Tested : Maxi, Marina and rivals

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 Cars

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.

Inside story

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.

Our verdict

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.

Keith Adams


  1. Good to see that at one time What Car was atually interested in how the cars drove. Now all they would be concerned about is CO2 output and how much the company car tax is – and none of the cars in this article would have been considered any good because theyre not BMW’s!

  2. Agree with Paul, What Car now is always look at green cars and apologising for high co2 fig cars, and lets not mention the kids on the mag think a car is good so long as it’s easy to “plug in” their Ipods

  3. OJ and OM were both Birmingham registration codes. Actually, most registrations with a middle ‘O’ were from Brum. That’s probably about as deliberate as it gets.

  4. what car and its siblings auto-express and autocar/motor seem to be adverts for german cars , its no wonder we stopped buying british cars , some of which were very good , recently autocar/motor did a piece on cars built in britain and it was a 2 page spread -wow and it didnt even mention vauxhall who build the excellent astra and despite mentioning transit vans which britain doesnt build anymore the fact that vauxhall build great vans at luton not only for themselves but for renault, nissan and opel also didnt get a mention either , last week auto express/autocar motor tested 9 german cars each! i japanese and 2 french ,no brits , need i go on

  5. The original ‘What Car?’ as edited by Richard Feast until about 1978 was a great magazine – which unfortunately has been in slow decline ever since.

    A more consumer-friendly but still serious rival to the others around at the time, it had the then novelty of reams of useful data about new, (and used) cars in addition to the roadtests. As demonstrated above with the knowing comment of the Victor’s ‘restricted’ engine, those tests worked for different levels of reader, both the average consumer and the more car savvy.

    It was the magazine that Auto Express should be, but which rarely makes the grade.

  6. The article was published 40 years ago and even then the puerile obsession with quoting “0 to 60” times, usually only achievable by clutch-wrecking drag-racer techniques no decent minded owner would attempt.

  7. I really would like to obtain the part of this test which apparently is left out! I’d love to read and find out how the non-BL Brits actually were assessed! Is the complete article obtainable, please?

  8. The Victor, like its predecessor, was at the large end of the family car market and while a roomy and good looking car( though not as good as the FD), seemed to fall between the Cortina and Granada in size, so buyers were always confused what sector it was in and sales suffered, Also unless you opted for the sporting VX 4/90, only available as a 2300, the equipment levels were poor and the car could have benefited from a fully equipped 1800 model and an intermediate Victor with cloth seats, a clock and a lighter like the Cortina XL. The Victor’s issues weren’t put right until it was rebadged as the VX with more equipment for the same price as the Victor and the 1800 was made more efficient and powerful,

    • The VX rebadge was a short term update till replacement by the Opel Rekord based Carlton in 1978. The best of the VX series was the 2300GLS (replacing the Ventora though with smaller engine)

  9. So which car won? What did they think of the Hunter, which scarcely gets a mention?

    • That’s actually the question Jonathan! I’m sure the Hunter as well as the other non-BL cars participating in the test are mentioned! Would anyone be so kind as to present to us the complete WC article .. ?

  10. Odd to choose the Victor rather than a Viva/Magnum as it feels a class or half a class above

  11. I remember in 1983, What Car? celebrating ten years by tracking down the owners of these actual cars, a decade after they were tested. Not all were still on the road, and those that were, were quite tatty (in one owner’s words). Although I really miss that generation of cars (my parents had three Maxis), their ability to rust to death in five or six years wasn’t so endearing!

  12. I wonder which car lasted the longest. My thinking is the Maxi, which didn’t rust as much as the other cars from that era. I wonder if the Victor made it to its tenth birthday, as there were still a few FEs running in 1983 and it wasn’t as prone to rust as the FD, which seemed to have largely vanished by 1980 due to rust.

  13. A shame the Victor FD had a bad reputation for rust (like my Viva HC). The FE’s were the last British designed Vauxhalls and I will always remember them for that. Pity they were less favoured than the Cortina III and IV

    • @ Hilton D, the FD was better than the notorious FA Victor, which could rust as soon it left the factory and some three year old ones had the floor rotted out, but still could suffer from rust that would see many scrapped at 8-9 years old. There were exceptions ,of course, my grandparents lived doors away from a man who bought a K reg Victor 2000 SL as a retirement present and the car lasted until it was 14 years old, when it became too difficult to obtain parts for and was most likely scrapped, although t never showed much evidence of tin worm( must have been undersealed every year). Another beautiful metallic gold VX 4/90 with a vinyl roof was often seen parked near Coventry city centre in 1991, maybe an enthusiast had kept it alive.

    • Actually the FE was the first Vauxhall to be heavily influenced by Opel. Most of the core body – floor pan, crash structure etc where from the 1972 Rekord D as was many parts such as door handles, wiper motors etc.

      • The FE and Rekord used totally different dtivetrains, but both cars had a similar look, and this was the start of the merger of Opel and Vauxhall designs that would gather pace from the Chevette/ Kadett onwards. General Motors probably looked to Ford, where there was little difference between their cars by 1972, and decided having seperate Opel and Vauxhall designs was becoming an exoensive luxury, especially as Vauxhall was the weaker of the two European marques.

        • Basically Vauxhsll had to adapt their design to include body pressings by Opel as part of cost cutting due to Vauxhalls struggling finances. It is all on Vauxepedia

  14. @Glenn, my Dad had a 1960 Victor F till he traded in for a VX4/90 in ’66. The Victor was well looked after and garaged overnight so luckily rust was not a major problem. I remember the run out FD Victor 2000 being rebadged as 2000SL. They were actually good looking cars in their time.

  15. Interesting that they seem moderately positive about the Marina’s ride and handling, while they seemed to find the Maxi’s Hydrolastic suspension more “marmite”.

  16. I have a Motoring Which? road test yearbook for 1972. Its interesting to read how so many of the cars we remember so fondly from our youth were regarded when they were new. And they we not all great! Motoring Which? was certainly very thorough in their testing and critical in their reviews. They discuss how they measured how much effort it took to steer a car, how much equipment they used to test performance etc. There’s a section on the terminal understeer of early 1.8 Marinas and the revised versions, with a diagram of cornering forces to back it up. They’re also big on ease of DIY servicing, life of tyres (remarkably short in those days), price and availability of spares. There’s a section on reliability (surprising to read just how many times the average car needed repairs back then). And yes, with UK heading towards EEC membership they also covered emissions and CE directives. Overall technically interesting but it’s obvious that buyers were looking for more and different information about their cars in those days.

    • Motoring Which was probably a better buy for someone who was more concerned if their car would start in the morning and if it could endure a long journey than Car reviewing a 150 mph Italian supercar that hardly anyone could afford. Remember in 1973, unless you worked for an employer who gave you a company car every three years,the average car buyer would probably be interested in how reliable a used Ford Escort was against a Hillman Avenger, and if Japanese cars were really as reliable and cheap to buy as the man down the street claimed his was.

  17. I’ve got a book of Motor magazine reviews from 1972-3 which covers a wide range of cars from a Citroen Ami to a Rolls Royce Silver Shadow. Most reviews have a price comparison with similar cars, which show that at the time, which show that most British built cars would be a little cheaper than comparable cars from other countries.

    • @ Richardpd, joining the EEC would see cars from Germany, France and Italy become cheaper as tariffs were phased out and end the price advantage British cars had over them. It also meant, along with the designs and drivetrains becoming similar, Ford and General Motors could import cars from their continental factories for the same price as cars made in the UK.
      The other side to the end of EEC tariffs was British cars would be cheaper to sell in major European markets like West Germany- EEC membership being something Donald Stokes had encouraged for years- and would lead to a big increase in sales. Unfortunately, European buyers shunned cars like the Allegro and the predicted export bonanza never happened.

      • I can remember that part of the information that car magazines use to state how many dealers the manufacturer use to have, with Ford and BL way out in front. It was probably so you knew you could get your broken car back to the dealer!

        • @ daveh, British Leyland had 2200 dealers in 1973, a legacy of all the seperate companies that had been merged, and it was still possible to find dealers within half a mile of each either. Where I live, there were three dealers within a mile of each other in the seventies, although one was a main dealer selling all the British Leyland brands and the others being Austin Morris only.

          • Yep, even in the late 80s they had about 800 with Ford not far behind. In Southend when I was little there was four, three Henlys and 1 SMAC.

          • A lot of the disfranchised dealers then signed up with the Japanese manufacturers or the smaller European ones.

      • Yes joining the EEC changed things, it’s unfortunate BL were in a poor position to take advantage of it after hoping the earlier bids would be successful.

  18. There was a cull of a quarter of the British leyland network in the eighties that saw dealers take on other franchises. I know of one locally who lost the franchise 40 years ago and moved over to Volkswagen, just as the boom in sales for the Golf and the Polo started. The dealer was so successful he built a new out of town showroom 25 years ago and also sells Kias.

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