At the 1973 Earls Court Motor Show, BLMC expected the new Allegro to be the centre of attention on the Austin-Morris stand. Instead, it was another car which stole the limelight…
Shortly before the 1973 Motor Show, BLMC gained permission to add to their stand a curious but radical small car, created by the futurist Designer William Towns (pictured above with his creation), and which he had christened ‘Townscar’ (a neat pun on his name). At the time, Towns was best known for having designed the Aston Martin DBS, but he would go on to produce models as diverse (and yet clearly synergetic) as the Hustler kit car and the Aston Martin Lagonda saloon. (In the late 1970s, he would also be involved in an effort by Aston Martin to save the MGB…)
Conceived as a new Mini, the Townscar made good use of its alter ego’s trademark 10in wheels and 848cc A-Series engine with automatic transmission, along with the front and rear subframes, although these were brought as close as possible to each other to shorten the wheelbase. The typically sharp lines announced that this was Towns’ vision for a futuristic car (at least from a 1973 perspective).
A spacious interior
Like more recent tall-but-short cars (such as the Suzuki Wagon-R), the Townscar had a high roofline to give a spacious feeling to its interior – in fact, the car was unusual in that its height was equal to its length, with the aim of providing most interior space within the shortest possible external length.
Combined with an inventive approach to packaging, this meant that car could accommodate four passengers despite its being 75cm shorter than the already diminutive car on which it was based. While the two front-seat occupants naturally faced forward (always a good thing for the driver!), those in the rear sat sideways, facing each other, with their feet presumably competing for floorspace with any luggage they had to carry.
The car’s angular bodywork was built around a tubular spaceframe structure, onto which aluminium panels were mounted. The car had no side doors, so access was gained via a single, side-hinged rear door, the idea being that the car could be reversed up to the kerbside and the occupants could step out safely onto the pavement.
Leyland loved it
In short, the concept was so interesting that BLMC patented the idea and bought the commercial rights, changing its name to Minissima to reinforce the message that this was their concept for a replacement for the evergreen Mini, which was by then 14 years old. The Minissima’s career as a showgirl lasted two years, as it toured around the various motor shows.
Despite the high levels of interest in the car, it would never enter production as the new Mini, partly because the Mini was BL’s best-selling model and partly because to productionise it would have required costly supplementary development which British Leyland could ill-afford.
Back door issues
That innovative rear door caused the greatest problem of all. The British authorities would not allow this design feature without side doors because in a rear impact there was no alternative means of exit for the occupants. (Remember that in the BMW Isetta, with its single door at the front, if the occupants did survive a head-on collision they could climb out through the folding sunroof!)
The construction of the vehicle was deemed dangerous and it was thought that serious structural failure would occur in the event of a crash. Another design failing is the total lack of practicality; as mentioned above, there was no luggage space to speak of, and the only ventilation was from a small window in the rear door.
Moreover, while the huge glass area may have provided amazing visibility for the trendy city slicker driving it, it would have left the occupants resembling sun-burnt lobsters. Cars with huge windows also get very hot inside; take the Peugeot 206 with its gloriously panoramic windscreen. When left in the sun for a few hours you could bake bread in the interior – and that’s with tinted glass and the options of air-conditioning, electric windows and a large sunroof!
Just like an Outspan
In some ways the Minissima was similar to the Outspan Orange promotional car of the same period. Both cars had very individual styling and shared automatic Minis as their base. The Orange also shared the Minissima’s one-box accommodation with the engine to the front and a single access door at the back. However, the Orange was bigger and could carry more passengers in the orange haven inside.
At 230cm and providing four seats, no car since has provided such good packaging. The current zenith of small car design, the MCC Smart, carries only two people in a longer length. Admittedly, the Smart’s occupants are safer and more comfortable, and you can squeeze in another passenger (illegally) in the cargo area providing you don’t buy too much at the shops!
A new role
A few years after the Minissima had disappeared from the motor show circuit, the design re-emerged as a prototype car for the disabled, adapted by engineering firm GKN Sankey, thus providing another parallel with the BMW Isetta, which had itself been subject to aftermarket conversion for disabled drivers.
In its GKN guise, the Minissima-based car had gained that all-important side-door (on the nearside only), and GKN suggested three possible driving configurations: the first featured a conventional offset driving position (left- or right-hand drive) for an able-bodied driver, with accommodation for a wheelchair-seated passenger in the rear; in the second, the driving area was adapted to allow the car to be driven from a wheelchair, with entry via the side door and room for two passengers in the back.
However, it was the third configuration that was to have the most impact; it featured a central driving position in which a wheelchair user could simply enter through the back door using a fold-down rear ramp, and drive off. The styling was toned down to suit mass production and regulations, and the back door widened for improved access. The prototype won a prestigious Design Council award in 1978.
An award-winning concept
GKN Sankey’s prototype invalid carriage (left), distinguishable from the later Elswick Envoy (right) by various styling details
It was not until several years later that the design finally bore fruit for its creator. A bicycle manufacturer called Elswick bought the rights to the centre-drive GKN Sankey and set up a subsidiary, Elswick Special Vehicles Limited, to produce and market the car as the Elswick Envoy, launched late in 1981.
By this time, the Mini’s 848cc A-Series engine was out of production so this was substituted with the Austin Metro‘s 1.0-litre A-Plus engine, again with automatic transmission. Bearing in mind that large glass area, air conditioning was offered as an option, albeit a costly one. Another, more affordable option were the shock-absorbent bumpers worn by the car pictured on the right, which were undoubtedly more practical than the standard vestigial items moulded into the Envoy’s bodywork.
Incidentally, that bodywork was made by Reliant, the maker of small and ugly three-wheeled cars, because Elswick themselves did not have the facilities to make it. This puts it in the same class as the Ford RS200, which also had a Reliant-made bodyshell. Of course, Reliant had also been responsible for that 1970s style icon, the Bond Bug, which was somewhat closer to the Minissima in concept, if not in execution.
Old before its time
However, by the time the Envoy entered production after its particularly long gestation period, the design was looking rather dated. In comparison with small cars of the 1980s such as the Austin Metro, Fiat Uno, Ford Fiesta and Renault 5, the Envoy must have seemed to be too much of a compromise.
It was also just too expensive, with a fully-optioned example tipping the scales at over £10,000, and so few were sold. Interestingly enough, the Metro formed the basis for the Envoy’s only obvious rival. Gowrings Mobility, who specialised in adapting production cars for use by wheelchair-bound passengers, had recently replaced their original Mini-based Chairman model with the Metro Chairman, which had an extended roofline and, like the Envoy, a ramp at the rear to allow wheelchair entry.
One vital difference was that the Chairman could not be driven from a wheelchair, as the Envoy could. However, on the plus side, the Gowrings conversion was based on a newer design and had the support of the Austin-Rover network behind it. So, despite its unique selling point, the Envoy drove off into the history books after just a few years in production.
|Elswick Envoy Price List, 1 October 1984|
|Basic car complete with 4-speed automatic transmission, single-lever hand controls, servo-assisted brakes and unpowered wheelchair. Excluding delivery and number plates.|
(Colours: Red, White or Blue).
|Powered rear door and ramp complete with infra-red remote control||£890|
|Powered wheelchair complete with charger and inflator, supplied in lieu of standard wheelchair||£1296|
|Philips AN391 radio and aerial||£75|
For the keen car spotter a tidy example of one of these rare beasts can be spotted giving a wheelchair-bound person freedom and mobility in big towns from Manchester to Rome. That’s why, considering all its failings, the Envoy should be remembered more fondly.
The same goes for the Minissima – it was a brave attempt at replacing the Mini but, like so many proposed Mini replacements, it lacked the Mini spirit which made the car so endearing. The only Minissima in existence now resides in the British Motor Museum at Gaydon.