History : When Alex Moulton tried to advise Spen King

Keith Adams

Austin ADO88 Prototype c1976-7 at The Hall, Bradford-on-Avon

This wonderful vignette of a fertile, tumultuous and ultimately forlorn piece of British Leyland history has come to me directly from the archive of Dr Alex Moulton. In 1975, development of the ADO88 was well underway, with Spen King and Charles Griffin leading the programme. But for Dr Alex Moulton, King was on his way to making a fundamental mistake with the new car.

The plan was a simple one: following the abandonment of the ADO74 project the previous year, British Leyland set about building a new supermini, powered by the Mini’s A-Series transmission-in-sump powertrain and suspended by Allegro-style Hydragas suspension. Unlike the ADO74, which was all-new from the ground-up, the ADO88 was to be put together on a budget. Relatively, of course – as the bill for the final project in 1988 was £275m, but that did include a new factory – fully robotized – to build the car in.

However, back in 1975, Spen King – who wasn’t a Hydragas advocate – was putting together a suspension system that wasn’t interconnected, like that of the Allegro. He liked simplicity, and removing the interconnection – like with the Mini – would help achieve this. But in simple terms, that cost- and complexity-saving option might have been a step too far.

Dr Moulton said in his letter (below, which you can click to download the full version), ‘I feel it is appropriate at this stage to reaffirm our unequivocal belief that the right system for this car is the true interconnected Hydragas…’

It’s not recorded what Spen King’s response this letter was, but the mutual ambivalence both men had for each other at the time is well known. However, the correspondence channel remained open, as the following letter from 1976 revealed. As events transpired, Spen King’s non-interconnected set-up (with a vestigial interconnect pipe for the rear to avoid the ‘three-legged stool effect – as well as separate dampers) was employed in the Austin Metro – a compromise that wasn’t put right until 1990, with the R6 Rover Metro/100.

You can, as always, read the full story only on AROnline, but it’s good to know that it’s been bolstered just a little bit more by the archives of the late Dr Alex Moulton.

ADO88 Letter AEM to CSK 09.10.1975 ADO88 Letter AEM to CSK 28.05.1976

Keith Adams


  1. Nice to see full reference to the title of the former Rover assembly plant at Solihull – the Meteor Works – which is of course now referred to as simply the Land Rover assembly plant. Sadly the Meteor Works name seemed to fall into oblivion rather a long ago.

  2. Great little snippet! In his book A.M. told a little flollow up story: Long after retirement Spen King came to visit Alex Moulton in Bradford-on-Avon. Since his car was broken down, Alex lent him a car to drive home in – fittingly his (fully interconnected) Rover Metro…

  3. David: Meteor wouldnt have anything to do with a Tank Engine of the same name would it?

    Alexander: I think that comes under the heading ‘revenge is sweet’. Its a nice feeling when you’ve been panned for trying to do something right and the person causing you all the trouble gets hoist on their own petard..

    The picture looks like its got some of the pedestrian safety bits on it, the higher bonnet line improves it a little I think.

  4. @Jemma:

    Yes, very much so. However, the Rover Co. Ltd had traditionally called its other assembly plants in West Orchard and Coventry as the Meteor Works and New Meteor Works respectively. The latter one (in Helen Street, Coventry) had been badly damaged in the blitz on Coventry in November 1940 and so Rover’s No. 2 Shadow Factory on the outskirts of Solihull would effectively replace it from February 1945 when car production resumed.

    In mid-1943, in an amicable arrangement, Rover transferred the jet engine work to Rolls Royce in exchange for an important tank project. This would see them developing and manufacturing the mighty 27-litre Meteor V12 tank engine at Acocks Green for powering the Cromwell, Comet and Challenger tanks.

  5. Interestingly the jet engines Rover were due to build would have been for the Gloster Meteor jet fighter.

    IIRC they had trouble working with Frank Whittle, & the project was tranferred to Rolls Royce.

  6. The Meteor was the non Supercharged version of the Rolls Royce Merlin. Swapped by Rover and Rolls Royce for the Rover gas turbine business following a lunch meeting in November 1942 between Spencer Wilkes (Rover) and Earnest Hives (Rolls Royce) at the Swan and Royal pub in Clitheroe, Lancashire.

    Rover were having trouble dealing with Sir Frank Whittle and on taking over, Rolls Royce put Stanley (later Sir Stanley) Hooker in charge of jet development. According to his book, Hooker stated that the deal also came with the Meteor factory in Nottingham. Henceforth, all gas turbine work would be handed over to Rolls Royce.

    As it turned out, it wasn’t quite all as the Rover Turbine Car, a still born Leyland turbine powered truck design and the British Rail Advanced Passenger Train (Experimental), the APT-E all used Rover originated turbine designs.

  7. #2, and of the broken down vehicle, a despicable Land Rover with active anti-roll by hydraulic rams, the leaking of the hydraulics made the vehicle a fire hazard

  8. Anyone who wants to know more about Rover’s work on productionising the Whittle gas turbine should read “Vikings at Waterloo: Wartime Work on the Whittle Jet Engine by the Rover Company” by David S. Brooks.

  9. Is it known what conventional suspension system Spen King originally wanted for the Metro (LC8)?

    Was it a similar arrangement to the Maestro/Montego and AR6 prototype via a conventional MacPherson strut/rear coil suspension system or an 9X/Polo-type arrangement featuring independent MacPherson strut/rear Twist-beam suspension system?

    Additionally how feasible would it have been to carry over the 9X/Polo-type suspension arrangement to the Mini Clubman/ADO20 and Metro along with other models in place of Alex Moulton’s suspension systems?

    • Hello Nate.

      No doubt Spen King a great advocate of well sorted simplicity would have rather gone for a VW like solution as he adopted with the LC10/11. However the decision to build the Ado88 using the suspension of the Allegro no doubt for reasons of economy and as there was still belief in the Allegro in the Ryder plan to help reduce its costs had already been decided and there was no money for the work to go a different route in 76.

      In the same way it would have involved a complete reengineering of the whole body shell and sub frames to adopt a strut / coil torsion beam suspension in the other hydragas cars. There was simply not the money, and if there was the cars were in desperate need of a complete replacement.

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