Declan Berridge tells how he fell under the 1100’s spell…
To anyone who spent their formative years in the 1970s, the BMC 1100 was an unavoidable part of the landscape; such was its popularity that if your parents didn’t own one, then a schoolfriend’s parents – or maybe a neighbour – surely would. In my case I could tick all three boxes, the latter two several times over. As such, I have to admit that at the time I very much took the car for granted. For the short time he had it, my father’s Morris 1100 was often to be seen parked in a row of maybe three or four other variants outside our house, yet it never really occurred to me to wonder why so many people should opt for the same type of car.
It wasn’t until some fifteen or twenty years later that I that found myself hankering after one of my own. I can’t quite put my finger on what it was that sparked my desire, but I recall that the desire was strong.
…as I turned the ignition key the sound of the
A-series engine was instantly familiar.
In the summer of 1995, it led me to a local classic car showroom, where I was faced with a minor dilemma. Before me lay two of the most sought-after examples of the breed: an early Vanden Plas Princess 1100, and an Austin 1300GT. I wanted both, but knew that I must only buy one. The salesman spoke of how he had found the GT so much more engaging to drive than his own BMW 5 series – “the Beemer’s so dull by comparison” – but my heart was drawn to the Vanden Plas. It was one of the first 200 production models, and had been with the same family since new. The muted opulence of its walnut-and-hide interior seemed a long way removed from how I remembered my father’s more humble 1100, but as I turned the ignition key the sound of the A-series engine was instantly familiar.
After a short test drive, I was truly smitten. Having mainly driven a Fiat Uno for the previous ten years, the cossetting ride offered by this 31-year-old 1100 was a revelation, while its thin-rimmed steering wheel, some 16 inches in diameter, contributed to an overall driving experience that seemed to evoke a more gentle, carefree age. For all that, the car felt surprisingly modern in its manners, making very respectable progress and taking corners with a finesse that belied its years. I was later impressed (though not entirely surprised) to learn that the engine’s power output exactly matched that of my 1.1-litre Uno… As I drove the car back to the showroom, I’d already decided to buy it, no matter what, yet I spent the rest of that afternoon poring over the car. I wanted to acquaint myself with its every feature, and even found myself peering at its engine without having the slightest inkling as to why. Every now and again, I would stand back and just admire the restrained elegance of the car’s lines, which somehow seemed perfectly balanced, even taking into account its heavily modified front end. That same day a deal was done, and the car became mine, though at that time I had little idea as to how my interest in all things relating to the 1100 would grow, and much less that I would one day add another example to my garage.
Viewed objectively, it’s easy to understand what made the car a success not only in the UK but in numerous markets around the world. It was conceived by a team which brought together three unique talents: the engineering prowess of Alec Issigonis, the suspension genuis of Alex Moulton and the styling flair of Sergio Pininfarina. And as a package, it can be seen to have set the standard for the supermini class which would succeed it, with its two-box design (albeit without a hatch), transverse engine, front-wheel drive and 12-foot length again placing it directly on a par with the Uno and its ilk. Indeed, Issigonis himself saw the 1100 as a car which embodied the principles he had espoused with the Mini, without having to suffer the compromises imposed by an artificially small footprint. And when Alex Moulton was recently asked to nominate the car which he felt featured the best implementation of his fluid suspension, he had no doubt whatsoever in selecting the 1100, believing the Hydrolastic system’s rubber dampers to be preferable in retrospect to the leak-prone dampers employed by Hydragas.
But for most owners and admirers, the 1100’s charms are more subjective. They will tell you it just looks right, or just feels right, or that it just makes them feel good when they drive it. Like any car, the 1100 is not without its faults, and those who owned one first time around will no doubt have a great many tales to tell of the various trials and tribulations they endured. Yet anyone who owns a well-preserved 1100 today will tell you how rewarding the car can be, and what fond memories people seem to have of them.