The poor old BMC “Landcrab” took some pot-shots on CC a few weeks ago, due to its lackluster sales, uncomfortable driving position, and somewhat awkward styling. There were also the myriad quality, reliability and driveability issues some owners faced. But I must admit I kind of like them, at least from afar. My favorite crustacean however is not exactly a true Landcrab, but the bigger–dare I say Broughamier?–Austin 3-Litre sedan. Landcrab Imperial, anyone?
The whole story of the Austin 3 Liter’s development is a precautionary tale, centered around one key point: don’t let the beancounters tell you what to do. BMC badly needed to replace the long in tooth Austin A110 Westminster (and Wolseley 6/99 and Vanden Plas 3 Litre) in the important 3 liter executive-near luxury market.
A number of early development ideas were floated, but when it came down to really make it happen, the accountants, who increasingly held sway then, determined that the best (read: most economical) solution would be to use the middle body section of the ADO17 Landcrab as a starting point, and then build an otherwise all-new car around that.
BMC’s big inline six was worked over quite a bit, and was the same engine that also went into the ill-fated MGC. There was no way this big and heavy engine could be utilized with FWD, so the ADO61 was designed as a rear wheel drive car from the beginning. The floor pan got a transmission tunnel, and of course the front and rear ends were substantial elongated.
This picture, from aronline.co.uk’s excellent article on the development of the 3 Litre, shows the two cars, with the decidedly longer 3 Litre in front. On the one hand, its new proportions and longer rear deck make it look decidedly less crab-like, but the problem was that it now didn’t look different enough from the plebian ADO17. That was the colossal mistake: in the 3 liter class, owners wanted the the instant recognition and prestige that a unique body afforded.
Of course, that wasn’t the extent of its problems, but we should point out that Alec Issigonis had nothing to do with the 3 Litre; he smelled a bad crab in the works, and washed his hands of it.
Ironically, this wouldn’t be the last time that a BL car was transformed from FWD to RWD, although the 3 Litre really was essentially a new car. The FWD Triumph 1300 was converted to RWD when they turned it into the Toledo. Totally crazy, and seemingly counter-intuitive. No wonder BMC/BL never had money later on to do a new car; they’d spent it all re-engineering existing models! The Toledo’s CC can be read here.
Introduced at the 1967 London Motor Show (to rather tepid response), the 3-Litre was meant to compete with other British executive-class sedans, including the Rover P5/P5B, Rover P6, and the Triumph 2000/2500. Of course, after the 1968 BMC-Leyland merger resulting in the infamous British Leyland, all these cars fell under the same corporate umbrella. Despite the first prototypes having been built in 1963 (!), and being introduced at the 1967 London show, the car was delayed and delayed, and finally became available to the public in late 1968.
By 1968, not only was the ADO17-derived styling already well out of date, but the 3 Litre utterly failed to convince its intended “thoroughbred” buyers that it was anything other than a mongrel.
The version that was originally planned to be released was even uglier, with awkward “television” shaped headlights.
Panned by the press, the headlights were quickly redone as round quad units. That still didn’t save the 3 Litre from being considered an ungainly car, at best. At worst, it was reviled.
Things were of course better on the inside, with the typical clubby wood and leather interior. But because of the transmission hump and center tunnel, the 3 Litre actually had less interior room than its FWD body donor.
Wolseley and Vanden Plas variants (with even finer interiors) were built as prototypes, but never went into production. Aronline.co.uk has a nice article on the Wolseley verison, with some rare factory pictures here.
That longer hood and longer rear quarters really help the side profile. I am actually seeing a bit of ’60s Lancia in the styling. Not completely off base, as Pininfarina had a hand in the styling.
Despite the better proportions (to my eyes, at least) and larger engine, just eight shy of 10,000 3-Litres were built between 1968 and 1971, when BL decided to mercifully pull the plug. Part of the reason was the 3.0L six (shared with the MGC and other BL cars) was rather weak chested in such a large, heavy (for Great Britain) car. A shame, really. I like it. Too bad no one else did.
For those of you deigning to know absolutely everything about the 3-Litre, aronline’s excellent writeup can be viewed here. Happy BL motoring!
A big thumbs-up to Bryce for shooting this elusive 3-Litre and posting it to the Cohort!