Leyland ADO74 – the first attempt by British Leyland at replacing the Mini never saw the light of day. It was one project, but had many faces: a wide variety of styling exercises were produced before the programme was cancelled in 1973, as British Leyland could not raise the £130m needed to produce it.
Would it have worked had it been launched in 1976/’77? We can only speculate now.
New Leyland supermini: a victim of circumstance
Once the Morris Marina was established on the marketplace and the Austin Allegro was signed-off for production, Donald Stokes, John Barber and George Turnbull turned their combined attention to the matter of what car to introduce next. At the time, they were optimistic about the chances of the Allegro and the Marina had also made a good start, so they would devise their business strategy around both cars succeeding.
The one thorny issue that rose again out of this process of review was that the Mini was now some thirteen years old and although, it remained a healthy seller, it was not generating enough profit for BLMC. Because the market was changing drastically and the demand for the new generation of ‘super-minis’ was increasing at unprecedented levels across Europe, they asked Harry Webster to come up with a number of proposals in that area of the market for analysis. In the end, three projects were forwarded to management:
- Codename Ant: this proposal was a true mini-replacement, being similarly sized to the original. It was conceived that the car would be available in 750cc-950cc engine sizes and both 2 and 3 door body-styles.
- Codename Ladybird: this was a larger car than the Mini, being some 15-20in longer than the Mini and 2.5in wider. Engine range was 900cc-1100cc and would be a true supermini, created in the same idiom as the FIAT 127 and Renault 5.
- Codename Dragonfly: was a whopping 24-30in longer than Mini (making it Allegro-sized) and was planned to be sold in 1000cc-1200cc forms. The styling was ‘classic’ three-box and would be pitched as a rival to the Ford Escort – something the Morris Marina had moved away from being.
The new supermini takes shape
After review by the BL Board, Project Dragonfly was the first and most easily eliminated – the market did not really need this car because small saloons were growing-up – what people wanted in a car of this engine capacity range was a hatchback. Project Ant and Ladybird, however, were both more seriously investigated – full-size clay models were built for both and were styled in-house at Longbridge.
Re-igniting past associations, and possibly in response to the fact that he was very aware that this sector of the market was very fashion-led (and also maybe as a backlash against the ugliness of the Allegro), Harry Webster asked Michelotti in Italy to put forward a proposal for the Ladybird.
This extremely attractive small hatchback unfortunately was not pursued by the company because it went against the go-it-alone ethos that was prevalent at the time, so was dropped in favour of the Harris Mann-penned version of the car.
The Leyland ADO74 crystallises
The smaller car, which never received its own ADO number, was simply known as the ‘Barrel Car’ because of its convex flanks. This was certainly a clever little design and it made it as far as a full-size mock-up before being finally dropped in favour of the ADO74.
The decision to go with the larger car was an easy one to make for Stokes, Barber and Turnbull, because they could see the way the market was going – and the Mini was continuing to sell in large numbers. Extensive market research in both the UK and Europe backed up this view that the super-mini was the way to go and so, Project Ant was dropped and the larger car became known as the ADO74 and was given the green light by the BL board.
The packaging compromises for the ADO74 that were imposed on the design team were soon revised: the intention was for the car to sit on an 86-inch wheelbase (only six in longer than the Mini, remember), but the Longbridge design team soon realised that this would result in a car unrealistically small and difficult to package.
A victim of circumstance?
Within weeks and as a result of this gradual process of development, they were working upon a car that ran on a more realistic 88- to 90-inch wheelbase. At this point in development, it soon became clear that management were becoming increasingly excited by the car, recognising the fact that it had the potential to comfortably out-sell both the Marina and the Allegro.
As was the case of all cars that endured a convoluted gestation period, the ADO74 proposal was revised to fall in-line with constantly changing market conditions. It was also the subject of much debate within the company: both the marketing men and the financial men liked the direction that the ADO74 was heading, because as a larger car, it had the potential to general larger profits.
The marketing men also could see that this car was exactly what the market wanted and because it was to hit the upper-end of the supermini market square-on, it was going to sell in huge numbers; none of the ‘domestic’ producers had a answer to it, but in Europe (where the Mini was still BLMC’s best-seller), a new small hatchback by the creators of the original Mini would surely go down a storm.
Trouble in Europe
Alas, the people that should have seen the potential of the new car, Leyland International did not see it that way – and lobbied the BL Board to the tune that the ADO74 was neither new nor clever enough and they felt that they might encounter some sales resistance.
The final specifications looked good: the dimensions were right (90-inch wheelbase, 11ft 6in in length), the styling was contemporary and most importantly, the engineering behind the car was fundamentally correct. The ride/handling would have been comparable to anything else in the class at the time, because like the 9X before it, the ADO74 would use a combination of McPherson struts and trailing arms for its suspension set-up.
The car was to use the K-Series engine (which began development in spring 1972, along with the ADO74 styling) – and like the styling, was a contemporary SOHC design, but cleverly incorporated the gearbox and final drive assemblies in the same casting – something that made it rather similar to the later PRV ‘Douvrin’ engines that ended up in the Peugeot 104 and Renault 14.
ADO74 gets the rug pulled out from beneath
The ADO74 had reached the semi-engineered prototype stage of its development and therefore, a commitment to production was required from management. When Donald Stokes announced John Barber as his number two, the ADO74 was put under further – and decisive – scrutiny. Barber considered that the ADO74 had grown too large and had moved too far away from the Mini to replace it.
The fact that the costs of getting it into production were estimated to be in the order of £130 million also did not endear the car to Barber. The result of this further analysis of the ADO74 meant that financially-focused Barber would lobby hard to get the project stopped before costs got out of hand. His reasoned argument was that he wanted BLMC to directly replace the Mini and because it was still selling in large numbers, the company had more urgent priorities.
Barber made no secret of the fact that he felt that the future of British Leyland lay further upmarket and so, he made the decision to scrap ADO74 and only look to replace the Mini once the company had devised their plan of action further up the range. It is worth noting that Barber made this decision on the eve of the October War and the ensuing fuel crisis.
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.