Concepts and prototypes : Leyland ADO74 (1972-74)

Carole Nash Classic Insurance Specialists

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.

Michelotti ADO74

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.

Three proposals for the ADO74: On the left a Harris Mann design, with distinct Princess overtones, the middle design lacked style, even though it made it to full-size styling buck. On the right is Harry Webster's Michelotti-styled supermini proposal; very stylish and European in appearance.
Three proposals for the ADO74: On the left a Harris Mann design, with distinct Princess overtones, the middle design lacked style, even though it made it to full-size styling buck. On the right is Harry Webster’s Michelotti-styled supermini proposal; very stylish and European in appearance.

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.

These outline drawings date from the very early stages of the project. The configuration of the K-series engine and its 72 degree backwards slant is very obvious in the lower diagram, although it has to be said that the passenger accommodation looks decidedly suspect.
These outline drawings date from the very early stages of the project. The configuration of the K-Series engine and its 72 degree backwards slant is very obvious in the lower diagram, although it has to be said that the passenger accommodation looks decidedly suspect
It is important to produce a stylish car when competing in the image-conscious supermini market. This frontal proposal might have been quite bold-looking, but was certainly neither stylish nor aerodynamic. Note the hint of Leyland P76 about the shape of the indicators.
It is important to produce a stylish car when competing in the image-conscious supermini market. This frontal proposal might have been quite bold-looking, but was certainly neither stylish nor aerodynamic. Note the hint of Leyland P76 about the shape of the indicators
One of several ADO74 prototypes that were evaluated at Longbridge during 1972: this smooth looking proposal was not at all derivative of the contemporary opposition. The most noteworthy point of this design is the skillfully integrated bumpers – whether these would have made it into production on such an inexpensive car, mooted for launch in the mid-Seventies, is open to debate. In the version of this car shown below, its bumpers appear to have been painted to match the body colour - an even more expensive option in production terms. Also, note the rather American-esque ADO73 Marina facelift proposal in the background.
One of several ADO74 prototypes that were evaluated at Longbridge during 1972: this smooth looking proposal was not at all derivative of the contemporary opposition. The most noteworthy point of this design is the skillfully integrated bumpers – whether these would have made it into production on such an inexpensive car, mooted for launch in the mid-Seventies, is open to debate. In the version of this car shown below, its bumpers appear to have been painted to match the body colour – an even more expensive option in production terms
Another effort from the dipped window-line, bulbous school of thought, with more than a hint of the later Fiat Ritmo about the front. One possible indicator of “project drift” is the plethora of wildly differing styling sketches on the wall behind.
Another effort from the dipped window-line, bulbous school of thought, with more than a hint of the later Fiat Ritmo about the front. One possible indicator of “project drift” is the plethora of wildly differing styling sketches on the wall behind
Arguably the best in-house effort, being rather reminiscent of the Princess.
Arguably the best in-house effort, being rather reminiscent of the Princess

Smooth and rather utilitarian in style - did it have the character to succeed on the marketplace? It is now obvious that there were two schools of thought – the bulbous, rather featureless look incorporating a dipped window-line, and the later Harris Mann “Wedge” look (see pictures below).
Smooth and rather utilitarian in style – did it have the character to succeed on the marketplace? It is now obvious that there were two schools of thought – the bulbous, rather featureless look incorporating a dipped window-line, and the later Harris Mann ‘Wedge’ look (see pictures below)
 This Harris Mann sketch looks rather better than the full-size models which resulted (see below), providing an intersting parallel with the Allegro's transition from paper to clay. The smoothly-integrated detailing on this car would probably have been too expensive to achieve in production.
This Harris Mann sketch looks rather better than the full-size models which resulted (see below), providing an interesting parallel with the Allegro’s transition from paper to clay. The smoothly-integrated detailing on this car would probably have been too expensive to achieve in production
This version is fairly close to Mann's sketch, but those round headlamps only serve to empahsise the car's passing resemblance to American Motors' AMC Pacer Wagon.
This version is fairly close to Mann’s sketch, but those round headlamps only serve to empahsise the car’s passing resemblance to American Motors’ AMC Pacer Wagon.
Possibly the worst-looking ADO74 proposal, one has to wonder what Harris Mann was thinking of to allow this monstrosity to make it to full-size. Next!
Possibly the worst-looking ADO74 proposal, one has to wonder what Harris Mann was thinking of to allow this monstrosity to make it to full-size. Next!
Classic Harris Mann – look at the side feature line, which plunged from high at the rear to lower at the front. This styling trick had already been used on the yet-to-be-launched ADO71 with some success.
Classic Harris Mann – look at the side feature line, which plunged from high at the rear to lower at the front. This styling trick had already been used on the yet-to-be-launched ADO71 with some success
A little more work on the “Wedge” theme resulted in this, the three door hatchback version of the Triumph TR7. In all seriousness, this Harris Mann creation is rather stylish, although the car’s desirability on the marketplace would have been rather dependent on that of the TR7. (The badge on the side of this car reads "Mini 1300")
A little more work on the “Wedge” theme resulted in this, the three-door hatchback version of the Triumph TR7. In all seriousness, this Harris Mann creation is rather stylish, although the car’s desirability in the marketplace would have been rather dependent on that of the TR7. (The badge on the side of this car reads “Mini 1300”)

 

Keith Adams

Keith Adams

Editor and creator AROnline at AROnline
Created www.austin-rover.co.uk in 2001 and built it up to become the world's foremost reference source for all things BMC, Leyland and Rover Group, before renaming it AROnline in 2007.

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.
Keith Adams

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21 Comments

  1. I expect that others may disagree, but I think the early mock ups of ADO74 look a little like the original Fiesta Mk1, at least in the profile view. The later versions seemed to go well off course. Had the project been successful, the earlier incarnation might have been a dominant rival to the baby Ford, especially if launched in the late 1970s.

  2. I think one of those prototypes looks a lot like the Fiat Strada at the front but that, in general, the design looks quite Japanese and bang up to date for the 1970s. They should have gone for it – yet another lost opportunity!

    Incidentally, is that ADO73 in the first picture – another design idea for the Marina? They should have gone for that one as well – it looks great!

  3. Yet another article on BL and yet another huge disappointing what if – can you imagine BL’s lead in the market if they had got almost any one of the above cars out in the mid-70’s? This is just another one of those nails in BL’s coffin that in hindsight you can so clearly see would happen.

  4. The other thing is that most of the above proposals look like global cars that would have sat nicely in many more markets than just western europe and the UK.

  5. Personally, I can easily envision ADO74 as an upmarket Triumph-badged supermini to sit below the Triumph Dolomite 1300 instead of as an Austin and could see it do rather well in light of the impact the 1973 oil crisis had on the buying public at the time.

    Fwiw, I quite like the look of the TR7-like 3-door hatchback prototype from the last image (at least from the side), while the yellow utilitarian “Austin” prototype does look the most production worthy out out of the other stillborn ADO74 prototypes.

  6. The Michelloti proposal was absolutely vile, awkward, angular and fussy, having said that there is not one good looking car in this lot, they are all gawky and cross-eyed..

  7. Good Gods but they’re ugly, and whoever the person was who ever thought that a Fiat Strada-esque design was worth drawing, let alone mocking up, “One Lobotomy, please…”
    As has been said before there’s not a decent one among them although the side view of the last one with the faux B pillar grilles looks just about bearable..
    The original Metro wasn’t exactly the height of beauty when it came out (depressing that I can remember them with a mini-metro badge) but these disasters make the Allegro Estate look like Elle MacPherson on wheels…

  8. Elle McPherson’s ‘struts’…now we’re talking good design. Photo no.2s frontal treatment is very reminiscent of the wonderful AMC Pacer (dont knock em!) which came out in ’73-74? There are strong tastes of the Civic, mk1 Polo and not suprisingly a bit of R14 (any left this side of the channel??) and R5. I cant believe separate designers spontaneously produced ideas with so much in common. Its widely believed the R16 was stolen from Citroen, so was there a low level of espionage going on continuously?

  9. Hmm, not impressed with any of these, when you compare them with the dull but smart Fiat 127 or stylish Renault 5.
    It does seem that BL design got stuck up a blind alley in the 70s, when you look at what was launched and some of the cancelled programmes, such as SD2, and compare with what VW and Audi produced, or Vauxhall/Opel.

  10. From the autobiography of Lee Iacocca,at the time of the ADO74, Honda were looking to supply a complete FWD engine and transmission package for export, they offered it to Ford for the Mk 1 Fiesta, but Iaccoca could not get it past the Board, due to anti-Japanese feelings, Ford took the same Not-Invented-Here line against the ground-breaking French Michelin radial tyres. Iacocca wrote it was a superior unit and being sold for less than Ford could manufacture.
    If ADO74 had gone ahead, and not just a might-have-been, think of how it would have entered the market, competitively-priced with a class-leading drive train under the bonnet.

  11. There are some grim looking vehicles there, either bulbous or just odd. The one you highlighted (B?) is probably the best

    Most of the rivals launched around this time or afterwards mainly show that a neat but plain angular design sold well. 127, Polo, Fiesta, even the 104. All of them have completely conventional window lines

    Was the option of powering AD074 with the A series ever considered, surely this would have drastically cut development time as the A series was still competitive?

    • It is possible at least initially for ADO74 to carry over the existing A-Series though it seems an all or nothing approach was taken regarding the project.

      Yet would the A-Series engined ADO74 have been competitive against rivals at the top end of the range, especially after the project grew to being almost as long as ADO16 at 11 ft 6 inches or virtually the same length as the original Renault 5 (from initially a direct 10 ft Mini replacement)?

      Range-topping ADO74 models would have needed larger engines whether a 1.3 Turbocharged A-Series or if possible even a 1.6 E-Series.

      • Most superminis of that era had small engines anyway, 900/1100 cc, and many of these engines were pretty elderly units as well. The original Ka in the mid 90s still used a Kent derivative!

        • Agreed, just thinking in that an A-Series engined ADO74 had it featured a length of 11 ft 6 inches (instead of 10 ft) would have likely been significantly slower then both the Metro and Mini Clubman with the same engine as well as the class average in general.

          That is unless the long length of ADO74 in 11 ft 6 inch form was somehow mitigated by lower than expected weight and an improved gearbox (assuming the latter was an end-on layout).

        • Interestingly given the Triumph origins of the ADO74 project, it is surprising that Triumph’s own 803-1493cc engines or at least a properly updated variation (where the Triumph engine’s weaknesses are remedied) were never considered over the existing A-Series engine or proposed ADO74 engines.

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