The smooth six-cylinder version of the BMC 1800 (ADO17) could have been a hit across Europe. It was a great long-distance cruiser. However, held back by a body changed little since 1964, sales were modest and confined to just a few countries, despite variations from UK cars intended to strengthen appeal.
Chris Cowin looks at what they were, and delves into the background of the 1972-75 Austin/Morris 2200 which would be ‘the last of the continental Landcrabs’.
Austin/Morris 2200: Last of the continental Landcrabs
As detailed elsewhere on this site, the Austin 1800 (ADO17) was not a great success in sales terms. A British launch plagued with ‘teething troubles’ was one problem. A bodyshell many considered ungainly (or downright ugly) another. The Mk2 ‘facelift’ of 1968 made little difference. It did indeed give the Austin and Morris 1800 a rather happier ‘face’ through tinkering with the grille, but added tailfins at a time most other manufacturers were dropping them.
A much more ambitious styling overhaul was in the works, giving the 1800 a squared-off new front to match the Mini Clubman and Austin Maxi, and a rear rather resembling the Hillman Hunter. In a recent interview for Practical Classics magazine, Harris Mann recalls working on this update, at one point proposed for the Mk3 version of 1800 together with the new 2200 as meeting records reveal. However, with British Leyland barely breaking even in 1969/70, when these issues were on the table, such a revamp was hard to fund.
Only in Australia did the locally-manufactured Austin 1800 receive the new bodywork (and a three inch increase in wheelbase) when it evolved into the X6 Tasman/Kimberley of 1970. The X6 cars had an important role to play, being one of only three core models manufactured by Leyland Australia. They were intended to pave the way for their replacement, the Leyland P76 of 1973, by establishing a presence in the market for big six-cylinder ‘family sedans.’
Scaling up for Australia
In the transverse-engined, front-drive Austin 1800, Issigonis had designed a brilliantly packaged vehicle with a large-car interior but compact exterior dimensions. Now Leyland Australia was stretching the exterior to approach the look of the (rear-driven) Ford and Holden, while leaving interior dimensions unchanged. Consistent with this ‘up a segment’ positioning, the 1800 engine disappeared, both Tasman and Kimberley being powered by the new 2227cc in-line six version of the E Series engine. Those engines and the body panels were Australian produced, these cars having very high ‘local content’.
A more modest approach
Although the 1800 was a slow seller in the UK, production volumes nonetheless far exceeded its Australian cousin (Only 12,000 examples of the X6 Tasman/Kimberley were ever built). Major additional capital investment in tooling would have been required before the Mk3 1800 and 2200 could appear in UK showrooms with the new look (and presumably the new plastic fascia) of the Australian cars.
Such an overhaul might have made them stronger competitors for rivals like Ford’s svelte Consul (also launched in 1972), but with money short and a more complete replacement already on the drawing board, a frugal approach was taken. This was turned into virtue when the Mk3 1800 and 2200 were launched in the spring of 1972, the press release explaining how rejection of a frivolous and expensive restyle enabled British Leyland to price the revised range more affordably. Avoidance of the heavy cost of new body tooling was referred to explicitly.
Bit of a problem
Looking at the UK market in isolation, the low-cost approach would appear to have been the right one. Arriving two years after their Australian cousins, the Austin/Morris 2200 suffered fewer of the problems in service which gave those hastily developed X6 cars a poor reputation. Even if the styling turned no heads, the Mk3 1800 and 2200 could boast an improved gearchange and (at last) a centrally-mounted handbrake, so investment had not been totally confined to the new six-cylinder engine. They were really just holding the fort until the 18-22 Series (Princess) was ready in early 1975.
The upscale Wolseley Six variant (with the 2200 engine) sold well. Few of the gentlefolk who favoured that model were clamouring for a restyle, and perhaps that’s why 25,000 were built, ahead of the Austin/Morris 2200 of which only 20,000 were completed. The Austin and Morris 1800 Mk3 accounted for an additional 23,000 units resulting in production of 67,000 for the entire Mk3 range over three years. A decade later the Austin Ambassador (despite investment having been made in a reskin) notched up just 43,000 orders in its two year life – a comparable level of demand.
The Ambassador was not marketed in continental Europe (or in any export market except Ireland). However, in 1972, with Britain on the cusp of EEC entry and a brand new six-cylinder power unit to shout about, it would have seemed rather feeble if no effort was made to market the Austin/Morris 2200 across the channel. But with the car looking dated, and with the pool of potential repeat buyers small in most countries beyond Denmark and the Netherlands (where the 1800 had been popular) a very modest campaign was mounted.
By 1972 British Leyland had eliminated any differentiation between the Austin and Morris versions of a car, where both still existed, except for badging. British customers therefore plumped for an Austin or Morris 2200 based on dealer (there was still a ‘two-channel’ Dealer Network), tradition, or the toss of a coin. Both were equipped with a rather spartan dashboard which, though ostensibly new, was clearly based on the architecture of the existing Wolseley item. But it was deprived of the Wolseley’s clock and finished with formica-like ‘simulated woodgrain’.
The Wolseley marque had been phased out by British Leyland in continental Europe. There was minimal brand awareness of Wolseley in most countries, exceptions being Denmark and the Netherlands where ‘Nuffield’ imports had fared well in the 1950s and 1960s, helped by keen local import companies. But even there the Wolseley Six was not to be marketed, which gave an opportunity to upgrade the standard specification of the Austin and Morris versions.
Accordingly, the Longbridge production line fitted the highly-polished walnut veneer dashboard of the Wolseley Six to Austin and Morris 2200 cars bound for the continent. This was not the only change with several items from the options list becoming standard equipment including reclining seats, heated rear window and, most strikingly, Rostyle wheels (which were an option on the 2200 and Wolseley Six in the UK). Automatic transmission and power-assisted steering could be specified. The Wolseley’s plush seats (with individual front armrests) sadly were not included in the continental specification of the Austin/Morris 2200 – nor was its steering wheel with ‘wood’ insert and badge.
You were lucky if you spotted an Austin or Morris 2200 in continental Europe, even when they were new. With British Leyland a minor player in most countries, this big old barge (as some might have seen it) wasn’t something dealers wanted cluttering up their usually small showrooms. The 2200 wasn’t offered at all in the major markets of Germany and Italy, now was it to be found in Sweden or Norway where British Leyland was still a significant force. But France did get them, with both Austin and Morris badging.
The most important markets appear to have been Denmark (where British Leyland could still claim 20% market share in 1972) and the Netherlands. Both those countries had local names for the preceding 1800 but, although some Dutch people still refer to the Austin 2200 as ‘Austin Balanza 2200’ and some Danes refer to the Morris 2200 as ‘Morris Monaco 2200,’ those were not their official titles, British Leyland having dropped such local names by the time of the Mk3 range.
What of the 1800 Mk3 ?
The Austin and Morris 2200 were, of course, flanked by the 1800 Mk3 in British showrooms, a car which retained the strip speedometer of the original Austin 1800. But on the continent, with British Leyland also keen to sell Maxi 1750 and Marina 1800, there was little room for the Austin/Morris 1800 Mk3. The only countries where it was possible to buy one were Denmark & the Netherlands, which had specific Morris 1800 Mk3 brochures.
The Mk1 and Mk2 versions of the Austin/Morris 1800 had garnered more respect than customers since winning the 1965 European Car of the Year award. Sales in most EEC markets had been hampered by import tariffs which made competitive pricing a challenge, especially as (unlike the Mini and 1100/1300) there was no mitigating continental assembly. Much greater sales expectations would be attached to the Princess when it was launched in continental Europe for 1976, and the 2200 could act as a ‘place holder’ until that time.
Most 2200s sold in the Netherlands appear to have been Austin badged, and most sold in Denmark Morris badged though such distinctions were becoming a little silly when new competitors with strong consistent branding like Toyota were making fast inroads. The Morris 2200 brochure was a (not very convincingly) retouched version of the Austin item. Some 2200s survive in the Netherlands (including one oft-photographed example that seems to live in the tourist quarter of Amsterdam) and, at the last count, five 2200s were still on the road in Denmark. It’s believed that at least one Wolseley Six was ‘special ordered’ and supplied to a Dutch customer.
Was that it?
It would be wrong to imply the 2200 was a car almost totally ‘confined to base’ as the later (RHD only) Austin Ambassador was. Many global markets that had taken the 1800, including Canada and South Africa, never received a 2200. But they were sold in the Republic of Ireland and in New Zealand, which imported a significant number in ‘built-up’ form in 1973/74. New Zealanders could also buy the X6 Tasman/Kimberley (which was assembled locally) so were able to compare Australian and British interpretations of the 2200. Those right-hand-drive Irish and New Zealand cars appear to have conformed to the UK specification. No doubt other ‘sightings’ will be reported.
In addition, this was a model favoured by the diplomatic service and armed forces (both the 1800 and 2200 made excellent staff cars for senior officers) and quite a few made their way overseas through those channels. A pair of Mk3 cars provided transport for the embassy in Stockholm, even though they were not marketed in Sweden.
Footnote in history
The history of the Austin and Morris 2200 in continental Europe is an obscure chapter, concerning the sale of only a few hundred cars, almost 50 years ago. The 110bhp overhead camshaft power unit was a good one, allied to twin carbs it served up lively acceleration and a top speed of 105mph (170km/h). But the car as a whole was an ageing design in the twilight of its years, and such models tend to fall back on domestic demand (The FIAT Croma lingered on in Italy for years, for example). When British Leyland wrapped the same power unit in a sleeker more aerodynamic body a surge in exports to Europe might have been expected. But the Princess 2200HLS did little better than its Austin/Morris 2200 predecessor, which appears to have been dropped in Europe some time before Princess arrived, due to low demand.
The higher tax, which larger engines attracted in many countries, was still a negative (meaning the Princess 2200 was never offered in markets like Italy), while fuel consumption had become more of an issue by the mid-Seventies. Consequently, most Princess cars sold in continental Europe were 1800s (or later the O-Series-powered 1700/2000 models).
While the Austin/Morris 2200 had been held back by its dated appearance, the Princess suffered from quality glitches, supply problems and (on the continent) patchy distribution. Neither made a significant impact on Europe’s vast and lucrative market for ‘upper-medium’ family saloons, but at least they tried.
Author’s note: ‘Landcrab’ is a nickname given to the Austin/Morris 1800 and derivatives such as 2200 and Wolseley Six. It supposedly dates from the 1968 London-Sydney Marathon where the 1800 performed very well. An Australian journalist looking down from a helicopter remarked how they ‘crabbed’ through turns like the crustaceans. It usually refers purely to the ADO17 family, but in the southern hemisphere, ‘Landcrab’ is used by some to refer to the whole range of related BMC saloons including Maxi, 3 Litre and 1100/1300. (And as it was always just an unofficial nickname, who can say they’re wrong?).
As ever all comments or additional info. are very welcome. With thanks to Kaare Frank, Tommy Dahl Paulsen, Graeme Roberts and Maarten Kempen.