By GEOFFREY CHARLES, Motoring Correspondent
The concept of Alec Issigonis, adopted by British Leyland, developed at more than £9m, over nearly five years, the long delayed Austin 1500 multi-purpose saloon takes its bow today. As the first all new car to emerge from Lord Stokes’s stable since the B.M.H.-Leyland merger, and the first volume production British car to boast a five-speed gearbox and five doors, it is a significant newcomer to the viciously competitive 1-5 litre family-saloon market in Britain and Europe…
It replaces the Austin Cambridge (A60), and the name chosen for it is the Maxi, seen by British Leyland as representing maximum specification and creating as big a revolution in middle-class family motoring as the Mini has among small cars. If the story behind the Maxi depicts a problem child that only brave parents might master, the offspring we see today represents a thoroughly sound concept.
A broad sector of middle-class motorists enjoy some obvious quality in finish and comprehensive equipment in their cars. Here again the Maxi scores. Its more doubtful areas lie around performance, gear-changing, and style. Beauty has been sacrificed for compactness, although the Maxi has a few more curves than its “bony” sisters in the Austin-Morris family. Reliability we have to await, but with so many years of expensive development, capped by a million miles of prototype testing, if this car proves troublesome to buyers it will be in spite of enormous effort and determination by the Stokes team.
To assess the Maxi, until today code-named ADO 14, we drove early production samples through Portugal last month, covering a fair mileage over good, bad and indifferent roads. I found it a solid, sound, traditionally British car, unexciting in performance, but an outstanding roadholder.
The years of soul-searching behind British Leyland’s long-awaited Austin 1500 Birth pains of the Maxi
By GEOFFREY CHARLES Motoring Correspondent
Like trained diplomats, British Leyland’s hierarchy feign mild amnesia when drawn into discussing the circumstances of the conception, complications and prolonged delivery of their new baby: the Austin Maxi/alias 1500/alias ADO 14.
Superficially the chunky, five-door family saloon we greet today has suffered a 12-month setback in its arrival, just to give Lord Stokes’s engineers and assemblers time to produce reliability and quantity. In reality that it has arrived at all is a near miracle. Engineers, stylists and testers have torn the ADO 14 inside out. Over four years and £9m. (not including the £16m. Cofton Hackett engine plant built specifically around the new 1-5 litre unit) have gone into this controversial project, which has created more argument, four letter language and heart-searching at Longbridge than any other car in Austin-Morris history.
Indeed the “Maxi” label could be unkindly interpreted to represent maximum time, trouble and cost for a maximum number of B.L.M.C. people, though the result of their labours is far from displeasing and it could prove a highly significant car. For, although a late-comer, it fills a distinct middle-range gap, being aimed at a more conservative market than Ford’s brash, sporty-concept Capri, which burst upon us only two months ago.
To understand the painful gestation of ADO 14 and why British Leyland rescued it through their “No-not yet” decision 14 months ago, we must jump back to late 1964, when B.M.C. chairman George Harriman and his technical director, Alec Issigonis, “father” of the Minor, Mini and the whole front-wheel-drive family, first showed me ADO 14, hidden in the secret projects department at Longbridge. It was almost indistinguishable from the then new 1800, sporting a roof-hinged tail door 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….
At Cofton Hackett the new engine and gearbox plant was taking shape a few months later, planned to throb into life in 1967. The front-wheel-drive Minis and 1100s were by now sweeping up sales. It was logical that the Farina tailed A60 should soon bow out to the 1500. But the 1800 had had a bad launch in 1964 and 70,000 first-batch samples were sending B.M.C. dealers frantic with customer complaints. Gradually the ADO14 programme slipped backwards. Cofton Hackett’s building slowed down. Month by month I was given later dates on which to expect the Austin 1500, now whispered to be suffering from gearbox ” bugs” and second thoughts on styling.
In June, 1966, on the acquisition of Pressed Steel, Joe Edwards arrived at B.M.C. as managing director, bringing a drastic new approach to proper market research and product planning. His decisions ensured that at least ADO 14 did not repeat the finger burning exercise experienced with the 1800, but further delay became inevitable if it was to stand a reasonable chance of selling.
Inside the Kremlin (the local term for B.M.C. headquarters at Longbridge) the debate continued….
In January, 1968, after B.M.C.’s £5m. loss, came the £800m a year merger with Leyland. At that time, the 1500 was scheduled for appearance at Earls Court in October. But within six weeks of his arrival, Sir Donald Stokes had slammed on the brakes:
” This car “, he ruled, ” must not reach the marketing men until we are 100 per cent satisfied that it is right in style, shape, engineering and quantity. We must improve it, technically and commercially.”
Sir Donald’s first reaction to the car was that the basic five door, big space concept was good, but that it utterly lacked sex appeal and, to some extent, power. He regarded its dual-purpose aim as a Jekyll and Hyde saloon-cum-estate car as ingenious and topical, the five-speed gearbox relevant to the motorway era. But there was too much Hyde about its looks and engineering. Worst of all, perhaps, was B.M.C.’s over-optimistic hone that enough 1500s would be ready by announcement day and that they would be bug free. Already, the car had become a kind of political pawn in the game of regaining business confidence: so broadly heralded had it been, through a series of controlled ” leaks” designed to show that B.M.C. was vigorously forging ahead in advanced engineering, that the new Leyland masters realized they dare not risk another flash in the-pan exercise followed by a vacuum in the showrooms.
In Stoke’s phraseology: “We weren’t going to have this launching going off at half-cock.”
Harry Webster assumed overall design responsibility for ADO 14 from the moment of his appointment as chief engineer of the Austin- Morris division, setting ruthlessly about the job with Charles Griffin, director of engineering, who had been involved with the car from its original conception on the Issigonis drawing board. Mr. Griffin and his team, only just recovering from the nightmares of the premature 1800, delightedly welcomed the breathing space.
According to their estimate the new launching date of spring 1969, would be realistically bitting schedule. This meant that first units would come off the line in November 1968, instead of May. Alec Issigonis, having already handed over the project 12 months earlier, moved out of engineering administration to devote himself to long term technical research. Stanley Dews, the ex-Ford engineer, and B.M.C. truck designer, now deputy to Mr. Griffin, took over the specification and whole technical development of ADO14.
Roy Haynes, who had been brought in from Ford by B.M.C. at £10,000 a year as chief stylist, was charged with the unenviable task of face-lifting the 1500’s rather stodgy lines without changing its fundamental body shape. Mr Haynes, who styled the Cortina for Ford, deftly carried out extensive retouching and refining, extending the bonnet forward of the windscreen to give a more balanced look, cleaning up the nose, grille and extremities, removing the interior starkness principally by re-designing the earlier featureless dashboard and putting some ‘ Austin quality” into the general inside appointments.
Having completed his brief, Mr. Haynes walked out after 16 months, dissatisfied with the result, unwilling to shift from Cowley to Longbridge with the styling department and tired from working 16 hours a day, seven days a week (hours which Mr. Griffin seems to thrive on and regard as “situation normal “).
At this time last year the 1500’s biggest bug still lay in its gearbox which was B.M.C.’s first five-speed unit. Under endurance tests the bearings showed excessive wear, which was eliminated only after numerous gearbox and engine modifications. The front suspension control arm layout was changed and set into a harder structure to ensure greater strength and durability.
During the prolonged sorting out process valuable ground has undoubtedly been lost in the 1-5 litre field to Ford’s Cortina, Vauxhall’s Victor, the stylish Rootes Hunter- Sceptre range, and, on the Continent, to Fiat, Renault, and Opel. B.M.C. originally saw the ADO14 slotting into the medium-price family market for Britain, a trade- up replacement for the 1100/1300 saloons. British Leyland has recognized that it must have European appeal as well if the car is to become a high-volume seller.
It also has to be seen now in relation to the dual franchise system established by B.L.M.C, under which the Austin line remains essentially Issigonis type front – wheel – drive, advanced engineering models (the ” high class ” family range), while Morris is much more mainstream. The reasoning is that if British Leyland is to strengthen its position as the big popular car producer in Britain it must have one range which meets General Motors and Ford competition head on and another (Austin) which provides technical features that are not exploited by the Americans.
Soon the 1500 engines are going into B.LM.C 1100/1300 bodies in Australia, to mop up some of Cofton Hackett’s surplus output. The plant’s ultimate capacity will be 5,800 units a week, comprising 5,000 ” E ” series o.h.c. engines and 800 c.k.d. units.
George Turnbull, managing director of Austin-Morris, tries to be realistic in assessing the Austin Maxi’s impact
” 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 5,000 on announcement day, allowing at least two per dealer, and we ought to have something like 7,000. Output? We will certainly do 100,000 a year, maybe up to 150,000 even in the first year.”
(Ford’s announcement day stockpile for the Capri totalled 20,000 cars in Britain and Germany.) Talking to B.L.M.C’s marketing experts and looking at the domestic market today, I should be surprised to see the Maxi touching 75,000 sales in its first year. The main point of market growth is still around 1.3 litres, but it is rising all the time. B.L.M.C’s latest sales figures for its family saloons reveal this picture in 1968:-
1100/1300 .. 150,000
Mini .. .. 90,000
A.60/Oxford .. 30,000
Minor .. . 22,500
1800 .. .. 20,000
A.40 .. .. 2,750
So to achieve sales justifying an optimistic 100,000 to 150,000 a year output, big inroads , would have to be made on the rest of the range, or 50,000 buyers must be persuaded to move over from Ford, Vauxhall or Rootes.
The first six months’ production of the 1500 is earmarked for Britain, but within a reasonable time it will be assembled overseas. Of the current home market of about 1,100,000 cars a year, British Leyland holds 42.3 per cent, which it hopes to push up to 45 per cent quite soon, to about 500,000. So the 1500 Austin will represent less than 20 per cent of its total British market. It is hard to see a big profit margin on this particular operation. Although it will be considerably better than on the Mini or 1100/1300 range, British Leyland will only commit itself to an estimate of ” reasonable” profits on the home market, and a much smaller margin overseas, for what is really a big package car, developed at vast expense. Its success worldwide must depend ultimately on massive sales in Britain.
Up to now, Ford has unquestionably made the running on the popular front, first with the Escort, then the Capri. But it is noteworthy that B.L.M.C. has been steadily increasing its market penetration without bringing out a single really new model for more than four years. Although the 1500 replaces the A 60 Cambridge, the Farina-styled Morris Oxford will be kept going for a while. Later we shall see a new range of Morris saloons in the 1500- 1700c.c. class, but they will be a different breed from the front-wheel- drive Austins. So it would be wrong to infer that the Maxi will be B.L.M.C’s mainspring, middle-range car in the next few years, or that it will have any “badge” equivalents under the Morris franchise. Clearly the next move must be to update the 1800, and here we can expect more power and six-cylinder engines within a year or two.
“Maxi ” is seen by B.L.M.C as the natural name for a maximum purpose car, with the maximum number of gears, doors and space. My only fear is that it could go down as the model that involved a maximum marketing gamble for minimum returns.
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.