The Best of AROnline : Austin 1100 meets Alex Moulton

In 2003, Keith Adams and Declan Berridge drove this lovely, early 1100 to Bradford-on-Avon to meet the technical genius behind its brilliant Hydralastic suspension, Dr Alex Moulton. It was clearly an emotional day for the octogenarian engineer, as he revelled in the all-round excellence of this wonderful small car.

Looking as good in 2003 as it did in 1963 - Pininfarina's masterpiece proved that the British driver was not as conservative as some commentators would have you believe.
Looking as good in 2003 as it did in 1963 – Pininfarina’s masterpiece proved that the British driver was not as conservative as some commentators would have you believe

I have had the pleasure of driving some of the world’s nicer cars. This year alone, I have driven cars with two, four, six, eight and even twelve cylinders; I have driven saloons, coupes, hatchbacks and convertibles; I have raced other people’s cars at the Santa Pod dragway, and have even broken my own (several times!) at the Donington race track.

Yet it still comes as a surprise and a delight when I get to drive something that truly amazes me. Inevitably, the greatness of a car is not always immediately apparent, especially if it is something with which you are outwardly familiar. In the case of the ADO16, familiarity was something that had bred contempt in years gone by, even though I’d always thought that this neat and unassuming package looked good. I guess that even the curator of the Louvre could get bored of looking at da Vinci’s finest, given enough time, and I think that must have been the case with the attitude I’d adopted to the ADO16 during the 1990s. I never really fell out of love with the car; after all, its appearances in Fawlty Towers and Clockwise meant that it never truly left my consciousness but, at the same time, I think it got lost in a succession of SD1s, CXs and quattros…

However, by the time I first started this website in 2001, my interest in the ADO16 was well and truly back in the ascendancy. While the true significance of the car had never really been lost on me, when I finally sat down to write its development story it felt like I was revisiting an old relative after we’d been apart for some years.

Let’s get one thing straight: there’s no question that the Mini was the brilliant creation of a genius at the height of his powers, but it was also still something on the fringes; conceived as an economy car for District Nurses (back in the early 1960s!). The ADO16, on the other hand, was something else entirely: it was the original superMini but, at the same time, it took the Mini concept of front-wheel-drive and in-sump gearbox squarely into the big time.

If the Mini had been “wizardry on wheels”, then with the 1100 BMC can been seen to have pulled a rabbit out of its corporate hat, so far removed was it from the fairly safe and unremarkable rear-wheel-drive models which had previously comprised the company’s family models (Minor excepted, of course). The combination of the genius of Sir Alec Issigonis (who created the package), Dr. Alex Moulton (who suspended it), Pininfarina (who styled it) and Charles Griffin (who made it all hang together) was as near to automotive perfection as it was possible to come.

Don’t believe me? Look at the facts. The ADO16 was launched in Morris form in 1962 and, by the time the Austin model joined it in the marketplace a year later, it was already the best-selling car in the UK. Such was its brilliance, the UK’s family men took it to their hearts like no other car before… Was this because of BMC’s position of dominance at the time, or was it down to the strength of the product? Probably a little of both, truth be told. But the 1100 was undoubtedly the right car at the right time. Britain’s families were growing both in size and affluence, and the compact ADO16 was well-placed to embrace the family man on the rise.

The remarkable thing about the ADO16, though, was this: it was the most technically-advanced small family car to see the light of day in a very long time. It shared the Mini’s drivetrain layout, but it also came with interconnected fluid suspension – something that only those weird people at Citroen had produced before. The die was cast – in 1960s UK, Mr. Average was not at all conservative. He was a daring and dynamic car buyer who chose the most advanced family car in Europe.

The ADO16 remained commercially successful throughout its production life – it was the best-selling car in the UK until 1971, and was also built in Australia, Chile, South Africa, Spain, Italy, Belgium, Yugoslavia, Rhodesia and Ireland. In the UK alone, over 2 million were sold in during its 12-year run and, at its height in the mid-1960s, its production figures dwarfed those of the Mini.

So all in all, this was one amazing little car.

However, time has not been kind to the ADO16: even before it went out of production, it had gained something of a reputation for unreliability. Worse than that, the ravages of tin-worm meant that most unloved ADO16s on the roads soon looked tired and rusty. People’s perception of the car soon nose-dived; no doubt helped by the poor image that the company which replaced BMC was carving for itself during the 1970s. By the beginning of the 1980s, the land was littered with rusty ADO16s that nobody wanted, and the model was regarded with as much affection as last week’s copy of the Radio Times.

This reputation as a scabby old car seems to have stuck with the ADO16 for far too long. In fact, even as late as last year, a certain motoring publisher told me that there would be no interest in a book about the ADO16, as they were owned by people who were “too poor to afford a proper classic car”. How sad and sorry that was – and, to me, it seems that there is a huge gulf between what the public-at-large apparently thinks of the ADO16 and the credit it truly deserves. After all, the VW Beetle was a technical dead-end and yet it is still revered by some as the greatest car ever built.

That thinking led me to the home of Dr. Alex Moulton, who kindly agreed to meet me in order to discuss the merits of this fine little car. After all, if there was a book to be written on the subject (and there should be, given the fact you can buy books on some very questionable cars), then the first person a budding author should meet in order to get the inside track about the ADO16 is the creator of its suspension, and friend to the great Issigonis.

The car chosen for the journey was a remarkably well-preserved and totally unadultered 1963 Morris 1100, as owned by Declan Berridge. There were several reasons for choosing this car; not least was the fact that Moulton considers the ADO16 to be the best of all the Hydrolastic cars produced by BMC. It seemed right and proper that Dr. Moulton should be re-acquainted with his car, whilst at the same time I would also get a chance to drive one in the cut and thrust of contemporary England.

Doctor Moulton reacquainted with his favourite Hydrolastically-suspended car.
Doctor Moulton reacquainted with his favourite Hydrolastically-suspended car

When viewing the ADO16 up close, especially when parked alongside modern cars, the one thing that strikes you is its daintiness. The 1100 is small; and to a degree, its delicately crafted lines emphasise this. What passed as a perfectly adequate family car in the 1960s now fits ideally into the sub-B class of 2003.

Alongside the 1100, a Ford Fiesta or Citroen C2 looks simply HUGE. Not only that, there’s something clumsy about the moderns and, even though common sense tells you that the thin slivers of chrome and bluff-front of the 1100 should make it look old, these features actually accentuate its delicacy and force home the fact that Pininfarina got it absolutely right with this car. Be that as it may, looking at the 1100 does make you question the growing girth of modern cars.

Getting behind the wheel of the 1100 makes one realise just how things have moved on; and that the unadorned interior is an object lesson in minimalism. There are no electric windows, no heated mirrors, no ICE, no central locking – in fact, it is quick and easy to list the equipment the 1100 does have: steering wheel, lights, four seats and an engine. Is that a bad thing? No, not really; in fact, this dearth of standard equipment allows one to focus on what it is that makes the 1100 so appealing.

For a start, it is perfectly roomy enough for four, and not in the way a Mini supposedly fits four (if they are supple, young and not too big), but in the way that a six-footer could fit in the back, seated behind another six-footer. OK, there’s little in the way of sprawling room, but the fact of the matter is that the 1100 is a true four-seater in the way that no other similarly-sized rival of the time could hope to be. The Issigonis principle of maximum interior space for the minimum road occupancy works well here, despite the fact that the Pininfarina overhangs were longer than Issigonis himself would have specified.

Up front, once you get to terms with the Mini-like upright driving position and the bus-like angle of the steering wheel, there is a lot to recommend it. Considering the fact that the 1100 is a confined car (you can touch the passenger door quite easily when sat in the driver’s seat), it is also rather airy, thanks to its generous glass area. The seating position is such that you get a commanding view of the road ahead and, unlike in many modern cars, you can actually see the bonnet. There is also generous headroom, both front and rear, despite the fact that the 1100 is not a tall car, and notwithstanding the rather upright seating position.

In fact, perhaps now is a good time to address that driving position. Much has been written about the “bus driver” position that owners of Minis, 1100s, 1800s and Metros had to suffer when piloting their cars; and it was something that road testers singularly pointed out as a significant flaw of the “Issigonis” cars. After all, it was generally regarded that such an upright driving position was too compromised for long-distance travel. Indeed, moving from a car with a more conventional, reclined, driving position to an 1100 is always something of a culture shock.

The upright wheel you need to almost hunch over and the pedals that seem to be almost under you instead of a nice leg-stretch away are certainly idiosyncratic and take some getting used to. But is it an uncomfortable driving position? On the basis of my own experience, the answer to that question has to be “no”. The trip from London to Alex Moulton’s home in Wiltshire was a long one, and yet I emerged from the car without complaint… no backache, no aching limbs – nothing.

More significantly, the late 1990s saw the emergence of the Mini-MPV as the car of choice for growing families. As a result, it seemed that all mainstream hatches similarly grew upwards (as well as outwards and lengthways) and, with that growth, came more upright, Mini-like driving positions. Drive something like a Citroen C3 now, and there is something familiar about the pedal positioning and that upright seating position. Perhaps Issigonis was right all along!

To drive, this 1100 is something of a revelation; things do not start off too promisingly, however, thanks to that familiar A-Series rumble and excessive gear whine. The judder that resonates through the car when the clutch takes up also fails to impress, though it seems to be a familiar BMC family trait to me… One can drive around it easily enough, but again, it cannot have been good for those who felt the need to be impressed by positive first impressions. Thanks to very low gearing, however, the 1100 sets off with a liveliness that belies its mere 48bhp power output.

At urban speeds, it means that the forty-year-old car has little trouble keeping pace with the more modern traffic surrounding it. The excellent visibility and compact dimensions also mean that the mean streets should hold no fear for the little car. The depressing number of potholes found in the average UK city does not do the 1100 any favours, though; it tends to crash over them and the interconnected setup has little chance of dealing with any sharp irregularities at low speeds. However, to confine the 1100 to the urban grind would be to do it a real disservice; the driver simply would not see the benefits of the interconnected Hydrolastic system.

Move away from the urban sprawl, and matters improve considerably: as speeds increase, the ride smooths out nicely, and undulations are handled with aplomb. That famous Hydrolastic “bounce” manifests itself in the most interesting way – when the 1100 mounts a bump, the entire car rises, then falls – importantly, remaining level. It is a little disconcerting the first couple of times it happens, but the driver soon gets used to it. Personally speaking, this “bounce” is something that I find quite amusing and, if nothing else, can be viewed as an amiable eccentricity.

The pay-off for this is the car’s fantastic handling. Back in 1962, family cars were expected to wallow, crash and bang – they were simply not interested in going around corners, and suffered A-roads because they had to. The 1100 changed all that. Venture onto a typical English B-road in it, and the first thing that strikes the driver when he hits a corner is the fact that there is almost no body roll. Allied to the compliant ride, this makes punting the 1100 a very rewarding experience indeed. The no-roll attitude gives the driver immediate confidence and, in no time at all, corners are being taken at some very interesting speeds. The steering, which is quite heavy at parking speeds, comes alive at speed: it is direct and, most importantly, delivers feedback from the road to the driver in spadeloads.

It doesn’t so much tell the driver about the road he’s driving on, but shouts its message through a megaphone! The 1100 driver really is wired directly in… and it makes the B-road run a real pleasure. Just as well, really. The engine has no power in any meaningful sense of the word and, as a result, if the driver that wants to make any headway, he will do so by simply driving flat out everywhere, corners included. Thankfully, the little engine is heavy on torque and undergeared, so one does not have to change gear too often – just leave it in fourth, go and steer! Just try that in a rear-engined Volkswagen of the same era…

Dr. Moulton agreed. Driving extremely smoothly around some demanding unclassified roads near his house which he “knows every inch of”, Moulton simply kept repeating the word, “extraordinary.” In a good way, of course. And who could be better qualified to judge the 1100’s abilities than this man who had such a prominent hand in creating it. To say that Moulton was complimentary would be an understatement… Indeed, “extrordinary” summed-up the 1100 for him – in ride, in handling, in packaging and in steering. Some achievement – especially as this was coming from a man whose garage is home to a Bentley Mulsanne and Citroen XM, amongst others.

Without doubt then, the 1100 inherited the Mini’s fun-to-drive persona, but with an extra degree of civility and space. The end result was a rather appealing proposition…

However, at the time this particular 1100 left the production line, the UK was rapidly moving into the motorway age and it is here that it both impresses and disappoints in equal measure. Directional stability is excellent, and the steering continues its habit of feeding the surface’s most intimate details to the driver. The ride remains smooth – and, overall, one gets the impression that the 1100 was designed with motorways very much in mind.

Disappointingly, however, the low gearing that serves it so well in the city and on B-roads, means that the A-Series drone becomes a constant and irritating companion. Like all four-cylinder engines, there is a mid-range resonance that can be defeated and, above 65mph, the engine smooths out. Thankfully, there is no tachometer; I would hate to see at what revs it is turning over at 70+ mph! Still, a little motorway noise can be forgiven given the car’s age and, once the driver accepts that this car’s effective maximum cruising speed is 55-60mph, then motorway travel can be quite painless.

Dynamically sound, the ADO16 certainly proved to be an interesting and fun car to drive on the day. In terms of practicality, the boot is bigger than one would expect and, as noted before, the interior room is acceptable, given its size. Being A-Series-powered, the fuel consumption should remain on the right side of 40mpg, if driven with a degree of sensibility. Performance is a little weak in standard 1100 form, but it was perfectly in keeping with the opposition at the time (the Cortina 1200 would take 22.5 seconds to “sprint” from 0-60; roughly the same as the 1100). To address this, 1275cc versions were eventually offered and, in the hands of the road testers, they returned perfectly acceptable performance figures.

All in all then, and in the context of the time, the ADO16 is an extrordinary achievement, just as Dr. Moulton himself professed. Handling of this order in small and unassuming family cars was not on any of its rivals’ menus, and it took until the early 1970s for the others to catch up. More significantly, it proved to be the template from which all of BMC’s rivals could produce their own small cars. The Mini was a marvel, but in real terms it was the 1100 that proved to be the far more significant car – one only has to look at the 1971 Alfasud and 1974 Volkswagen Golf to see just how influential it was.

Only the lack of a hatchback and a bit of a weight problem stopped the ADO16 going on to be the classic 1970s supermini, to fight the likes of the Fiesta and Polo, but it was considered long-in-the-tooth by the Leyland management that came in and swamped BMC in 1968. The interesting thing was that, although the ADO16 was regarded as being some ten years ahead of its time when launched, its replacement was in many ways disappointing for not carrying that momentum forward. Yes, the Allegro was a little bigger, and offered a bigger range of engines, but there was precious little else to recommend it over the outgoing car. All of a sudden, the opposition caught up with and passed BL, and that golden opportunity created by the ADO16 was lost forever.

Today, far too few people realise just how ground-breaking the ADO16 was in its day. Driving this 1963 Morris brought it home to me – I just wonder how long will it take for everyone else to see it the same way…

Keith Adams


  1. When we were first married in 1968 the first car my wife had was a Morris 1100 , a few months old , which I bought for her as a slight curiosity because it had the AP automatic transmission which I found very intriguing . It was the first auto box which one could drive like a manual , and its refinement and handling were a revelation, as was its in town performance . Even on A roads it was very entertaining, because being 4 speed and , as a result , having really quite close ratios for an auto, its overtaking performance was very acceptable , not least because you could achieve near to 55 mph on 2nd gear, and over 70 on third . I loved it, and was sorry when it was replaced ( the only car I have ever sold at a profit ) by a new 1969 Spitfire 3 . I would love another, particularly a Vanden Plas auto

  2. This article nicely captured the unique character of the ADO16. I drove and owned these ‘back in the day’, and if the exercise was repeated now, preferably with a 1300 or 1300GT, the car’s key qualities would still shine through. Unfortunately, as well as its susceptibility to rust, BMC’s low-budget strategy of endlessly stretching the Mini power unit left the mechanicals inherently fragile, especially the transmission, compared to conventional products from Ford, or properly engineered FWD rivals like the Fiat 128. For the motor trade at the time, the 1100/1300 range was the gift which just kept on giving… except for having to explain the bills to owners. Happier memories include my own Morris 1100 with a 1071 Cooper ‘S’ engine, which actually suited the car well, followed by an MG 1300 Mk2 which was a lively, smooth riding little number, behind its 1950’s grille.

  3. This article brought back memories for me of learning to drive in an instructor’s L-reg Austin 1300 in 1974. It was a very forgiving car for a new driver and, having been an avid follower of everything on four wheels since I was about 10 years old, I was able to drive it several miles on my first lesson with minimal input from the instructor. The same could not be said of my Dad’s Mk1 Cortina 1200. Having persuaded him that I was having no problems in driving the Austin, my Dad reluctantly agreed to take me out in the Cortina. I found this heavy and much less straightforward to drive in comparison, with some resulting scary moments for my reluctant passenger!
    One of my lasting memories of learning to drive in the Austin 1300 was my instructor telling me how the clutch ‘biting point’ could easily be recognised by the front of the car noticeably rising up when about to move forward. The same applied to the rear when reversing. This was doubtless a feature of the hydrolastic suspension and caused my first drive in the conventionally-sprung Cortina to be even more perplexing, as there was no rising of the front of the car to indicate the ‘biting point’. The long boot on the Cortina also presented one or two challenges when reversing, compared with the much shorter boot on the 1300.
    I went on to pass my test in the Austin, but subsequently bought the Cortina from my Dad and ran it for five years and 60,000 miles as my first car. I’ve never driven a BMC 1100/1300 since, but the L-reg 1300 still holds fond memories for me and Keith’s article brought back those early driving experiences vividly to me.

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