The cars : Austin Maxi development story

‘All the fives’ was the Maxi’s high technology tag line when launched – with a five door hatchback body and five speed gearbox, Austin’s new mid-range fighter really did seem to have it all.

Sadly, the technology might have been there, but the execution was a little less than marvellous, and this avant garde car failed to sell as a result. During its 12-year production run, it did win quite a few friends, though…

Five-star car misses the boat

Maxi 1750HL

THE Austin Maxi was created out of the desperate need to replace the ageing Farina saloons, which had been selling steadily since their launch in 1958. Originally, the ADO17 had been conceived for the task, but due to a certain amount of project drift Alec Issigonis’ final solution proved too large and too fast – and weren’t really up to the task of replacing these important mid-liners. Sadly, the Oxford and Cambridge saloons were fighting a rearguard action against the Ford Cortina – but didn’t have the armoury to do the Ford-fighting job their long production run had forced them into.

When it became clear the ADO17 was not selling, a plan was put into place. BMC decided the only way forward was to produce a brand new car to fill the gap between ADO16 and ADO17. Serious work on the new car began in mid-1965 – and before the Maxi’s project code of ADO14 was dreamed-up, it was known internally as the ‘ADO16 3/8’. The implication of that tag was obvious – the new new car’s wheelbase was roughly three-eights of the way between the two cars, exactly 100 inches.

Of course, it didn’t long for this agreeable baseline to fall apart. The first major decision (taken by George Harriman himself) to upset the applecart, was to use the 1800’s doors. They might have been effective doors, but pretty they weren’t, and more worryingly, their use would force the new car’s wheelbase close to 106-inches – massively longer than the Cortina. Also the 1800’s doors dictated the windscreen rake on the new car.

More alarmingly, it also meant all Austin-badged cars between 1.5- and 3-litres would feature similarly styled centre sections. Alec Issigonis as BMC technical director used a cell system to develop BMC’s cars. Each cell was a group of engineers with responsibility for a particular model. A-Cell, headed by Jack Daniels was responsible for Mini development, B-Cell, led by Chris Kingham, was tasked with developing the ADO17 1800; while C-Cell, originally led by Charles Griffin, was responsible for the ADO16 1100, which was developed at Cowley until the team moved to Longbridge in May 1962. For the ADO14 a new D-Cell was created, led by Eric Bareham, assistant chief engineer – engines and transmissions and answerable to Charles Griffin, now director of engineering.

New engine, new factory…

ADO14 would result in being an project because of the adoption of a new engine and gearbox. Any money saving measures adopted in the design of the body would have quickly been negated. A requirement in any effective Cortina-fighter needed to be an engine range spanning 1.3- to 1.5-litres. This ruled out the A-Series straight away – as it had only recently been stretched to 1.3-litres in the Mini Cooper, and engineers felt that was the limit of development. Reflecting BMC’s bold ambitions of the time, it was decided that an all-new engine was needed. As Alec Issigonis headed up the project, nothing less than cutting edge would do – so it featured an overhead camshaft and plenty of upgrade potential an anticipation of future events.

When questioned in 1969 on why BMC had opted for an overhead camshaft engine, Charles Griffin replied, ‘Because this is the right way to make an engine. It is right to try and get precise followings between the camshaft and the tappet, and to get the right message to the valve timing. And it’s very much more accurate when you’ve got the direct mechanism of an OHC than when you’ve got pushrods and rockers and things. We are, probably, ahead of the main race in this. On the Continent, of course, they’ve got OHC engines coming quite rapidly – and there are one or two competitive engines in this country. We have a head start.’

As the marketing department were forecasting sales of 6000 Maxis a week, it was decided the new engine needed a new factory to build it – located at Cofton Hackett, near Longbridge. The site of the plant was exactly right, but sadly, the planning was all wrong.

The engineering of the E-Series engine was compromised in order to facilitate upward expansion – Issigonis decided upper range E-Series engines should have an extra pair of cylinders, not more engine capacity, as more usually the case. That meant it needed to be ultra compact in order to fit transversely into the engine bays of BMC’s front wheel drive range. Engineers facilitated this by the adoption of Siamesed cylinder bores, meaning there was no water jacketing between the pots. This design had advantages, but it meant the four-cylinder version was seemingly stuck with a 1500cc ceiling.

Initially the E-series engine was planned with four different capacities, 1160cc, 1300cc, 1485cc four cylinder units plus a 2227cc six cylinder version of the 1485cc engine. Contrary to previous accounts, the two smaller units were never built leaving the 1485cc and 2227cc engines to be developed by BMC’s engineers. The first 1485cc engine began testing in March 1966 followed by the first six cylinder unit in July. By September 1966 ADO16 and ADO17 mules were road testing the new engines. Very early on it was decided the E-series engine needed more torque and by October 1967 a 1748cc and a 1797cc unit were being tested. The extra capacity was created by lengthening the stroke.

In October 1967, only weeks before production of the new E-series engine was due to begin in the new Cofton Hackett plant, Mr Bill Davis, deputy managing director in charge of production, described the new factory to the Times newspaper, which had cost BMC £14 million in machinery alone, as, ‘the greatest concentration of modern equipment in an area of comparable size anywhere in the motor vehicle manufacturing world. We shall build engines and gear boxes which will later be assembled in another part of the new plant to produce a complete power unit. It will all be several years ahead of its time so we have a kind of compound interest in our investment before we even begin.’

So automated was the layout that it would require a labour force of only 1100 men. There were five assembly tracks employing transfer bar conveyor systems with major components being fed direct by overhead conveyor from the machining area. A special feature was the semi-automatic assembly of cylinder heads. The engine and transmission units would be tested on an overhead balcony before the final build-up.

Road testing of production built engines began on 14 November 1967 and would last until 28 February 1969. By the Spring of 1968 engines were being tested in Spain and Portugal and at high speed on the German autobahnen.

A change of tack

Alec Issigonis and the Austin MaxiDuring the early stages of development of BMC’s Cortina fighter, George Harriman decreed the company would no longer enter into direct competition with Ford – a statement which immediately rendered the ADO14 as it was developing redundant.

ADO14 would also become a high-technology showcase for BMC’s capabilities – and that led to the decision to design a five-speed gearbox, the famous hatchback rear end, and its adaptable and spacious interior. Product Planners were beginning to see a British version of the Renault 16, and liked what they saw, because it was better – having benefited from several years’ further development over the 1965-vintage Renault.

In 1969 Charles Griffin was asked why the Austin Maxi had a five speed gearbox.

‘The short answer is: somebody had to take the initiative in this. Once again, as with front drive, we’ve done it. You can’t talk about this without bringing in overdrive. The real objective of an overdrive is to increase the relationship between road speed and engine speed. The normal fourth speed, depending on the power to weight ratio, lies somewhere about 15½mph per 1000rpm for the normal family saloon. Now overdrive lifts all that up to about 19½mph per 1000rpm.

‘People buy an overdrive because they just don’t like fuss when cruising. We have therefore built this feature into our car with a fifth speed, replacing the need for an applied separate unit… having driven the ADO14 for many miles myself – I use fifth speed almost continuously. I find myself not waiting to get onto a motorway to go into fifth speed. When I want to listen to the radio at 50mph, that’s the time I enjoy fifth speed. The noise level comes right down, and you’ve got something very nice and refined.’

Those doors

Austin Maxi saloon

A closer look at the rear of the four-door Maxi bodyshell

A major problem for ADO14 designers was how to give it a palatable style when it had been lumbered with those ADO17 doors. The result was an unappealing situation which made it almost impossible to make the new car significantly smaller than the ADO17 (that car that was already blessed with compact front and rear overhangs).

That resulted in a crisis of confidence over the ADO14’s looks – and along the way, it received a couple of hasty makeovers. The first was in 1967. When became clear British Motor Holdings (BMC’s parent company, since the purchase of Jaguar in 1966) was deep in the mire, Joe Edwards ended up poring over the company’s affairs. When it came to the ADO14, he came to the conclusion its looks simply didn’t add-up, and was well-aware of the commercial significance of the new car, and that the whole future of BMH may hinge on its success.

Because of this, he ordered a restyle of the front end. Ex-Ford Design Director, Roy Haynes was tasked with giving the ADO14 a more definite identity – and landed it with a suspiciously Cortina-esque grille and headlight arrangement. Edwards could not order the designers to go any further because, the majority of the body panels had been signed-off and Pressed Steel was already in the process of building body presses.

The car would not prove to be the saviour of BMH. The development of the ADO14 was, at the time, probably the worst kept secret in the British motor industry. In The Times of 22nd April 1968, the story, Styling troubles delay new BMC saloon, Geoffrey Charles went on to describe the evolution of the external style. Charles later revealed how he was privy to so much information.

‘We must jump back to late 1964, when BMC chairman, George Harriman, and his technical director, Alec Issigonis, first showed me ADO14, hidden in the secret projects department at Longbridge. It was almost indistinguishable from the then new 1800; sporting a roof-hinged tailgate and five gears, but decidedly ugly around its snub nose and chopped-off hindquarters. The concept was pure Issigonis: two box body, maximum passenger space, minimum engine room and to hell with styling, Pininfarina must not run riot here…’

As events transpired, the ADO14 ended up being the first car launched by the British Leyland Motor Corporation. BLMC was announced in January 1968 but did not officially come into being until the following May. In preparation for Sir Donald Stokes taking personal charge of BMC, now renamed the Austin Morris division of British Leyland, Alec Issigonis wrote to his future boss on April 101968.

‘Dear Sir Donald I enclose a short resume of work that I am currently engaged on in my new undertaking. Management approval or rejection of these projects is still to be determined, but at the earliest opportunity I shall discuss the matter with Bertie Fogg in greater detail, so that you can appraise the situation with more facts at your disposal.

‘Most of the research work outlined below presupposes that we shall continue to produce a Mini in the foreseeable future. It is very important to arrive at a decision over this matter as soon as possible, because on this depends the speed at which the development work is executed. A low priority programme is both time consuming and costly in the long run. The greatest need in combating increased production costs over the year is the development of a new engine for a small car of this type.

‘The present A-series engine offered a quick way of getting the car into production in 1959, but has outlived its purpose both for weight and cost compared with European competition; although its performance is still well up to modern standards. The enlarged version (1300) is perfectly competitive for cars in the category above the Mini type of vehicle i.e. the lower medium class range.

  • Design and development of a 750/998cc 4 cylinder engine and transmission system for transverse or normal drive applications, for a new small car. In addition to this work we are doing a design study, in conjunction with Automotive Products Ltd, for a 4-speed automatic transmission unit.
  • Development of a 6 cylinder version of the above engine to give capacities from 1300 to 1490cc, using as much common tooling as possible including the same transmission system.
  • Development of a new Mini. This is being studied in two versions, one 6 inches shorter than the present car (120 inches) and another 10 inches longer or 4 inches longer than the present model. This will embody common suspension parts but, in order to keep production costs down to a minimum, Hydrolastic has had to be abandoned in favour of conventional springing. This is because a simplified version of the Hydrolastic design, which we have been working on for some time, has not yet materialised.
  • Development of a small hydrostatic suspension system in collaboration with N.E.L. The arrangement incorporates motors in each wheel and eliminates the use of high pressure hoses to transmit oil to these units.
  • General work on induction systems including the use of updraft carburettors for anti-pollution work. This work is very necessary in order that we can dispense with the expensive after burning devices which we have had to incorporate into our cars at present being sold in America.’

Bizarrely Issigonis failed to mention the ADO14 BMC 1500 which was supposed to be near to production.

When Donald Stokes took over the ailing company in May 1968, he looked at the Maxi and decided it needed more work to be made a saleable proposition. That resulted in its second pre-launch facelift. So little could be done by this point, all that was changed was the interior – giving it some semblance of habitability – and some very minor exterior detailing.

Making it all work…

Austin MaxiStokes drafted in Harry Webster (pushing Issigonis aside in the process) from Triumph to put right what he saw as the ills of Austin-Morris. Prime suspect on that list was the Maxi.

So many faults were identified by the new management that Harry’s team would end up having their work cut out trying to make good and mend the Maxi. Top of the list of problems for many was the new car’s appalling cable-operated gearbox (pictured left). In the end, the engineers did much pre-launch tinkering to make the gearbox work, but knew that curing its ills would necessitate a new linkage design.

These weren’t the only problems – by December, Webster was also hearing loud and clear from his engineers the message that the 1485cc E-series engine wasn’t up to the task of shifting the Maxi’s bulk. He tasked them with developing more the more powerful 1748cc version into production reality, and this would take time. As a result of this news, the decision was taken by the BLMC board to defer production of the four door saloon variant for another year.

As with the adoption of new gear linkages, the 1748cc variation of the E-series engine would need over a year to be made production-ready and ended up adding £1 million to the final cost of the ADO14 development programme.

Stokes agonized over the Maxi, questioning whether it should be launched at all. But in the end he decided there was no option but to push the ‘launch’ button; the car needed to go because of all the investment ploughed in to the new Cofton Hackett engine facility.

So, the laughably optimistic product planning by BMC back in 1966 had saved the new car’s bacon under the auspices of BLMC’s new management regime – ironic really. Stokes pushed forward with the launch – pencilling in a date Spring of 1969. Webster‘s modifications would have to wait until it was feasible to incorporate them as a series running improvements to the Maxi.

Getting Maxi off the ground

Austin Maxi

Like the Mini and 1800 before it, the Maxi was designed in a very functional way. It is a pleasing shape in retrospect, but in the style conscious 1960s, it was not what buyers wanted. (Picture kindly supplied by Graham Arnold)

Austin Maxi

The influence of Roy Haynes’ ex-Ford design principles are clear to see in the Maxi’s interior. Unlike Issigonis’ earlier offerings, the Maxi interior was more obviously design-led. In fact, it was almost a clone of the designs offered by Ford at the time. (Picture kindly supplied by Graham Arnold)

In terms of marketing the Maxi, it would fit in perfectly with the plans that Stokes had for the Austin marque and how it fit into BLMC overall strategy.

BLMC’s management was not shy in coming forwards with a long list of the sins of BMC in the past, the chief among those being that of badge engineering. In August 1968, the policy was set in place by Stokes that no new British Leyland cars would be badge engineered. Within the group, Austin’s role would be to represent the high technology end of the market whereas Morris would be developed into a marque that produced cars to fight Ford head on.

Because the ADO14 fitted into the former category perfectly, it was an obvious candidate for the Austin nameplate, and therefore was introduced to replace the Austin A60 only (the Morris Oxford would have to live on for another two years). In his heart of hearts, Stokes knew that the Maxi wasn’t good enough, and his strategists were telling him so: their projections were that the Maxi would – at best – take a 4% share of the UK Market.

But by this time, it was envisaged that the car would only be in production for a few years, to be replaced by the sweeping range of new Leyland-engineered cars.

By January 1969, the press was reporting that the Leyland 1500 would be badged as an Austin. The head of the Austin Morris division, George Turnbull was reported as saying that the new car would not go on sale until it was absolutely ready. ‘Preparation and testing, and then more preparation and testing, was my policy at Standard Triumph and it remains my Policy here.’

He was quoted as saying, as well, ‘We are doing tens of thousands of miles of road testing and general bashing about. The success of the 1500 is of the utmost importance to everyone in the Austin Morris division. It is aimed at the biggest growth sector of the market and I don’t want it going off half cock, even if it means holding the car back for a time.’

The world also got its first glimpse of the Leyland 1500 that same month when a Swedish newspaper published four scoop photographs of an ADO14 being tested in wintry conditions in Finland. The Austin Morris test team, which included Charles Griffin’s son, Brian Griffin, were carpeted by their superiors for letting the Swedish pressmen get close enough to take a photo of the engine bay. In all, fifteen prototypes were employed in the testing.

Mixed reception from the press

Austin Maxi

And here it is – the Maxi’s raison d’etre: the huge, practical and versatile boot. Here was an area that the Maxi had an advantage over all its rivals, including the vivacious Renault 16.

As it was, the Maxi was launched in Estoril, Portugal in April 1969 and it was immediately apparent a new management regime was running the show. Car magazine in its May 1969 issue described the Austin Maxi’s launch in Portugal. ‘Lord Stokes was furiously fielding criticism of the years non-event, the Austin Maxi, with what his transatlantic rivals would call an NIH response : Not Invented Here.’

Harry Webster briefed the assembled journalists on the Maxi’s finer points, and not the old ‘Austin’ design team. Webster had his work cut out selling the Maxi to the assembled press, and this was to prove even more traumatic after they actually drove the new car.

To say that the initial driving impressions were underwhelming is an understatement: journalists came away with the distinct feeling that not only was the Maxi was underpowered, it also suffered from heavy and low geared steering. The failing that overshadowed all others, though, was the appalling gear change: of course, the Maxi offered the advantage of a five-speed gearbox, but the badly engineered cable operated shift resulted in a bad gear change. Many testers were left with the uneasy feeling that they never really knew whether it was going actually slot into gear or not. Gear changing should never be stressful – in the Maxi, it was.

Julian Mounter, motoring correspondent of The Times summed up the gear change thus: ‘It feels like stirring treacle with a long thin cane.’

Nevertheless, these shortcomings aside, the Maxi was an interesting concept with a great deal to recommend it. For a start, it was wonderfully commodious. Like the Issigonis-engineered cars that preceded it, the Maxi was blessed with keen roadholding and tremendous ride quality. Unlike its older counterparts, however, the Maxi was also a quiet and long-legged motorway cruiser, thanks to its overdriven top gear. Unlike its principle rival, the Renault 16, the Maxi’s hatchback arrangement was straightforward in the extreme. It also had the added advantage of being able to fold all the seats down flat (to make some kind of lumpy double bed).

All that the Maxi really needed in order to become a good car was more power, an acceptable gear change and, most importantly, a well-styled body. At the time of the Maxi’s launch, Lord Stokes was publicly bullish about the car’s prospects. The New York Times quoted him as saying, ‘We believe that it will create the same kind of revolution in the field of middle class family motor cars as did the Mini in the realm of small cars.’

He also said, ‘We have made certain that ample supplies are available in our distributors’ and dealers’ showrooms. In fact, almost 5000 are in their hands at this moment, and with a production rate now running at 2000 a week, the car will quickly become a very familiar sight on our roads so that customers won’t have to wait too long to get one. We are passing the starting line at a gallop as far as production of this car is concerned.’

He described the car as, ‘…the most thoroughly tested and proved model the motor industry has ever produced. We have done over a million miles of intensive testing with it up and down the motorways of Europe. in the hot summer of Portugal. and even inside the Arctic Circle in Lapland last winter.’

George Turnbull was also quoted at the time as saying, ‘I consider it a must if you’re selling in the family sector of the market and are going to spend heavily on advertising and sales promotion, to stock your dealers up before the fanfare. You can’t afford to go into a launch with 500 cars, keeping your fingers crossed. Your dealers must have one or two cars apiece, and distributors considerably more, with a plentiful supply to follow up. I would be very sorry if we have less than 5000 on announcement day, allowing at least two per dealer, and we ought to have something like 7000. Output? We will certainly do 100,000 a year, maybe up to 150,000 even in the first year.’

Although, the Leyland men would later distance themselves from the Maxi’s development and shift blame onto BMC, publicly they were enthusiastic about the new car. Lord Stokes gave The Guardian newspaper perhaps the best quote of all: ‘Our designers and market research men have carried out detailed studies on the sociological needs of the seventies and the impact on the automobile and we firmly believe that the Maxi will fulfil the majority of requirements of the middle class motorist in this context.’

Charles Griffin summed up the Maxi in May 1969 with this comment, ‘We think that a very wide variety of operators are going to find that this is exactly the sort of motorcar they are looking for because it is very much more useful than an ordinary car. For instance; until now, if you wanted the station wagon facility, you had to have something that didn’t look like a motor car. In the UK this is the first time really that we’ve given the best of both worlds.

Our ultimate motivation is based on the fact that a motor car is essentially an extension of a person; motoring is a very personalised activity. We have tried to give the customer what he wants – what we feel he wants – an entirely new car with enormous carrying capacity, easily and economically serviced, and attractively priced.’

Project Aquila: the stylish Maxi

Austin Maxi

This design produced by Chris Field as a result of a 1972 Daily Telegraph young designers competition was based on the Maxi’s running gear. This design proposal was made-up into a full-size car(below).

Although BLMC donated the Maxi, the exercise still cost the newspaper a cool £26,000. If the idea that the Maxi was an excellent car crying out for a more stylish body, it is most potently demonstrated here. Also, note the striking similarity between this car and a 1977 sketch for the ADO99 project by Harris Mann.

Austin Maxi

Buyers didn’t love it, either…

In truth the majority of the British motoring press, whatever they might have felt as individuals about the car, if not enthusiastic about the Maxi in print, did not rubbish it either, except the monthly Car magazine. Car’s assistant editor Jeff Daniels reviewed the Maxi under the title ‘Back to the drawing board ‘?. Reading the article today, it is quite clear that it formed the basis for the chapter on the Maxi in Daniels later classic book, British Leyland – the truth behind the cars.

Back in 1969 Daniels complained about the E-series engines breathing and described the gearchange as ‘one of the worst gear-shifts in Europe – this side of the iron curtain, at least.’ He went on to write, ‘The nose looks inoffensive if undistinguished, but doesn’t seem to belong to the rest of the car, having clearly been designed by somebody else. In fact it is a comparatively recent redesign, having been lengthened by several inches in an attempt to give some sort of visual balance… Whether there is any room in the car for a bigger engine seems to depend on which BLMC man you talk to, but Harry Webster says not, at least without rearranging an awful lot of other components.’

The last statement is interesting as Harry Webster already knew the 1748cc version of the E-series engine was on its way. Jeff Daniels went on to write, ‘Interior noise assails one from several directions. It never becomes overpowering, but the car could certainly not be called quiet.’

Unfortunately, the Maxi was greeted with total apathy from the British car buying public – and it is easy to see why. For a start, most people failed to understand the Maxi; it was a great concept let down by fairly fundamental detailing, not least the styling. Whereas the Cortina (despite what Harriman may have decreed, it was a rival to the Maxi) was crisply-styled and was available in a multitude of options, the Maxi was a one-model show: five-doors and five-speeds, take-it-or-leave-it…

The Maxi did enjoy a brief honeymoon with car buyers, by mid May 1969 the press were reporting that Cowley was introducing a nightshift and that the order book for the car amounted to five months production. George Turnbull was quoted as saying, ‘We are very encouraged by the response of our distributors, dealers and public, to the Maxi. Our only anxiety is that we should fulfil these orders as quickly as possible. We are doing everything we can to build up production.’

However a series of stoppages, mainly by Pressed Steel Fisher at Cowley, which supplied Maxi body shells tested the patience of the potential customers who had a Maxi on order. Gradually weekly Maxi production dropped from the planned 2000 a week to 1800, then 1600 and by September 1969 BLMC revealed it was dropping further still to 1300.

In The Times of 16 September 1969, Giles Smith wrote, ‘The share of the British car market won by British Leyland’s new and much publicized Maxi, production of which will be cut back for the second time in a month later this month, dropped to less than 2.5% in the three months following its April launch it was understood last night. Maxi models are estimated to have had a 3.3% share of the May market, 2.5% in June, and 2.4% in July.

‘Indications are that sales in August are most unlikely to climb above the July figure. Leyland said last night that this had nothing to do with the production reduction at its Oxford plant and claimed the group had always been aiming at a 2% initial market share figure. But sales of the new car, one of the most publicised and heavily prepared launches by the group’s Austin Morris division, have clearly been a disappointment to the company’s executives. It is understood the group was thinking in terms of a minimum market share of 5%, possibly rising to 7 or 8%; no company would seriously consider a launch of the size and cost of the Maxi’s if it were not aiming at a market well above 5%.

‘Leyland confirmed over the weekend that output of the Maxi at Oxford, originally intended to be 2000 a week, but now some 1600 a week. would be cut back to 1300 when the plant re-opens on 29 September. The company said the cutback, involving short time working, was due to difficulties in getting bodies for the Maxi from Pressed Steel Fisher.’ In fact, in September 1969, the Maxi took a mere 2.2% of the UK car market, by November production had been reduced further to 1000 cars per week, and by December 1969, its market share had fallen disastrously to 1.4%; a mere 681 cars.

In the 1 November 1969 edition of the Daily Express, the newspaper’s motoring correspondent, Basil Cardew, outlined some of the Maxi’s perceived problems: ‘The Maxi has faced mounting criticism since it was launched last April. The output of Maxis is now down to 1000 cars a week – not nearly filling the assembly lines of a £24m factory to build its engine. Its sales are 2.2% of the home market.

‘The Maxi is said to have a ponderous gear change, excessive road noise, and disappointing performance. Its price of £979, including purchase tax, is said to be too high in relation to its closest rivals… Renault 16 (£970), Ford Cortina Estate (£958), French Simca 1100 Estate (£959), Vauxhall Victor (£949), and Hillman Minx de luxe (£851). The Maxi, say the critics, would, be all right if it were sorted out properly. It feels and sounds unrefined – with buzzes, shakes, and booms. It gives a bumpy ride and the advantage of the five-speed gearbox is offset by the tortuous gear change.

‘So last night I tackled 53-year-old Lord Stokes who said: ‘We have 31 basic models under the British Leyland umbrella, the Maxi is only one. Yes, I have heard, some of these criticisms but I tell you categorically, that the Maxi is here to stay at least for another 10 years. There were similar criticisms when BMC brought out its 1800 model, but now it is one of our best sellers.’

‘He is convinced that by next spring the Maxi will be a best seller. The Austin-Morris 1800 was considerably modified before it gained favour: Will the Maxi also be worked on? Said Lord Stokes: ‘At this time we contemplate no major modifications.’

His Lordship’s statement about the Maxi remaining in production for a decade is ironic, considering Sir George Harriman also made similar promises about previous Issigonis cars to the media. In reality, as early as September 1969 the BLMC board was expressing concern at the Maxi’s lack of market penetration. Lord Stokes wanted to know why it was not popular with fleet buyers. Sales director Filmer Paradise’s response was that the Maxi was £75-150 too expensive.

Maxi was the brainchild of Sir Alec Issigonis - and BLMC wasn

BLMC launched a crash modification programme for the Maxi – Austin Morris Sales Director Filmer Paradise admitted, later in May 1970 that the original car, ‘…had some niggling faults.’ Beginning on 17 December, Austin distributors were called to a series of conferences at Longbridge at which, according to Mr. Paradise, ‘…everybody let their hair down. We approached them with stark realism and an acceptance of their problems in selling the Maxi.’

He added, ‘And any salesman who is not enthusiastic, is nothing. Something had to be done.’

The results were clear – Maxi was substandard, and therefore, the unusual step of going for a full relaunch seemed like the only way of saving the Maxi. By the autumn of 1969, modifications were being introduced to the assembly line at Cowley to isolate the causes of excessive vibration and make the gear change more positive. Sound deadening material was liberally applied.

Twenty of the newly-modified cars were handed over for trial runs. Countrywide re-training of showroom salesmen was next – distributors and dealers were given financial incentives to put more than 1500 demonstrators on the road, in order to get potential buyers behind the wheel of the Maxi. Next came a mass-mailshot of 1.5 million would-be customers that the Maxi – brainchild of Sir Alec Issigonis – was well worth buying. However, the most telling move was the decision to hold the Maxi’s price at £1018 during price increases, thereby increasing its competitiveness. The modified cars were met with a warmer response from Press, and by February 1970, market penetration increased to 2.2%; March’s was 2.5%, and April climbed to over 3%. By May 1970 costs for repairs under warranty were the lowest of any BLMC car, but output was now way down on the production targets originally set.

Eighteen months later on 12 October 1970 and after a lot of back-room work on the car, the 1750cc E-series version of the Maxi appeared, along with the new rod-operated gearchange – and at that point, the Maxi started to come good as a car. The new version was no less odd-looking and the steering was just as heavy and low-geared, but at least the Maxi now had a reasonable turn of speed and one could now engage gear without the constant fear of wrong-slotting it.

At launch of the revised Maxi, Austin Morris managing director George Turnbull said: ‘We would be foolish not to concede that the original Maxi needed more refinement and a more positive gear selection mechanism. It is in these areas that we have concentrated our research and development.’

Austin Maxi

But the damage had been done by now, the premature launch of the cable change 1500 Maxi had terminally tarnished the car. The revised Maxi was the car that should have been launched in the first place. In reality, as far as Maxi development was concerned, that was about it: the twin-carburettor Maxi HL appeared later on, in October 1972, including a useful hike in power to 91bhp.

There were in fact factory backed developments available to improve the Maxi’s performance, care of British Leyland Special Tuning run by Basil Wales at Abingdon. But it would cost a premium over the standard car. Autocar in the shape of Jeff Daniels, who had moved from Car, visited Special Tuning in late 1970. Daniels tested several BLMC cars including a Maxi 1500, VVP 430J. The ST conversion comprised of twin SU carburettors, a polished inlet manifold and a new exhaust system all for a cost of £66 at time when the Maxi 1500 retailed at £1057. This equates to £12,800 in modern terms and the kit cost an extra £799.

The tuning package, known as a Pluspac A, boosted power from 74bhp to 83bhp, almost on a par with the new 1750 variant and pushed top speed up to 91mph from 86mph. The 0-60mph dash was reduced from 16.6 to 14.9 seconds, again indicating that the E-series engine was severely restricted in standard form. The ST car was actually faster in fifth gear, whereas Autocar’s 1969 road test car was fastest in fourth.

Motor magazine later tested a Pluspac A kit on the Maxi 1750, reaching a maximum top speed of 96.4mph and a 0-60mph time of 12.7 seconds. This tuning package formed the basis of the later Maxi HL minus the bigger bore exhaust system.

As usual it was left to Downton Engineering of Wiltshire to demonstrate the Maxi’s true potential. For £203.30 the Maxi owner received their stage 2 conversion which in addition to the twin carburettors and performance exhaust offered by Special Tuning, also had a modified cylinder head. This boosted power to 105.7bhp at 6000rpm and torque was also up to 113.2lb ft at 4000rpm. Motor magazine tested UMW 777J in February 1973, lapping MIRA at 100.1mph. 0-60mph was achieved in 10.1 seconds. Motor summed up the Downton Maxi as ‘ a very desirable, versatile, and civilised Q-car for town, Coventry or motorway.’

But as far as the factory was concerned, they were not going to offer any of the improvements devised by Downton or Special Tuning on the E-series engine as standard, which was left to wither on the vine for a decade. By this time hopes that the more emissions friendly OHC E-series engine would find a home in British Leyland’s sports cars had also evaporated. The ADO21 MGB replacement was slated to use the engine, but the corporate sports car became Project Bullet, later the Triumph TR7. Only the Austin Allegro and Maxi used the four cylinder version of the engine.

Beyond that, the Hydrolastic suspension was replaced by Hydragas and in doing so, the Maxi was brought into line with the rest of the Moulton-suspended range. Finally, in 1980, the Maxi was further, cosmetically facelifted – new bumpers, wheeltrims and interior trim brightened the car, but did not significantly improve it. It was left completely untouched to battle through the ’70s – and it has to be said that although the Maxi never sold in any great numbers, settling down to a steady 20-30,000 a year in the UK, it did pick up a loyal following in the UK.

The Maxi catered to the family man who needed space aplenty and as such, there were few cars that could offer anything approaching its space efficiency. Most car magazines tended to view the Maxi as a small estate car and so, its appeal was unfortunately severely compromised – those that did not and compared it with the Renault 16 (the Maxi’s only real rival during its life) found it wanting in too many departments to mount an effective challenge to the charismatic French car.

In a sense part of the reason the Maxi failed to sell in the numbers expected of it was that British Leyland never really understood what they had and failed to exploit its virtues as perhaps the original MPV. Many potential buyers simply looked at the engine options and saw it as a Cortina rival, but without the style and at a higher price. Those customers who did opt for the Maxi experienced a comfortable, flexible car with excellent ride characteristics provided by its Moulton designed suspension. But all the Maxi’s plus points cost money to engineer into the car which was passed onto the customer who could find a cheaper simpler car from a rival manufacturer which they more readily understood. Even the concept of a fifth overdrive gear was alien to many motorists at the time.

Also it could be argued that the 1750 Maxi faced internal competition from the ADO17 1800 and later the ADO71 Princess. In the Maxi’s peak year of production, 1972/73, 70846 emerged from Cowley along with 37831 1800/2200’s from Longbridge. The 2200 may have had the edge in performance over the Maxi, but was the 1800 really worth keeping in production alongside the Maxi?

The last Maxi was produced at Cowley on 8 July 1981.

On 26 August 1981 General Motors unveiled the Vauxhall Cavalier Mk2, sold as the Opel Ascona in continental Europe. The day of the launch was co-incidentally the anniversary of the announcement of the original Issigonis Mini. And in a sense the Cavalier/Ascona was as significant as the Mini. Whereas the Mini and the ADO16 1100/1300 has established the front wheel drive format in their respective market sectors, the ADO17 1800/2200 and Austin Maxi had completely and totally failed to woo fleet buyers away from simple rear wheel drive cars like the Ford Cortina and its rival clones.

The Cavalier/Ascona was a front wheel drive car available as a four door saloon with a boot or a five door hatchback. The engines were overhead camshaft available in 1.3- to 2-litre capacities mated to a five speed gearbox which gave above average performance and all this was in a stylish contemporary body. By 1983 the Cavalier/Ascona was challenging Ford’s new Cortina replacement, the Sierra in the sales chart. It was General Motors who took the Maxi blue print and created a properly thought out and engineered car in the Cavalier/Ascona and created a car that appealed to both private and fleet buyers and established front wheel drive as a viable commercial proposition in its respective market sector.


Looking at the size and weight of the Maxi, it is actually shorter and lighter than the 1998 Ford Focus, but manages to have considerably more room inside – which demonstrates that BMC certainly knew how to obtain the most interior room for any given package. That is manages to beat the Focus – state of the art in 1998 – for packaging speaks volumes for the concept. The ultimate shame for British Leyland was that although the concept of the Maxi was fundamentally a good one, its execution (especially at the start of its life) was quite simply, rubbish.

Austin Maxi

Maxi 2 incorporating cosmetic improvements appeared towards the end of the car’s life, in 1980.

British Leyland could have rescued the car by redesigning the body and interior and pushing this redesigned Maxi as a product to sit in the range where the Allegro finally ended up. The reason for this abandonment of the Maxi is easy to see – it was seen as a product of BMC and, therefore, something from the past – and by the time of its launch, the newly installed British Leyland management was already busying itself planning for the launch of the new company’s first car: the Morris Marina.

As Alec Issigonis himself said in 1964, an advanced design only becomes a successful one when, others copy it for themselves. The fact that so few rival designers produced an answer to the Maxi speaks volumes about the car.

Austin Maxi

1969 Austin Maxi 1500 in “Outdoor pursuits” mode

Maxi Production figures (Cowley)*

1968/69 1969/70 1970/71 1971/72 1972/73
23,294 27,618 35,742 62,783 55,357
1973/74 1974/75 1975/76 1977 1978
41,639 33,132 43,983 32,479 38,567
1979 1980 1981 Total produced
27,490 15,778 12,435 450,297

* Calendar of years:

1968/69 to 1974/75 (October to September)
1975/76 (October 1975 to December 1976 – 15 Months)
1977 onwards (January to December)

With reference to There’s Something About A Maxi by Paul Jefford

Posted in: Austin Maxi (ADO14)
Keith Adams

About the Author:

Created in 2001 and watched it steadily grow into AROnline. Is the Editor of Classic Car Weekly, and has contributed to various motoring titles including Octane, Evo, Honest John, CAR magazine, Autocar, Diesel Car, Practical Performance Car, Performance French Car, Car Mechanics, Jaguar World Monthly, Classic Car Weekly, MG Enthusiast, Modern MINI, Practical Classics, Fifth Gear Website, and the the Motoring Independent... Likes 'conditionally challenged' motors and taking them on unfeasable adventures all across Europe.

61 Comments on "The cars : Austin Maxi development story"

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  1. KeithB says:

    Is Sir Alec holding a cigarette in the advert? Fascinating how unacceptable it seems, even to us smokers!

  2. didierz65 didier ziane says:

    I remember the R16 very foundly because my uncle owned about every declination of the car over many years, simply because “tata Huguette-his wife, my aunt” had a brother working for RNUR (that’s Renault for you and me) and he could buy a new car with at least 15% discount on list price and sell it after 6 months ownership, and do it again…I can remember the 16TS, with electric windows, I was about 7 or 8 years old and it was “PHHHOOOOAAAWWW” back in 1970-71, then there was the TA, no need to change gears, AMASING..My dad was into Simca 1300/1301special because of the 7 chevaux tax (R16 was 9 chevaux, road tax was double and V5 cost more accordingly…)and then the TX had 5 gears like an Alpine or a Ferrari. Today, my uncle drives an A4 TDI, black with big alloys, autobox and leather. I asked him about the car he would buy again last summer, R16 TX was top and said to me that after his R20 TS he was dissapointed, although it wasn’t rusting as badly as the old 16s did…I do not know much about the Maxi, but if renault was able to do an efficient gear change from a wheel column to ahead of front axle box, how could BMC-BLMC or BL make such a joke of a floor gearstick to a box less than 2 feet away? Did anyone drive the car before it was given to the motoring press? This car should have beaten the R16-on spec- but never delivered, why spend money on maxi2 before withdrawing the model a year or so later? same question for the Ambassador, with more insult and injury, as it was never produced for Europe, despite getting that hatchback it should have had from day 1(let alone the Allegro) Funny how Citroen got the lithe designs B/L/MC refused and are now icons!!! So many mistakes were made by people far too proud to aknowledge that they were WRONG, either by letting ONE man dictate his visions and then not able to VETO his choice and then shield themselves with: “we inherited that” attitude, do next to nothing about that great-on the paper- car and then come up with… marina!!! I know that with hinsight everything seems easy, but when was the last dreadfull under-tested car launched after these flops? ooops, Maestro springs to mind!!! Shall I add -another time- insult to injury, it took more than 10 years to come up with that Maxi3!!! no wonder Honda was a saviour after such a debacle, R8 gave hope after the 820/825 and 213/216 revival of the brand with at last! some reliabilty, innovative design albeit japanese tech based but with “That British Flair” they showed “BALLS” with new Rover engines(once again under-tested, same history repeating…)beating the “master”, 620TI anyone, then strangled by new german master, fearing for its own product and giving the 75 that ever so slightly sedated feel, then it was too late at ZT launch. All in all, it is true and true, this wonderfull website is full to the brim with “might have been”, last chance Saloon etc… MG name survives via china, but it seems that the same plague is affecting them, maybe they’ll be more lucky with their gm venture!

  3. didierz65 didier ziane says:

    Project Aquila must have been the basis for SD2…

  4. Felix says:

    Is there any truth there was an ad which mentioned the seats transformed into a double bed and then had the strapline – for the single man with a family in mind?

  5. Ken Robinson says:

    Before the Maxi was announced it was tested in the Arctic Circle. But, not many people know that 2 versions were tested. These were the normal hatchback and surprisingly a saloon. The saloon was cancelled after the ‘field’ test and the hatchback had its ‘nose’ lenghtened by 6″

  6. Michael Radcliffe. says:

    Not only is the Maxi shorter and lighter than the 1998 Ford Focus, but it’s shorter, narrower, lower and lighter than the current FIESTA. Is it me, or is car design going backwards?

  7. alexscott says:

    I think it was Alex Moulton that said (when asked for his oppinion on the new BMW Mini) replied, its heavier than an Austin Maxi. But my uncle also had one, and I think he quite liked it as a stock agents car. He said it handled well. they also had some Marinas, which they didnt like and crashed most of them i beleive (or they crashed themselves). but the maxis were defintiy spacious and in some ways technologically advanced. and not that bad looking either I reakon. I would NOT describe the Mk3 or 4 cortinas as better looking thats my oppinion(probably more reliable though). alex

  8. BobM BobM says:

    The money they spent developing the Allegro (possibly Marina too) should’ve been spent on doing the Maxi properly. If only they’d got it right, and offered saloon and estate versions with a “full” range of engines…

    Personally, I love the Maxi. It’s the car I grew up in, I still remember the day that our last one (MJX 702W a blue 1750HL Maxi2) went to the scrapper – the chap turned up, wound down the windows, threw some chains through and hoisted her up into the air onto his truck. I was upset, well I was only 10!

  9. Simon Hodgetts says:

    @alexscott – The main reason the Maxi is no small compared with modern cars is that it did without – front and rear crumple zones, side protection bars, power steering, air-con, airbags…..etc, making it more compact, and much lighter – even Maxi 2 was an extremely basic car by 1982 standards, let alone modern cars. Interesting though how the Maxi concept has finally being adopted by other manufacturers – Skoda especially with the Fabia estate – surely a modern-day Maxi?

  10. Hilton Davis says:

    @Michael Radcliffe – I agree cars of a modern design seem to be getting bigger with every new updated model. The latest Fiesta is much larger than its forebear of 1976 and although I havent checked the figures, I think the all new Focus is bigger than the MK2 & MK1.

    Although the Maxi was, dare I say dismal when launched, the improvements made the resulting MAXI 2 a more palatable vehicle. By then it was too late of course as the Japanese were making huge in-roads on the UK market.

  11. Wingroad says:

    It seems the development team were just blind to the Maxi’s faults.I wonder if thought was given to fitting the 2200 6 cylinder engine to the Maxi so that they could drop ADO17 and hence open the market up to the more modern Maxi.

  12. Richard says:

    How odd. Yesterday I saw a Maxi on the road for the first time in God knows when and today I see this article.

    My father had a Maxi 1750HL in 75/76. It looked quite good in blaze red (if I remember rightly) with beige coloured seats and it certainly was spacious. The gearchange, however, was a nightmare. My father battled manfully with it, I struggled with it, my mother put out her shoulder and my sister couldn’t manage it at all. The handling was very heavy too.

    Looking at it now, the later models (mid 70s 1750s especially) don’t look so bad but I can see how and why the doors were such a critical factor in the design. I guess having to share the doors with the landcrabs was a cost issue.

    As regards styling for all later BMC models, why did BMC stop working with Pininfarina?

  13. Jonathan Carling jonathan carling says:

    @Richard – good point. A Maxi styled in idiom of the AD016 could have looked really good.

  14. Simon Hodgetts says:

    As regards the styling – whilst the Maxi was saddled with ‘those doors’ from the Landcrab (an interesting, but nevertheless ugly, and by 1968 dated looking car), it was never going to work stylistically – nothing short of a full re-skin would have made the Maxi desirable. Also to note was the height of the E-series engine, which would have made styling the car into anything (given the fashion at the time) sleek very difficult. BL’s management at the time were making poor decisions on styling throughout the early 70s – the Allegro, Marina, Maxi and Austin 3000 being cases in point! How could the mass-market arm of BL get the looks so fantastically wrong, when the specialist arms – Rover, Jaguar, Land Rover, Triumph kept getting it brilliantly right? (Princess excepted -(in my view) one of the best, and boldest looking mass-market cars of the 70s). Part of the blame has to lie with Issigonis – his ‘no styling’ philosophy worked in the early 60s, but, in the style obsessed 70s, especially after the launch of the Escort, Capri and Mk3 Cortina, car buyers expected more – even a Maxi based on the idioms set-down by the 1100/1300 – handsome cars as they were – wouldn’t have washed with the buying public, who wanted style and simplicity. In hindsight, maybe BL was too ahead of itself, especially with the Maxi. In other areas though, it was woefully ignorant of the marketplace – offering such a crude car as the Marina was testimony to their complete misreading of the market’s aspirations.

  15. Mikey C says:

    Simon, I’d disagree about the Marina though, it may have been crude, but at least it sold as it gave people what they wanted, a conventional, fairly smart looking, 4 door saloon, with rwd and dull mechanicals – no weird cable gearchange, or hydrolastics etc Toyota and Nissan conquered the world with cars akin to the Marina, but more reliable and better equipped.
    The Princess may have been smart, but it sold a fraction of what a conventional Mk3 Cortina/Mk1 Cavalier type vehicle would have done, judgin by the relative sales of Landcrab, Maxi and Marina

  16. Richard says:

    @Simon Hodgetts – wasn’t the Austin 3 Litre a BMC car which was soon culled after the formation of BLMC? I agree with you about the Princess which looked great in Austin form (the Morris and Wolseley variants just looked wrong). Of course it should have been a hatchback. The Marina, whilst nothing to write home about, did sell pretty well for the first few years and squirted valuable cash onto the balance sheet. It outstayed its welcome but then that could be said of just about any BMC/BL car.

  17. Simon Hodgetts says:

    @MikeyC – I’d wholeheartedly agree with you that the Marina, for the first 3-4 years of it’s life was what the market wanted – as was the Hillman Avenger and to a lesser extent the Vauxhall Viva HC – but the sector moved on markedly from 1975 onwards – once the straightened out Mk3 Cortina, followed by the larger and much improved Mk4, then the Mk1 Cavalier, and finally the Japanese competition (notably the Datsun Sunny & Bluebird)- against this little lot the already dated and compromised Marina just couldn’t compete. Comparing the Marina with a Mk3 Cortina shows the woeful lack of size and engine range, let alone any dynamic ability (although it was acknowledged that the early Mk3 Cortinas were far from perfect). Every sorry attempt at a facelift made the car, which was BL’s representative in the most important market segment in the 70s and early 80s, look more and more risible…….It was only ever meant as a stopgap – but the car, in it’s basic form lasted 13 years – apart from the Hillman/Chrysler/Talbot Avenger, which lasted a similar length of time (and were just as creaky at the end!) the Marina’s rivals were on 5-6 yr new model cycles…..

  18. Simon Hodgetts says:

    @Richard – Ok so the Austin 3Ltr was an early victim of the post BLMC cull – the question remains, should it have been launched at all? As a flagship it was laughable…….

  19. IanS says:

    The Maxi – an advanced concept on its launch, so much so that it only really had the R16 and the smaller Simca 1100 as same-concept rivals. So horrendously compromised, both stylistically and engineering-wise that most of the target market bought Cortinas etc instead. The Aquila proposal looks much more like it – and integral bumpers in 1972 was really avant-garde.
    450,000 built in 11 years is a joke – what other mainstraim manufacturer would have put up with that? Ford would have shifted about 2 million Cortinas in the same period, and Nissan UK have just built the millionth Qashqai in just over 4 years…
    And as for the aforementioned Focus, yes, bigger and heavier (despite being ‘smaller’) but infinitley better to drive and much safer in a crash.(More difficult to load a washing machine into a Focus hatch though). Where the Maxi led in one respect the Ford has followed though – the (Mk1) Focus has a cable-operated gear change…

  20. Richard says:

    @Simon Hodgetts – I agree it shouldn’t have been launched at all. It didn’t look right and nobody was going to buy it in preference to a Rover for example. With the benefit of hindsight we can see where and when BMC were going wrong but I have to say I am astonished that they couldn’t see it then, or maybe they could and just launched the damn thing anyway. Clearly Leyland management did not share the same views as their BMC counterparts. In retrospect it’s probably a shame that Leyland (and Stokes in particular) did not get their hands on BMC five years earlier. Maybe then so many of the later mistakes would have been avoided
    and the new company might have been more competitive by the time the Japanese arrived in force.

  21. Mike C says:

    Simon, I agree the Marina was outdated by the mid 70s, but that was because BL chose to replace its oddball midrange car, the landcrab, with another stylish, but oddball mid range saloon, instead of giving the public what they wanted, which was a conventional saloon, like perhaps ADO77

    And even by the late 70s, the Marina still sold twice as many as the Princess.

  22. James Godwin J Godwin says:

    Is it me or do Maxis sound like trumpets?

  23. Spyder says:

    The story of the Maxi shows the level of incompetance in BMC at the time. Having realised that the ADO 17 Farina replacement was too large for the market for which it was intended leaving a huge (Cortina and Corsair sized) gap between it and the 1100 BMC wisely decided to plug the gap with a car roughly halfway between the two models. They decided it should be an advanced car with an all new OHC engine, 5 speed gearbox and a hatchback. Having decided upon a specification that rival manufactures like GM and Ford would not match till the 1980’s, BMC then compromised the design by insisting on using the doors- (dictating wheelbase, screen angles and rear design) of the car they already knew was too big for the market for the market they were looking to fill.

    Having now built a car that was much larger and heavier than origonally intended it must have come as no surprise that its all new engine had to grow to a similar size to that of the ADO17 in order to propel it. So BMC ended up making exactly the same mistakes twice with two competing simelarly sized cars with two different but sinmerlaly sized engine,s again leaving the middle market to be ruled by the Cortina.

    That said the Maxi was not a bad car- and despite its compromises found its own unique place in the market- but how much more successful could it have been if it had stuck to its origonal specifiation as a 1.3/1.5 100″ wheelbase hatchback?

  24. KeithB says:

    Why couldn’t the Maxi have been based around ADO16 with longer rear doors? Is it that expensive to extend the doors of one of your more successful products or maybe they should have introduced a bit extra width to the B pillars?

  25. Will M says:

    Neighbours parents had one back in the 80s. While it was roomy and innovative, this was a car that always seemed to look frumpy, the automotive equivalent of a tabbard, and always seemed to be in faded yellow or hearing aid beige.

    Did anyone ever use one for camping, or for sleeping the drink off in the pub carpark?

  26. Robin Wasteney says:

    I remember working on the Maxi finishing lines at cowley. The last ones were very high spec, comfortable and all the major problems ironed out. That was always BL’s problem – launch it and let the owners tell them what was wrong. If the car had been launched with the same spec as the final production models then it have been a different story. A good solid ‘chunky’ car you felt safe in…… long live the Maxi!!

  27. Mike Kerley says:

    I took a Maxi to Kenya in 1972. Having previously spent 3 years there in the sixties driving an old Peugeot 403, I was well aware of the need for good ground clearance, which the Maxi had. Apart from the road to Mombasa and Nakuru and immediate Nairobi environs, most of the roads were stony or dirt (murrum) which became a mudbath in the rainy season. The car took us – a family of 2 adults (and on rare occasions, 3 adults) and 2 children, plus a 3 bedroom tent and associated camping gear, spare fuel and water, on safaris all over Kenya and Tanzania.

    Apart from numerous punctures, for which one always carried a repair kit or a second spare wheel, the Maxi never let us down in over 30,000 miles of motoring.The one problem we did have, was engine overheating especially when the air temperature went over 30 degs C. Fitting an additional radiator from a mini, behind the grill and removing the thermostat made negligeable difference.  When overheating did occur, the only solution was to stop, pour cold water over the rad. and wait till everything had cooled down. As most of the driving was done between 4000ft and 10,000ft  the problem mostly occurred going to and from the coast or in the southern Rift Valley where the temperatures could reach 40+ degs C.

    In contrast, the old Peugeot 403 never suffered from any overheating no matter what the conditions.Other good features of the Maxi:  the ease with which it became a bed for the 2 children when we went out to friends for an evening; much more convenient and safer than trying to find a babysitter; and the shelter afforded by the large opened tailgate when it was raining.On leaving Nairobi to return to UK in 1975, I was sad to leave the faithful Maxi with Benbros, the British Leyland agents in Nairobi, in exchange for another Leyland product, a Jaguar XJ6, awaiting collection on arrival home.

    That’s another story ….Happy Days.

  28. randj says:

    i owned 2 maxis one was CAB 2H that was a 1500 cable change i had no problems with gear change . the only problem i had was it started to burn oil i strpped the engine only to find out that bmc had made a batch of conrods that where an odd size ( mine had one that was slightly oval on the big end ). I bought a 1750 crank and rods cheap these where new i was also ofered a set of 1500 power max pistons new. The result was an engine that increased the power and torque that much you could wheel spin the car pulling away without racing the engine the fuel consumpsion was better (it had the original single carb. I so impressed with the performance i wrote to bmc told them what i had done offered the car for inspection or test. I got e reply that said i had taken the engine away from standard and that would invalidate the warranty ( car was 3 yrs old at time )

  29. Paul says:

    In some respects the Maxi was a niche product that fitted into the BMC/BL range in much the same way that the C Max fits into todays Ford range. It was in effect an early take on the mini people carrier which Renault are credited with inventing with the Scenic in the mid 90s. Trouble is both the C Max and Scenic are based on mainstream vehicles, the Focus and Megane respectively. The low volume Maxi shared nothing (except its doors!) with any other car in BLs range. It even had its own bespoke engine and transmission when launched. BL just washed its hands of the car and left it to fester on into the 80s. If they had used the Maxis underpinnings on a proper mainstream saloon and given the Maxi a decent facelift/rebody it could have been a decent, profitable seller.

  30. David Dawson1 says:

    Why oh why was the Maxi never developed more, sold harder?

    Driving to work this morning and out of nowhere I thought how I’d love to take a drive in one!

  31. Simon Hodgetts says:

    Does anyone else think the Maxi was way, way ahead of it’s time? It was in many ways a predecessor of today’s Golf+, Toyota Auris, SEAT Ibiza estate, Skoda Felicia estate, Ford Fusion, Nissan Qashqai 2WD, and a few others. Not exactly exciting cars, but those that offer sensible solutions to the problems of practicality, robustness, and most importantly, offering the maximum space for minimum outlay. For that vision, Issigonis must be applauded, even if the Maxi was not the runaway success BMC hoped for.

  32. francis brett francis brett says:

    My mates dad had one and several engines!,his father passed awayand the car was left in the garagea few years,we decided to get it running again it smoked that much when we started it th e police and fire brigade turned up!this was about 23 years ago and we still talk about it now,i liked the maxi,with its versatile seats and believe it or not very good handling-they corner flat.

  33. Ha Ha take a look at this says:

    Ha Ha I have good memories of the maxi racing, when we could keep the wheels, fly wheel and drive shafts for not coming off or breaking take a look at this and i was on ly 17, night before I had wrote my mini cooper 998 off,

  34. David Dawson1 says:

    Been pondering my long term motoring future – What will come after the ZR, hopefully in MANY years time. I’d like to always be able to source a mint BL>MG Rover car of some kind. It could end up being anything. Practically speaking, something newer – R8, 45, another 75 ?? HOWEVER, I have several times recently been thinking ‘MAXI’ !

  35. JH Gillson says:

    I find it hard to hate the Maxi, but you’ve got to wonder at the wisdom of tooling up for a brand new engine and transmission but not finding a few million extra for a new set of doors.

    Now if it had ridden on a 100″ wheelbase as originally envisaged that would imply that the car’s length would have been about 154″ – or about 2″ longer than the later Allegro.

    In other dimensions the Allegro and Maxi are really quite similar – the Aggro’s front and rear tracks were a bit wider, the height of the two cars were about the same.

    A shsme really, because if the Maxi had been developed as the shorter car originally proposed then the Allegro wouldn’t really have been needed.

    BLMC could then have save itself the Allegro’s £30 million development budget whipping that E-series engine into shape, and revising/refining/restyling its exisitng front platforms into products more in tune with 70s tastes.

    Of course, it didn’t happen but I still find it bizarre that with the Allegro the company didn’t just start with the idea of producing a truncated Maxi rather than with the notion of making a larger ADO16, because as we know the car grew through development hell into the pudding we all know and secretly ache to own.

    They really could have saved themselves an awful lot of grief.

  36. Glenn Aylett says:

    The Maxi post 1969 was a good car and technology wise light years ahead of the Cortina. I can always remember the fifth speed making the Maxi very quiet at high speed, the wood dahsboard gave it a classier look than the black plastic on its rivals and having a very good ride.

  37. Tony Evans says:

    I knew several Maxi owners. One christened theirs “Bellamy” because it had so much “character”. I remember the outstanding features were the bus like steering wheel and playing “hunt the gear” when you could never be sure if you were in 3rd or 5th or 2nd or 4th.

    Space and practicality were great, engineering was lousy. So nearly a great car, and how brilliant would an estate version have been?

  38. I would like to see a picture of a Maxi next to a MINI just for comparison.

  39. Stefan Veld says:

    I own one. Nice car, some rough edges to it, but utterly reliable, cheap to run and great fun/comfort.

    It’s one of 18 remaining, taxed and MOT’d Maxi’s in Holland at the moment.

  40. Dickie524 says:

    I can’t help but think the 4-door maxi, despite the rather ungainly high rump, might have been worth pursuing as a more direct Cortina rival: as it says elsewhere on here, the British public were wary of 5-doors at this time, so I think it might have been a goer, and with minimal additional investment too.

  41. Flemming Hintze Thisted says:

    I drove 2 of those cars for 15 years.
    I still wonder why they werent a huge succes?
    I loved mine,lots of interior space, powerfull, carried heavy loads well, good as towcars, lot of power at low revs, easy to park, fine on motorways,steady as rocks in strong sidewind. I even still find them pretty. A renault 16 was in the family too for some years – also pretty – but no competition on all the other aspects mentioned.
    For 2 years in a row it was the car that you most often bougt again-and most often would recomend to a friend in a survey made by FDM (Danish AA).

    Flemming Thisted

  42. Stevo says:

    My dad had a red 1750 version with twin su carbs, it was really quick for me as a new driver. I really liked it even though the gearbox was still suspect even on the later cars (especially when brought up on the ford gearbox in a Corsair!).

    For me the Maxi was a bit different, much better than the Allegro. Interesting to read the comparisons with the Ford Focus.

    The Maxi was also part of one of my best car stories ever, with my dad going through 4 cars in a day. On the day of my sisters 21st birthday we had a Triumph 2.5pi in the garage awaiting a new engine. The Morris Marina we had on loan as a company car decide to blow its Cylinder head gasket picking up my auntie from Billingham, in Cleveland for the party. We had to get a tow back to Newcastle, which did not go down well.

    My dad didn’t let this phase him he just went straight back to work and selected another Marina from the compound, but this was left on the banks of the Tyne when it wouldn’t even bump start.

    I remember thinking it was cool when he went back to the compound (this was not a car dealership by the way) and said to the securiy guard, “whose is that car in the corner” (a brand new white N reg Maxi). When told it was a blokes new car who was in America for work he said “well he won’t need it today will he” and promptly took the keys!

    Four cars in a day, all British. Not sure what that says, but as a 18 year old I loved it and I think this was the start of the love affair with all things AR. It helped that I was allowed to drive all his company cars. He got new ones (hand me downs) every few months. He had loads of different marques during the years, but at that time they were all BL.

    Back to the point, the Maxi we had was a good car. Spacious, quick in this form and something a bit different. I liked the fact that it was narrower than other family cars (a bit like the first focus). One I will always remember, now what was that reg number!

  43. Rammstein says:

    The Renault R16 was brilliant, brilliantly engineered, brilliant industrial design by Philippe Charbonneaux, the Maxi was none of that.
    The Renault R16 was avantgarde, just in a good way, the Maxi a mixture of old and new.
    People chose for the Renault R16 by the masses, over 1.8 million were made between 1965 and 1980.
    And in this case, the people were right.
    Guess the R 16 was the first Renault to attrack lots of British buyers as well.

  44. Rammstein says:

    @Keith Adams
    Did read it, have nothing against the Maxi, but in my view the R16 was simply the better car.
    Like the seventies Princess could have been a real great car.
    Coz it stood out against the competition.

  45. Keith Adams Keith Adams says:

    So you’ll know we said the same thing.

  46. anamair says:

    They should have offered electric windows (at least in the front) and central locking. And perhaps an electrically operated sunshine roof too. R16TX had it.

  47. drae says:

    While the mock up 4 door was ugly, was it uglier that the 5 door? Not selling a 4 door was clearly a mistake. While the Maxi is a bit plain I don’t doubt a little bit of tinkering with the detail would have made it prettier. Changing the brightwork around the windows for example or altering the crome rubbing strip.

    Equally if you had to use these giant doors why not make a SWB 3 door/ 2 door. And as said the absense of an estate is lunatic.

    One of the reason the Maxi failed to be come cool was that inspite of successfull race and rally versions there was no warmed up cooper or mg versions as aspirational cars.

    A short wheel base 3 door MG maxi with an uprated 1750 or better a 2200 E6 would have have brought punters into the dealers.

    Peugeut showed it could be done their remarkably simiar cars or the same era. What price an 1800/2200 estate with an extra row of seats?

  48. Keith says:

    Third paragraph seems to be missing a word ” it didn’t long” . How about “take”? 😉

  49. Morten says:

    This is a great example of management incompetence. First it is dictated to use the landcrab doors (were doors really that expensive to make?) and then they build an entirely new factory for producing an entirely new engine – no expenses spared. Only to end up with an underpowered engine of compromised design. I think they regarded Issigonis as a God, his decisions were not questioned. Wouldn’t the money have been better spent on styling and then being less ambitious about the engine. Maybe use an updated B-series… dare I say B+… 🙂

  50. possum says:

    1977 austin 1100 hydrostatic suspension. there a coil spring replacement or air/bag ride kit I can put in as the suspension system is extremely hard to get parts and refill in my country

  51. Martin A says:

    I had three maxis – the first a 1500cc with cable gearchange and the other two (bought new) 1750cc’s with the replacement gearchange.

    For me, with a young family, it was an ideal car – economical, with bags of space and you could sleep in it at a pinch. A comfortable motorway cruiser with its 5th gear, almost unique for the time.

    The original cable gearchanger was simply horrible but even the replacement gearchange was not ideal. My wife could never master it.

    These days, I regard buying new cars as a mug’s game. But in the 1970’s most 15 year-old cars were rust lacework bundles of trouble, so I’m not sure what it would have made sense to buy instead.

    Through the 1970’s and 80’s I watched the slow-motion train crash of the BL of Lord Stokes, Michael Edwardes and Red Robbo, without, so far as I can remember, feeling any resentment that I was using my tax-paid income to shore up their circus.

  52. michael hurricane hicken says:

    Maxi’s were so well designed you could get anything in them, except 1st gear.

  53. mike price-james says:

    What was the best car, the Maxi HL or the Renault 16 TL. My money is on the Maxi, I guess that’s why I’m broke.

    Seriously though, I used to be a mechanic and distinctly recall the Maxi being much cheaper to get spares than the Renault’s of the day.

    Anyway, here is a road test, enjoy:

  54. mike price-james says:

    Another road test, its the Renault 16 again, this time its joined by the VW Passat and the venerable

  55. mike price-james says:

    Austin Maxi HL – Renault 20 TL & Volkswagen Passat LS Group Road Test

  56. Graham Pearson says:

    The first Austin Maxi I remember seeing was that belonging to one of my neighbours in the Hackbridge Park Gardens area of Carshalton. Not surprisingly an autistic transvestic fetishist adolescent boy with shoulder length brown hair and brown eyes is taken out in an Austin Maxi driven by his father in one of my stories.

  57. Richardw says:

    A fact little mentioned is that the Maxi 5 speed gearset was repackaged into an inline configuration and used by Lotus – first in the Elan Plus 2S 130/5, then in the Series 1 Lotus Elite and Eclat. It wasn’t really strong enough to take 160bhp without careful treatment and was subsequently replaced in 1980 by a Getrag unit. I wonder why AR never used this repackaged configuration in the MGB and Marina at least? And even in the Triumph Dolomite?

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