Opinion : What happened to Issigonis’ Mini world? Part Three – The Maxi Factor

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)…

MINI Countryman

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

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:

Opinion : What happened to Issigonis’ Mini world? Part One

Opinion : What happened to Issigonis’ Mini world? Part Two

Ian Nicholls

Born in Bedfordshire but now residing in Norfolk, Ian Nicholls is an ardent BL enthusiast. Currently he owns a Jaguar and two classic Minis. A stalwart of the Norfolk Mini Owners Club for nearly a decade he is an enthusiast for all things Issigonis. A stickler for historical accuracy he has recently performed the marathon task of mining the online newspaper articles for all BMC>MG related stories. Ian is unable to help with technical queries – he pays other people to fix his cars!

Latest posts by Ian Nicholls (see all)

31 Comments

  1. Apparently Issigonis’s ambitious plan on page 371 in the Gillian Bardsley’s book did include dieselized 1.5-1.75 E-Series though they obviously remained paper projects, then there was the proposed dieselized 1.6 S-Series (along with the reputed experimental 2.4 E6 petrol and diesel engines).

    The conservatism of the UK fleet market basically solidifies my view of BMC being wrong to gamble everything on FWD, especially since BMC were capable of developing complementary low-cost RWD cars of Escort, Cortina and Corsair size to offset the costs of Issigonis’s FWD cars, whilst allowing BMC to retain both conservative buyers as well as the fleet market.

    Obviously it would also help matters if the FWD cars were better costed to the point of making a profit with the assistance of BMC’s criminally miss-utilized Research Department (on top of featuring hatchbacks from the outset), as well as also helped if the UK was admitted into the EEC in the early-1960s as BMC themselves (incorrectly) anticipated.

  2. “This became an accepted ‘fact’ swallowed by historians ever since, that was not reflected in BMC’s financial performance, often it was more profitable per vehicle sold than Ford’s UK division, but never let the truth get in the way of a good story. ”

    So way did BMC have to be bailed out, if their cars were so profitable? From what I read the price set by management had little to do with the actual cost of producing the car; they looked at what rivals were selling at and priced at that level.

    It was complete amateur hour, especially when they could have charged more for some of their products without loosing sales. BMC had to be a mass manufacturer and that meant trying to match the prices and volumes of Ford, who were more efficient.

    The most damning thing, in the article, about the Maxi is the fact there was no market for it. It is all very well saying it was aimed at Europe but BMC must have known that membership of the EEC was not guaranteed, so building a car the UK market didn’t want, was the height of folly.

    That was the big problem with Issigonis and the product designers at BMC. They didn’t research the market to find out what buyers wanted. They designed the cars they thought buyers should have.

    Worked out well, in the long run with the Mini and the 1100 but was a disaster with the Maxi and the landcrab.

  3. A number of BMC/BL cars styling have stood the test of time even if they were not appreciated at the time. The Maxi is one of them, hatchback styling in the generations since have acquainted us much more with the two box design and now, with the benefit of hindsight, the Maxi looks positively well proportioned from every angle. It’s a shame that engineering issues hampered it’s popularity because most people in 2019 haven’t a clue what the Maxi is. I’d have one in a heartbeat!

  4. Certainly the 2 box style was the right way to go with the Maxi, but the looks were always compromised to a degree by having to use the Landcrab’s doors.

    While by not means a perfect design, the Renault 16 at least managed to have some sharp styling that managed to last 14 years with a few tweaks along the way.

  5. I think you also need to consider marketing after BMC became BL. The MAXI was the first BMC car launched by BL and it suffered from the same coolness from BL that the Rover 75 recieved from BMW with a subsequent impact on sales. Not the whole story, not the whole answer but a a significant impact. Also the lack of the thee box saloon

  6. Landcrab doors, no styling to speak of(bodywork merely hid the mechanicals and kept the rain off the occupants).Then release it with an unpleasant, underpowered engine,a howling in-sump transmission, and an impossible gear change. Sorry but a spacious interior was never going to be enough to redeem this car. Ugly might be fashionable today ,it wasn’t in the seventies. Fords may have been primitive but they were stylish and people wanted them.

    • The design philosophy of the Mini & ADO16 didn’t really work for the Landcrab & Maxi, which were in categories where decently styled bodywork was far more important, but unfortunately a fact lost on the technocrats that dominated the BMC design department.

  7. The Maxi was an advanced car for its time, but the fleet market still wanted saloons with rwd and four speed gearboxes, which hindered the Maxi’s progress. For all the Maxi had a bad start and 1500cc versions wete underpowered, the 1750 twin carb version was quite a powerful car and quieter at speed than its competitors due to its fifth gear. Also it seemed to be more reliable than its BL stablemates and for a seventies car was quite rust proof.

  8. My point is that it was too little ,too late. The specification sheet can be as advanced as you like but if the car poorly executed and lacks the “I want one” factor, it’s a lost cause. Somehow I can’t imagine getting up in the morning after the day I took delivery of my new Maxi, parting the blinds, and admiring my new purchase proudly .

    • The Maxi’s main problem was the 1500 version, the engine was too small for the heavy body and any gains in fuel economy with the fifth gear were eliminated by the heavy body. Also early versions had a terrible gearchange and even when this was improved in 1970, it was still rubbery compared with its rivals. However, this was balanced out by the refined and powerful 1750 models( particularly the HL), a huge interior and massive boot, a good ride and reasonable reliability and rust proofing. Certainly the Maxi never suffered from the relaibility woes of the early Allegro and Princess.

  9. My Uncle swopped his Austin 3000 for a Maxi and kept it until my Aunt and him gave up there individual cars. He loved his Maxi, which he said was not exactly a looker (he was a freelance tailor by trade) but it was comfortable, excellent space for the family and dogs plus compared to the 3000 offered very good mpg which was especially important as they use to tour across Europe. It was a shame that it was not given a better looking body which may have made it more desirable.

    And least we forget this project started out as a car that slotted below the 1800 and above the 1100/1300 – Issigonis was forced upon those doors and he walked away from the project before BLMC was even formed. If the original project had gone ahead what would we have got?

  10. The sad fact is that up to the start of the 21st century, when ugly became the new style, cars sold on looks, and whilst the 1100 had a certain crispness about it, and the Mini was cute , the Maxi was lumpen looking from any angle . This, coupled with the appalling gear linkage, doomed it from the start . Although some improvement to the looks was effected with the later grille etc, ( and an improved but by no means wonderful gearchange ) by then it was too late to convert a slow starter into a winner

  11. I disagree that the fleet buyers wanting simple RWD saloons contributed to the downfall of the British car industry, as it was simple RWD saloons that the Japanese manufacturers became world leaders with. The likes of the Corolla, Carina, Sunny, Bluebird etc only went FWD in the 80s.

    • That’s true, especially in the growing “second world” market of the 1970s.

      With a bit more thought & effort the Marina could have grabbed a bigger slice of this market.

  12. My old boss had a Maxi 1750HL company car in turquoise blue like top pic. It certainly offered good performance on the open dual carriageways when I drove it occasionally. It was replaced with an Alfasud, more exotic no doubt but I don’t think the interior was any better than Maxi.

    Much better was the Cavalier MK2 in hatch form, roomy, sporty design and well built – but we were into another decade of automotive advancement then.

  13. My belief is that the Maxi was a brilliant design poorly executed – for all the reasons that so many have listed above. But, it was a brilliant design never the less. It’s folding seating arrangement was cleverer than the Renault 16 but that’s a minor detail. My father had several, towed a caravan with them and loved ’em to bits. He previously had big Rovers, Jags and Daimlers. At the time I drove new and used Vauxhalls, Fords, Fiats, Renaults, Hillmans and all that stuff – the Maxi just seemed so ‘stodgy’ – the only word I can think of. Stodgy.
    Mind you. I’m currently trying to buy a 1954 Austin Somerset to use as an everyday car – so my opinion on cars may be slightly eccentric……

    • I agree the Maxi ended up looking stodgy, almost like it was a test hack or basic concept sketch that made it into production before a stylist had the chance to smarten it up.

      Same with the cable operated gearbox, did the test drivers get used to it & assumed customers would too?

      Certainly the OHC engine, 5 speed gearbox & packaging, including the wheel at each corner layout, was something they were on the right track with.

      • What is perplexing is how despite Alex Issigonis working on an end-on gearbox layout in the early-50s with the transvere-engined FWD Minor prototype, still persisted with the in-sump gearbox layout instead of revisiting the idea for the Maxi as well as on the 9X/10X and Ant projects (plus for the likes of ADO20 and ADO22), especially soon after Dante Giacosa produced the Autobianchi Primula.

        All well and good saying people at the time had no idea the end-on gearbox would become a universal layout, however one can speculate pride also played a part in holding back Issigonis and BMC from following suit in adopting the layout. Since the gearbox was a weak point even on the 9X prototype when compared to both original Mini, Clubman and the Autobianchi A112.

  14. Really enjoyed the Hub Nut video. It almost makes me want to search out a Maxi to drive, which is a nearly impossible task in the States.

    As for your comment on the Ford Fiesta, Hal Sperlich, the “man behind the curtain” in Lee Iacocca’s product successes, says Ford put up the plant in Spain to build the Escort as Henry Ford II couldn’t see the need for a smaller car, but needed a base from which to economically supply southern Europe with a sub-Cortina vehicle. HF II hated front-drive cars because their development was costly, and had killed a number of projects with this drive system that were aimed at the U.S. buyer. (Yes, more than just the Taunus 12M, which would have been called the Redwing V4 had it not proven to be more expensive to build than the mid-size Falcon, and gone on sale in the U.S.) And more would follow, including the one that Sperlich would take with him to Chrysler as the basis for the first-generation minivan.

    Sperlich’s studies pointed to the ascendancy of cars like the Renault R5 and Fiat 127, and the increase in the number of young singles and families looking for this size car. However, no one within the company wanted to disagree with “The Deuce” (as HF II was called, but not to his face). Nevertheless, Sperlich continued to press the point with Ford each time he saw him, to the point that HF II reportedly stopped Sperlich mid-sentence in one meeting with, “If this is about your g–damn small car again, I don’t want to hear it!”

    Certain that Sperlich was right, and that using the Valencia plant for the Escort Mk. 2 would be the wrong move, Iacocca freed up enough money for Sperlich to build a proof-of-concept vehicle on a Fiat 127 platform that would be shown to the Ford board of directors at their annual meeting.At iacocca’s insistence, Sperlich presented the rear-drive platforms that would underpin most of Ford’s U.S. offerings through the 1980s and 1990s (Fox and Panther), then mentioned a new project — Bobcat — that would attack the B car segment which was growing dramatically, and in which Ford didn’t have an entrant. Iacocca then announced that the prototype was downstairs, and the board adjourned to take a look. R J Miller, a finance guy whom The Deuce liked and respected, listened to Sperlich’s reasoning, and — when the board of directors had returned to the board room — suggested the Bobcat replace the Escort in the Valencia plant. It still took two months before approval for what became the Fiesta was given.

    Granted, the world economy was in turmoil during this period, and there was every likelihood that, with the wrong step, Ford motor Company could go under. Yet here was this Product Planning guy who, just a couple of years before, had been Vice President of Truck operations where he was happily working on the minivan and other new ideas, pushing upper management to spend money on a bunch of new vehicles in new segments. Sperlich, however, understood that HF II had little product experience or confidence, especially after the Edsel affair, and that the Finance staff would rather save its way to prosperity (an impossibility) than spend its way there. He also knew that he had embarrassed the boss with the surprise reveal of the Bobcat proof-of-concept, and that The Deuce had a long memory. Less than two years later, Sperlich was fired, and moved over to Chrysler as Vice President of Styling and Product Planning where he created the K-Car and Chrysler Minivan.

    • Maxi, assembled locally in what had once been New Zealand’s ‘The Austin’, the Austin Distributors’ Federation plant in Petone, had its following in what was one of the few British Commonwealth export markets to get it.

      Around 1969/70, the then still separate Austin group imported a few series one 1500s to dip a toe in the water and, from 1971, the merged NZ Motor Corporation group launched the much improved series 2 1750 manual, with local build reducing the already favourable British Commonwealth vehicle import duty from 20% for imported vehicles to 6.25% for CKD kits, thus helping pricing (when the few French assembled R16s that sneaked in were slugged 55% and locally assembled Japanese sedans 45%).

      Contemporary rivals: Cortina, Hunter, Viva 4-door sedans and 5-door estates and a brace of their on-the-up Japanese saloon rivals. An unexpected government allocation of extra import licence for overseas assembled cars in 1973-4 allowed NZMC to ship in some English assembled HL versions which were quickly snapped up.

      Overall, though, the Maxi in the Antipodes competed in quite a different market where a reps’ conveyance of choice was a two-litre Cortina L, the Marina, Hunter, and Datsun’s 180B. The few I knew of sold new were mostly in the hands of busy retirees, perhaps trading up an 1100/1300 or the BMC Australia made Nomad hatchback, who appreciated the dog loading-friendly tailgate and the vast loadspace the folding seats opened up, all the better to get a large load of cakes to the church fete.

      I don’t know how many were sold as only the series 2 was available in quantity and the 3 never came in as NZMC switched to Honda – the Maxi’s assembly line space at Petone was taken over by the first generation Civic and Accord from 1976. But the owners I knew liked their cars, trading eventually for Japanese models that ultimately replaced British cars. Holden did not field their J-car Camira as a five-door hatchback so it was Toyota that effectively offered a Maxi replacement – the 1984 front drive Corona Liftback and, slightly smaller, the equivalent Corolla. Nissan and Mitsubishi subsequently entered this segment in the late 80s and early 90s. Closest NZMC ever got again was the 1980 second generation Civic five door hatch and wagon models which became popular fleet models.

      But the Maxi was first.

  15. It could be argued that the seventies were a golden era for Ford of Europe, particularly in countries that produced their cars, as every car they produced was a winner, and in Britain their conservatively engineered but stylish cars were huge successes. I’m sure far more people would want a Cortina 2.3 Ghia than a Marina HL on their drive. Also while Ford’s reliability wasn’t top drawer, they were simple and cheap cars to fix and every mechanic knew how to repair them.

    • Very true, once Ford had dropped the indifferent Corsair & Zephyr Mk4 and unified the European range they had a good decade of high sales.

      It was only when the Sierra was launched & the shortcomings of the Mk3 Escort discovered that Ford started to slip up.

      • The 1986 update of the Escort cheapened the look of the car, and its harsh engines, poor ride and falling reliability started to turn buyers away. Also the odd looking Sierra saw buyers flock to the far better Cavalier, and the 1985 update of the Granada made the car look like a big Sierra. Ford probably only kept their number one position due to their big fleet sales as private buyers were looking elsewhere.

        • Would have to differ regarding the 1986 exterior update of the Ford Escort, otherwise agree with the rest.

          Given Ford were a big company in comparison to BL/Rover, why didn’t they opt for an OHC conversion of the 1.0-1.6 Crossflow/Valencia in place of the Ford CVH as a stop-gap for upcoming the Zetec?

          Even without the benefit of hindsight due to the infamous reputation of the CVH, would have thought updating an existing engine would been a cheaper approach for a big company like Ford instead of developing an all-new engine or were other factors involved.

      • Ford also never saw the Vauxhall revival coming. The Mark 1 Cavalier may have stolen some sales from the Cortina, as it was a simiiar sized rwd saloon, but when the Mark 2 atrived, with its fwd set up, powerful engines and crisp styling, it showed the Cortina up as elderly and sales soared. Also many buyers were put off by the radically styled Sierra, generating more sales for Vauxhall, and the Cavalier was seen as a much better driver’s car. Then the Nova, Astra and Carlton began eating into other markers that Ford domiiated, and were generally better cars.

      • I think the Focus was the breakthrough for Ford, as it replaced the ageing and substandard Escort, and the 2002 Fiesta was a complete break with the previous model, which still resembled the original 1976 Fiesta and was becoming outclassed. By 2002 Ford had a highly competent range of cars that were both good looking and good to drive, and reliability, which had become poor in the early nineties, seemed much better.

  16. Been a long long time since I was either in or drove a Renault 16 and a Maxi but one things for certain they both rode well [better than some modern cars] and the 16 had superbly comfortable seats second to none except Jaguar or Rolls of the time!.

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