During the recent National Metro and Mini Show at the British Motor Museum at Gaydon I happened to stumble across the last Austin Maxi built, assembled at Cowley in July 1981. I have been to Gaydon many times, so either I have simply not noticed it or it was not on show before.
It hit me that, despite being much maligned, the Austin Maxi was a brilliant design which went unappreciated in its 12-year production life. It was a compact design that offered acres of space and its hatchback, combined with a low sill, enabled it to transport sizeable objects. With an overhead cam engine and a five-speed gearbox, it was the original Multi-Purpose Vehicle before the acronym MPV had been coined. And by modern standards it was ludicrously small.
All that is missing is the diesel engine and the black privacy windows.
Today MPVs, crossovers and SUVs, call them what you will, dominate the motoring landscape. As related in my previous articles, the public believe that the diesel engine gives them big car luxury combined with small car fuel economy. Whether that is true or not, that is what a great many motorists seem to think. The 21st century motorist wants a bulky vehicle with diesel power for fuel economy, USB sockets in the back for children to plug in their electronic gizmos and never mind looking out the window, black privacy glass plus room to carry a mobility scooter and/or dog – preferably combined with a premium badge such as Audi, BMW, Jaguar or Land Rover, and you have the modern car. Something like the MINI Countryman (below)…
The Austin Maxi offered most of this back in late 1970 when it was relaunched after eighteen months in production. It was slammed for being unattractive, yet in comparison with much of the so-called styled vehicles we see today, its looks are positively quaint. The Maxi body design was closely skinned over its mechanicals, but then so are many of today’s cars. Is it possible to make a large two-box vehicle with oversize wheels look attractive?
Then there are the van-like MPVs that seem to find favour with dog owners. Think Nissan Cube, a boxy vehicle that has been in production in all its iterations much longer than the Maxi ever was. The gallic duo comprising of the Citroën Berlingo and Renault Kangoo are indeed also available as vans.
Many modern cars are designed with rear windows that the driver cannot see out of, the solution being to fit reversing sensors and cameras. More things to go wrong. Is it me or has the world gone mad?
Way ahead of its time
It is my contention that the Austin Maxi was way ahead of its time in its concept, but it failed because it was the right car at the wrong time. It was a car designed for the expanding European market except that, when it was launched in April 1969, Britain was locked outside the Common Market, seemingly permanently, and the Maxi would face a 17.5% trade tariff in order to do battle with the rival Renault 16 in its own back yard.
It was no contest, regardless of the merits of the individual cars. In its fifteen year lifespan, Renault 16 annual production averaged 123,000, in the 1969 to 1972 period before Britain joined the EU, that of the Maxi averaged a mere 39,000 a year. By European standards, the Renault 16 was not a big seller, some 1.8 million were produced in 15 years, but it was selling into a market big enough for its manufacturer to get a return on its investment, a luxury not available to the Maxi until 1973.
Thus the Maxi became dependent on the British domestic market where 40% of sales were to the fleet buyers – in the Maxi’s slot, it was much higher than that, and they intrinsically believed that front-wheel-drive system was unreliable and so avoided the Maxi in like the plague. Obviously, the original cable change gearbox didn’t help matters, and British Leyland emphasised how reliable the revised post-1970 car was, but in the long term the die was cast.
Not enough buyers wanted it
The Maxi became dependent on the UK market and there were not enough private buyers to make it viable. By the time Britain did join the Common Market, the Maxi was being overtaken by continental rivals and British Leyland’s financial collapse, nationalisation and strike-happy workforce did for its public image and European sales. One of the plus points of the Maxi was that, as it was the last BMC design to reach production, it was not subject to the brutal cost control measures introduced into British Leyland on its subsequent designs.
Back in 1960, Ford of Britain had stripped down a Mini, overseen by Senior Product Planner Terry Beckett and Deputy Financial Controller John Barber, to see how BMC could sell it for the price.
Ford came to the conclusion that BMC was losing £30 on every Mini sold and it soon became an open secret in the motor industry. This became an accepted ‘fact’ – swallowed by historians ever since – but was not reflected in BMC’s financial performance. The Maxi was often more profitable per vehicle sold than Ford’s UK division, but never let the truth get in the way of a good story. By 1969 John Barber was British Leyland’s Finance Director and he recruited Cost Controllers and other bean counters, mainly from Ford, who then proceeded to degrade the engineering integrity of subsequent cars, beginning with the Morris Marina.
British Leyland made terrible cars because the robustness was excised at the design stage on cost grounds. Fortunately, the Maxi escaped the attentions of the bean counters. One can imagine the horror of the incoming Cost Controllers at the extra costs of the transverse engine layout and the gas struts used on the tailgate.
Stirling Moss on the Renault 16
Back in 1970 Stirling Moss said: ‘There is no doubt that the Renault 16 is the most intelligently engineered automobile I have ever encountered and I think that each British motorcar manufacturer would do well to purchase one just to see how it is put together.’
The problem with this statement is that by Ford UK standards the Renault 16 was probably also over engineered and unprofitable, which is why the American-owned giants did not respond to the 1966 European Car of the Year with their own competitors.
As related above, the failure of the Maxi to make an impact was down to the reluctance of the UK fleet buyers to embrace front-wheel drive, which they thought was unreliable and had higher running costs. Even if the Maxi had received a more stylish facelift, or been the recipient of a new Harris Mann-styled wedge shaped body, as in the later 18-22/Princess, it probably would not have made much difference. The fleet buyers wanted Cortinas and, if they couldn’t get them, opted for Marinas, Avengers or Vivas. If they wanted a load lugger, then they purchased the estate versions.
As far a front-wheel drive was concerned, in the sector the Maxi slotted into, it was a non-starter.
Cavalier: popularising the family hatchback
What changed this attitude was the General Motors J Car, launched in August 1981 in Britain as the front-wheel-drive Vauxhall Cavalier Mk2. To my mind, the Cavalier Mk2 was, as far as Britain was concerned, the car of the 1980s. Maybe in Europe as a whole, the Peugeot 205 deserved that accolade, but the Vauxhall Cavalier Mk2 destroyed the two decades’ old prejudice against front-wheel drive held by the fleet buyers and brought the UK market more in line with the rest of Europe.
The Cavalier Mk2 came on stream just as Ford was phasing out the Cortina to be replaced by the Jelly-mould Sierra, which was again rear-wheel drive so as not to upset the all important fleet buyers. The radical look, if not the engineering, of the Sierra worried the fleet buyer, they were concerned its looks would reduce resale values. Vauxhall’s marketing men saw this as an opportunity.
The Cavalier Mk2 took the Maxi blueprint and, using General Motors’ resources, created a car that could compete head on with the Sierra in terms of purchase price and running costs, and gradually weened the fleet buyers off their addiction to rear-wheel drive. However, to achieve this, GM got involved in a bloody price-cutting war with Ford that took no prisoners, something that British Leyland probably could not have afforded with the Maxi against the Cortina in the early 1970s. Make no mistake, the acceptance of front-wheel drive by the fleet buyers owed a lot not to the quality of the cars on offer, but to the price being right. GM had to virtually bribe, at great cost, conservative fleet buyers into taking on a technology they mistrusted. The Maxi’s failure in the marketplace has to be seen in this context. This is why I argue that the Vauxhall Cavalier Mk2 was a significant car, in Britain at least.
Fleet market – skewing the British car industry
I personally hold the conservative fleet buyers partly responsible for the demise of the original British motor industry. Their insistence on rear-wheel drive retarded development of the automobile in Britain. Front-wheel drive was believed to be the passport to insolvency, rear-wheel drive rep mobiles were the path to prosperity. Except when Britain joined the Common Market, apart from the ageing BMC range and the totally inadequate made-to-a-price Austin Allegro, most of the cars coming out of Britain’s factories were uninspiring, carefully costed rep mobiles that had terrible handling.
If this was the best Britain could do, then is it no wonder the likes of Fiat, Renault and Volkswagen found a ready market amongst Britain’s private buyers, eager for something better than the domestic fare, and a genuine advance on the Issigonis designs of the 1960s.
It appears Ford Europe only sanctioned the Bobcat project that became the original Fiesta in 1972, after the Fiat 127 and Renault 5 reached the showrooms, indicating that its marketing research was not as good as many people thought, and that they were so paranoid about costs that they believed they needed to sell 500,000 a year in a new plant in Spain to get a return on their investment. Such was their mistrust of front-wheel drive as a manufacturing process…
So, was the Austin Maxi really a bad car?
For a comprehensive review watch this video:
Hubnut, aka journalist Ian Seabrook, does a thoroughly good job of evaluating a 1977 Maxi 1750.
So, here is to five decades of the Austin Maxi, an underrated classic.
Any AROnline readers wishing to read Ian Nicholls’ two previous Opinion : What happened to Issigonis’ Mini world? articles can do so by following these links:
- History : The Austin-Morris story – Part Seven : 1970-1971 - 26 July 2020
- History : The Austin-Morris story – Part Six : 1970 - 5 July 2020
- Opinion : Happy birthday, Range Rover - 16 June 2020