The UK’s best selling car for almost a decade was also its most advanced family car…
The widely-respected ADO16 proved once and for all that if given what they want, the British do not always favour boring and conventional cars. It also proves that you can take perfection (the Mini) and improve upon it.
Right car, right time
THE British are sometimes given a rough ride by our overseas comrades: we’re criticised for our lack of romantic prowess, our sporting ineptitude and lack of culinary imagination. One thing we are also renowned for across the world, is our conservatism. Especially when it comes to our cars.
And who can blame them for thinking that about us? Immediately after World War II, the British rolled up their sleeves and started exporting every car it possibly could. Before long, our colonies were full of safe and solid Standards, Morrises and Austins. Dependable they might have been, adventurous, they were not.
The British car industry led Europe during the 1940s and 50s, but at the time we were churning out stolid fare, the French and Germans were forging ahead with advanced new cars. The Volkswagen – a car that Rootes considered a no-hoper – racked up sales across the globe, almost singlehandedly turning Germany into an automotive superpower, whilst the French and Italians went their own ways, developing new small and interesting small cars to meet the demand of hungry domestic buyers. Where it could be argued that the Beetle, Fiat Cinquecento and Citroen 2CV were all evolutionary dead-ends, they did show major design flair. Compared to these cars, the British Austin A30s and Standard 8s looked very ordinary indeed. Only Issigonis’ revolutionary Minor seemed to be a step in the right direction.
But in the UK, we loved these cars. The A30 and A35 proved popular with budget car buyers in the UK, and these probably helped cement our conservative image. Following the launch of the Mini in 1959, one could be forgiven for thinking that things had not really changed; the British treated it with suspicion, and thought it was either too small (even though it was roomier than a Ford Popular) or too clever (the motor trade should be blamed for this). This meant that sales were slow to take off.
Undeterred, Issigonis soldiered on with the Mini concept, expanding it to Morris Minor dimensions, creating BMC’s new small family car. The ingredients were pure Mini: Transmission-in-sump A-Series, front wheel drive and a two-box design. The ADO16 did advance on the Mini in one respect though: Dr Alex Moulton made interconnected suspension work on this car… and so, the ADO16 truly was a quantum leap over its British adversaries. The doubts that Leonard Lord did have over the Mini concerned styling; or more precisely the prospects of it scaling-up successfully. Therefore, he made the inspired decision to let Pininfarina shape the bigger car.
It is hard to imagine what BMC Product planners must have made of the ADO16 leading up to its launch, though (assuming such people existed), simply because the company had never produced a car like this before. OK, the Mini was an advanced little thing, which came at the right time, but the ADO16 was pitched deep into the heart of the family car market – a market, as we know, dominated by conservative cars. Marketing meetings (assuming such things happened) must have been fascinating, and the image of Issigonis and Lord shouting down a table full of Chomondley-Warner types spouting their reservations, is almost too amusing to envisage.
Issigonis’ radical thinking won the day though, and BMC launched the ADO16 in 1962. The press loved it (they always did back then), but more importantly, so did buyers. The form book pointed to the UK public not going for such a car, and yet it proved was proved widely off-beam. The ADO16 was advanced, daring and pretty; all the qualities that UK bestsellers were often in short supply of. Dynamically, it was as far ahead of the game as the Mini; it had quick and accurate steering and keen, roll-free handling – in short, a real drivers’ car. Add to this, compliant, long striding ride quality, and you had a car at least ten years ahead of its time: a futuristic best seller. The ADO16 proved that a single-minded genius could produce a car which was admired by the critical elite, as well as the buying public.
And, boy, did the masses take the ADO16 to their hearts: within months of its launch, it firmly established itself as the UK’s best-selling car, briefly relinquishing its lead (to the Ford Cortina) in 1967. The following year, it re-took its lead, and managed to stay ahead until 1971. Impressive. Doubly so, when one considers that it soon earned a reputation within the trade for being difficult to service, as well as proving vulnerable to the attention of the tinworm.
There is a common theme running through the top-ten BMC>Rover cars to this point, which equally applies to the ADO16: it was exactly what the public wanted. With the ADO16, everything came together to create a package so perfect, it was worth far in excess of the sum of its parts. It is a once in a generation car, and in hindsight, a sad one, because its like was not seen again within the BMC>Rover range, until the launch of the Anglo-Japanese Rover R8.
And in terms of UK best-sellers, the next time the country so comprehensively took to such an advanced car, was with the Ford Focus in 1998.
The Allegro was BL’s follow-up to the ADO16: it failed to improve on many areas of the earlier car, and possessed, shall we say, questionable style. As a result, the company’s sustained position at the head of the British sales charts was lost forever.
Richard Bremner (AUTOCAR):
It was close with the 1100 and the Rover 75, the latter being an excellent car and in terms of functionality and quality the best that they have done, though I’m sure the Rover P4 reached comparable standards of quality for its day; perhaps the P6, too. But the 1100 was such a brilliant package of qualities, and advanced the small family car leaps and bounds in 1962, despite its many failings. As ever with BL, it needed development, and then a decent follow-up sooner than one appeared.
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.