Robert Leitch tells the story of the amazing ADO30 – a grand tourer which sprung out of a design competition before coming close to replacing the Austin-Healey 3000.
It proved to be a victim of internal politics, tight budgets and more pressing problems for parent company BMC. But not before three were built. Still, it would have been wonderful…
Fireball XL5 – the almost-Austin-Healey 4000
In late 1961, the distinguished Lausanne-based publication Automobile Year organised an international car styling competition to mark its tenth year of publication. Nobody at the time could have guessed that the reverberations of the winning design would continue to resonate in the boardroom and drawing office cells of Longbridge, and far beyond, more than five years later.
A worthy winner
Automobile Year’s competition was open to all people, whether amateurs or professional designers, but not to established design companies, schools, or manufacturers. The brief, deceptively simple, was to design: ‘An automobile which allows at least two people with luggage to make long journeys in all weathers with speed, comfort and safety’.
The car was to be built on a production chassis to be chosen from the following list:
- AC Greyhound
- Alfa Romeo 2000
- Austin Healey 3000
- BMW 3200 Super
- Bristol 406
- Ferrari 250GT
- Lancia Flaminia
- Maserati 3500GT
- Triumph TR4
A prize of SF 10,000 was offered, but a far greater attraction was that the organisers had arranged for Pininfarina of Turin to build the car, and for it to be exhibited at three international motor shows.
The winning entry was the work of Henner Werner, Pio Manzoni, and Michael Conrad, three students at the Hochschule für Gestaltung in Ulm, West Germany. Based on the Austin Healey 3000, the graceful, long-nosed, fixed-head coupe, looked remarkably well resolved and mature, and not challenging or innovative.
This was perhaps surprising given the youth of its design team, although the Automobile Year rules made clear that preference would be given to a practical car capable of being put into series production in 1963, over futuristic dream cars of the type being produced by the American Big Three at the time.
From show car to future flagship
George Harriman had succeeded Sir Leonard Lord as Chairman and Chief Executive of BMC at the beginning of 1962. Within a year he was instrumental in obtaining the rights to the winning design in the Automobile Year competition, and a project was instigated under the codenames ADO30 and XC512.
Logic would have suggested that the purpose of the project would have been replacement of the Big Healey, which formed the basis of the Pininfarina show car but, instead, BMC’s ambitions were to place the car as a direct competitor for the Jaguar E-type, which had been on sale since 1961, and was at the time unsurpassed for its combination of performance, dramatic styling and value for money.
As well as signalling BMC’s upmarket ambitions, the car was to serve as a showcase for the company’s emerging reputation as a leading-edge technological innovator – Hydrolastic suspension was a requirement from the early stage.
The engine chosen for the project was the Rolls-Royce FB60, only used in the 1964 Vanden Plas Princess 4-Litre R. The choice was driven by expediency – the only other options were the Big Healey’s 2.9-litre C-Series, or the BMC ohv 3993cc unit which was still serving in the Vanden Plas 4-litre limousine, the Jensen 541 and an assortment of the company’s commercial vehicles.
The early realisation that the Vanden Plas saloon was never going to meet its original production projection of 200 per week – over its four-year life average weekly production was less than one sixth of that number – may have assisted BMC’s product planners in their decision.
Superficially the 3909cc six-cylinder unit appeared well suited – its all-aluminium construction promised a reasonable power to weight ratio and the capacity marginally exceeded the largest Jaguar XK engine at the time. It was also a product of the manufacturer of so-called ‘best car in the world’, an association BMC were to make most capital out of in publicity material for the Vanden Plas Princess 4-Litre R.
A look at the FB60’s detailed design would, however, soon raise questions. The engine featured an overhead inlet/side exhaust cylinder head, a configuration used by Rolls-Royce on the pre-1959 4.9-litre six used in the Silver Cloud I and Bentley S1, and also in the Rover P4/P5 sixes. In the case of the Rovers, the design had some justification as a means of accommodating decently large valves in an archaically undersquare engine of 1930s origin.
Its adoption in the undersquare FB60 is puzzling, and it can be speculated that the engine’s wedge-shaped combustion chamber would have limited the potential to increase the unit’s power much beyond the Princess 4-Litre R’s 175bhp without compromising fuel efficiency seriously.
The alternative XC512 (‘experimental car’) codename signified that the project was developed at Longbridge under the direction of Sir Alec Issigonis. Ron Nicholls was given the task of directing the project while Issigonis dictated that a torsionally stiff monocoque structure in which the propshaft tunnel served as the main member should be used.
The suspension was said to have been based on that of the 1800, although radical alterations would have be required to adapt the components to a rear-wheel-drive car with a large in-line six-cylinder engine and quite different weight distribution. At this time neither MG or Healey’s design teams were consulted.
AROnline correspondent Robert Lyell recalled in 2019: ‘As an inquisitive apprentice at Crewe in 1969, engines and parts could still be found from the abandoned Healey 4000 project. Tooling and machining were basically ready when the project was cancelled. I believe three pre-production cars were built, one with the FB60 engine and two with the G60. The block-like FB60 was B-range military, but cast in aluminium with a twin-cam head, while the cam cover was a one piece, U-shaped item like a Lotus or Alfa. There is an engine at the Rolls-Royce Enthusiasts’ Club headquarters.’
An unwelcome distraction
Rather than being seen as a fulfilling counterbalance to the challenging day-to-day work of designing technically innovative mass-production cars, the ADO30 project was resented as an unnecessary distraction by the engineers at Longbridge. It soon gained unflattering unofficial epithets: ‘The Thing’, ‘The Monster’, and, most memorably, ‘Fireball XL-5’, after the spaceship in Gerry and Sylvia Anderson’s eponymous 1962 science-fiction TV puppet series.
Foremost among the prototype’s failings was the inability to achieve acceptable handling with the Hydrolastic system. The ADO17’s fully-trailing arms had been retained at the rear, despite the received wisdom borne out in Triumph, Hillman, and BMW’s production cars was that only a semi-trailing arrangement worked effectively. There is no evidence that an all-round double wishbone system was considered, although Jaguar’s designs of this type were already highly regarded and existing BMC front suspension parts could have been adapted with relative ease.
A number of test drivers from outside the company were invited to assess the car. One, the distinguished Belgian racing driver and journalist Paul Frère, recalled that ‘it was too heavy and Hydrolastic wasn’t really right for a sports car. I wasn’t very enthusiastic about the thing.’
Workload, intractable design problems and negativity determined that progress on the ADO30 was to be sporadic and uncertain, and not a sustained drive to a launch deadline. A new twist in an already convoluted tale came with the incorporation of the car into BMC’s second putative joint production venture with Rolls Royce, from which the ADO61 Austin 3-Litre emerged.
The Bentley Alpha coupe proposal never proceeded beyond a quarter scale model, the Firrere’s front-end treatment changed to incorporate a less than successful interpretation of a Bentley radiator shell. If nothing else, it shows how little the design had changed from the competition-winning proposal of 1962.
The broadening of the Rolls-Royce association could have influenced the Crewe company’s willingness to meet BMC’s request to produce a prototype twin-cam cylinder head for the FB60 engine. At a stroke the major shortcoming of the engine was removed, with a reported 53 per cent power increase to 268bhp which put it ahead of the Jaguar XK. With hindsight, the highly-promising updated engine was the only encouraging development in an otherwise sorry tale, yet only one prototype was made, and it was destroyed when the project was abandoned.
Theme and variations
Some mystery surrounds BMC’s intentions regarding body styles. The Firrere show car is clearly a fixed-head coupe, but Jonathan Wood’s Issigonis biography states, ‘The body was a two-seater open one and there were thoughts of making it a coupe’. The arrival of the Jaguar E-type 2+2 in 1966 resulted in a revision of the design to emulate the accommodation of the Coventry car, which was always a fixed-head coupe, although its longer wheelbase was adopted by the convertible with the advent of the Series 3 cars in 1971.
The picture, below, by William Towns clearly shows that BMC was working towards an open-topped version. The hood treatment may bave been fussy, but there was no denying that it would have looked good top-down…
A lingering demise
With the Jaguar/BMC merger of July 1966, the project’s many detractors might have hoped for a swift and painless end for Fireball XL-5. Instead, studies were instigated to use either the 2.5-litre Daimler V8 or a low-deck 2.4- or 2.8-litre Jaguar XK engine in place of the Rolls-Royce unit. At the same time, the use of the MGC’s torsion bar front suspension was proposed in place of the Hydrolastic system.
The moderately informed observer will view these developments with something approaching incredulity. Jaguar’s apparent willingness to aid and abet a BMC product, which manifestly encroached on their market territory, contrasts sharply with their complicity in excising the Rover P8 and P6BS/P9 from Leyland’s production plans immediately after the BMC-Leyland merger in January 1968.
The intention behind what appeared to be last-minute reprieve was to re-position ADO30 downmarket of the E-type, with a target US list price of $4000 to $5000, maintaining a clear distance from the E-type’s price of $6000 to $6500. With cost now the determining factor in the project’s survival, Geoffrey Rose, BMH’s Director of Planning, re-examined the recondite BMC-era costings and established that the manufacturing cost of the Longbridge car was actually £26 more than the E-type figure of £1083. In Spring 1967, the curtain was drawn on a project which had shown early promise, but had delivered little other than division and defeatism.
While it is easy, with the benefit of hindsight, to dismiss Fireball XL-5 as the folly of a misguided management, the reality is that throughout the 1970s, many large-volume car manufacturers in Europe and beyond had set their sights on a share of the glamour and technical kudos which had until now been the preserve of small high-end specialist manufacturers.
The best-known examples were:
- Alfa Romeo Montreal (1970-77)
- Citroen SM (1970-75)
- Fiat Dino 206 and 246 (1967-73)
- Glas 2600 V8 (1966-67)
- Toyota 2000GT (1967-70)
- Triumph Stag (1970-77)
A pattern can be seen clearly; two-seater or 2+2 bodywork, a strong styling pedigree and small-production engines only distantly related to mass-produced units, or entirely bought in from a ‘signature’ manufacturer. All of the above cars are now highly-regarded classics, but it is certain that each one lost their manufacturer substantial sums of money and, in some cases, compromised their independence or very existence.
ADO30 – Playing Devil’s Advocate
The case against ADO30
History will record the ADO30 venture as a dismal escapade, a rarely told story which only reflected badly on BMC’s management in the mid-1960s. Enormous amounts of development time and money were squandered on a vainglorious exercise which came to naught and partly explained a frighteningly bare future developments cupboard by the time of the Leyland merger.
Around £1 million was spent on ADO30 without any commitment to production tooling. As a comparison, in 1968 the projected capital investment for the 9X Mini replacement, less manufacturing facilities was £10 million, for a product with a credible manufacturing projection of 360,000 units per year.
The case for ADO30
Was BMC’s decision to turn the work of three post-graduate students at a German technical college into production reality a masterly coup with the potential to create an outstanding car – a minor but influential classic?
The key element in the car’s favour was the finely crafted coachwork, a graceful foil to the uncomfortably priapic visual presentation of the Jaguar E-type. If there is any doubt about the significance of the Firrere show car, observe the similarity of Pininfarina’s late 1965 MGB GT and 1968 Ferrari Daytona, Satoru Nozaki’s 1967 Toyota 2000GT, and possibly most significantly of all, the 1970 Datsun 240Z.
The engine was more of a problem – in its inlet over exhaust form it appeared to belong to a past era, and was erroneously regarded by the moderately informed consumer of the time as Army surplus. Had the twin-cam head progressed beyond a one-off prototype, the BMC car would have leap-frogged the E-type in the performance stakes, with the potential of more to come.
Perhaps the best interests of the car and its manufacturers would have been served by outsourcing its development to a specialist better versed in small-scale production of high performance cars. The names Bristol, Jensen and Lotus spring easily to mind.
Speed of development would have been paramount – the pace of cutting-edge automotive design was gathering fast. The Hydrolastic suspension may have had to go by the board, and with it the technological showcase ambitions, but the launch of a properly sorted 300bhp British grand tourer with what was then cutting-edge European styling in 1966 – just before Giugiaro, Gandini, and Fioravanti were to change the world – from Britain’s largest car manufacturer would have been a thing to be savoured and fondly remembered to this day.
One member of the competition winning team was to play a highly significant part in the evolution of the modern motor car, although he would not live to know it. By 1969 Pio Manzù* was working for Fiat. Driving his Cinquecento to a meeting at the company’s Centro Stile, he was killed in a collision. He was only 30 years old.
The meeting he was to have attended had been set to select the design for the car to replace the ageing Fiat 850. Manzù’s design was chosen and, as the Fiat 127, stands as his most significant memorial. Apart from the millions produced worldwide from 1971 until as late as 1996, the influence of the car’s shape is evident in the Volkswagen Golf and Polo, Ford Fiesta and nearly all other small hatchbacks designed in the 1970s and 1980s.
In a macabre coincidence, Michel Boué, the designer of the Renault 5, the 127’s near-contemporary and great rival, was also robbed of the chance to see his masterpiece reach production by a similarly untimely death.
* In Automobile Year’s citation Pio Manzoni’s formal family name is given. ‘Manzù’ is a pseudonym which was adopted by his father Giacomo, who was possibly the best-known Italian sculptor of the 20th Century.
By 1966 Michael Conrad and Pio Manzu, along with Bernhard Busch, had formed Studio Autonova to develop their post-graduate ideas. Their FAM town-car project shown above is 3.5 metres long, 1580mm wide and powered by a 1281cc four-cylinder engine of unstated origin. While the influence of the original Fiat Multipla cannot be denied, it also seems to anticipate the first-generation Mercedes-Benz A-Class by three decades.
- Automobile Year 1963 – Edita Lausanne
- Alec Issigonis: The Man who Made the Mini – Jonathan Wood. Breedon Books
- MG: The Untold Story – David Knowles. Windrow and Greene 1997.
- Design magazine article. ‘In search of the town car’. Issue 211 – July
1966. British Council of Industrial Design.
Thanks are also due to regular forum contributors Declan Berridge and JH Gillson for their advice and encouragement.