(first posted 3/26/2015) Back in December 2013, fellow Curbivore Tom Klockau covered the Austin 3 Litre and coined it brilliantly as the Landcrab Imperial. As chance would have it, at my local Classic Car club evening meeting last week the subject of the 3 Litre was raised. One member has one, which he nicknamed “The Lobster”, only partly based on its red colour. So, as a follow up to Tom’s post from 2013, I offer this further explanation on yet another BMC failure.
Let’s start by quantifying that failure. In three years, this car sold around 10,000 copies. Its predecessors, cars like the badge engineered Austin Westminster, Wolseley 6/99 and 6/110, sold 8-10,000 a year for 9 years to 1968. So, commercially it was a huge disappointment, and never achieved its break even production rate.
The engineering concept behind the car was consistent with that behind the Westminster, in the way it was related to the next smaller car in the BMC range. Both were visually similar, but obviously larger, cars than the core mid-market product in the range. The Westminster and its contemporary mid-market cousin, the Austin Cambridge and its badge engineered versions, shared a lot visually and indeed a previous generation shared doors as well; the Austin 3 Litre shared a lot of Austin 1800 Landcrab (an unofficial name, but so obviously correct it has stuck for 50 years), both visually and beneath the skin.
Essentially, the 3 Litre was the center section of an Austin 1800 body with a 3 litre straight six, from the Austin Westminster and the MGC, fitted in a conventional longitudinal position, driving the rear wheels. To accommodate the straight six, compared with the tightly packed transverse installation in the 1800, the front of the car was significantly lengthened. The wheelbase was 11 inches longer, all ahead of the front door. At the back, a longer and actually well integrated boot attempted to balance the front. Overall the car was 186 inches long, 22 longer than the Landcrab, and it weighed 3400lb, 850lb more than the already heavy enough Landcrab.
Technically, the car was much more conservative than many contemporary BMC products, with the only true novelty being self levelling units on the hydrolastic suspension. The interior was the full traditional luxury British wood, leather and West of England cloth experience, complete with picnic tables and a strip speedometer.
The development period of the car was fairly protracted, starting in 1963, getting diverted and delayed by BMC’s abortive projects and merger thoughts with Rolls-Royce before finally seeing the light of day in 1967 and the market in 1968. But, despite all this time, the 1968 car was visually and conceptually consistent with the 1963 thinking and prototypes.
A quick aside on the Rolls-Royce link; BMC looked at a takeover of, or merger with, Rolls-Royce Motors (but not the aero-engine company) around 1962-4, and as part of that exercise looked at creating a compact Rolls-Royce or possibly Bentley saloon by using the Austin Westminster as a basis, and at one time produced a derivative of the Austin Westminster, known as the Vanden Plas Princess 4 litre R, in small numbers using a Rolls-Royce engine. This developed into the idea of utilising the central section of the Landcrab and a Rolls-Royce engine, all suitably trimmed and finished, as the basis for a compact Rolls-Royce or Bentley, and got as far as models, before Rolls-Royce bailed out.
All other members of the Landcrab family were built at Cowley, Oxford, and the 3 Litre was no exception.
But let’s consider some of the issues the car had in the market place.
The central section of the final car, known as ADO61, including the front and rear screens, doors and the complete roof line, is unmistakably Landcrab. The fact that the proportions may have worked better didn’t really change that fact. So issue number one, it looked too much like its smaller cousin.
More to the point was that the Landcrab was not exactly a great looking car – its awkward proportions and BMC’s (or Issigonis’s?) resistance to style for the sake of style saw to that. Add to that the visually over-long bonnet and the dated front end (was this the last car without a true full width front end?), and the result was fairly graceless and clumsy, if imposing. Issue number two then, it was also unappealing, aesthetically.
Then, inside, this car offered no more space than the 1800. Actually it offered less, as the bulky transmission tunnel required for the rear drive took a lot of foot room, front and rear. The boot was bigger, though. Issue number three: it was less spacious inside than the smaller car.
The engine used in the 3 Litre was the BMC C-series straight 6 cylinder, well known from its use in the Austin-Healey 3000 as well as the Westminster saloon range. For this application, the engine was the significantly revised version that had been developed for the also ill-fated MGC, with a new cylinder block and head, and a 7 bearing crankshaft. Sadly, it also had a great reluctance to rev, and proved to be heavy on fuel, struggling to achieve 20mpg (around 17 US mpg) in normal use and much less if pushed. Linked to this, the car was little faster than the Austin 1800 and no faster at all than the twin carburettor 1800S. In fact, those two cars were almost exactly matched at about 80bhp/ton and both could just reach 100 mph and get to 60 in around 14 seconds. Issue number four, then, was inadequate performance and economy.
In defence of the 3 Litre, it is only fair to record that the car had a quite exceptional ride quality. It used the hydrolastic system pioneered on the BMC ADO16 (Austin, Morris 1100) with double wishbones at the front and trailing arms at the back, but also linked it to a self levelling system as well. Factoring in the work done with Rolls-Royce early in the development and the considerable weight of the car ensured that the suspension, whilst not making it a driver’s car by any means, certainly made it exceptionally comfortable for the passengers.
But perhaps the fifth issue was the one crucial to the car’s success (or rather the lack of it). The market position this car was aimed at was disappearing rapidly. By 1968, the Triumph 2000 and Rover 2000 compact luxury sport saloons had been on the market for five years, and were clearly established as the next progression for the aspiring and successful driver moving up from, say, a Morris Oxford or Ford Cortina rather than the traditional larger cars, like the Westminster, Ford Zephyr or Humber Hawk.
Indeed, the big Rootes cars were discontinued and not replaced in 1967, as the smaller Humber Sceptre aped the Rover and Triumph concept at a lower price, as did Ford with the famous Cortina 1600E. This size and style of car had had its day – compact luxury with style had taken over from size as the dominant factor.
And then there was the price. The car initially cost around £1500, or about 50% more than a Landcrab. For that, BLMC could offer you a Triumph 2500PI, with fuel injected six cylinder engine, stronger performance, a more prestigious badge and none of the comprises required for the 3 Litre. Or if the Triumph was bit too flash and you preferred a more conservative choice, how about a Rover 3.5 Litre (P5), with the Buick V8? Good enough for the Queen and Prime Minister, you know. Remarkably, BMC persevered with ADO61 project, even after buying Jaguar in 1966. This or a Jaguar Mk2 – it’s your choice
Or, if you were a BMC loyalist who thought the Austin 1800 was not plush enough and wanted a bit more luxury, there was always the Wolseley 18/85S – based on the Austin 1800S, it was therefore as fast and as spacious as the 3 Litre, though more compact but still with a wood and leather interior, power steering and the option of an automatic transmission, unusually controlled by a facia lever rather than floor mounted selector. All yours for £1100 in 1968. The 3 Litre looked redundant, from the off.
So, there we have six issues that worked against the 3 Litre – the similarity to its smaller brother, the looks, the space, the performance and economy, the market position and pricing.
BMC, or rather BLMC, sold just 10,000 in 3 years, before the car was quickly pensioned off, practically unnoticed and was not replaced, nominally. But in 1972, BLMC put a transvserse straight 6 cylinder version of the Austin Maxi’s E series into the Landcrab. The Wolseley version, known as the Six, offered everything the 3 Litre did, except the large boot and the self levelling suspension.
The Landcrab is really the core of a trilogy of cars, each of which failed. The Landcrab itself never sold the 4000 a week BMC planned for, the Maxi disappointed technically, aesthetically and commercially and the 3 Litre would probably have been better left in the cupboard. And in this trilogy you can see some of the reasons BMC failed.