Wolseley 6/90

Andrew Roberts on the middle-class status symbol that helped catch the bad guys in scores of movies
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Indy Lifestyle Online

ver since the early days of the British classic car movement, certain models have had a special appeal to the type of driver who uses an old car as a cheap alternative to a charisma implant. In any classic car show this summer you will be able to see Sunbeam Alpines displayed in damp fields by owners who believe that, by owning what is essentially a Hillman Husky GT, they now resemble Cary Grant in To Catch A Thief.

ver since the early days of the British classic car movement, certain models have had a special appeal to the type of driver who uses an old car as a cheap alternative to a charisma implant. In any classic car show this summer you will be able to see Sunbeam Alpines displayed in damp fields by owners who believe that, by owning what is essentially a Hillman Husky GT, they now resemble Cary Grant in To Catch A Thief.

A rarer sight, though, are collectors of cars like the Wolseley 6/90, the vehicle that the post-War Captain Mainwaring would have aspired to own. The 6/90 is a product of the early days of the British Motor Corporation, when Austin and Nuffield (Morris, MG, Riley and Wolseley) kept to strictly separate dealership chains, and when the Wolseley marque signified suburban luxury. Between 1954 and 1959, the 6/90 was the ultimate car to bear the famous illuminated Wolseley radiator badge, offering a very handsome Gerald Palmer-designed six-seater body with 2.6-litre six-cylinder power for under £1,000.

The all-important interior was just right for its intended market. It appeared to be walnut and leather, but wasn't, as the 6/90, for all its chauffeur-driven pretensions, was aimed at the middle-class motorist who knew his place. It also had courtesy lamps that came on only when the rear doors were opened - for the chap who craved a P4-series Rover 90 but could only afford a Humber Hawk, with its four-cylinder engine and metal dashboard. Naturally, Wolseley owners would never have considered a Jaguar 2.4, for that was the nadir in parvenu motoring, and the 6/90's appeal was solid - if not entirely stolid.

BMC's branding for the marque was reflected in ads featuring the boring "Giles" and "Charles", two well-dressed but totally deranged Wolseley enthusiasts who seemed unaware that their spouses were planning their demise under the front wheels of their pride and joy. But even though BMC's brochure featured a 6/90 on its cover, and the car's reputation as the definitive Rotary Club transport, Wolseley's chief customers were the UK's constabularies.

Until the early 1960s, the definitive British police car was a black Wolseley 6/90 with a brass Winkworth bell on its front bumper. Several chief constables even had the heaters disconnected, lest their occupants become disinclined to get out and chase teddy boys.

It was in this guise that the 6/90 became an icon of post-War British cinema. This was the car that pursued Peter Sellers' Aston Martin DB4 in The Wrong Arm of The Law (one of the more unequal pursuits on film), and dominated the opening credits of Stanley Baker's Hell is a City. But the Wolseley's true domain was the British B-movie.

In the days when Merton Park Studios would stage chases along Wimbledon High Street for one of their many crime films, the 6/90 was the police car of choice. Whether it was the "Scotland Yard" series starring charisma-free leading men in trilbies and trench coats, or the groovier "Edgar Wallace Mysteries" with their Shadows-esque theme tunes, no second feature was complete without a black 6/90 arriving to apprehendend the likes of Sydney Tafler, Michael Caine or a very young John Thaw. If the villains were using the regulation Mk VII Jaguar, a touch of under-cranking could make the big Wolseley appear to travel at 235 mph, the moustachioed stunt driver desperately gripping the wheel as it lurched around corners.

Handling was never the 6/90's forte. The straight-six engine may have been smooth (and produced an impressive top speed of 95 mph), but the steering was so heavy that more than one police 6/90 came to grief while chasing a Jag along Chelsea Embankment.

Then there was the gear change. The 1954-1956 Series One's four-on-the-column became a right-hand four-speed floor-shift in later examples, as cunning BMC designers combined a split-bench front seat with a floor gear shift. Unfortunately, the linkages were prone to shearing and the gate often saw drivers confuse second with reverse.

The Wolseley marque finally disappeared in 1975 - the last car to bear the badge being the 18-22 series "Wedge". If BMC's criminal misuse of the Riley name deprived them of a foothold in BMW's market, then the Wolseley brand presented another lost opportunity to compete with Volvo and even the lower reaches of Mercedes' territory.

Today less than 20 6/90s survive in the UK, and only one of those is a police vehicle - a 1956 London Met Area car that is currently being restored. Their few owners have the satisfaction of driving a car that combines the traditional virtues of starting handle and starter button with the glamour derived from its ubiquitous film roles. That's why I bought mine.

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