necessitated the siamised bores which were the bane of the four cylinder model, but would allow the in-line six to be mounted transversely across ADO 17’s engine bay. In this application, it developed 100 bhp in the lower-spec Tasman, and 113 bhp in twin carburettor Kimberley form.
Tasman X6 models were fairly austere affairs, with front bench seats and rubber matting on the floor. Kimberley X6 models came with deep pile carpets, individual bucket front seats, headrests and a full set of instruments. In both advertising and marketing material BLMC made much of the X6 models’ luxury credentials, emphasising that they were made by the same company that produced Rovers, Jaguars and Daimlers. The carmaker also highlighted the extensive on-site proving that had taken place prior to the car’s announcement – citing over 260,000 miles of hard use by engineers in all conditions.
The X6 models got off to a decent start at the tail end of 1970 and through the following year. However, not only did it seem to be widely known that it was a stopgap car, (the P76 seemingly the worst kept secret in Australia), it appears that despite BLMCA’s claims of durability testing, the cars soon developed a raft of teething troubles, which included a reputation for overheating. Mid-way through 1972, a revised Mark II version was introduced, aimed at addressing the early car’s faults, but sales had already dipped and never recovered – Australian imprint, Wheels describing it that year as “The Hit and Miss Kimberley II“.
Production ceased that December, in preparation for P76’s introduction, but there remained a large backlog of several thousand unsold cars which had to be disposed of throughout 1973 at considerable discount – new X6s still being available by June of that year.
The X6 series was a thorough update of a flawed car, creating an inherently decent one, if one that lacked much by way of personality or (if we’re honest), true appeal. Praised for its interior space (more leg room than rivals), comfort, quality of trim, dynamics, refinement and brakes, but it fell short on performance, gearchange quality, ergonomics (steering wheel angle in particular), dash and cabin furnishings.
Fully debugged by the time it arrived in Blighty, the 2.2 litre E-Series was introduced with the 1972 Mark 3 ADO17 facelift, which in Wolseley 2200 form proved a relatively strong seller. For years since, armchair product planners have posited as to why BLMC didn’t repurpose the X6 body to create a better looking, more upmarket version of the existing 1800, while putting some additional clear water between it and the Maxi.
However, marque historian and author, Chris Cowan, latterly uncovered that this was in fact originally part of the product plan – ADO 17 Mark 3 being intended to at the very least employ the X6 bodyshell aft of the bulkhead – the one-off Vanden Plas version of the 1800 being thus based. Frontal styling was allegedly intended to harmonise with the Maxi.
That it didn’t come to pass owed largely to BLMC’s already deteriorating position around 1970, fears that the revised car wouldn’t justify the investment, not to mention the fact they had already committed vast sums to the ADO 28 (Marina) and ADO 67 (Allegro) programmes, which the carmaker saw as priority models. Would it have made any difference by 1972, when the third iteration of ADO 17 belatedly reached the market, largely unchanged? Probably not.
On the face of it, the X6 twins were a credible and broadly speaking, cohesive update of the ADO 17 template, but nothing could undo the inherent flaws baked into the design. Therefore the Australian effort, while creditable, remained proportionally unsatisfactory and bland in the extreme at both extremities. Although debugged into a decent car, it arrived to market insufficiently proven – a perennial BMC/BLMC/BL bugbear.
What it and its (distant) ADO61 relative demonstrate with abundance is that when you get the fundamentals wrong, you cannot simply facelift your way out of trouble. Fiddling around the edges was not going to solve ADO 17’s issues. That was as true in 1964 as it was some six years later. Sometimes it’s best to cut your losses.
Source material and images (unless where stated) : elevenhundred.com / AROnline.