Austin’s ill-starred 1969 confection still casts a max-sized shadow.
History judges Austin’s ill-drawn hatchback pioneer harshly. Its orthodoxies tell us ADO14 was a terrible motor car; ungainly, ill-conceived, introduced with a litany of serious flaws, thereby failing to even approach its commercial aspirations. Its introduction was repeatedly delayed, with serious concern being expressed over its styling, driveability, power output, commercial viability and basic fitness for purpose.
For the second time since the two businesses were merged, Leyland’s Donald Stokes took the momentous decision to press ahead with a fundamentally flawed product. And while it may not have been the fledgling British Leyland Motor Corporation’s maiden launch, (that would be the Austin 3-Litre), it was the corporation’s first significant volume car introduction and a desperately important one for the future prosperity of the business.
Amongst the many ironies of the Maxi story is that one of its few real and lasting successes was how it underlined the manner in which BMC had so decisively lost the run of itself during the 1960s. A car created to fill a gap in the market (that of the ‘Farina-bodied A60) left vacant by the failure of another BMC model to meet its market parameters (the 1800-Series), ADO 14’s conception proved a masterclass of corporate failure.
Compounding this was the decision to design and build an entirely new series of engines for the car, which entailed a £40 million investment. This engine family (the unloved and underutilised E-Series), like the Maxi itself, was not strictly required and was (again like the Maxi) ill-conceived at a point where market parameters were fundamentally shifting. Furthermore, (and once more, like Maxi itself), BMC could have achieved as much with intelligent use of existing hardware.
The same year as that of ADO14’s introduction, the carmaker’s Australian arm launched the Nomad, a five-door hatchback variant of the popular 1100/1300 series, utilising the Maxi’s new-generation E-Series 1500cc power unit. A smaller car overall, but the real-world differences would not have amounted to much in market terms and certainly, while no ravishing beauty, it was no worse and with a little more work could have made for a more expedient and considerably cheaper stopgap until something better realised was made ready.
The Maxi was originally conceived to be a Cortina-rival, BMC having been spooked by the commercial success of Dagenham’s mid-liner. However, shortly into ADO14’s development, BMC’s Chief Executive, George Harriman decided the new model would not be targeted at the Cortina after all, essentially negating the entire rationale for the programme.
For the CEO of such a sprawling car manufacturer, Harriman saw fit to involve himself in areas where he really had no business. Having signed off on a massively expensive and unnecessary engine programme, in addition to the all-new Maxi bodyshell, he decreed that in order to save tooling costs, the door pressings be carried over from the 1800 saloon, which not only enforced an unnecessarily long wheelbase, but also fatally hobbled the design team. Not that they had much hope anyway against the Spartan dictates of BMC’s Technical Director, who was gripped by a horror of ‘styling’.
This showed in ADO14’s shape which was subjected to several increasingly desperate attempts at revision prior to its introduction. This involved not only the internal styling teams, but Sergio Pininfarina and allegedly, even Jaguar’s Sir William Lyons is said to have taken a hand. But with tooling committed, little of significance could be altered and the resultant design, while a noticeable improvement upon the ‘hen coop’ it originally resembled, remained a most unprepossessing motor car.
Style sells and in its absence, the Maxi’s prospects were doubtful at best. But while the car’s protracted gestation ought to have ensured a fully-proven product, this was not so. Most egregious was its poorly-designed gear linkage which made engagement a matter of feverish guesswork on the part of the driver. In addition, the noisy and rough sounding 1.5 litre E-Series engine was deemed woefully underpowered. The following year the Maxi was essentially relaunched with an improved rod-operated gear linkage and a larger capacity 1750cc engine. Changes to the cabin improved its ambience to some extent as well, but following this, meaningful development essentially ceased.
Projected to gain over 5% of the UK car market, it achieved only 1.4% in the year of its launch. Following its 1970 relaunch, sales rebounded slightly with the Maxi developing a modest but robust following throughout the 1970s amongst the UK press and more practical-minded motorists. Regarded as one of the more durable of BL’s mainstream models, 486,273 Maxis were built at Cowley up to the model’s demise in 1981, to make way for the LM10 Maestro – a car which perhaps contained more Maxi DNA than was either expedient or desirable.
Largely through accident rather than clear-headed vision, BMC stumbled across the design template for the modern family car. During the mid-1960s, only Renault’s 16 came close to offering anything similar, despite being a slightly larger, and certainly in perception terms, more upmarket, better realised product. Having done so, British Leyland, instead of taking what was clearly a promising (if flawed) template and developing it, chose to sideline it entirely, creating new models which respectively sat below and above it, neither of which hit the market sweet spot and damningly, lacked the hatchback format which would become a requirement.
The Maxi illustrates how poor management can initiate a climate of denial, which quickly becomes contagious. It beggars belief that George Harriman and his management team appeared to be satisfied, allegedly as far back as 1964 that ADO14 was acceptable for the intended market, ploughing ahead even as the business case for the programme came undone before their eyes. Four years later, Donald Stokes and his board did an equally good job of convincing themselves that the programme was on track and that the product stood a good chance of success despite obvious flaws.
It would be overstating matters to suggest that the Maxi alone crippled the BLMC business, but the huge investment the programme incurred coupled with the failure to meet expectations in what would become the heart of the market hobbled it more than perhaps was realised. The Maxi represented a salutary lesson in product planning – one BL repeatedly failed to grasp, with reactive products such as Allegro, 18/22/Princess and to some extent, SD1 – only this time, the mistakes were home-baked.
A highly significant car then, all the more so for how it crystallised an systemically flawed process of product creation. It embodied not only a damning failure of management, and an indictment of BMC’s product planning function, but also a lasting monument to Sir Alec Issigonis’ intransigence and creative dogmatism. It’s somewhat appropriate therefore that it is also the car which precipitated his downfall.
Orthodoxy damns the Maxi in broad-brush terms. And viewed as such, a good many of the slings and arrows stick. Embodying in automotive terms much of what was dreary and downtrodden about Britain in the 1970s, the Maxi’s homespun appearance belied an essentially intelligent concept whose time had not yet come.
But failure was baked into the Austin Maxi from the outset. Not only was it destined to fall, its bungled conception practically assured it. That other carmakers would successfully realise its potential is reason enough for lamentation. That its creators so abjectly failed either to recognise or act decisively upon it however is the greater loss and perhaps the most grievous indictment of all.