Nothing says 1960s more than a strip speedo, something all the rage at the start of that decade.
Chris Cowin takes a look at some cars associated with BMC and British Leyland which featured a strip speedo, an item that clung on in some corners of the product range for far longer than you might think.
A very British love affair with the strip
Alec Issigonis clearly saw advantages in linear speedometers, specifying them for many of his BMC designs. Chronologically, the first was the MG 1100 of 1962, which went without the circular or octagonal dials traditional for an MG, instead having a strip speedo inset into its dash (initially a “simulated” wood item).
This was what Americans got in the MG Sport Sedan as the 1100 was marketed there. When the MG 1100 was revised as the 1100 Mk2 in late 1967, that car together with the new MG 1300, retained the strip speedometer. It was only when the MG 1300 Mk2 arrived in late 1968 that a three-dial dashboard, now including a rev counter, appeared in MG’s compact sports saloon.
The original Morris 1100 was also introduced in 1962, but Mk1 cars featured a rather Italianate binnacle in which the speedometer was semi-circular. However, the Austin 1100, which followed in late 1963, struck out in a new direction. A key feature differentiating it from the Morris was a remarkably slim dash, something Issigonis had insisted on to the consternation of some in his team. This design would become a mainstay of the ADO16 family, appearing in very many variants over the years.
The Austin 1100 dashboard, with a coloured ribbon that grew longer with speed, and two flanking rectangular gauges for fuel and temperature, received a light update in late 1967 (pictured below). At that point with the introduction of the Austin and Morris 1100 Mk2 and 1300, the strip speedo dash became the standard fitment for all Super Deluxe models be they Austin or Morris (a Federalised version went into the Austin America). Cheaper Deluxe cars made do with a centrally mounted round dial.
But it was farewell to this slimline fascia (in the UK at least) when Mk3 models arrived in the spring of 1971. The Super Deluxe cars now switched to a “two dials in a plank” design, similar in layout if not quality to the VP Princess. The base Deluxe model stuck with the centrally-mounted dial (and unpadded steering wheel hub). Meanwhile, the Austin/Morris 1300GT, which arrived in 1969, always had a three-dial dash, similar to that of the MG 1300 Mk2, but without the wood.
Not the next BMC car chronologically to receive a strip speedo, but one it makes sense to mention at this point, is the Wolseley 1100 of 1965. When this premium cousin of the Austin and Morris 1100 arrived it was fitted with a strip speedo which, bar a few details, was the same as the MG 1100 though set into a real wood dash. However, the more sporting Riley Kestrel 1100 which arrived simultaneously came with a three-dial dash incorporating a rev counter.
The Wolseley stuck with its strip speedo until the end, a lightly-revised version appearing in the Wolseley 1100 Mk2 and 1300 in 1967, and then in the Wolseley 1300 Mk2 of 1968. That car, which late in life tended to be called simply the Wolseley 1300, was still available in showrooms in 1973 when the Austin Allegro was launched. The Vanden Plas versions of the ADO16 cars, like the Riley, never had a strip speedo.
The year 1964 saw the introduction of the third front-drive car penned by Alec Issigonis, the Austin 1800, a vehicle which proved rather better at winning praise than sales. With Mini and 1100 both hailed as a success, few felt able to restrain Issigonis from giving the new car an interior which, though admirably uncluttered and bright, struck some commentators as ridiculously stark.
As with the Austin 1100, instrumentation was compressed into a rectangular window set into a narrow aluminium strip which ran the width of the car. Less is more is a philosophy with much to commend it, but some worried that the 1800 dash would remind drivers of a cheap washing machine (which had similar panels in the 1960s), while the big car men seduced by Fords and Vauxhalls might feel short-changed behind the wheel of the Austin.
There was never much money available to update the Austin 1800 which, despite winning the 1965 European Car of the Year award, proved a disappointment in sales terms. As was standard practice at BMC, a Morris version joined the Austin in 1966, which though it differed in details such as tail lights (still horizontal but with pointed ends) utilised the same strip speedo dash, though now trimmed with simulated wood. But the Wolseley 18/85 version of 1967 was graced with a completely different fascia in burr walnut with round dials.
In 1968 the Austin and Morris 1800 were updated to Mk2 form with (rather outmoded) tailfins, but aside from minor changes to switchgear and the like, the strip speedo dash was carried over. The higher-powered ‘S’ versions, when they came, did without a rev counter.
However, there were big plans for the 1800, which had they come to fruition, might have seen a brand new dash combined with new bodywork on the Mk3 cars when introduced. But British Leyland (of which BMC had become a major component on the corporation’s formation in 1968) was always short of funds, and the 1800 upgrade would be a casualty. The Australian X6 cars (Tasman and Kimberley) which evolved from the Australian-built Austin 1800 had new bodywork and a new plastic dashboard when launched in 1970, the bodywork certainly being intended for the Mk3 1800 and 2200 when launched in Britain, as contemporary meeting minutes record.
Cash-strapped British Leyland baulked at the tooling investment such a major facelift would have required in the UK, instead launching the Austin/Morris 1800 Mk3 and new six-cylinder 2200 variant in 1972 with sheet metal and much else unchanged. This was turned into a virtue, with competitive pricing being credited to the decision not to re-tool for fashion’s sake. When it came to the dashboard, the 2200 received a new design which was, fairly transparently, a cheapened version of the existing dash from the Wolseley (which remained available as the Wolseley Six). But the Austin and Morris 1800 Mk3 made do with the same old strip speedo as before, with only minor revisions. This would continue to equip these cars until they were replaced in 1975.
Austin A110 Mk2
In 1964 the strip speedo was in its heyday, certainly within the Austin arm of BMC. Not only had one been chosen for the new 1800 to match the best-selling 1100, but Austin’s flagship car, the Austin Westminster A110 Mk2 also joined the club. These big saloons first appeared in 1959 as the A99, but evolved into the A110 in 1961, both of those iterations equipped with two big round dials.
These were traditional motor cars, even for 1964, but the revised A110 Mk2 received a freshened dashboard with a strip speedometer. Or at least it did if you opted for either the Deluxe or Super Deluxe model (which came with added walnut and picnic tables). Economy minded buyers could opt for a base A110 Mk2 which did without a lot of the luxury trim, and stuck with the twin dial dashboard of the preceding model.
There were Wolseley and Vanden Plas versions of these big ADO10 cars, but they never had strip speedos.
Austin 3 Litre
The Austin A110 Mk2 gave way to the new Austin 3 Litre, first unveiled in late 1967. This ill-starred car had suffered a long gestation within BMC and the dashboard perhaps reflected that. A rather spartan strip speedo arrangement, which progressed little from that of the outgoing model. The specification of the 3 Litre was improved during 1968 and most cars sold were of the improved Deluxe specification but, although a more elaborate dashboard had been designed for a proposed Wolseley version, such a car made little sense in the context of the enlarged British Leyland and it, and its dashboard, never saw the light of day. The Austin 3 Litre was dropped in 1971.
Rover P6 range
Enough of those Austins! Another company that would fall under the British Leyland umbrella, with a soft spot for the strip speedometer, was Rover. The Rover 2000 (P6) of 1963, designed by David Bache and Spen King, was distinguished by a very up to the minute fascia box containing speedometer, two ancillary gauges and warning lights. This restrained unit mirrored contemporary thinking in the car industry (especially in the USA) which saw warning lights making most minor gauges redundant in future.
However, Rover was not merely responding to the whims of fashion. The company set out the thinking behind the speedometer concisely in sales brochures stating: ‘The speedo is of the ribbon type because a red stripe moving in a straight line is easier and quicker to read, for most people, than a needle or a dial. It was positioned in front of the driver, and as far from his eyes as possible, in order to reduce the amount of re-focusing from the road to it, and back to the road again. The edge of the indicating stripe is straight so that there can be no doubt as to the accurate reading.’
All well and good, and indeed this box was judged perfectly suitable for the V8-engined Three Thousand Five when it joined the range in 1968 (pictured below), initially only as an automatic.
But while BMC could get away with selling performance cars like the Morris 1800 Mk2 S without a rev counter, Rover really couldn’t when it came to the 2000TC which joined the original 2000 in 1966. This car was aimed at more sporting drivers (especially in North America) and at this price level a rev counter was expected. Two strips were clearly not on, so the 2000TC came with a circular rev counter which looked not a little awkward juxtaposed with the original box. (below).
The dashboard of the P6 range clearly needed a makeover, especially as the V8 3500 (as they now called it) would soon become available in manual form (as the 1971 3500’S’) and also require a rev counter. Accordingly, Rover introduced a superb new set-up in 1970 (earlier in North America) which matched the best BMW and other continental competitors could muster with four circular dials (six gauges) plus the clock – but not every model was entitled to this new array, which appeared initially in the UK on the 3500 and 2000TC. The single carb 2000SC and 2000 automatic made do with the old strip speedo box, a decision presumably driven by desire to maintain “walk up” through the range and help justify the higher price of the range-toppers.
This deprivation was maintained when the 2000 was replaced by the 2200 in 1973, with 2200SC and 2200 automatic keeping the box which was now a ten-year-old design and looking rather dated. These cars were slated for replacement by the Rover 2300/2600 but slippage on the Rover SD1 programme meant they remained current until 1977, by which time a strip speedometer was distinctly out of place on a premium car.
Indeed, when the Rover 2200SC and 2200 automatic finally disappeared, it was hard to find any other British car still equipped with a strip speedometer (though in America they remained common for years). But there was at least one (well sort of): the poverty-spec. Vauxhall Viva E saloon, which lasted until 1979, although its linear speedo had a needle that moved through an arc. Of course, by that time the age of the digital dashboard was dawning, and many would arrange their LEDs or LCDs in a linear strip pattern. That’s a subject for another day…
This article has concentrated on cars marketed by BMC and British Leyland in Britain, but strip speedometers unsurprisingly appeared on many models built overseas by BMC/BL or its partners, such as the Morris 1500 in Australia, Austin Apache in South Africa and Innocenti I4 and I5. And of course Ford, Vauxhall and Rootes/Chrysler all fitted strip speedos to their British cars during the period concerned. But it’s interesting that Jaguar/Daimler and Triumph did not in the 1960s and ’70s. As always, all comments and added information are very welcome.