Concepts and prototypes : Maxi-based Aquila

Carole Nash Classic Insurance Specialists

The biggest criticism normally aimed at the Maxi – other than the early model’s obstructive gear change – is usually reserved for its Plain Jane styling.

The Aquila showed how it could have been made into a far more stylish beast. Alas, it was only ever to be a one-off styling exercise.


What might have been

BL Aquila prototype at the 1973 London Motor Show (Picture: Shahin, www.paykanhunter.com)
BL Aquila prototype at the 1973 London Motor Show (Picture: Shahin, www.paykanhunter.com)

As the winning entry in a newspaper-sponsored design competition, it would be easy to dismiss the car as a flight of whimsy, but some of its features – such as the design of the door frames, the absence of rain gutters and the integrated bumper/valance mouldings – would become commonplace on cars of the next decade.

The design may also have influenced Harris Mann in his conception of ADO99 – the Maxi’s replacement, which would eventually emerge as the Maestro. The construction cost of the fully-built Aquila is thought to have been around £26,000 – no mean sum for 1972; the car still exists today, in the hands of an enthusiast.

Chris Field’s finest hour?

Its designer, Chris Field, went on to produce the Lotus 7-inspired, Rover V8-powered, 150 mph Leopard Mirach (10 built from 1988 to 1992). He later became involved in the development of pursuit and time-trial bikes, designing the bike on which Jason Queally won the UK’s first cycling gold medal at the Sydney Olympics in 2000.

This was followed-up with the Blueyonder Challenger, the aerodynamically-bodied recumbent cycle in which Queally attempted the human-powered vehicle (HPV) world record. Field also founded the Hotta brand, designing and producing hi-tech performance bikes.

The following details have been reproduced from the official brochure issued at the 1973 British Motor Show.


Details of the Aquila

Based on the Austin Maxi underframe and mechanicals, Aquila is a five-door car with a completely new, hand-made body, designed with 1976 in mind.

A severely sloping bonnet line, together with a fast windscreen angle, combined for good air penetration and the least amount of aerodynamic disturbance. Additionally, and to complement this theme, air for cooling the radiator and engine is taken in beneath the bumper level in the area of the number plate housing and through slots just forward of the air-dam.

The passenger area contains a large amount of glass with deep wide windows producing a low waist line. The rear end of the car, with the fifth door, is cut off abruptly for practical and aerodynamic reasons. Both front and rear pillars are slim to allow good all-round vision, but to provide extra strength the B-pillar is very wide; this helps the design visually to give support to the exceptionally long glass area.

Sleek looks, plastic bumpers

The four doors have frames which turn into the roof of the car. This allows easier entry and also eliminates the rain gutter from the outside body surface to produce a much cleaner appearance, with the additional benefit of reducing aerodynamic drag.

Plastic bumpers front and rear extend down to form the underbody valance areas which shroud the otherwise visible mechanical features. The headlights, mounted directly above the line of the bumper, are behind transparent covers that continue the shape of the surrounding surfaces.

At the front, wrap-around direction indicators are mounted within the bumper assembly for protection, while at the rear the stop/tail lights, reflectors, indicators, fog-warning and reverse lights are mounted in a full width panel just above the bumper. To continue the clean design, the number plates are built into the bumper units.

Five-door hatchback, with the latest safety features

Made of steel, the body is fully undersealed and finished in a special bright silver paint. Tinted Sundym glass throughout provides a pleasant contrast to the body colour. The rear window contains a heater element and the windscreen has a built-in radio aerial.

The seating arrangement inside the car can be varied to suit different needs: the front seats, with built-in head restraints, can be made to recline fully, providing a useful sleeping platform; similarly, the rear seat can be folded forward to make a spacious area for luggage. Cloth trim is used for the seat facings, with PVC surrounds.

PVC padded door trims house recessed door openers as well as the control switches for the electrically-operated windows. PVC is also used for the headlining. Both the passenger and load carrying floor areas are fully carpeted. The instrument panel is a self-contained unit with all switches and controls within easy reach, and is extended downwards to form a knee guard.

The British Styling Competition

A joint venture between the Institute of British Carriage and Automobile Manufacturers and the Daily Telegraph Magazine.

In the 1971/72 British Styling Competition designers were asked for a blueprint for a family saloon of a style suitable for 1976 onwards based on the Austin Maxi mechanicals.

The design of ‘Aquila’, submitted by Mr Christopher Field of Headland Court, Lower Rea Road, Brixham, Devon, was awarded First Prize. His drawing was displayed with other prominent entries on the British Styling Stand at the 1972 Earls Court Motor Show.

Between that time and the formal unveiling and presentation of by HRH The Duke of Kent at the Europa Hotel in London on Tuesday 9 October, 1973, the designer, co-ordinator and builder, in collaboration with specialist suppliers, worked to build a full-size car from the winning design as a road-worthy prototype motor car.

  • Although proper credit is given below, mention should be made of the generosity of the British Leyland Motor Corporation for not only supplying the Maxi chassis on which Aquila was built, but also bearing a large proportion of the cost of building;
  • to Woodall Nicholson Ltd of Halifax, the builders of Aquila;
  • to the Daily Telegraph Magazine; and to the suppliers who contributed either or both money and materials.
  • Mr G F Moseley, a member of the Institute with wide coachbuilding experience, undertook the difficult task of co-ordinating the building project – a job he did most successfully when ‘Cirrus’ was produced last year.

Aquila can be seen on display at the 1973 Motor Show at Earls Court on the joint IBCAM/Daily Telegraph stand (No.9).


Contributors to the building of the Aquila car

Company/Concern Contribution
Institute of British Carriage & Automobile Manufacturers and their British Styling Competiton Committee Project organiser.
The Daily Telegraph Magazine Project sponsor.
British Leyland Motor Corporation Financial contribution. Suppliers of mechanical and other units; insurance; registration; road testing and transport arrangements; promotion and publicity arrangements.
Wilmot Breeden Ltd Financial contribution. Door locks and handles.
Dunlop Ltd (Dunlopillo Division) Financial contribution. Front and rear seat foam components.
Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI) Ltd
(Paints Division)
Financial contribution. Paint (special silver).
Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI) Ltd
(Hyde Motor Group)
Financial contribution. PVC-coated fabrics (“Ambla” and “Vynide”).
Firth Furnishings Ltd Financial contribution. Carpets and seat facings.
Kay-Metzeler Ltd Financial contribution.
British Wire Products Ltd Financial contribution.
Triplex Safety Glass Company Ltd Windscreen; backlight, door and quarter glasses.
Giles Reinforced Plastics Ltd Front and rear bumpers and valance mouldings.
Joseph Lucas Ltd External lamps; interior roof lights.
Rubery Owen & Co Ltd (Motor Division) Road wheels.
Dunlop Ltd (Tyres, Accessory and Equipment Division) Tyres.
Edward Rose (Birmingham) Ltd Door frames.
Clifford Coverings Ltd Steering wheel.
Silent Channel Products Ltd Glass runs and weatherstrip.
Smiths Industries Ltd (Motor Accessory Division & Radiomobile) Instruments and radio.
Britax (London) Ltd Seat belts.
Woodall Nicholson Ltd Designing, drawing and translating stylist’s ideas; manufacturing of necessary jigs, templates, formers, etc.; manufacture, paint, trim and finish of Aquila body.

Austin Aquila (1)

Keith Adams

Keith Adams

Editor and creator AROnline at AROnline
Created www.austin-rover.co.uk in 2001 and built it up to become the world's foremost reference source for all things BMC, Leyland and Rover Group, before renaming it AROnline in 2007.

Is the Editor of the Parkers website and price guide, formerly editor of Classic Car Weekly, and launch editor/creator of Modern Classics magazine. Has contributed to various motoring titles including Octane, Practical Classics, Evo, Honest John, CAR magazine, Autocar, Pistonheads, Diesel Car, Practical Performance Car, Performance French Car, Car Mechanics, Jaguar World Monthly, MG Enthusiast, Modern MINI, Practical Classics, Fifth Gear Website, Radio 4, and the the Motoring Independent...

Likes 'conditionally challenged' motors and taking them on unfeasible adventures all across Europe.
Keith Adams

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47 Comments

  1. Oh look, another surefire world-beating winner that went nowhere!
    That design wouldn’t look ‘out-of-place’ in 2012! How can it be that British Leyland and associated designers stumbled upon such great ideas and either completely ignored them or hideously disfigure them prior to production.

  2. When I first saw a picture of this I was reminded a bit of the Mk3 Astra from the windscreen back.
     
    Some more attractive wheels would help slightly.

  3. This is 11 billion times better looking than the frumpy Maxi. It has that wow factor. BL snatching defeat from the jaws of victory again?

  4. So in 1973 they came up with this thing of beauty as a potential Maxi replacement, then 10 years – 10 years! later actually replaced it with the bloody Maestro! The people running whatever the company happened to be called at the time where useless, arrogant, incompetent, inept, total wastes of skin. The company deserved to go bust many years before 2005.

  5. The British Leyland Car Crash book makes the point that both the 1800 and Maxi where both futile attempts by BMC to capture the middle market that effectively competed with each other. It makes the case that instead of launching the Princess in 1975, the company should have produced a proper mid-liner similar in size to the Mk3 Cortina to replace both cars. This is it. A Hatchback Austin Aquila and a saloon derivative with Morris branding.

  6. There’s an awful lot going on in this excellent concept car. The frontal treatment, headlamps and front air dam pre-empt the Ford Sierra by nearly 10 years. The side profile pre-empts the Ital Design Medusa by 7 years. I don’t quite see the Astra connection, but I do see some FIAT Uno in there, and also some Yugo Sana, also Ital Design cars……it would have been quite a coup for BL if they had actually taken the plunge in, say 1976….

  7. They never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity, did they?

    I think this would have been the ‘Englishman’s Citroen’ and would have sold at least as well as the Maxi and 1800 combined- and could probably have gone on, with restyles, for at least 10 years. The Maxi was a failure on a number of levels, not least in that it was a relatively high tech car that looked very conservative, and so pleased almost nobody. This could so easily have redressed the balance.

    But then I suppose the stumbling block may have been that it didn’t use the 1800’s doors…

  8. If this car entered production as a Cortina rival, how would it have properly competed against the range-topping V6 cortina models without being converted to RWD?

  9. @11, Nate,

    This car would no more have been a Cortina rival than the Princess, the 1800, or the Maxi.

    What BL needed was a conservatively engineered RWD car (like a Marina, but with an extra few quid spent on giving it proper suspension), as well as the Aquila.

    Citroen showed that with good aerodynamics, a relatively small engined car could punch above its weight- no Citroen (aside from the SM) boasted a six-pot until the XM came on stream. And if the E6 would have fitted (as suggested by Richard above) then it could potentially have been a very competitive offering- assuming things didn’t get cocked up on the way to market.

    If (and this is a big ‘if…’) the chassis dynamics of this car could have been made to work well, and the build was up to scratch, then Ford’s conservative engineering would not have looked like such a winning formula, so Ford might have been ‘wrong-footed’- and forced to come up with something dynamically better than the Cortina- perhaps a Sierra several years earlier? After all, it didn’t take Vauxhall that long to persuade the rep brigade that a FWD Cav was a better car than it’s predecessor, and after that all such cars, except the Sierra, would become FWD.

  10. Chris Baglin

    It would have certainly been interesting to see how other automakers like Ford would have responded to the Aquila, let alone envisioning a coupe Aquila.

    I suppose the Aquila could have adopted the Saab route by making use of an early 2.0 O-Series Turbo with 140 bhp in place of a E6, SD1-Six, Rover V6 or potential O6 to compete with the Cortina and other 6-cylinder rivals.

    BL could have also made use of the stillborn P82 or SD2 platforms for a conservatively engineered RWD car.

  11. @15, Nate,

    Not sure about the early adoption of a Turbo- I don’t think they would be forgiven for things like lag and likely engine/component fragility- SAAB had the advantage of manufacturing a lot of their components ‘in house’ and were not bugged by the kinds of quality and labour issues that BL had. Of course, SAAB’s model of car building made less and less sense as the quality of mainstream manufacturers improved in the mid-80s and early 90s. Still, an Aquila Turbo would have been interesting…

    Agree re the SD2.

  12. Chris Baglin

    Regarding the turbo version, that would haved depended on how early they got the O-Series to market though I’d imagine the early turbo O-Series appearing in the Aquila about 2-4 years prior to being replaced by an alternate Montego.

  13. I am sure I saw the Aquila in the showroom of a local motor dealer in the 1970’s.Not sure what happened to it after that.

  14. @11 – Becuase the “range topping” V6 version of the Cortina didnt go on sale untill the 1978 in the Mk4 and nobody bought it! – The E6 would have probably fitted with a front mounted radiator. It was a very narrow engine thanks to its siamesed bores.

  15. It’s interesting to see, back in 1972, how many UK parts suppliers that they could call on for financial help and unique parts supply.

  16. Is there one of these at Gaydon? I would love to see it 🙂

    Its a good collection up there, but with water leakage on the roof..alot of the cars there are being neglected..i went there to see the estate tr7…only to find water dripping on it from the roof :s

  17. Another gutting ‘what should have been’ – in 1973?! this was years ahead of it’s time and pretty much summed up every Citroen for the next 20 years. Why oh WHY did BL not jump on this style. Can you imagine the difference this would have made to the company and industry – this could have been another leap forward like the Mini, maybe not technically, but cars like this didn’t really appear for a further decade, so where would car development be now if this leap-frog model had been launched when it should have been? Everything that BL/ARG/Rover is now remembered for, rather infamously, sadly, is their frumpy, dowdy, aged image. How different things should have been…

  18. Having just said all of that, I remembered that the Princess was actually a very cutting edge design but sadly left in BL’s hands they ruined it by making it badly and not giving it a tailgate… so even when they did kind of make the right choices the succinctly failed to deliver them appropriately… sigh…

  19. £26k then is the equivalent of £266k now, give or take. Somehow that seems pretty cheap for a bespoke steel-bodied, running, trimmed vehicle with custom glass. Isn’t it sad how expensive everything has become?

  20. @22 – James, how you can say that EVERYTHING they are remembered for is frumpy, dowdy and aged, the R8 was far from that in fact was a real head turner for Rover, very profitable, a full range of cars, the R3 was also a great car, if marketed wrongly, the Freelander started a new market sector, like the Discovery and Range Rover before them, all three great cars, not frumpy, dowdy or at all aged.

  21. The Maxi was frumpy. In my memory they always seemed to be beige and driven by the type of person who know drives a Qashcow.

    The SD1 looked like a 4 door Ferrari Daytona and was compared to Maseratis (before Maseratis started looking like Hyundai Stellars, mind!)
    The R8 was stunning, especially in tomcat form. The tourer predated many ‘lifestyle’ estates.
    The R17 looked statesmanlike, in coupe form it was a gorgeous grand tourer.
    Even the 75 had a classy look of Jaguar about it, without BMW restraints in MG form it looked the part of sports saloon.

    The ‘everything BL/Rover did was rubbish’ line is spouted by many people who get their opinions directly from Clarkson and the rest of the media, who are paid huge amounts via advertising and car launches by the german car industry, and had an obsession with bad mouthing the UK domestic volume car industry into oblivion.
    Talk about modern frumpy? The mk3 Golf, especially with premature scabs of rust. The E65 with its ridiculous detailing after the business-like E38. The X5 which is as classy as a walrus in a ballgown.

  22. I remember help build the Aquila at Woodall Nicholson. There was another car built especially for the designer called the Cirrus. Does anyone know what happened to that?

    • Jim, I see that your question is nearly three years old, but I do remember the Cirrus, it was stricing looking car (based on Hillman Avenger mechanicals?) Stupidly I can remember the name of the designer: Michael Moore (Only because a magazine feature about the car at the time was captioned: ‘Micheale Moore’s F;ying Cirrus’!)

  23. @James – Yes the Princess was a cutting edge design style wise, but sized mid way between a Cortina and Granada with 1.8 and 2.2 litre Engines when the market expected to see 1.6 and 2.0 litre units. No one knew what to make of the Princess so no one bought it. The Aquila certainly seems to align more closely with the Mid 70s mid-market market in terms of size, with a 1.6 E4 and 2.0 E6 it may have had the engines as well. Would still have been hobbled with a gearbox in sump transmission and Hydrogas though. As noted above its a shame that this style wasn’t used as a starting point for the Maestro – and that the Maestro didn’t arrive 5 years earlier!

    • The Princess was so sized because having been wrong footed by the size up of the Cortina Mk3 they believed that the fleet would size up again to 1800/Princess size.

      This meant the Princess was kept simple because as with the Mk3 Cortina it was a case of an increase in quantity rather than quality. So it was 4 speed gearbox, those cheap tin bumpers and rear lights and no power steering on the cooking versions.

      However the Fuel Crisis and recession that followed in 73 meant the market was judged not ready to size up with the Mk4 Cortina. It actually did not size up until the mid to late 80’s with the Mk2 Sierra, Peug 405 and Cavalier Mk3 which saw 1.8 and 2 Litre engines become the rep car norm.

    • My thinking exactly – Cortina-sized 4.2m-4.3m, midway between Maxi and Princess (Cortina Mk3 4.27m, Maxi 4.05m, Princess 4.55m), wheelbase 2.6m (Cortina 2.58m, Maxi 2.64m, Princess 2.67m), with 1.3/1.6/1.75 E4 5-speed or 2.0/2.2/2.4 E6 5-speed (with “stretched” casing, Lotus used the gearset so strong enough).

      Styling looks similar to SD1 and SD2, could have shared the doors with rwd SD2 Marina/Dolomite.

      Cash saved from cancelling O-series and OHC 2.3/2.6 engines could have gone to SD2, utilising existing 4-cylinder slant-4 engines and E6 for rwd and E-series engines for fwd.

  24. A lot of wishful thinking and nonsense here. This prototype does look desirable to 2014 eyes and does share visual cues with Citroens of the period, however that does not mean that it would have been succesful in the mid ’70s, even if build quality had been unusually good.

    • It worked for Volkswagen – the Passat and Golf were very much in this mould.

      Hints of SD1, Lotus Esprit/Elite, Lambo Contach. There were a number of “wedge” saloons/hatchbacks that appeared in the mid-70s – Lancia Beta, VW Golf/Passat, Chrysler Alpine.

      BL needed a car that looked as advanced as the mechanicals, to replace it’s aging fwd models. Marina was supposed to be the option for conservative buyers.

  25. Looking at the two cars side be side, it’s easy to see that if you stuck the aquilla nose on the maxi, decromed it, changed the door handles and tidied up the detailing especially at the rear, it would look fairly similar. The actual proportions of the maxi are quite hansome, the detailing pretty awful.

  26. The Maxi was a BMC product, and worse, an Issigonis design. Under BL management, it was to be neglected into oblivion. So no chance of a sensible re-skin.

  27. The Maxi was left to labour on for 12 years with few improvements and by 1981, when it was cancelled, it looked ancient. Had the Aquila replaced it in 1975, then British Leyland would have had a modern hatchback that resembled a Citroen GS and would have sold well.

  28. …looks like Volvo has later, in their 480 coupe of -85-95, adapted the main lines of the front design and especially the front bumper design to the last bit with the low based air-intake. Manufactured about 80500…

  29. Oh no, it’s those flipping Morris Marina door handles again… Rather a nostalgic list of component suppliers.

    • Yeah, I’d have gone with hidden handles ala Renault supercinq, they’re really jarring – one minute you think you’re looking at 2007 and then you see those and it’s 1967..

  30. The style of the Aquila and many of its details were far ahead of its time for 1972. My eyes can see a few SD1 cues and I think that the general style, scaled up slightly, would have made a better SD2 than the David Bache prototype.

  31. I’m always slightly concerned that the BL ‘knockers’ may be too young to have actually experienced BL cars – but are trading off of ‘Dad’s’ word, the pub ‘expert’, general gossip or even some thug on TV.
    If the negatives are genuine opinions based on owning and driving the cars at the time – then I must respect their views (although may not agree with them).

    The Aquila was a real styling exercise in the best ‘Turin’ tradition – a saloon that no doubt our friends at CAR magazine would have approved of at the time (I’m guessing – not had chance to look it up!)

    The problem for BL at the time might have been:
    1) The Maxi was already tooled up and in production
    2) The Maxi shared many components – including the infamous 1800 doors.
    3) The Maxi was an extension of the Isigonis family (although as we know Isigonis never did like the car and has variously been quoted to ‘disown’ it or variations of)
    4) The cost to essentially scrap the Maxi and develop the Aquila would have been significant
    5) More specifically, the cost of getting the ‘one-off’ concept car developed into a ‘production’ car – with all that entails in terms of pattern making, tooling, jig design – right up to interiors and publicity would have been hugely expensive – made worse by the fact the Aquila would share nothing (significant) with any other BL product.
    6) The car would have been essentially a test bed for things we now take for granted – but the door design, window design, bumper design etc – could go hopelessly wrong and it would have been a big gamble.

    Playing devil’s advocate – we could argue that some manufacturers lived and breathed breath-taking design most of their lives – someone has to bite the bullet and be brave. Occasionally, a conservative manufacturer has done this too – as with Ford and the Sierra which changed the face of car styling.

    The big question is whether (had we been in the BL management team at the time), we would have sanctioned the go ahead on this car, bearing in mind we had (at around this time), an uncertain government, a possible fuel crisis, a company of incessant in-fighting, a workforce beset by union agendas hell bent on crippling the company – and a non too secure company financial situation.

    For me to really like the Aquila and think it would have been better to ditch the Maxi and make it – matters not one jot in the scheme of things. I suspect the BL management felt that that same decision could make or break their company. They probably did what they thought was best.

    Previously, when things were more stable, this same company had revolutionised the small motor car, manufactured the best selling family car of the period and exported cars all over the world.

    Timing is everything!

  32. The comparison pic is telling, one that has hidden wipers, a superbird esque front and an understanding of aerodynamics and styling (although not so keen on the tiny little tail lights) and the other that has housebrick syndrome aerodynamics and looks like someone based the styling on a semi detached bungalow..
    But here’s the question as a current or former owner of a Maxi, if you were given the straight choice between the two in 1970-whatever or now, which one would you have? Given that everything mechanical was identical. I’d be picking the concept.
    And I wonder… Given the size of the engine bay, could a rwd 3.5 v8 version have been kitbashed? Would have clobbered the droop snoot vauxhalls. Or even let Lotus tuning loose on them..
    I do wish people would stop bashing hydrogas/hydrolastic, it was a very effective system & much better than the cart springs and struts of things like the Ford Cortina.
    Actually thinking about it the 3.5 is basically 2 banks of 1750cc, and having seen one of these sitting in the engine bay looking desperately lonely, it might be manageable as fwd even. Exhaust routing and height might be a problem but imagine a v8 fwd aquila hatch in the 70s, there would be nothing to touch it.

    • Regarding the idea of converting the Maxi / Aquila to RWD, the question would be whether it carried over more from ADO17 then its doors, especially as the initial ADO17 prototypes did start out with RWD.

      Land Rover did apparently look at developed petrol and diesel slant-4 engines derived from the Rover V8, arguably Rover as well despite there being disagreement over whether the latter was a slant-4 derived from the Rover V8 or a inline-4 that used the same engine tooling at the P6 inline-4 engines.

    • Hydragas gave cars like the Princess and the Ambassador fantastic ride quality, up there with a Jaguar. Even if the Ambassador was outclassed by the Mark 2 Cavalier, commentators always praised the car’s fantastic ride quality and massive interior space, made better with a hatchback.

  33. I wonder if there would have been any more pride and professionalism in BL at the time if they’d been making products like Aquila instead of the outdated miserable dross they ended up with. Less strikes and lost profits? It must get disheartening year after year to be building something no one wants, even for the lowliest apprentice & even if you are getting paid for it.

    • The company seemed to be in a constant state of turmoil in the seventies, and by 1979 there were mutterings British Leyland could go to the wall. However, under Michael Edwardes, decent products like the Austin Metro and the Triumph Acclaim arrested the decline. Also a survival plan, which saw the half the workforce axed, and a harder line with the unions saw productivity improve and losses fall.

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