Unsung Heroes : BMC 1100/1300…
…or ADO16 to the aficionados
For those, like me, who absolutely adore the BMC 1100/1300, it’s actually quite tough reconciling the fact that next month will mark the 50th birthday of this fabulous little car. Not because it doesn’t deserve a big party, and lots of emotional tributes – after all, the 1100/1300 is as ingrained into UK popular culture of the 1960s, ’70s and even ’80s as anything else born of that year – but because it reminds me that we’re all aging far too quickly.
When I was growing up, and my passion and interest in cars knew no bounds (a bit like now, really, but without the ability of being able to consummate this relationship) I loved the 1100. During those formative years, there were rather a lot of of 1100/1300s around – in typical Northern street scene around 1980, you could guarantee that at least one in ten cars was one of these happy-looking smiling blighters. Or a least that’s how I remember things.
Whatever, the true number of 1100s on the road, I think it’s the smiling face that truly endeared the 1100 to me from an early age. Not their ubiquity (I’m still a bit cold on Cortinas, for instance), but that anthropomorphic quality about them that made 1100s stand out. Of course, as a lover of Fawlty Towers and (later), Clockwise, I can’t help but associate 1100s with the second-best Python, but I think I just ‘dig’ 1100s, and just can’t believe that something so appealing could really be really 50 years old.
Thankfully my love of these cars was justified. When ADO16 was launched, it really was something of a tour de force, packing the Mini’s innovative transverse engine, transmission-in-sump drivetrain, combining it with Moulton’s clever fluid Hydrolastic suspension system, and clothing it in a family-sized Pininfarina-penned crisp-looking body. What was not to like?
Certainly, the British public found the ADO16 irresistible, and despite only being available in Morris form from launch, and sold only through the Nuffield half of the BMC dealer network, the new car proved to be an instant hit. By the time the Austin side of the family appeared and the entire range was on on son by 1966, the 1100 was selling like hot pasties in a northern town, and was unquestionably the UK’s most popular car.
But being a best-seller doesn’t mean it’s any good. After all, look at how many Brits bought Cortina MkIVs. In the case of the 1100, however, its popularity was wrapped up in brilliance – here was a car that was cheap to buy (too cheap, as it happens), looked good, drove well, and was capable of giving the average family man everything he could possibly want in a car. More than that, the 1100 proved that technology in a car didn’t put off buyers at all.
In fact, it utterly enhanced the 1100. Keen rack-and-pinion steering and front-wheel drive stability made the ADO16 fun in the bends, but its Hydrolastics equally provided a relatively cossetting drive. Yes, it wasn’t without faults – but an awkward driving position with badly-positioned switches, and a curious propensity to rise and fall like the tide were amiable eccentricities that could be shrugged off with a smile.
But we know what happened. The Cortina grew and became even more family-friendly, while the 1100 and 1300 retained its original packaging. The 1100 gained a reputation for servicing belligerence, while the Cortina’s reliable simplicity and cost-effective servicing won it more and more friends. And by 1970, and the arrival of the Cortina MkIII, the two former sparring partners were no longer rivals – and buyers were growing up with Uncle Henry, and not British Leyland.
But the happy little 1100 and 1300 held on to their best-selling position in the charts right until the end in 1973, which is a remarkable achievement, given the arrival of the Marina in 1971. But then, the ADO16 was a remarkable car.
So, why are we heralding what was effectively Britain’s most popular car for a decade as an unsung hero? Simple really… the poor little thing wasn’t built as well as it could be, and for someone of my age who can remember it, the sight of them fizzing, decomposing and returning to mother earth was all-too common during the 1980s. And that meant that what was once Britain’s best car was now Britain’s worst banger. People’s perceptions of the ADO16 were poisoned by this, and as a consequence, even today, this design masterpiece’s legacy has been tarnished by rust, apathy, and the long shadow cast by its vastly inferior replacement.
So, as the mainstream press heap mountain-loads of praise on 1962′s star launches, the MGB, AC Cobra Ford Cortina and Lotus Elan, the 1100 is being sidelined like the distant cousin with halitosis at a wedding party. And that’s a real shame because it’s neither fair nor justified.
So, come 15 August 2012 – and the 50th anniversary of the launch of the Morris 1100 – let’s get flag-waving, and give this hero the praise it truly deserves!