Phil Rixon takes a rare opportunity to compare the Morris Nomad with an Austin Countryman and an Austin Maxi to see how closely BMC’s tailgated trio are related.
This article originally appeared in Idle Chatter, the magazine for the brilliant 1100 Club.
Since 2016 was the 50th Anniversary of the BMC 1100 estate, it was quite exciting to discover a privately imported one on display at a major car show in Sydney. Even more exciting was the fact that a certain Morris Nomad was also in attendance, albeit on the other side of the venue, but a brief opportunity to park them together at the end of the day allowed me to compare the two designs in detail.
This was fascinating, as the Nomad has traditionally been compared to the Austin Maxi on the basis of their five-door bodies and because the majority of Nomads shared the Austin Maxi’s 1500cc OHC E-Series engine, its infamous cable gear change and the bad publicity that arose after their respective launches in 1969.
Austin Maxi: The Nomad in miniature
Motoring magazines in Australia ran pre-release feature stories detailing the Maxi, its new engine and the hatchback rear door, thus giving the impression that our Nomad was, to some extent, a scaled-down version of the Maxi created for the local market instead.
Indeed, the factory parts manual for the Nomad shows a line drawing of the Maxi tailgate with the main differing details either blanked out or ignored. However, looking closely at the actual designs of the door, the aperture and the folding seat arrangements, you could be excused for thinking that the cars came from different manufacturers!
And then there is the Renault 16. BMC-Australia (BMC-A) has been credited with importing the first example into Australia (from the UK) in 1966, two years before Renault began selling its locally-assembled ones.
The Nomad caused a sensation
When a pre-production Nomad prototype was spotted by the press in 1968, motoring writers immediately concluded that BMC-A must have acquired the Renault 16 (above) to study while working on the Nomad. However, if it did, it clearly decided not to incorporate any major aspects of the French design.
In reality, the R16 was seen more as a rival to the Austin 1800 and was just one of over a dozen cars from rival makers on BMC-A’s evaluation fleet at the time.
So, what did influence the design of the Nomad’s hindquarters? After eliminating the two usual suspects of Maxi and R16, I figured it could have been the ADO16 estate, since the estate went into production in the UK around the time the Nomad prototype was constructed at Longbridge (below).
Comparing the Countryman, Maxi and the Nomad
Like the Maxi, it was not sold in the Australian market so chances for side-by-side comparison with a Nomad are rare. However, when the chance to do just that arose unexpectedly in August 2016, I was able to make some interesting observations and conclude the two share virtually nothing apart from the style of rubber seal…
Since the Nomad’s tail end seems to have been a been a separate design in its own right, it might be interesting to explore some of its more quirky aspects and how they differ from the estate and Maxi and to try to spot anything that did come from the BMC ‘parts bin’.
Photos from various archives show the familiar prototype Nomad at Longbridge. Looking closely at the rear bumper detail (specifically the overrider) suggests the tail lamps of the prototype were different to those that went into production. On the other hand, a mock-up of the proposed Austin 1800 estate (below) bears Wolseley 18/85 tail lamps and a remarkable resemblance to the Nomad styling.
This photo may have given rise to a popular Nomad myth – that it also uses the 18/85’s rear lamps. From a distance they look very similar. Looking more closely you might think that perhaps Nomad’s lenses may be a little different, but in reality the lamp units have nothing in common.
First, the differences
The Wolseley units were made by Lucas in the traditional manner – chromed cast metal base with separate orange and red lenses. The Nomad units were a product of Hella Australia and they also supplied the bespoke front parking/blinker lamps. Both front and rear units had a chromed, moulded plastic base with a one piece plastic lens all held in place with self-tapping screws – two for the lens, six securing the assembly to the bodywork.
But there were some parts and design features shared and others that weren’t.
One item that was shared with the Wolseley 18/85 (and the Austin/Morris 1800) is the large chrome handle which contains the combined lock and push button release and the number plate lighting. This is a very effective fitting and appropriately shaped for singlehandedly heaving the door upwards. ‘Even a child can operate it’, boasted the brochure. And that, no doubt, was made possible because Nomad and Maxi both use gas struts to counterbalance their large, heavy doors.
These struts are almost identical except that Maxi’s have plastic coverings on the mounting eyes and are secured by bolts into captive nuts in the bodywork. The Nomad’s struts have unadorned metal mounting eyes which fit onto welded-on studs on the door, and a bracket and pin on the body – circlips retain them in both cases.
An interesting detail is that the Nomad conceals its struts in a channel in the bodywork. With hatch closed, they are hidden from view, whereas the Maxi’s struts are always on full display inside the cabin!
Both also have external hinges which are similar, but differ in order to follow the slightly different slope of each model’s roofline. The ADO16 estates also have sturdy external hinges but their near-vertical rear door necessitates quite a different type. Perhaps the most elegant are the fully concealed hinges of the Renault 16 – but then it has a smaller door.
A major point of difference is the method of sealing. Maxi and R16 use a rubber pinchweld seal that mounts onto a raised flange that runs around the perimeter of their openings, creating a drainage gutter. This method is still used today on many hatchbacks as it is simple and effective.
The Nomad and ADO16 estates rely on the principle of squashing a bead or flap of rubber between the door and the bodywork. This probably works well on the estates with their steeply-sloping rear door, but the Nomad opening has a variety of angles from 45-degree slopes to horizontal and vertical sections, which makes for a very awkwardly shaped rubber seal by comparison.
The other downside is that the seal is glued into a channel running around the perimeter of the opening and this provides nearly four metres of opportunities to trap moisture and debris against the bodywork!
Of course, the main functional aspect of these body styles is that their rear seats fold forward to create a large luggage area. This is another place where the Nomad follows a unique approach. It wasn’t too unusual at the beginning of the hatchback revolution for the luggage area to be covered with a shelf to hide the contents from view.
This was typically a cardboard and vinyl construction – just sturdy enough to support a few parcels – and, as with the Renault 16, part or all of it lifted as the hatch door was raised so it had to be light weight.
By contrast, the Nomad’s shelf is a hefty metal construction, upholstered with a panel of padded vinyl and attached to the top edge of the rear seat by a full length piano hinge. This may seem a trifle over-engineered but the reason for all this robustness is that the mechanism that locks the backrest in its various positions is on the underside of the shelf and not on the supporting bodywork or in the seat back itself.
This allows fairly easy manipulation of the load area configuration as the single lever which is used to release the backrest is located on the rear edge of the shelf. Slide it to the left, lift the shelf clear of its supports and it can be folded flat against the seat back and locked in place. This gives an open cargo area like the Countryman.
To achieve maximum capacity, the back seat cushion lifts up and folds forward. Next, the backrest is folded forward to the horizontal and the shelf folds up and forwards to be hooked in place vertically to form a solid cargo barrier (Photo 3). Thanks to the flat interior door handles and absence of armrests on the back doors this can all be done without needing those doors open.
The final configuration is all seats flat to form a bed (Photo 6). There’s nothing too special about this except that the parcel shelf (according the owner’s manual) is swung up vertically to form a padded headboard for the bed (Photo 5). This leaves a small (20cm) luggage area behind, although most publicity shots show the shelf folded back underneath as this allows the glamorous model to sprawl about suggestively and still be seen by the camera!
Visual differences – there are plenty
Being able to compare the Nomad and the Countryman side by side I was surprised at how much bulkier the Nomad’s hind quarters are. The Countryman and ADO16 saloons are the same length whereas the Nomad body is two inches longer behind the back wheels to begin with.
Moreover, its rear extremities play a few visual tricks because its rear lamps sit flush with the bodywork whereas the Countryman bodywork sits a couple of inches forward of the finned tail lamps. Not only that, but the Nomad bodywork bulges rearward when the Countryman slants forwards.
And due to different arrangements for the spare wheel and petrol tanks (Nomad has a 10-gallon capacity) beneath the load area floor, the Nomad’s floor is slightly lower. Another visual trick that makes the estate appear longer than it is is the lack of rear doors. The vast expanse of bodywork between taillamp and front door and the large side windows give an illusion of length.
Why is the Nomad taller?
The Nomad is also taller by an inch and a half – this is no illusion. Many reasons for this have been hypothesised, including the suggestion it runs on bigger tyres – it doesn’t. And although its roof profile is more bulky, the extra height is largely due to the rear suspension being raised, presumably to help offset the effect of a heavy load.
This is achieved by inserting a quarter inch spacer in between the displacer and strut. Interestingly, the saloons had this spacer fitted at the front instead, so moving it to the back on the Nomad had the effect of reducing the front strut length thus significantly raising the rear in comparison.
Setting the suspension height to factory specifications requires the measurements be taken only at the front wheels, according to the factory workshop manual. When this measurement (13⅝ ±¼ inch wing height) is achieved, the rear of the unladen Nomad sits up high, giving the car a slightly peculiar look but it settles flatter when loaded.
Developed for space efficiency
Mind you, these differences come as no surprise when you consider that the whole reason BMC-A developed the Nomad in the first place was to extract maximum luggage room compared to the ADO16 saloon. Indeed, a big-booted saloon (not unlike the Apache) was also mocked up for consideration before the Nomad (codenamed YDO9*) was initially chosen to replace the MkI ADO16 saloon completely in the Australian market.
However, as the project was delayed by the E-Series power unit development and the release date blew out, no doubt BMC-A’s Sales and Marketing Department began to get cold feet. Local sales of the Renault 16 were only a trickle, so perhaps fearing a hatchback was too radical a concept for the Australian motorist, project YDO15 (ADO16 saloon MkII) was hastily concocted. This effectively grafted the Nomad’s frontal styling onto the existing Mk I saloon body and finished it off with the UK’s MkII sloping tail lamps.
Nomad fortunes in Australia
In the end, demand for the Nomad initially outstripped supply, as BMC was producing roughly four saloons to every Nomad and, even after the cable gearbox woes were sorted, the proportion of Nomads produced was only slightly increased. This, I suspect, may be somewhat due to the complexity of the Nomad’s bespoke rear bodywork.
To restore structural rigidity lost by the large opening – and to support the heavy tailgate – its perimeter has been strengthened by constructing it from up to five conjoined box sections which were formed by welding eight or nine separate metal stampings together creating the various channels, ridges and gutters required.
Effective as this was, it would have been vastly more work than constructing the rear of a saloon. Perhaps BMC-A’s body assembly line could have knocked out a few saloon bodies in the time it took to put together a single Nomad.
It is also interesting to note that BMC-A didn’t ever separately promote the Nomad in its advertising. It was only mentioned in advertisements which covered the whole range. Conversely, there were often special deals on the 1500 saloons and, in the final run-out sale at the end of 1971, the photos showed row upon row of saloons in the factory grounds. Two thousand were to be cleared but not a Nomad in sight.
My guess is BMC-A were selling Nomads at about the same rate as they could build them, but to keep the production line operating at an efficient pace the saloons were rolling off the line rather faster than required and ending up being stockpiled ‘at grass’ around the factory.
*YDO stands for ‘Australian Design Office’ – the ‘Y’ was often used to denote Australia since ‘A’ was already taken!