Concepts and prototypes : Austin Ant prototype (1964-1968)

The Austin Ant (development code ADO19) is an interesting car, because it was a proposed military replacement for the Mini Moke overseen by Sir Alec Issigonis that featured a clever four-wheel-drive system spun off its A-Series engine. A Freelander-style transfer case fed its power from a transmission-in-sump system to a bespoke rear axle via a short propshaft.

Work on the project started in 1964 and, as can be seen from this car’s minimalist styling, there was probably a little way to go in its development – although there’s definitely a family resemblance to the brilliant BMC 9X supermini. In the end, six experimental cars and 24 full engineering prototypes were built before the project was canned in 1968.

The conventional wisdom is that the Ant was killed in the wake of the BMH/Leyland merger – after all, it brought Rover into the family, and the Land Rover was already doing very good business, thank you very much.

Austin Ant for sale in Australia

The car in these images is in Australia and is one of two down there (with a further two in New Zealand), and exists alongside a further two in South Africa, one in Greece and five or six in UK. This one is powered by a 1098cc A-Series and its four-wheel-drive system comes with high and low ranges. This one is currently not running and hasn’t done so for 40 years.

The owner Craig Watson says: ‘It is not the original engine – that was changed in 1978 – and the one currently in the car is from an MG 1100.’ It’s the seventeenth Ant built and is car number 103, being the third one completed. Sadly, the rear fibreglass roof panel is missing, but otherwise all the unique parts, including the gearbox, transfer case, exhaust manifold, rocker cover, rubber side strips, chrome grille strips, mirror arms, etc. are there.’

He adds: ‘Yes, it needs a full restoration, but I wouldn’t sell it. There is no structural rust and very little surface rust, including in the driver’s side footwell and the front right wing. Body is galvanised steel and a lot of the paint has peeled off. There are some panels which still retain original paint in good condition, so getting an exact colour match is possible.’

As an important piece of BMC and Alec Issigonis history, the Ant is extremely interesting. Question is would it have succeeded if it had made it into full production?

Keith Adams


  1. For a company that could not justify investment in tooling for new doors for its new mainstream and premium products, BMC of the late 60s spent a lot of money on likes of this and prototype sports cars, which could never hope to justify investment to bring to production.

    It was not as if there were plenty of other things to do which were more important ie

    1: Resolve the causes of the warranty issues which were eating up the cash.
    2: Improve the serviceability of the Ado16 so it could replace the Minor in the fleet market.
    3: Make the Ado16 and Mini and easier to build to improve productivity.
    4: Improve corrosion resistance to lift product residuals and justify a higher price point than Ford products.

    • Yet BMC were ahead of the game with this miniature off roader, where we had to wait over ten years until a similar small off roader was developed by Suzuki, who became masters at making cheap and economical SUVs. Maybe someone in Japan was watching the Ant with interest, and by the late seventies British Leyland was in such a mess a niche product like a small SUV would have been a waste of money.

      • They were ahead of the game, but the recession hit market of the 70s was a different place to the consumer booms of the 80s, so I doubt there was a market had they had the resources to bring it to production.

    • Graham, I don’t think you understand the scale of costs, at todays costs: The press tooling for a set of four production doors would be about £20 million, you could easily spend £10 to £20 million ( depending on volumes) in BIW for assembly tooling. You would also need to buy the trim and any other unique parts say £5 million. The costs of crude prototypes like these today would be £200K each. This £200K would come from revenue – ie day to day cash flow. The £30 million + would be unique investment from a bank / shareholder or a benevolent government!.

      • You don’t seem to have grasped the point I was making.

        It is not an issue of comparing the cost of this and other prototypes costs with the costs of tooling up for new doors, but the fact that resources were devoted to produce this and other niche products when there was never any hope of having the cash to bring them to production, given that they could not justify new doors for core products.

        There was plenty of other things to do, that would have improved the cash flow and profitability of the Mini and Ado16 which would not have needed scarce capital, these issues with the Mini and Ado16 were afterall the foundation of BMCs problems in the late 60s. This is where the engineering resources devoted to this and other dead end prototypes should have been directed.

        Had they been able to improve the cash flow and margins on the products they could sell, they would have been able to attract funding for tooling up for new products. The critical issue being a new mid sized car that stood a chance of capturing a viable share of the market. Whilst Ant did not directly stop this, more importantly it did absolutely nothing to make it possible.

        • Oh I grasp your point – I lived it for 30 years…..hindsight is a great thing. I was just explaining how they could do it. A few hundred thousand from revenue is nothing – automotive is a cash rich business. This was also how MG Rover could waste cash on pointless developments. Finding large sums for unique investments is a different matter. Press tooling is very expensive and when you stop making the product, or if it is unsuccessful, you are left with hundreds of tonnes of scrap metal.

          • Which is why it takes utterly ruthless pitiless teutonic discipline to be successful in this industry. You have cashflow. You also have massive capital demands. You can easily fritter away the cashflow 200k here 200k there, the boffins are happy as they’re embellishing their cv’s, and you feel like you’re achieving something. But actually you have nothing

            Or you can be austere frugal and focus on one product which will actually sell. Anyone doing anything not directly supporting that product is out the door. I lived it too – for a German tier-1 which in a century of operations has never had a losing year

  2. Another fascinating find and a fascinating vehicle. BMC certainly did some ground breaking engineering in those days, it’s a shame that a lot of this expertise wasn’t properly harnessed, if it had the outcome would have been very different!
    If I remember correctly, the Austin Ant mechanicals were used by Special Tuning / Competition Department to build the 4×4 Austin 1300 Rallycross car…

    • Are you perhaps thinking of the 1971 BL Special Tuning 4X4 Rallycross Mini whose platform and 4WD system reputedly came from the Austin Ant?

      Given the Austin Ant’s resemblance to the Mini 9X prototype, one wonders what other links exist between the two prototypes? Would be strange if they shared the same platform given the Ant’s platform was itself said to be derived from a shortened ADO16 platform.

  3. Certainly one of these has appeared at various classic events over the last couple of years in the UK – but I’m sure the one I’ve seen has a van (fibreglass?) bolt on bit.
    The trouble with fortelling the future from history – “it will sell well – it won’t sell well”- is that every now and then something surprises us. The Original Land Rover a case in point! The idea that the Ant could have spearheaded the Suziki market long before the J40 has some merit surely. But as others have said, if we were ruining our models ‘cos we couldn’t afford the right doors – I guess the Ant was a but a pipe dream. Pity though.

    • Think four wheel drive in the seventies and Land Rover and Range Rover came to mind, as they had very little competition in Britain. However, they were quite thirsty on fuel and relatively expensive. Suzuki spotted a gap in the market for a cheap off roader that was economical and would appeal to poorer farmers. Also Subaru in the late seventies saw a market for family car like 4 wheel drives that were Cortina sized.

      • Suzuki did not see a market for poor farmers, what they saw was a market in Japan for a compact so tax friendly jeep for young Japanese to sit in Tokyo traffic jams.

        The fact that it found a market else where, again most were sold to people who wanted a 4×4 look than farmers.

        Subaru move into 4×4 was a way for small manufacturer to leverage a single platform into numerous profitable markets.They were never pitched at the Cortina market, they were focused on premium compact vehicles pitched above the mainstream Japanese brands, hence 4×4 as a USP, the entry into UK market was one that targeted farmers with a pick up sold via agricultural retailers.

        • Suzukis have never been my strong point, but I’d have thought over here, they’d have seen an opportunity to sell a small cheap 4X4 with low running costs to people who couldn’t afford Land Rovers products.
          Mind you Subaru are of even less interest to me. I know making a car like 4×4 was unique 40 years ago, just the 1600 or whatever it was called was such a dull looking car.

          • Suzuki have been selling the small cheap ladder chassis etc 4×4 you refer to for a very long time, google Suzuki Jimny, my neighbour has a V reg example, reliable and corrosion-free

  4. Had Land Rover saw merit in making the Austin Ant their own at the very bottom of the range and sorting out any flaws in the design (with the Land Rover / Defender being replaced by the Range Rover-based SD5 or Discovery-based Challenger Projects), it would have been interesting to see whether other engines above the A-Series would have been able to fit into the Ant’s engine bay.

    Cannot see a large engine like the B/O-Series slotting into an Ant though perhaps something like the 1493cc Triumph I4 or the 1.5-1.75 E-Series and 1.6 R/S-Series engines would have been a possibility (along with a 4-cylinder version of the PE166), diesel option is another question yet maybe sourced from VM Motori or Volkswagen (if not a dieselized E/S-Series) in order to take the fight to the likes of the Suzuki Jimny and

    Land Rover themselves did apparently look at a smaller Moke-like model in the 1960s featuring a 1.5-litre 3-cylinder version of the 2-litre P6 OHC which never went anywhere.

    • Leyland could not even afford to offer a 5 door Range Rover, despite dealers and market begging them for one from the moment they saw it before launch. Add things like sorting out the panel spring back on the Allegro, or a 5 speed for the Princess etc etc.

      So how could they find money to develop and launch what was at the time going to be a niche market with little margin.if any in a recession hit 1970s Britain.

      No matter how clever it was, there were so many better things to do with what little money they had at BMC, BMH and BL.

      • Do not disagree about British Leyland’s real-life issues upon its formation, just curious about how this particular prototype could have evolved in the hypothetical event it did somehow manage to reach production based both on what was available as well as its deal’s with VM Motori and Volkswagen.

      • Until 1972,when the market share started to fall and questions were being asked about the quality of their cars, British Leyland could sell every car they made and had 40% of the market. Only Fiat probably had a bigger market share among domestically owned carmakers in Europe. In British Leyland’s first few years, the company had a huge range of cars, buses and commercial vehicles that were genuinely popular and were mostly good. Sadly we all know what happened.

  5. I have received a fair bit of grief over the advertisement and have decided now not to sell the Ant. Thanks for your interest.

  6. Also, I should add there is only one ADO19 Austin And in Australia. The other, car number 102 was scrapped back in 1974 with closure of Leyland’s Waterloo factory.

  7. No idea how true the following is though the Austin Memories article on the Ant claims it was actually based on the 1100 platform yet was only 3ins longer than the Mini.

  8. I read on a Land Rover fan site (can’t remember which one) that Land Rover looked at the Ant, saw the cost per unit was nearly the same as the Landie and it was dropped like a stone.

  9. At the time the 88-inch wheelbase Land Rovers were the smallest they had available, their perception of the much smaller and shorter wheelbase ADO19 Austin Ant (online data has it at 77.5-inches up to 80-83-inches – depending on source and of course its accuracy) being a potential threat would only be valid if they themselves had plans to develop a sub 2-litre 2-seater SWB model of similar size as the original 80-inch Series I around the time of BL’s formation in 1968.

    Land Rover did investigate a Series I type chassis-less Light model from 1958 to 1961 before the project completely petered out in 1964 after being briefly rekindled, with factors other than cost being the ultimate cause for the company to lose interest. Meanwhile in 1964 around the same time as the Light Land Rover’s demise, what became ADO19 was just getting started at BMC by Issigonis and his design team.

  10. I imagine that this would be pretty good off road due to its light weight. Whether there would have been much demand for such a small vehicle with limited carrying capacity is debatable though.

    • maestrowoff: Ahead of its time, the Farm Quad bike by the Japanese motorcycle makers, and the John Deere Gator answer the question of demand

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