The birthdays are coming thick and fast right now – but this one should really strike a chord with AROnline regulars. Fifty years ago, the Austin 1100 went on sale in the UK. Okay, so it might not have been the first flavour of ADO16 to hit the market – that honour went to the Morris 1100 in 1962 – but it was by far the best known of the breed and, even today, most older readers who remember them on the road, as street furniture, are likely to refer to pretty much any 11oo by Sir Herbert’s surname.
Once the Austin 1100 was up to speed in the dealerships and production ramped up to 6000 per week, it helped cement the popular small BMC as the UK’s best-selling car, comfortably pulling ahead of anything remotely comparable. And if nothing else, the massive success of the 1100 proved that us Brits weren’t – and aren’t – wedded to conservatively-engineered boring saloons.
Minor and Mini fans might disagree with this assertion, but the 1100 was undoubtedly Sir Alec Issigonis’ greatest production car. Yes, the Morris Minor was good to drive and is still one of the cornerstones of the classic car scene, while the Mini was a small car revolution that went on to sell more than five million and would end up proving that you don’t need power to have influence. However, the 1100 took the best elements of both and combined them, with an added dash of Italian style, to make a wonderful small family car that redefined expectations, and which still stacks up today dynamically.
That said, most family car buyers weren’t that concerned by chuckable handling and go-kart steering – they wanted a dependable friend, suited to ferrying kids around and carrying-out their family duties, while being cheap to run and easy to service. The fact that Issigonis had suffused the 1100 with much of the Mini’s brilliant dynamics was merely a happy side-benefit of buying BMC’s small family car. Without doubt, BMC had hit the jackpot with the 1100 – how could things possibly go wrong from there on in?
Well, we know that it did. Don’t let subsequent events muddy the Austin 1100’s brilliance, though – celebrate the fact that, if you bought one now, you can still enjoy a car that will put a smile on your face. How can it not with such talkative steering and roll-free cornering? There are other amiable eccentricities that will capture your heart – the unique whine of that engine-gearbox package, the bouncy, but level ride, and the oddly upright driving position behind that strangely horizontal steering wheel.
Happy 50th birthday, Austin 1100 – here’s to the next half-century.