Blog : Austin Maxi – the best BMC>MGR classic of them all?

Carole Nash Classic Insurance Specialists

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Are there any reasonably-priced 1970s classic cars left? It’s a conversation I have with myself many, many times in recent months. Given it’s BL50 year, it’s apposite that the answer to that question in ‘yes’, and that you don’t need to look very far at all.

Anyway, given the Allegro is a cramped little beast, and Minis are too expensive for a mere mortal to afford these days, your classic Austin-fix can be served in another way. The Princess is good, the Maestro and Montego are still cheap – here are my feelings about the latter, as explained in this blog about Mike Humble’s MintEgo.

Then there’s the delicious ADO16, or BMC 1100/1300. If someone was to offer you one at the right price, at the right time, grab it in a heartbeat. The Metro is another Austin that’s now considered a pukka classic, and which would be perfect in my garage – we drove Adrian Fell’s back in 2012, and pronounced that Joy is Metro shaped.

An Austin Maxi, Sir? Yes please…

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Given the pictures surrounding these words, it’s clear we’ll take a Maxi, please. The last time I personally had one of these was in 1988 – it was a 1750HL, on an R-plate in Denim Blue. And I paid £60 for it. It was the short-term replacement for my trusty Vauxhall Cavalier 1600GL, which I’d stuffed into some armco on a cold morning and was looking the worse for wear.

I’d always liked Maxis in a mumsy kind of way – and remember a number of family trips as a young kid in a neighbour’s example (when it was new!) and luxuriating in the ample room the clever interior design afforded.

However, in the late-1980s, it was about as cool as Phil Collins is today, and as such, I was always a little embarrassed by the thing. And yet, it was a brilliant hold-all that probably helped incubate my passion for BL that manifested itself in near-new Maestro ownership a couple of years later.

Time has been kind to the Austin Maxi

My memories of the Maxi are legion – it handled beautifully, was quick enough (just) to be entertaining and it was roomy enough inside to keep my lady amused. So, you can see why 25 years on, why the Maxi works so well as a classic today.

The good news is that there are still enough around today to make finding one not too arduous, and thanks to the excellent Austin Maxi Owners Club, there’s still good parts and technical support. It also helps that AROnline’s Deputy Editor, Alexander Boucke, owns one and he says it’s the second best car in the world – behind his Citroën XM.

Looking at these images, it strikes me that time has been exceptionally kind to the Austin Maxi. Considered frumpy and lacking in sex appeal when new, especially compared with Ford and Vauxhall’s sharp-looking rivals, today the Maxi has a timelessness that a Cortina or Cavalier couldn’t possibly hope to emulate.

Why we love the Austin Maxi

Plus, there’s the incredibly useful interior and boot and handling, which can be utterly grin-inducing. I’d like a classic I can actually use in the real world (would a Metro be too small?) and enjoy in the process, and the Maxi fits the bill perfectly.

I’ll leave the final word to my friend and former colleague on Practical Classics magazine, James Walshe, who recently rescued one. ‘I’ve fallen for the Maxi. I mean, completely. What a brilliant thing… Many faults, but all of them forgiven. It’s really good fun to hammer it. Like a big gormless Mini. Brilliant.’

You want one now, don’t you?

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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

46 Comments

  1. My dad was a big Maxi fan- replacing his M-reg with a late Maxi2. I borrowed it when my Alfasud was off the road and, after expecting the worst, was very surprised by how well it went. Handling was good, performance ok- even the gearchange wasn’t too bad- I’ve driven many cars that were much worse since.
    The Maxi may not have set the sales chart alight- but when I was working in the trade if we ever got one in secondhand the phone would be red hot.
    It was unfortunate that from the outside it looked like it was cobbled together with parts of other cars (doors, rear lights etc) when at launch it contained more bespoke parts than any BMC car between 1959 and 1983. A mid-life restyle could have completely changed the Maxi’s fortunes.

    • Yes that top photo does rather make it look like a slightly shortened landcrab with a Roy Haynes nose!
      That interior shot is incredible though, with the lack of suspension intrusion really showing.

  2. The Maxi is one of those cars that we were not bothered about at the time, but in retrospect see its good points – and it certainly was a practical roomy car & load carrier.

    My former boss had an M reg 1750HL and it had great acceleration and top speed, at a time when I normally drove a 1.3 Viva…

  3. Interesting car. Ahead of its time with a five speed gearbox and hatchback. The dark green one in the photos looks very luxurious inside, for a mainstream 1970s family car.

  4. Yes. Now I DO want one. I regret seeing them as an object of derision back when they were common and dirt cheap. With hindsight you can really see how clever it was.

  5. I’ve owned three different Maxi’s – the one I owe now is a -78 / 1750 HL. I love this car, and have loved all of them. A reliable car with comfort. My kids have good memories from going on holiday in the Maxi… The car-model of my life !!!

  6. Yes, the Maxi certainly has a functional appeal. You can imagine really appreciating, enjoying it on a summer camping trip or similar.

    In some ways, the styling is part of it’s functionality, practicality. However, it is amazing, given the innovative design, that more effort was not made to develop the car and re-style it for a wider appeal.

  7. Once some of the early troubles were sorted out the Maxi didn’t seem to have much more development apart from the odd facelift.

  8. I think the Maxi was seriously underrated and ahead of its time, being a fwd hatchback with a five speed gearbox. I’d imagine a 1750 on a long journey cruising in fifth would have been a quieter place than a 1.6 Cortina on a motorway and also the extra gear would have made it no less economical. In a way such a commodious car with an enormous boot and which was built more for relaxed cruising than speed was an early people carrier.

  9. It’s a shame the Maxi never seemed to make of a dent in the similar sized Renault 16s market share, which outsold the Maxi about 3:1.

  10. I’ve always liked the Maxi, clever design and the 5 speed box were ahead of the curve. It is a shame the gear box let it down. I’ve said before on these pages that the 1750 moved quickly. It was always a car I liked. Go for one Keith, you know you deserve one!

    • That’s probably right in terms of quantity.

      Its interesting that the other makers took a long time to make a medium sized hatchback, the Passat & Alpine are the next ones I can think of timewise.

        • OK I see, it’s a bit confusing that a few saloons in the 1970s that looked like hatchbacks, but often had one added to the range later on.

          It wasn’t until I watched Ashes To Ashes that I realised Audi Quatros only had a boot lid below the rear screen.

  11. I learned to drive in my old man’s HL. It was certainly brisk and the gear-change worked OK, just so long as you didn’t try to rush it. Looking for an older car recently, my short list was a Maxi & a Scirocco. I bought the German car on account of it’s fuel consumption, the Maxi only did about 25 to the galleon back in the day.
    Curiously, the VW developed a problem with gear selection which was ultimately resolved, but it’s made me wonder ever since whether the Maxi’s ‘Wrestler box’ change could have been improved with some judicious fettling.

  12. Quite revolutionary – FWD, Hatchback. 5 Speed gearbox, OHC engine. All features that the other manufacturers would not produce for 15 or so years.

    It was also well appointed with a wood dash on the 70’s model and a spacious interior. Sadly it didn’t have the right image to make it a massive seller, but for those who have driven one, not forgotten.

  13. We had a Maxi 1750 in 1979. Very comfortable, the wood dash added a bit of class and the five speed gearbox made long journeys quite peaceful, also no breakdowns to report, although interior build quality was slack but not a major issue. Main reason the car was downsized to a Toyota Corolla was its heavy fuel consumption around town, 25 mpg was typical( far better on the open road in 5th, though) and this was the era of the second energy crisis so not being on great wages the Maxi had to go. However, fitting a family of five with luggage into a car that was the same size as Vauxhall Chevette was interesting, as the Maxi would swallow the lot with ease.

  14. My father had a Maxi, NWW 171K, and I do remember it fondly.

    As a child it seemed enormous, and impossibly sophisticated after the Wartburg Knight it replaced. Things that stick in the mind: the swsssh noise of the tailgate’s gas struts, the wretched PVC seats that scalded my short-trousered legs in summer, the unique roar of the E-Series engine. It was the first car we had that had a radio.

    At my father’s funeral tea a few weeks back my cousin Michael reminded me how hideously unreliable it was. The gearbox failed and thing was laid up for a long while. My father had a running battle with the local BL dealership who sold him the car, all of which came to nothing.

    It was replaced by a Mini (JAB 315N) which he bought as emergency transport until the Maxi could be made roadworthy again. It was a Wood & Pickett Mini, in metallic bronze, with a walnut dashboard, cream vinyl (deseamed) roof, nudge bars, and an electric aerial. I fell in love with that car, even though my father hated it, and I suppose that daft little conveyance brought me here many years later and led me to Mini (and MGF) ownership. My father must have thought I was crackers – but he didn’t let on.

    My cousin also reminded me that my father worked like a dog to get the Maxi on the road again. I remember long welding sessions and endless late-night discussions with the next door neighbour who was a mechanic with the GPO: a strange man who wore a goatee beard (long before it became fashionable), and an atheist (long before it became fashionable.)

    I am happy to say that the Maxi lived to roar again, but I can’t recall how long for. Not long I think. It was a matter of familial joy to have it on the road again but it gave up the ghost at some point. It was taken off the road and placed on the hard-standing behind our bungalow next to my grandfather’s broken Morris Minor.

    I have a feeling one of my father’s colleagues bought the Maxi, but I doubt it was made roadworthy again.

    The Maxi was undoubtedly a great concept and although we must salute BMC’s forward-thinking I suspect we have to remember how lucky we are with today’s ultra-dependable cars. I can’t imagine many of us would be prepared to spend their leisure hours rebuilding something in the company of weirdly-bearded men that ought to just..work.

    All of the preceding nonsense is not meant to put Keith off from buying a Maxi. On the contrary, please do buy one and if means could be found to improve its (allegedly) recalcitrant gearchange, and its (allegedly) breathless engine then I’d be intrigued to read of it. Perhaps its refinement could be improved with the fitment of a front-mounted radiator?

    Anyway, if you do get a Maxi and then decide to get rid of it don’t give first dibs to Ian Nicholls, let me have it first.

  15. Our Maxi was an M reg base 1750 model, which meant it was less powerful than the HL model and also had vinyl seats. Still a good cruiser and comfortable, but not economical around town and it was fairly heavy to drive. The Corolla that replaced it had all the sort of luxuries( for 1979) that the Maxi lacked, cloth seats with headrests, fitted radio, clock, lighter and tinted windscreen, also it was averaging 10 mpg more, important during an energy crisis. You can see on the standard equipment why buying Japanese was becoming popular in the late seventies.

    • Glenn – yes the Maxi HL had fabric seats which were quite comfortable on my boss’s car and it was quite pacy on a dual carriageway. My Dad also had a Corolla auto for just over a year in 78/79 which as you say was quite well equipped and a decent driver when I borrowed it, albeit slow due to the auto box.

      The 1970’s were indeed the time of progress for Jap car sales in Britain.

  16. I had two Maxi’s, a 1500 in the early 1980’s which was slightly underpowered and then an “R” Reg 1750HLS in 1985 – a much better car but the four branch exhaust manifold kept cracking. A new one was over £100 back in 1987, so I bodged it with Gun – Gum and part exchanged it for a Metro !!!
    I missed the space and practicality.
    I too have been thinking of getting another one to run as a Classic.
    Does this make me strange, because I also like Phil Collins’ / Genesis music ?

  17. The Maxi’s main saving grace was its resistance to rust, which meant you still saw mid seventies cars in the late eighties, and which would make it a viable classic now. ( Its main British hatchback rival of this era, the Chrysler Alpine, has almost completely vanished due to rust problems). However, since it never attained the so bad it’s good reputation and a cult following early on like the Allegro, the Maxi has been in the shadows for a long time and values are still low.
    Another Austin I do think deserves more attention is the Ambassador. Like the Maxi, it has a huge hatchback boot, even if it never gained a five speed gearbox, but the Ambassador’s engines go up to a relaxed and reasonably economical two litre, it boasts a Citroen like ride, a huge interior and has the distinctive Princess like shape, which it was derived from. Definitely worth saving as it was only in production for a short time and was the last of the 1.7 O series engines cars in basic form.

    • The Ambassador should have been a great car with the hatchback that the Princess ought to have had. I had a Princess 1700HL from new (company car), many trips to Germany and Scandinavia in great confort, never let me down. I looked at the Ambassador as a replacement which I was keen in principle to order, but found it tacky inside and poorly put together, a great disappointment, and I replaced with a Sierra.

      • Well basic model Sierras weren’t known for their interiors either, resembling a coal mine, and were ugly on the outside and in 1.6 form were boring to drive. A 1.7 litre Ambassador might not have been much faster and the interior was nothing great to look at, but it was a far more relaxing car to drive, better looking and was better to drive than the rwd Sierra with its harder ride and ageing engines.

  18. I ran a few Maxi’s in my early motoring years as they were cheap and plentiful, but at the same time cars like the Escort XR3 were around and suddenly the Maxi looked decidedly out of pace. I think the main problem with the Maxi was the lack of development and by the time it was discontinued it had had only one facelift since 1972. A good car let down by details and a lack of ownership appeal.

  19. I Remember a neighbour had a G reg grey 1500 and he always had problems with the Bowden cable gearchange, another had a brand new metallic blue R reg HL with the chrome tailpipe/resonator and boy that could play a tune when he drove off up the lane every morning riding his clutch!

  20. The Lennon family owned one – headed by a certain John Lennon.

    I bought a 1750 as a stop gap and found it a wonderful machine. Was renovating a house and it proved a wonderful building materials carrier and also a skip taking rubbish to the dump. Also proved an excellent motorway cruiser. Yes, very underrated.

  21. I remember being disappointed when I first saw the Maxi shortly after its launch as it looked so boring (and sensible!)- and so it came as no surprise when it didn’t sell well. Then the debacle over design – (facelift under way when first announced) just about killed it. Yes its technically advanced – but a Cortina would still get you there in reasonable comfort then the Mk111 Cortina came along with its ‘Wow’ factor and sold millions.

    A missed opportunity and some expensive and rather pointless engineering.

    Chrysler was much later – and spoilt by the horrible noise the Simca engines made – (sounded like diesels after 10,000 miles)

  22. The Maxi wasn’t a thing of beauty, but it was a fantastic load carrier and the five speed gearbox and hatchback were unique at the time on British cars. Also it seemed to resist rust quite well and after a shaky start, was fairly reliable. Other plus points, the fifth speed made long journeys more relaxing( particular on the 1750cc version), the wood dashboard added a bit of class to the car, it was comfortable and HL versions were well equipped and were good motorway cars. Only real downsides, the 1500 was underpowered and thirsty, the Maxi was a heavy car to drive, and even after modifications in 1970, the gearchange was still rubbery and stiff.

  23. Couple of things,
    1. Sorting out the Hydrogas would be difficult, not sure that its even that viable.

    2/ Phil Collins has never been cool not today not yesterday not ever.

    I had a little drive in one 35 years ago and thought it to be an old man’s car, however it would suit me now!

    RW

  24. Advanced the Maxi might have been, but what was the point when it was comprehensively out-sold by conventional, relatively low-tech rivals? It took 12 years to shift around 400,000 units so hardly a star product. Bear in mind that during the Maxi’s production run Ford shifted a total of 2 million Cortina III and IVs. And doubtless made a useful profit on each one.
    Maxi has clearly endeared itself to other commentators but is unavoidably one of the defining symbols of the failure of BL.

    • The Maxi is the sort of car that a small number of people will love, but most other people will dislike. Which isn’t good for sales really…

  25. Th Maxi seemed to fall between 2 stools by being already dated looks wise, along with plenty of troublesome technology to begin with.

    While not perfect, the Renault 16 showed that a FWD hatchback in the same category could be a decent seller.

  26. I have 3 Maxis , including a 1970 rod change 1750 , which is the oldest one known . I attended the owners club AGM yesterday at Gaydon in my 1979 1750 HLS , it sat on the motorway comfortably at speeds I dare not admit to ,and held its own in the fast lane of the M25 , M20 & M40 without missing a beat . Also had the space to carry a load of spares for a mate , I can’t think of a more capable , versatile classic car , I love them .

  27. My dad had a very late 70s 1750, HL I think, as a handed down company car for a while. As I recall he liked it and as a retired police Class 1 driver appeared to travel everywhere at very high speed. He would have considered anything an improvement over the previous hated Matra Rancho. I only went in it a few times and I think I drove it once or twice but don’t recall any strong views, certainly nothing bad.

    The biggest problem was the usual one – BL bean counters. 1800 doors etc. fixed the shape so the original stylish design was abandoned.

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