Monday January 7, 2019
Late 1976 – a time when New Rose by The Damned was introducing middle England to punk rock and when a tin of Watney’s Party Six and a Vesta Curry constituted a very reasonable night out. It was then that Neil Kidby, a 17-year old apprentice mechanic from Ipswich, encountered a car that he would never forget – a “Persian Blue” Austin 3-Litre that was ‘owned by Manganese Bronze of London taxi fame. I worked on it - and it was so different from other cars’. Flash forward 41 years, and Neil is the founder of the 3-Litre Club and the author of the definitive book on this still much miss-understood vehicle - http://www.austinthreelitre.co.uk/book/default.html
Of course, in the late 1970s, you might have expected a young motorist to enthuse about the Rover 3500 SD1, or dream of one day owning a Jaguar XJS rather than an Austin that had been out of production for several years.
Even when the 3-Litre was new, you would be hard-pressed to describe it as in any way ‘youthful’, but Neil recalls how the ride of that customer’s Austin proved so different from the norm that ‘it stuck in my mind’.
Project ADO61 commenced life in 1963 as the intended replacement for the A110 Westminster, and the eventual Austin 3-Litre combined the central hull of the 1800 “Landcrab” with an elongated boot and bonnet, a seven-bearing engine created by Morris Motors; a modified version of this unit was also employed in the MGC. There was also self-levelling rear suspension to complement the Hydrolastic set-up.
Unfortunately, by the time it was unveiled to the press in late 1967 the Rover P6, and the Triumph 2000 were both providing strong competition to traditional “Big Six” saloons. A further problem was that the days of the British Motor Corporation were drawing to an end and the merger with Leyland resulted in the cancellation of the planned Wolseley version, which would have almost certainly enhanced the 3-Litre’s appeal. As it was, when official sales ceased in April 1971, just 9,992 examples had left the factory.
Yet, as a select group of drivers - including the young Neil - would discover, the 3-Litre had a very distinctive appeal. It was dignified to look at (an essential point for a car aimed at government departments as junior ministerial transport) and far more low-key in appearance than the Ford Zodiac Executive Mk. IV or the Vauxhall Viscount. A memorable advertisement from 1969 was captioned ‘all the best thoroughbreds expect exercise at dawn’ with the strong message that here was a saloon for ‘gentlemen’ whose overdrafts would not quite run to the Rover P5B 3.5-Litre.
Nor was it as flamboyant as its rivals from Dagenham and Luton as BLMC was keen to position the 3-Litre as a conveyance for “The County Set”. ‘You can judge a car by the company its keeps’ stated another sales campaign, although my favourite example of PR has to be ‘in your life, you need a big car. Not some cheap mutton dressed as expensive lamb’.
Above all, there was the quality of the ride, as the Austin actually seems to glide above the tarmac. Keith Adams, the eminent historian of the British motor industry - https://www.aronline.co.uk/cars/austin/3-litre/ado61-development-story/ - remarked the 3-Litre set new standards of compliancy in its class – all the development work, which had been undertaken on the French Routes Nationale, had paid off handsomely.
This was one of the features remarked upon by the motoring press of the time: in 1969 Motor thought the self-levelling suspension meant that a full complement of passengers could be carried without ‘the car handling like greased blancmange on every corner’. In the following year, The Guardian noted ‘The suspension soaked up bumps in exemplary fashion, and the Austin turned out to be an extremely restful and comfortable car to drive’. Once you have experienced a 3-Litre, especially when travelling a long distance, you realise that it ranks high among the long list of BMC/BLMC cars that merited far more development than they were to receive.
One of the ‘if onlies’ for the 3-Litre is the timing of its launch. Had it debuted in 1965, it might have stood more of a chance with “business-class” motorists looking for an alternative to the Humber Super Snipe Series V and established a new generation of six-cylinder Austins. The 3-Litre also suffered from being one of a number of cars that were affected by the British Motor Corporation’s not entirely cohesive marketing policies.
Despite the fact it was much larger than the 1800 (not to mention rear-wheel-drive), more effort could have been made to differentiate it from its FWD stablemate further. The planned Wolseley version with the Rover V8 would have made a good deal of sense as a car with an appeal to Volvo 164, and even Citroën DS owners and K Adams quotes factory test-drivers as saying it was ‘the best car we never made as it had better performance, economy and handling’.
By 1980, the 3-Litre was fast becoming an unusual sight, and you were more likely to find one on the screen than in your local Sainsbury’s Car Park. Enthusiasts such as Neil can readily list virtually all the Austin’s drive-on roles including the very early model that guested in the last series of The Avengers. To save more examples of this fascinating vehicle, Neil formed the 3-Litre Owners’ Club in 1996 and over the past two decades he has found ‘setting up the website and uniting people worldwide’ has been most rewarding aspects of running the organisation.
In fact, he has been tirelessly writing and promoting the 3-Litre for over twenty-five years. His current plan is to import a Limousine (!) restoration project while his blue Austin, saloon looks as imposing as the day it departed Longbridge for its first owner in Stanmore. In fact, his 3-Litre now receives that sort of attention at shows that was once the province of more exotic machinery – a testament to the time, effort and dedication of a true classic enthusiast.
WITH THANKS TO:
NEIL KIDBY AND THE AUSTIN 3-LITRE OWNERS’ CLUB - http://www.austinthreelitre.co.uk/