Car of the Month : May 2004

The Austin-Rover website has been live for sometime now, and yet the Maxi has never featured as Car the Month…

May 2004 finally sees this oversight put right…

Regassed and revived…

The Maxi is seen by many as the final flowering of the Issigonis concept, and it has to be said that it is one extremely advanced car considering its 1969 launch date. The Maxi owners’ club do not use the expression “All the fives” on its club tee-shirts for nothing: five doors, five speeds, an overhead cam engine and interconnected suspension in an era when rivals such as Ford and Vauxhall insisted on cart springs and scaled down Detroit styling.

OK, history reports that the Escort outsold the Maxi at about the rate of five-to-one in the UK, but look at the Escort’s modern day successor, the Focus: which older car does it have more in common with? The Maxi, of course!

Sadly, thanks to the low power output and poor gearchange quality of the earliest models, the Maxi estalished itself as something of an underachiever in the eyes of the press. Tales of a poor driving experience and early failures soon circulated around buyers, too, and this led to disappointing sales – at a time when the car most needed to impress. The result was a poor reputation, which remained with the Maxi throughout its life, despite the raft of changes which eradicated each problem in turn.

Was this reputation justified? Of course not. By 1970, the larger version of the E-Series engine was under the bonnet, and the gearstick was connected to the ‘box with rods, rather than cables. Performance was improved, as was the driving experience. Yet, buyers stayed away. One reason for this must have been the style: after all, the car had been widely reported as being a clonker in 1968, so why would anyone want to look at an improved version two years later, which looked all but identical? Why indeed.

Of course, all this is academic now: the Maxi is seen as something of a curiosity; a slow selling technical pioneer. But does it deserve better? It was for this reason that I decided to take up Alexander Boucke’s invitation to drive his 1979 Maxi HL, which following a successful recharge of its Hydragas spheres, was in very rude health indeed. Alexander would be bringing his Maxi to the UK to join the Maxi club’s thirty-fifth anniversary celebrations, which encompassed a trip to Bradford-on-Avon to meet the creator of its suspension system, Doctor Alex Moulton.

The Maxi today: driving impressions

Profile has mellowed with the passing of time: during its life, the Maxi was constantly criticised for its plain-Jane styling and odd proportions, and yet, from a twenty-first century perspective, the long wheelbase and short extremities give it contemporary proportions. On the road today, it fits in… whereas, a Viva or Escort look hopelessly outdated.

All this is well and good, but how does the Maxi stack up on the roads today? Surprisingly well, thank-you-very-much. It helps that Alexander Boucke’s example is in such good condition because it can help the driver gain a perspective of the car without being distracted by the usual nasties that accompany an old car…

In this case, the ‘seventies context of this Maxi sweep over you in waves before you even open the door; the colour is a vivid, deep metallic blue, that reminds you of summer days by the sea, and cloudless skies. Everyone of a certain age recalls knowing someone who had a Maxi in their childhood, and I am one of them… looking at this car reminded me of a certain childminder who used to impress me in my pre-teen years by cramming all the picnic gear you could possibly want in the boot (including the kitchen sink – and the cooker too. Probably), and still have room for four of us along the rear bench (safety? It wasn’t invented in the ‘seventies). I used to wonder why my dad’s Cortina could not do the same – and why other cars weren’t as cool as my childminder’s Maxi.

Back in 2004, and the Maxi looks as good as it ever could have. In fact, it looks better now. The interior, however, is far more conventional than the exterior, and it is an early ‘seventies generic dashboard that greets you when you first open the wide-swinging drivers’ door. The seating is also of a previous age; soft and bouncy, with absolutely no lateral support whatsoever, the drivers’ seat promises long distance hell. The seating position adds to the promise, as it is all too familar to anyone who has sat in a Mini, 1100 or 1800… feet under knees and sit upright in the praying mantis driving position. Typical Issigonis.

However, if this paints a negative picture of the Maxi, it shouldn’t, because it possesses the ability to grow on you in double quick time, and before you know it, you start to fall for its unassuming charms. First impressions were not good then, but soon these doubts were gone, to be replaced by that reassuring feeling that you’re sat in an intelligent car designed by an intelligent man: a ruthlessly clever device to convey five people and their luggage over long distances without fuss. In short time, it becomes apparent that the Maxi’s driving position is as comfortable as any other Issignonis car, if not more so, once your head gets into the correct gear. The “bus driver” seating position has been toned down to a degree, and although the slabby wooden dash lacks the simple elegance of an early Austin 1800, Maxi ergonomics knock its older brother into a cocked hat – for one, you can see all the switches, and even reach them without stretching or taking your eyes off the road.

That unmistakable bus driver seating position has been toned down in the Maxi compared with the Mini and ADO16, yet it remains as a reminder of its heritage. Seat comfort is good, headroom is ample, kneeroom less so. All round visibility is exceptional, and the offset pedals are soon adjusted to.

Ahhh yes. The drive. I’ve fallen for the Maxi’s static qualities, but will that warm fuzzy feeling be flushed away by a sloppy, soggy drive? The start-up was typical SU – a flick of the key, and the engine fired instantly. A dab of choke, and an even an not too raucous idle. In fact, it sounded smooth and eager… hang on, I don’t remember E-Series engines sounding as though they looked forward to being driven. This one did, though. Perhaps my memory was playing tricks on me.

Once recalibrated to the right offset pedals on this left hand drive car, it was time to move off; and this is where surprise number two hit me. The gearchange: light and not too baulky, in fact, not unpleasant at all. Steering was not a delight at parking speeds though; heavy and low geared, it reminded me of a wide-tyred Maestro in the way it felt. However, once underway, the steering’s weight ceased to be an issue, as the ability of the interconnected suspension came under closer scrutiny. This particular Maxi had been subjected to a clever upgrade on its spheres, which allows them to be re-pressured when needed, and when Alexander explained that this Maxi had been set-up more firmly than the factory standard, I could not help but be impressed.

Why? Because although it may have been firm by Maxi standards, bump/thump absorbsion was still extremely good. On my local “test track”, the Maxi handled the bumpy undulating section very well indeed. In fact, like all interconnected cars, we needed a fair amount of speed to get the best out of it, but on one particularly badly cambered road, with a ferocious array of undulations of varying size, the Maxi smoothed it out very well indeed. Yes, the suspension was firmer than a Princess (for instance), but it was still soft and level, but most importantly, excellent damping kept it perfectly under control. One particular left-hander, which would have my attention at 70mph in a well set-up modern car was coped with very well indeed at similar speeds in this twenty-five year old car. How interesting it would have been to back-to-back the Maxi with, say, a Ford Cortina or Hillman Hunter of similar vintage. Braveheart magazine road testers may have liked its rivals for their “entertainment” value (a euphamism for low breakaway speeds), but real world drivers could traverse challenging B-roads in a Maxi at far higher average speeds… without the adrenaline rush, too.

Cornering is interesting too: viewed from the vantage point of a following car, the Maxi looks to suffer from excessive body roll in bends, and yet… from the drivers’ seat, it doesn’t feel this way at all. There is an element of lean, but it is progressive and controlled, and like a Mini, 1100 or 1800, turn-in is still quick and fun. It obviously understeers when pressed, but not at “normal” speeds. I certainly saw no evidence of understeer, and it reminded me of a Hydropneumatic Citroen in the way that the rear wheels would just follow the fronts around a corner – like castors – no matter how silly the driver may decide to be. But then again, its owner was sat alongside me, and it did not seem prudent to push too hard.

On the motorway, and in the context of its age, the Maxi continues to impress. Steering is full of feel and directional stability is exceptional. That overdriven fifth gear really keeps engine noise in check, adding to that long-legged and secure feel – cars of this era and class should not lope along motorways, but this one does. Given the relatively large engine (for its body size), there is enough torque for fifth to be used above 60mph on a motorway without the need to change down, and although a determined rep would have easily outdragged the Maxi in his 2-litre Cortina, one can imagine that he would have arrived at his appointment more geed up than Maxi-man. He would also have needed to fill-up more often (thanks to fourth being his top gear), so the chances are that Maxi-man would have arrived at his destination earlier. As I said, this car is ruthlessly clever.

Then there’s the practicality: peerless in its day would be the best way to describe it. Shoulder room may be slightly lacking, but head and legroom are exceptional. Front and rear. The boot is large enough, when the rear seat is in place. With that folded, the boot is enormous. Of course, by the mid-1970s, there were rivals that offered five doors like the Maxi, but none of them could offer comparable space, even when they had the advantage of a longer body, like the Chrysler Alpine and Volkswagen Passat.

Of course, there are criticisms that can be levelled at the Maxi: suspension noise seems to be above average, and its body seems to lack the stiffness of the older 1800 (but then again, most cars compare badly to the 1800, even today), and this translates into a car that can crash and bang over those irregularities spoken about before. Thankfully, any aural crashes are not accompanied by jarring of the suspension, so one would soon learn to live with it, knowing that suspension noise is one pay-off for that very able chassis.

Conclusions: does the Maxi cut it in 2004?

One thing is for sure: the issue of whether the Maxi was any good when it was current is not negotiable. Its chassis and practicality mark it out as being supremely clever, perhaps too clever for the buyers of the time. And there lies the reason as to why it did not sell: it was sensible, extremely sensible… so sensible, in fact, that if you had children or carried loads on a regular basis, there was nothing in its class to touch it. However, what the Maxi lacked compared to its flamboyant rivals was any kind of panache. Its styling was functional, and sensible (that word again), but in no way was it aspirational. In a time when the economy was growing, and the car was becoming more and more of a status symbol, the Maxi represented the rational choice. It was the car for the masses and everyone should have had one… but instead, buyers went for the shallower charms of its rivals. In the class of 1975, the Maxi was definitely the school swat.

Come 2004, and that Friends Re-united dance, the Maxi takes on the mantle of the clever-kid-made-good. Whereas you could buy a Ford Cortina or Vauxhall Cavalier (assuming you could find one) from the class of ’75, and could push it into service as a family car of limited use, the Maxi would take on the task with considerable aplomb. Heck, time has even softened the looks, and although it will never seriously tug the heartstrings in the way a truly handsome car will, it has enough charm to turn heads now.

It also goes well enough to keep up with the flow of modern traffic, is economical enough not to require a second income stream, and has enough ride sophistication to make it a viable medium/long distance runner. So in answer to the above question: yes, the Maxi does cut it in 2004 – perhaps more so than any of its more widely acknowledged relatives from the BMC>Rover stable.

With thanks to Alexander Boucke for the loan of his mint Maxi…

Keith Adams

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