Taken from the first-ever issue of What Car? magazine in November 1973, this test makes for a fascinating read and is a great insight into how road tests used to be…
The repmobiles compared
Comparison between the Maxi, Marina and rivals
Ten years ago the average man in the street would have been happy with a Mini, Imp or similar 850 to 1000 cc small car. Five years ago he would have preferred a car in the Escort or Austin 1100/1300 bracket. But today he will want a car in the 1500 cc to 2000 cc sector. Manufacturers watch these trends carefully and act upon them rapidly, so they can always be ahead of public demand.
The sales graphs have shown a tendency for the average engine capacity of new cars sold to rise gradually over the years, and in Europe as a whole the average engine capacity on new cars is around 1700 cc, a figure which could well rise to 2000 cc if the trend is maintained. The only cloud on the horizon at present is the long-rumoured Fuel Crisis which could lead to the rationing petrol, despite the Government’s strenuous denials. Certainly, continental manufacturers such as Fiat with the 126 and 127, Peugeot with the 104 and Renault with the R5 are keeping their options open on the small car market, in case cars which can do 40 mpg suddenly become necessary to eke out dwindling fuel resources.
However, thoughts of future problems do not appear to bother drivers too much, and sales of what might be termed medium-priced family saloons are burgeoning rapidly. So for the What Car? comparative test this month we selected five of the most popular British cars in the 1700 to 2000 cc class, selling around the £1000 to £1300 mark. Each of the Big Four are represented: Chrysler with the Hillman Hunter GL, Vauxhall with the Victor 1800DL, Ford with the Cortina 2000L, and British Leyland with the Maxi 1750 and Morris Marina 1800TC.
The only car in the group which could be described as unconventional is the Austin Maxi, but British Leyland’s transverse engine, front-wheel-drive concept is now old enough (14 years) to be regarded as conventional. The Maxi was introduced with a brand new 1498 cc single overhead camshaft 74 bhp engine but this proved unpopular, and it was rapidly enlarged to 1748 cc to increase the power output to 84 bhp. The 1500 version remains in production.
The engine is mated to a five-speed all-synchromesh gearbox which is mounted in the the engine sump, using the same oil as the engine, and drive is taken to the front wheels through constant velocity joints. Suspension is by BLMC’s Hydrolastic water/alcohol displacer units, which are connected front and rear. The Maxi is unique among the cars in this group, not only because of its unconventional mechanical specification but also because of its five-door configuration.
This is an increasingly popular concept because the opening tail door gives almost the same advantages as an estate car without the van-like appearance of some estate cars; the seats can also be adjusted to a number of positions.
The Morris Marina is a thoroughly conventional car which the then newly formed British Leyland company began work on in 1969 (actually 1968 – KJA) and announced to the public in April 1971. Their reason for developing a new car in the almost unprecedented time of 18 months was to give them a conventional car to appeal to the fleet market, where the complication of the Austin 1100/1300 and 1800 were not welcomed.
They also wanted a car to challenge the Ford Cortina and Hillman Avenger and to replace the ageing Austin A60; the Morris Minor was also replaced at the time of the Marina’s introduction. The Marina is available in a multitude of models, including four-door saloons, estate cars and two-door coupes, each having the option of 1275 cc or 1798 cc four cylinder engines. The engine of the 1.8 TC model tested is virtually to MGB standards of tune, the four-cylinder pushrod giving 94.6 bhp. It drives through a four-speed all-synchromesh gearbox to a leaf-sprung rigid rear axle.
How They Go
The Morris Marina 1.8 TC is next fastest (behind the Ford Cortina 2000 – KJA) — in fact, it is slightly quicker than the Cortina up to 50 mph, but it drops back slightly as speed rises. Even so it accelerates very rapidly for a family four/five-seater, reaching 60 mph in 12.5 seconds and 70 in 18.0 seconds. Like the Cortina, it too will just top the magic 100 mph, but is happiest when cruising in the 80-85 mph bracket. The BLMC B-Series engine of the Marina has been in production for many years and is by no means as sophisticated as more modern units, so that vibration and noise are quite prominent.
The Maxi 1750 is not a car which accelerates very rapidly, as it reaches 60 mph in 15.6 seconds and 70 in 21.7 seconds. However, it does compensate for its lack of urge from a standstill by having a stress-free cruising ability, due to its five-speed gearbox; the fifth gear acts as an overdrive, cutting engine revs down so that the car cruises fairly effortlessly at What Car? 90 mph. Maximum speed in fifth gear is 95 mph, which in fact is little more than fourth gear, which will encompass 90 mph. The valve gear produces a fair degree of whine and clatter at high revolutions.
The Maxi originally used a cable-operated gear change system, but with the 1750 model this was changed to a rod operation. The five-speed gear gate is laid out in the normal H-pattern with fifth to the right of the gate; the lever is spring loaded so that it springs back to the central plane where third and fourth gear are located. But the actual movement of the lever is rather sloppy and insensitive so that it is possible to select the wrong gear quite easily. The spring can easily be overcome, so that you can change from second gear to fifth. There is a good deal of whine in the transmission, and the synchromesh can be beaten on fast changes.
The Marina understeers quite noticeably on corners but does not roll as much as the Maxi, so it can be pushed through bends quite rapidly. The front torsion bar suspension absorbs surfaces well, but the rigid rear axle can be put off line by bumps so the driver has to show caution, especially on wet roads. The steering becomes quite heavy when cornering hard but generally it is light and accurate, although there is some noticeable kick-back felt through the steering wheel over bad bumps.
As befits medium family saloons the level of comfort is well above that of the majority of small cars, both in the interior appointments and the manner of their behaviour on the road.
The most versatile of the group as far as interior equipment goes is the Maxi. It can be treated as a normal 4/5 seater saloon or as an estate car, by lifting the rear tailgate, which stays up with the aid of hydraulic struts. The removable rear parcels shelf can be unclipped and placed on the boot floor so that the rear seat can either be folded forward, to give a large luggage area, or back, to form a bed in conjunction with the front seats. However, the sleepers would have to adopt a rather unusual shape to find a good dormant posture, although it would be useful in an emergency.
The interior is more simply furnished than that of the Hunter, the trim being in PVC, but the floor is carpeted and a wooden facia panel is fitted. The equipment includes fresh air ventilation, twin sun visors, two tone horns, two-speed heater fan, two-speed windscreen wipers, reversing light, full width front parcel shelf, armrests and wing mirror.
Optional extras for the 1750 include a cigar lighter, electronically heated rear screen and the four-speed AP automatic transmission. The Maxi is not a quiet car to drive at speed due to a combination of mechanical noise and road induced roar which travels through the chassis, although this latter feature has been improved on recent models.
Wind roar is not a problem, however, and in fifth gear the Maxi is quite a relaxing car in which to travel at speed. The transverse engine layout allows a good deal of interior legroom both at the front and rear of the car, and it is probably the only one of the group in which five adults would be at all comfortable over long distances. The ride is very soft and, as there is little in the way of self-levelling in the Hydrolastic suspension, the ride can be rather bouncy at times on poor surfaces. Some people find the ride nauseous; other prefer it to the harder ride offered by conventional suspension.
The Maxi has good ventilation and heating; and the interior is functional if rather attractive, although this is a matter of taste.
In some ways the Marina shows its short gestation period, for it feels a trifle “loose” and rattly on the road, but the component parts have all been well tried in other models, so it ought to be very reliable. Like the Cortina it is a 100 mph car, and for the price it is obviously good value. Noise level is rather high, but wind noise is better than most and the standard of the equipment is generally good. The Victor is a big, roomy car with lots of glass, which gives the passengers a fine view.
Equipment in the 1800 de luxe is somewhat spartan, and colour combinations are sometimes incongruous. The suspension is soft and this gives a good ride on most surfaces, but bad bumps cause the suspension to bottom quite sharply. There is also a good deal of body boom and vibration through the gear lever which spoils the car. The engine is basically a very strong unit but it does not thrive on high revs, and the breathing feels deliberately restricted.
There is always a greater risk in buying an unconventional or complicated car so the Maxi has perhaps a built-in disadvantage, for there is the chance that the gearbox or one of the other unique features will fail. On the other hand no other British car — except perhaps the very similar 1800— offers quite the same combination of interior space and adaptability. Its ride is undoubtedly the softest of the group, but the bounciness and pitching are not to everyone’s taste. It also had a reputation for noisiness, both from the engine and the bodywork, but both these problems have been alleviated to a large extent.