There’s a lot of talk about premium small cars these days, but we’ve been here before. The Austin 1300 GT and Triumph 1300 TC are two that were playing the game more than 50 years ago…
But which was the best in 1970 – and what’s the preferred choice today? Keith Adams decides.
Best 1970s small saloons: Introduction
Ah, ‘GT’ and ‘TC’, two magical combinations of letters. Granted, they don’t mean too much on their own – well, maybe ‘GT’ does, but aside from referring to a cartoon cat far too clever for his own good, ‘TC’ is relatively meaningless – but apply them to a classic car and, suddenly, you’re into the realms of performance and the promise of lean, mean speed.
Two cases in point were British Leyland’s Austin and Morris 1300 GT of 1969 to 1975, and the Triumph 1300 TC of 1965 to 1970. Of the two, it was the 1300 GT that was the more cynical cash-in at the expense of the public, while Triumph’s 1300TC was just one of the myriad of confusing models that made up the eventual Dolomite range, without doubt one of the most bafflingly complex series of saloons ever to come from a mainstream British manufacturer.
Both cars offered the veneer of extra capability, together with an extra touch of glitz but, when it all came down to it, there really wasn’t that much being given away compared to what was already available within the families.
Austin 1300 GT details
Throughout the 1960s and into the ’70s, BMC’s 1100 and 1300 cars were permanently near the top of the list of British best sellers. There were always ‘performance’ versions in addition to the common-or-garden Austin and Morris variants, with badge-engineered MG and Riley models bringing a little extra pep to the line-up. But it wasn’t until the Seventies was about to dawn that livelier enthusiasts of Austin and Morris had their own car to get excited about.
Unveiled in 1969, the GT (with Austin or Morris badges at the front) was a complete change of character for the 1300. What had been a worthy but humble family saloon was now attempting to be a road-burner with looks to match. Special ‘alloy effect’ wheeltrims were fitted, along with a black grille, all the GT badges that British Leyland didn’t have space to paste on the Mini Clubman 1275GT , and that most essential of sporty add-ons from this era, a vinyl roof.
Colour schemes were flamboyant, except inside where black was the order of the day, a shade no doubt chosen to emphasis the extra dials that came with the car as well as stress this was a car that meant business. The twin-carb 70bhp A-Series engine was straight out of the MG 1300 – quiet all those of you at the back whispering ‘So what was the point then?” – and there was also slightly lowered suspension too. Or so British Leyland said. Actually, there wasn’t, but it sounded good at the time. Intended to attract buyers who wanted something a little different to what their parents were driving, visually at least, 1300GTs stood out from the crowd. Even if they didn’t accelerate away from them that quickly.
Triumph 1300 TC details
While all these GT shenanigans were going on, Triumph was part of the British Leyland empire but, early on in the BMC 1100/1300’s life, it had been a separately owned direct rival to Austin and Morris. The models which were emerging from Longbridge and Cowley at the time seemingly dictated that front-wheel drive was now the way to go for small cars and so Triumph attempted its own version in 1965.
The Triumph 1300 was the result, a trim-looking Michelotti saloon using a Herald engine and all-independent suspension. It was the first front-wheel-drive car from Triumph and a worthy competitor to what BMC was producing. The TC version, with its useful increase in power, came along in 1967, but proved to be very short-lived. When the formation of British Leyland brought Triumph and BMC under the same umbrella, rationalisation dictated that one of the 1300 models had to go.
It was the Triumph that lost the toss, although it was far from the end for the bodyshell. Triumph converted it to rear-wheel drive and it went on to form the basis for 1500s, Toledos and Dolomites, right the way up to 1980, long after the original BMC 1300 had ceased to be.
Best 1970s small saloons: Character
The words ‘mutton’ and ‘lamb’ can’t help but spring to mind with the 1300GT. It is not a car that particularly lends itself to being jazzed up, and the racy, fashion-conscious features such as the wheeltrims and the vinyl roof sit rather oddly on the very Sixties-looking car. That may not be good news for your laughter lines, but at least this is a car that will make you smile every time you see it, because it looks slightly self-conscious, almost embarrassed, by what had been done to it.
The character doesn’t stop at the outside. On the road, it’s like an exuberant puppy – eager, straining at the leash, and quite unable to keep still for one moment, the latter thanks to its Hydrolastic suspension. Not a true GT car, maybe, but one that so badly, badly, desperately wants to be one and tries so, so hard.
Meanwhile, the Triumph is far more grown-up about things. It’s quite staid by comparison to the Austin 1300GT, like a scaled-down version of the Triumph 2000 saloon. The Austin is all high spirits, the 1300TC comes across as more restrained and dignified. It’s not, actually, once you get used to it, but on first appearance and drive, the Triumph is a car where the pace is deliberately set to be slower.
Best 1970s small saloons: Performance
These may be, ostensibly, performance saloons, but it’s not really performance that anybody who has driven a real GT would recognise. Granted, pit one against a standard model of the car it is based on, and the GT and the TC will have the edge, but out in the real world – particularly the real world of today – and that edge becomes very blunt very quickly. It’s not too much of a surprise to find the cars are very evenly matched…with almost identical engine sizes and power outputs, and very similar weights, they could hardly not be. Top speeds are the same and, on paper at least, the sprint to 60mph will be achieved around the 16 second mark.
Certainly, out on the road, the cars feel on a par with each other, although the revvy A-Series engine’s liveliness does make it feel like it has something of an extra edge over the Triumph. That may be the Mini effect working through, though, as most cars fitted with a chattery A-Series engine feel faster than they actually are – particularly if they’re front-wheel drive.
However, around town, both classics feel enthusiastic enough, and they’re less stressed at motorway speeds than most of their brethren, particularly the Austin. It can maintain 70mph or so without sounding like it is about to give up and die at any moment, and there’s still some useful extra in reserve at that speed – mind you, it’s noisy at this kind of velocity. At the other end of the scale, both cars are quite tractable at low speeds, with handy amounts of torque for driving around town.
Best 1970s small saloons: Handling and ride
Yes, there’s a big Mini thing going on with the 1300GT, and yes, that does make it extremely chuckable and enjoyable on bends. With sharp rack and pinion steering, the steering is responsive, and there’s an element of go kart in the way it treats corners. An anti-roll bar underneath keeps any pitchy behaviour to a minimum and is another factor in reinforcing a driver’s confidence when behind the sporty-looking wheel.
With its all independent suspension, the Triumph isn’t that far behind in handling terms, but it doesn’t quite have the same quality. That may be because it is the slightly heavier and wider car or just because the Austin’s wheels are closer to each corner. But the Triumph feels a little less sure of itself when attacking curves, and just a touch more prone to understeer. It’s there with the Austin as well, as it invariably is with most front-wheel-drive cars, but it seems to afflict the Triumph at lower speeds.
On smooth to moderately rough roads, the Austin’s Hydrolastic is fine. Well, actually, it’s more than fine, it’s excellent, giving almost hydraulic Citroën levels of ride quality. However, it’s when you get onto seriously undulating roads that the fun sets in. Because the car is under-damped, there is a lot of vertical bounce and, after it’s stopped being genuinely funny, it all starts to become a little tiresome. Still, it’s not the sort of movement that ever becomes genuinely unpleasant or jarring, and it is one of the things that helps define the 1300’s essential character.
Over on the Triumph, with its conventional springing, the ride is slightly harder, but far from uncomfortable. It has slightly better upholstered seats – with the Herald already in production, Triumph pitched its 1300 more upmarket – which do a good job of cushioning passengers from road impurities. There’s good feedback from the steering wheel and, overall, the Triumph feels the more convincing sports(ish) saloon. Still, that won’t surprise most Triumph enthusiasts. The Austin cossets you more, but also tries its darndest to make you laugh like you’re on a trampoline on bumpy roads.
Best 1970s small saloons: Cabin and controls
For the 1300GT models, British Leyland put effort into at least making the interior look different from the standard models, and it’s all rather handsome inside, if a little on the dark side. The neat-looking drilled sports steering wheel is a nice compliment to the three gauges set vertically into the dash, and the cabin of the car has a far more purposeful feel to it than other BMC1100/1300 cars. With almost a decade to get things right, the layout of the switchgear is much improved over previous incarnations of the range, and everything falls to hand easily.
There’s an impressive amount of space, as you’d expect from something penned by Alec Issigonis. Both front and rear passengers are treated to ample room to move around and, for such a compact car, five people inside is achieved surprisingly well.
Depending on your attitude towards BMC cars, the bus-like driving position, with the very high steering wheel, is either a plus or a minus. It’s not that ergonomic at first, but once you’ve got used to it, which doesn’t take any more than a few miles, it all becomes second nature. Still, some might still not be impressed about the idea of driving a pseudo-GT sports saloon as if it was a large passenger transport vehicle!
The Triumph concentrates more on luxury touches rather than trying to project a racy feel. With its wood panelling on the dashboard and the door tops, and the comprehensive instrumentation set into pod in front of the driver that vaguely echoes that of the Rover P5, the 1300TC is much more elegant inside. There’s no rev counter, which is a disappointment, but plenty of other things to look at instead, including the trademark Triumph ‘cheese segment’ warning panel that gives a good account of what is working and what has just gone wrong while you’re driving. The driving position is more conventional, with the wheel more vertical than horizontal, as it (almost) is in the Austin.
Good use of space is also an interior feature, with no transmission tunnel to get in the way of occupants. It feels very similar to the 1300GT in space terms inside despite the slightly larger exterior dimensions. Triumph chose to use slightly plusher, thicker seats rather than go for the maximum space possible as the Austin plumped for. And of course, there’s a bigger boot too. Speaking of which…
Best 1970s small saloons: Luggage space
There’s little contest in the competition to provide the most luggage space. Alec Issigonis may have been the master at creating interior space, but he wasn’t quite so adept at allowing room for luggage. The Austin’s boot isn’t small, but it’s not large either, and it’s certainly not as capacious as the Triumph, with its elongated rear section. There’s 11 cubic feet of storage space at the rear of the TC, with the spare wheel sitting in a well underneath so it doesn’t intrude. The Austin’s spare wheel also lives under the boot floor but, despite this, it still can only manage 9.5 cubic feet to the Triumph’s 11.
In real world terms, the Austin can manage several suitcases and/or other bulky items quite easily, but its sharply sloping bootlid is limiting. The horizontal top of the Triumph’s boot runs right to the end of the car, and this enables more, and bigger, items to be fitted in. However, the low loading lips of both, with the boot apertures going right down to bumper level, is useful and should ensure that few people have any difficulties getting items in the back, however heavy.
Best 1970s small saloons: Running costs
With a trusty old A-Series providing sterling service underneath the bonnet of the Austin, mechanical parts are plentiful and cheap. The engine that has provided motive power for so many British cars is well-served by specialists big and small and, although knowing the Mini, Minor or MG Midget part number that also corresponds to your Austin may be necessary when ordering, there aren’t likely to be any problems finding all the bits needed to make an Austin 1300 GT start, stop and everything in between.
Body panels are a trickier issue, but once you know where to look and don’t mind a little bit of searching if you don’t, then it’s all out there somewhere. However, if you want your 1300GT to remain a cheap ‘n’ cheerful classic runabout, then it will be important to keep on touch of the rust issue. BMC 1100/1300s are quite notorious for rust, with the British Leyland-produced cars among the worst offenders, and it’s one of the few aspects of the car that you might find yourself having to devote serious expenditure to if it gets too bad.
With its engine derived from the Triumph Herald and many parts shared with the later Dolomite, the general spares situation for the 1300TC is quite good as well, although there are less parties out there catering for it. As with the ‘other’ 1300, it is panels that are likely to be more of a problem than the grubby bits that go underneath. Commonality and standardisation can be terrific bonuses sometimes.
With engine sizes, power outputs and aerodynamics all similar, both cars return similar fuel consumption figures. As you’d expect from small, low-powered cars, they’re economical both around town and out on the open road, so petrol costs aren’t something you’ll need to concerned about at all, however expensive the pumps get.
And shame on you if you take either of these cars to garages for anything but the most complex of jobs. They’re both very easy to work on without too many specialist tools, with the 1300GT sharing a lot of the Mini’s qualities of being able to take apart and then put back together again. It’s just that the there’s a lot more room to work in, and you won’t skin your knuckles quite so often.
Best 1970s small saloons: Verdict
The Austin 1300GT is just so British Leyland that there’s no way we could leave it behind and drive home in the far more sensible Triumph – despite the latter being objectively the better car. With the lairy colour scheme, the slightly ill-judged attempts to sex up the image, and those vital touches such as the vinyl roof and the cheap and tacky looking wheeltrims, it is a car where fun could never be that far away.
It feels like an oversized Mini and has similar handling traits and the Hydrolastic suspension varies between totally brilliant and utterly inept, depending on the road surface. The Triumph feels like quite a serious car, whereas the Austin was something that made you laugh a lot more. In the long term, we suspect we’d find the Austin far more entertaining… and really, isn’t that what most of us are looking for with a classic car?
Especially, ahem, a GT…
Best 1970s small saloons: Ratings
Scores out of 10
|Austin 1300GT||Triumph 1300TC|
|Cabin and controls|
|Austin 1300 GT||Triumph 1300 TC|
|Engine||1275cc 4-cyl OHV||1296cc 4-cyl OHV|
|Power||70bhp at 6000rpm||75bhp at 6000rpm|
|Torque||74lb ft at 3250rpm||75lb ft at 4000rpm|
|Gearbox||Four-speed manual||Four-speed manual|
|0-60mph||13.9 seconds||15.9 seconds|
|Fuel tank||8.0 gallons||11.8 gallons|
|Steering||Rack and pinion||Rack and pinion|
|Dimensions||3727mm x 1533mm x 1346mm||3937mm x 1568mm x 1372mm|