History : The road to perdition – Part Four
In Part Four of this fascinating series, which originally appeared in Vehicle Engineer, AROnline Contributor Ian Elliott brings us the insider’s perspective on the formation of British Leyland and the subsequent introduction of the Maxi and Marina…
AN even longer-stroke version of the E-Series, the 1750cc unit, was created for greater power, and a rod-operated gearshift was developed. All of the transverse-mounted BMC-style power units – A-, B-, and E-Series – were to be progressively moved to this rod-type remote control. Issigonis had been well aware of the possibility of simplifying and improving the gear change linkages in this way, with the control rod entering the gearbox low down at the rear.
However, Issigonis did not want to put his trust in the sliding oil seal that this required, as it was well below the surface of the oil in the transmission/sump. By and large, though, these seals proved reliable, provided that they were not damaged during assembly. The 1750 and improved 1500 Maxis were duly launched with new facias and interior trim at the 1970 British Motor Show.
Although the Maxi, like the 1800, never became a top seller, its excellent package, versatility and superior roadworthiness secured it a loyal following among buyers who put function above style. Other smaller projects that had already been started by BMC were followed through by BLMC.
The ADO20 facelift of Mini, which involved internal door hinges, wind-up windows and a subtle re-design of many parts of the body shell, was expanded to embrace the Clubman saloon and estate, plus the 1275GT, all with a four inches longer, squared-up nose. This was really another piece of ‘Cortina-isation’ from the Roy Haynes team, and was purely cosmetic.
However, the new Austin Morris sales and marketing director Filmer M. Paradise – an American, of course – ventured to claim that the impression of extra impact safety given by a longer bonnet would win more sales. The new Mini range, now without Austin or Morris badges, was launched in 1969, shortly after the Mini’s 10th birthday.
Purists wailed, especially because the 1275GT replaced the much loved Mini-Cooper, but there’s no denying the fact that Mini volumes did rise for a couple of years, attaining their all-time maximum annual global production – 318,475 units – in 1971. Very few cars reach their peak at 12 years of age. Though, if anyone had suggested then that the Mini had another 29 years to go, they would have been sectioned.
Further up the BMC range were two related models that had suffered difficult births in 1967: the MGC and the Austin 3-litre, both using a sort of ‘born again’ version of the C-Series six-cylinder engine, with seven main bearings.
The MGC was really a low-budget attempt to replace the Austin Healey 3000, which was dropped by BMC – not by BLMC – before the merger simply because it was too old to re-engineer for new safety and emissions legislation in America and Europe.
NOT surprisingly, although the revised C-Series engine was a little lighter than the old one, it was still quite a lump to accommodate in a place previously occupied by the 1.8-litre B-Series in the MGB. Some front end structural modifications and a new torsion bar front suspension had been necessary to package the big-six engine into the MG sports car.
Rather more difficult to understand was the ADO61 Austin 3-litre, which visually at least was an ADO17 1800 cabin with long bonnet and tail, plus a conventional front-engine, rear-drive configuration. It was intended to replace the handsome Farina Austin Westminster/Wolseley 6/110 and the unsuccessful Vanden Plas 4-litre R. And I suspect the only man who could really have explained ADO 61 was Sir George Harriman, who died in 1973.
However, I proffer a hypothesis. In the early 1960s, BMC had collaborated with Rolls-Royce on several projects which explored the possibility of Rolls-Royce expanding its range downwards by adapting some of BMC’s existing body shells. One of these projects used the big Farina shell as a basis. Another took elements of the ADO17 1800 shell, but extended it and converted it to rear drive. Quite extensive work had been carried out before Rolls-Royce decided that it ought to stick to its own knitting.
I BELIEVE that George Harriman then latched on to these part-completed projects as potential windfalls for BMC, regardless of whether they made sense or not. The Rolls-engined big Farina duly became the 1964 VDP Princess 4-litre R, and the stretched ADO17 became the 1967 3-litre.
I submit that neither car would ever have evolved within BMC without the impetus of the aborted R-R projects. Neither really fitted into any sort of BMC product plan, and by all accounts there was little enthusiasm for them on the part of Issigonis and his engineering team. If you wanted to pinpoint the beginning of real media disaffection with BMC/BLMC et al, it would be instructive to read the press coverage of the MGC and Austin 3-litre. Neither car really shone on short acquaintance. Although sweet-running, the engine lacked any real brio, and was thirsty, particularly before it was fully run-in.
The MGC understeered, and the 3-litre looked gawky. People who lived with the cars, however, discovered many ‘hidden charms’, and retrospective assessments over recent years have been much more positive. But this couldn’t save them in the new BLMC organisation, where they competed, respectively with the Triumph TR5 and the Rover/Triumph saloons.
The MGC and MGC GT died after only two years and less than 9000 units, while the 3-litre had sold almost 10,000 units when it stopped in 1971.
It was notable that George Turnbull, the ex-Triumph director who ran Austin Morris from 1968 to September, 1973, clung doggedly to his personal Austin 3-litre long after it should have been replaced, to the anguish of the Longbridge transport manager. Harry Webster was often to be seen driving a prototype ice-blue metallic ADO 61 with a Wolseley grille and a rather different exhaust note.
It had a Rover V8 engine that significantly enhanced performance, economy and handling – development engineers of the time said that it was the best car that the company never made. Apparently, brief consideration was even given to actually turning this hybrid into a Rover to replace the now ageing P5B, but doubtless the Solihull folk were able to point out the credibility risks of such a move, while defending their P8 project.
In any case, the ADO61 platform was expensive to make, with many low-volume dedicated parts, especially for the complex rear self-levelling mechanism applied to the Hydrolastic suspension. It had to go.
Though BLMC was accused of not rationalising its model ranges fast enough, the number of Austin Morris models was halved from 24 to 12 within the first five years – by moves such as deleting the entire Riley range.
HOWEVER, Austin Morris was not to be without ‘flagship’ models for too long, thanks to another ‘BMC hangover’ project. This involved the insertion of the six-cylinder OHC E-Series into the ADO17 1800 body to create the Austin and Morris 2200 models and the Wolseley Six.
The 2227cc E6 engine had been developed primarily for BMC Australia, which needed larger engines to compete with its American-owned Ford and Holden rivals. BMC Australia introduced its own distinctive E6-powered Austin X6 derivatives, the Tasman and Kimberley, in 1970. But the equivalent 2200 models were not launched in the UK and Europe until 1972.
The first thing anyone saw when opening the bonnet was that the radiator was mounted at the front, not at the side. So the E-Series designers need not have squeezed that cylinder head quite so hard after all. Nevertheless, the E Series worked best as a six-cylinder, being smooth, quite acceptably powerful and even rather good-looking in an age when it was still possible to actually see an engine, rather than a sea of plastic mouldings.
SO much for BMC’s ‘on-going’ models. But what was to be done for the vital small/medium models?
The ADO 16 1100/1300 range had led the UK sales charts for most of the 1960s, but it was very much a retail car – it didn’t appeal to the fast-growing numbers of fleet buyers who were now firmly wedded to the Ford Cortina. The Farina Cambridge/Oxford models were now very old hat, with ten-year-old styling and near 20-year-old mechanicals.
The 1800 and Maxi had failed to pick up the medium Farina business as intended, so Austin Morris’s product planners were faced with a conundrum: how could they sustain the market share of the 1100/1300 while at the same time competing with the Cortina? Roy Haynes had already been thinking about this. In fact he’d been taking a Pressed Steel ‘corporate’ view that spanned the range from Austin Morris to Jaguar, even before the Leyland merger.
He had envisaged a Cortina-beater – ADO28 – which could provide a basic platform for other models, even up to a small Jaguar. Does this ring any bells today?
As a Ford-trained man, Haynes knew all about the engineering and cost benefits of platform sharing and modular running gear. The new guard were not impressed. Instead they decided that ADO28 should be developed purely as a Cortina rival under the ‘conventional’ Morris brand, and that it should endeavour to use the underpinnings of the Morris Minor, now in its dotage.
A completely different new ‘advanced’ Austin car, the ADO67, would be engineered to replace the 1100/1300, thus rejecting a proposed significant upgrade of the existing ADO 16 design that had been prepared by Charles Griffin. There were two huge flaws in this strategy. Firstly, even if savings could be made by carrying over Morris Minor parts for the ADO28, this approach was still going to split the modest capital investment available between two projects.
And, secondly, the equally modest engineering resource available within Austin Morris would also be split two ways, even before taking account of various lesser projects also going on at this stage.
Also, bear in mind that in 1968 huge demands were being imposed on engineering departments, working to comply with an array of completely new safety and environmental laws, especially for models sold in the USA.
HAVING written many a launch press kit over the years, I came to the conclusion that vehicle engineers should have a brass plaque screwed to the wall saying: ‘There is NO such thing as a carry-over part’. A slight exaggeration, but take for example the ADO28, which appeared as the Marina in 1971.
The only feature of the final design that really bore any resemblance to the Morris Minor was the torsion bar front suspension. And, even here, there were few if any common parts. Someone suggested to me that a grease seal might have been carried over. Nevertheless, by starting with a Morris Minor layout, the end result was-unnecessarily compromised and no cost saving was achieved.
Some other Marina parts were related to existing components. The gearbox was a single-rail selector version of the Triumph rear-drive gearbox used on the Herald/Vitesse 1600 family.
A new production facility was set up at Longbridge to make this gearbox in the volumes projected for the Marina. It was just about man enough for the 1.3-litre A-Series models, but it was prone to wilting when subjected to the robust torque of the 1.8-litre B-Series engine, especially in 1.8TC form. The live rear axle, with its drum brakes also had Triumph origins.
As a package, the Marina was quite space-efficient. I saw full size tape drawings that showed it to be quite close to the front-drive cars in passenger space-to- length relationship. An unusual feature was that the two-door version was styled as a Coupé, and used the same front doors as the 4-door saloon.
In order to balance the side profile of the Coupé, the original style had a relatively small rear side window and a heavier D pillar. When Sir William Lyons, by then a BLMC main board director, saw the styling model, he recommended enlargement of the rear quarter glass. This was done in deference to his track record in styling, but the jury is still out as to whether he was right.
It is customary to revile the Marina as a ‘worst car in the world‘ contender, but in fact it was surprisingly successful in relation to the modest resource used to create it. Within a year of launch it was taking more than seven per cent of the UK market, a figure that later re-incarnations of the company would have killed for.
IN 13 years, including the later Ital versions, the Marina sold well in excess of one million units. Many owners were happy with the car. It was probably at its best in Estate car form, simply because the higher-rate suspension improved the handling significantly. A very early 1.8 Estate from the press fleet served me very well for two years, apart from the inevitable gearbox and front damper replacement – but at least its simple design made such work very straightforward.
For several years, I made regular trips between Longbridge and Cowley, and my diary notes that, despite using a variety of different BLMC or competitive assessment cars up to 5.3 litres, by far the quickest out and return trip was in a bog-standard – yes, I checked – 1.8 Marina Coupé. It really flew, but I still don’t really know why.
In his next instalment, Ian Elliott will examine aspects of the ADO 67 Allegro, ADO 71 Princess and contemporary Jaguar, Rover and Triumph products.
Is the Editor of the Parkers website and price guide, formerly editor of Classic Car Weekly, and launch editor/creator of Modern Clsssics 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 unfeasable adventures all across Europe.