It was veddy Britush, looked a bit stodgy in the design department, despite the lines being massaged by Carrozzeria Pininfarina, and it’s 1.6L four-cylinder engine ensured the Austin A60 saloon hit 0-60mph in 24.3 seconds!
Here in Australia, the product team decided the car could nonetheless take on the established American-based six-cylinder sedans from GM-Holden, Ford and Chrysler, that is, if it actually had a six-cylinder engine!
Six-cylinder engines were not a concept with much market appeal in the UK, where frugality of consumption was much more important than outright performance.
The A60 British donor car was known as the Austin Cambridge, launched in 1959 as the ‘Farina’ to bask in the reflected glow inferred by BMC’s long connection with Pininfarina. In fact, the basic model was used by ALL the BMC nameplates – Morris, Riley, MG, Wolseley and Shamrock(!). Believe it or not, it briefly sold in the USA, badged as the Austin Cambrian.
However, Down Under plans were afoot to produce a genuine competitor to the American trio of family cars.
Here’s a photo of the very first prototype, taken at Sydney’s Maroubra Beach in October 1960. The internal codename was ADO40, and it had been built at BMC’s Longbridge works in mid-1960. It was called Car 54.
|Car 54 - Where are you? Down Under of course!|
Pressure on BMC from Australia resulted in grudging agreement that a six-cylinder version could be developed, provided it could be engineered to be produced on the same transfer lines and boring facilities as the four-cylinder version. Car 54 featured a bore of 2-7/8 inches, but eventually the Australians got their way, and the bore was increased to 3 inches for the production models.
However, to cut a long story short, despite the comparable performance of the ‘Blue Streak Six’ to the American models, the Freeway was not perceived by Australian buyers as a real competitor to Holdens, Falcons and Valiants.
The Wolseley-badged version (the 24/80), left, fared much better because of its upmarket interior, leather seats and a perception of greater comfort and value-for-money, and despite the Freeway running out of road, the Wolseley 24/80 survived for longer because of its appeal to conservative consumers.
However, this prototype (Car 54) has a really fascinating history. It was used for all the usual prototype testing programs - Braking, Ride and Handling, Cooling, Performance, Fuel Consumption, Tyre Evaluation and NVH, plus comparison testes against its competitors.
|Roger Foy circa 1975|
Then in December 1962, at the end of its test career, my good friend Roger Foy, who was attached to the Experimental Department, bought the car with 38,000 miles on the clock, but he also took the opportunity to replace the column-mounted manual gearbox with the new Borg-Warner 35 automatic transmission. As engineering prototypes were considered expendable the value was written down, and Roger tells me he acquired the car for £350!
Here’s a photo of Car 54 taken at the same location 33 years later. It has been used every day of its life, and has been taken on on several long road trips, as far away as the Flinders Ranges.
The odometer currently sits on 291,600 miles, and Roger believes his wife’s ‘daily driver’ is probably the only original prototype, of any make, still in current daily use. The only problem occurred when he suggested they replace it with something more modern. "You're not taking my Freeway" was the response.
Most knowledgeable Australian automotive historians recall that the Freeway really was more than a match for the American family cars. It had a bigger engine, comparable performance, lots of trunk space, good fuel economy and in fact was a very durable design. Witness the longevity and condition of Car 54 today.
Despite the sad outcome in the marketplace, BMC Australia threw as much marketing dosh at the Freeway, with the ‘Blue Streak Six’, as it could muster, and that leads to another great story in the next Post.