Curbside Classic: 1973 Wolseley Six – A Land Crab Appears In Oregon Despite the Invasive Species Act or The Wolseley Six Girl Has Got To Have Soul

If you’d have asked me for a list of car least likely to be found on the streets of my neighborhood, a Wolseley Six would certainly an appropriate pick. I almost thought I was seeing things when it drove past our house last summer while I was working in the front yard. Holy Wolseley! I caught another glimpse of it a few days later, also on the go. And then, taking a slightly different route to my rentals, I spotted it, sitting politely at the curb, with its silly little classic radiator grille adorning one of the least classic cars ever.

By “classic”, I mean classic in it being so unorthodox, for a British luxury saloon from the very traditional old brand of Wolseley.

Its predecessor, the 6/110, which we covered here, was cut from a very different cloth. As traditional as you could get, given that it was built like this until 1968.

The 6/110 is a traditional black suit from Savile Row; the Six is a lapel-less suit worn by the Mods. Well, it should have been, given that the ADO17 wears styling that was fresh in 1962 (barely); by 1972, when it (finally) arrived, its styling, first conceived back in 1958,  was already hopelessly out of date. Imagine wearing a lapel-less suit in the 70s!

Roger Carr’s homage to the ADO17 cars (Austin/Morris 1800) covers all of its brilliance and foibles. But let’s just say it was a big disappointment sales-wise, despite having many very redeeming features. Unfortunately, styling wasn’t quite one of them. It did have superlative space utilization, but it just didn’t convey the prestige or harmonious looks that one very much did expect in a car of its class. That already applied to the Austin/Morris 1800,  never mind in the Wolseley’s more elevated class.

It was very wide in relation to its short length, and the truncated trunk did it no favors either. And of course there were the typical Issigonis ergonomic trade-offs. And others.

Needless to say, Issigonis was trying to turn BMC into the British Citroen at the time. But the uncompromising DS works, aesthetically; the ADO17 doesn’t. No wonder one was called “The Goddess” and the other “Land Crab”.  Sums it all up right there.

The Austin 1800 arrived in 1964, but the Wolseley Six not until 1972. Maybe just as well, as it allowed for more gestation time than the Austin 1800, which arrived not even half-baked. Luke warm, more precisely. Issigonis was not into building lots of prototypes and testing them under various conditions; he only built three, and never took them off the island. That’s what happens when you’re a megalomaniac. And in the first few years, there were a stream of fixes and improvements.

In the case of the Wolseley Six (and Austin/Morris 2200), the trial and testing of its new six cylinder engine very much happened off the island. That was in Australia where the oddly squared-off Austin Kimberley and Tasman first appeared in 1970 with the E-Series OHC six stuffed transversely under the hood. Well, it wasn’t really all-new; it was just the Austin Maxi’s 1.5 L four with two more cylinders. But to let the Aussies and Kiwis be the beta testers was certainly a good idea, given the many serious issues with the 1800’s engine in its first few years, despite it being just an updated version of the venerable B-series four as used in the MGB and such.

Here it is, in our featured car, but from the owner’s web site, not from my camera. He buys cars in Europe and resells them here, which explains why the Wolseley Six wasn’t around for very long. And how does an inline six fit? A bit tightly, and the only reason it’s even possible is because all of these Issigonis cars had their transmissions under the engine; in the sump, actually. Worked ok, once a few initial bugs were worked out. And it made this possible.

Oddly, I can’t readily find a source for its horsepower rating, but with twin SU carbs, it must have been reasonably decent for its times. Actually, one source said it was slower than the twin-carb version of the 1800 four. The same engine went on to be used in the ill-fated Austin Princess.

I couldn’t get a good shot of the well-wooded dash, and the seats of this one have some sort of crude covers. These were very nicely trimmed in their time. The odd steering wheel angle and the very long reach to any switches on the dashboard (literally) is quite apparent here. But then so is its excellent room, given the lack of any transmission tunnel and a console. Jason Shafer would approve.

Actually, here’s a shot of the dash from that web site. Very traditional in a very nontraditional setting.

The rear seat room is huge. This car is shorter than a Focus, but has more interior room than a Mondeo.

Which reminds me of another very nontraditional American car that was similar to the Land Crab in certain key respects, with FWD and a much greater width-to-length ration than usual for American cars, and exceptional interior space as a consequence. It even came in a six too. And had a rather checkered career to boot. The American Land Crab.

It should be noted though that the Land Crab had a stellar reputation for its exceptionally robust structure. Mr. Issigonis was really good at that sort of thing, if not so much at certain others. And of course it had a terrific ride, thanks to its Hydrolastic suspension. Which made it a surprisingly capable car to tackle the roughest roads in the world. These qualities endear them to its loyal followers.

Surprisingly, or not, the Wolseley was the best seller of the six cylinder cars. If you’re going for a six, might as well let the world (or at least the neighbors) know it. Of course, it helps if the neighbors know what a Wolseley Six is; not likely in this neighborhood.

And if you’re going to drive it around with its UK plates, better to at least have a temporary registration sticker in the rear window. Actually, this is just a trip permit, which means it hasne’t been actually registered yet. If I had to guess, this will be the first time tat the Oregon DMV registers a Wolseley Six.

(digression alert!)   Speaking of Wolseley Six, it suddenly reminded me of the Borman Six, from the movie Putney Swope. There’s a few seconds of it in this short excerpt from that 1969 movie, which I first saw then at the impressionable age of 16. It was an eye-opener, on a number of levels, and probably explains a few things about me. Bonus points for identifying what car was disguised as the Borman Six.

Rather surprisingly, the whole movie is on Youtube, at least for now. So if you have 85 minutes to take you back to 1969 and you can handle some “Truth and Soul”, go for it. Maybe you better not, and just skip to 1:04:00 for the full Borman Six commercial. Don’t say I didn’t warn you, though.

Enough of the Wolseley Six and my free associations on it. But its brief appearance does mean that all of the Issigonis-mobiles have come to visit me, at one time or another. The MG1100 that Roger wrote up here on the ADO16 is still there just around the corner from our house. And I shot a couple of original Minis which lived in a rental nearby for a while, but I’m not sure I ever posted them. But those two were both sold in the US, although in small numbers. Not so the Land Crab; probably a good thing. In a rare moment of clear-thinking, BMC undoubtedly knew that probably wasn’t going to work out so well. By the late 60s, eccentric British sedans were heading out, and German sedans were moving in. And those were nimble, little sporty ones, not wide soft-riding cars with odd steering wheel angles that cost too much. Better to send the conventional RWD Marina stateside. Right. That worked out so well.

Yes, this is an odd car any way you look at it, sitting low on its feet in Eugene, Oregon. Or anyplace else, actually. But that’s not to say one can’t feel some love for a Land Crab Wolseley Six. It does have soul, if not so much truth.