The British Motor Corporation found itself with a fleet of upwardly mobile luxury cars upon its formation in 1952; by the time British Leyland was incorporated in 1968, the last big Austin was entering production. Which of its bequeathed marques offers the best value in 2018?
RILEY PATHFINDER (1953-1957)
To call the Pathfinder a ‘barge’ would be unfair – in many ways, it represented Riley’s technological apex as a semi-autonomous manufacturer. Signed off when the Blue Diamond was part of the Nuffield Organisation, the creeping influence of BMC’s badge engineering had yet to infect the marque.
Looking for all the world like an elegantly upscaled MG ZA/ZB Magnette, it was no surprise that the Pathfinder shared the same designer, Gerald Palmer. With an optional right-handed gear change and front bench seating, six passengers could be carried; thanks to a 2.5-litre twin cam engine, performance was competitive. Gradually, the range was cheapened: coil spring rear suspension gave way to leaf springs by 1957. In the same year, BMC’s 2.6-litre C Series supplanted the Riley four pot, creating the Riley Two Point Six which lived until 1959.
Surviving Pathfinders are few and far between. The Market tracked the sale prices of just 12 cars from June 2015 to April 2018; the Pathfinders concerned managed between £8000 and £14,000.
MORRIS ISIS SERIES I (1956-1958)
Platform sharing would soon become a BMC watchword. With Austin and Morris combined, the Corporation revived the dormant Isis nameplate to create an affordable executive car challenger to the likes of Ford and Vauxhall.
Stretching an Oxford Series II shell enough to accommodate the rapidly-ubiquitous 2.6-litre C Series engine (the same unit which rationalised the Riley Pathfinder) created the Isis Series I; with a single SU carburettor, the new car was slower than its Austin Westminster counterpart but cost less on the company car ledger.
With fewer than 9000 Isis Series Is built, tracking down a good example is a harder task than it may first seem. We eventually found a car for sale via website car-from-UK for £5100 – reckon on this as a rough guideline if your heart is set on an early Isis.
VANDEN PLAS PRINCESS 4 LITRE R (1964-1968)
An ambitious plan thought by some produce an entry-level Rolls-Royce, the Vanden Plas Princess 4 Litre R was the most ambitious of the Pininfarina styled Austins.
As the luxury car market gradually shifted over to favour sports saloons, the 4 Litre R quickly became outmoded; stalked by a Triumph 2000 and Jaguar Mk2 in Peter Yates’ Robbery, it remains a fascinating anachronism. By the time it went out of production in 1968, British Leyland was establishing itself – and Jaguar’s seminal XJ6 Series I was ready, effectively replacing the Mk2, S-type and Mk X/420G in one foul swoop.
With an interior trimmed and finished by Vanden Plas’ Kingsbury workshop, the 4 Litre R’s main selling point was its Rolls-Royce designed straight six power plant. Derived from a military engine family (of four, six and eight cylinder units), the 3.9-litre inlet-over-exhaust ‘B’ never sat behind a civilian flying lady (or in any other car bar the ill-fated Austin Healey 4000) – but its lineage was clear.
Despite competitive pricing for the sector, 4 Litre R sales were modest. Many simply rusted away or were banger raced, and as a result, values (and asking prices) are rising steadily. Car-from-UK asking prices averaged £4125 in 2014: four years later, reckon on at least double that for a good example. Classic Car Auctions found £7040 for a 4 Litre R in 2016; that same year SWVA pushed a 1965 car up to £7560 before premium.
AUSTIN 3-LITRE (1967-1971)
The last big Austin arrived just as BMC merged into the British Leyland conglomerate.
An unhappy marriage of Issigonis’ pragmatism and traditional luxury car running gear, the 3-Litre blended a Maxi passenger cell with longitudinally mounted BMC straight six – driving the rear wheels. That the C Series now had seven main bearings and displaced 2.9-litres mattered not; despite that engine’s exclusivity upon launch (shared only with the MGC) the 3 Litre was neither fish nor fowl.
The last thing British Leyland needed was another in-house rival to its already packed stable of executive cars from Jaguar, Rover and Triumph – so pulled the plug after just shy of 10,000 3 Litres were built.
Reckon on paying between £7000 and £9000 for a good 3-Litre: website Classic Cars HQ found two cars priced in this ballpark. Crayford converted a few cars into estates; Broadspeed and Crayford tuned 3-Litres. If any of these 3-Litres were offered on the open market, they may well set a price precedent.
Chronically misunderstood when new, the 3-Litre has a small but loyal following in 2018. The dedicated (and passionate) Austin 3-Litre Owners’ Club celebrated the car’s 50th anniversary at Gaydon last year: long may its memory be preserved.