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Austin executive express lost its way

Austin executive express lost its way

Ian Johnson, 2017-05-18

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THE late 1960s was the breeding ground of some truly great cars, but also some very unusual ones.

The Austin 3-Litre is one of them.

First seen at the London Motor Show in 1967, this model was a large, fast executive car which should have been a worthy successor to the late, and very great Austin Westminster.

However, it was never very comfortable with itself because it was a like an old-fashioned English gentleman trying to get away with wearing a sharp Italian suit.

Its appearance was cast in the similar, but larger mould of the Austin 1800, a squat, mid-sized saloon which was a larger version of the transverse engined front-wheel Austin 1100, which had achieved great success.

The difference, and many people did not understand it, was that the 3-Litre was a traditional front-engined rear-wheel-drive car.

A gesture to modernity was made by equipping it with Hydrolastic suspension with self-levelling hydraulic rams at the rear and in truth it had excellent ride qualities.

I was lucky enough to be able to drive one of the last of the Westminsters and getting into a 3-Litre afterwards even had my youthful, enthusiastic mind wondering where BMC was going with its larger motors. The car just did not make sense.

Indeed, that great styling guru and Mini mastermind, Alec Issigonis was keen to point out that he had had no part in the 3-Litre.

The car experienced something of a shaky start as it became clear that BMC was not quite geared up for full-speed production and examples only began to leave the factory in 1968. And there were changes from the show car, mainly the substitution of the square headlamps for four round ones, plus front quarter lights.

The problem was that this set of wheels was really designed for the 1960s and not the 70s.

It certainly catered for its market with wood veneers and cloth headlining. However, leather upholstery was not available, being replaced with a good quality vinyl, which I found strange.

There were big plans for the car with a star-spangled drive along Badge Engineering Avenue with luxurious Wolseley and Vanden Plas versions reaching the prototype stage.

When British Leyland took over there was even talk of a Rover version to take over from the Rover P5 which was a vastly superior car.

But none of this came to pass as sales were very poor. The standard version had been withdrawn by 1969 while the de luxe version soldiered on until the model was discontinued completely in May 1971, after less than 10,000 had been produced.

The public still confused it with the 1800 and the car drove into the history books with the executive market welcoming much more appropriate models such as the Rover P6 and Triumph 2000.

Austin was at that time seen as a downmarket choice and no more large-engined true executive cars bore the badge.

But the 3-Litre did have its friends and the are 48 still on the road most of which are lovingly restored.

A true Cinderella of the 1960s but not without a certain charm.

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