128 v. Maxi Part 1 : Last Tango of the Titans

A little over 50 years ago, two of Europe’s leading automotive businesses introduced a pair of rather utilitarian cars to the world. One was hugely successful and influential, the other turned out to be a prophet with little honour in its own time.

In bombastic terms, there’s a ‘clash of giants’ story to be told. Issigonis v. Giacosa. BLMC v. Fiat SpA. Maxi v. 128. It’s not quite ‘rumble in the jungle’, but a comparison tells a lot about the way things were done at Lingotto and Longbridge.

In a curious coincidence, the Austin Maxi and Fiat 128 were the last cars developed by their lead designers which reached production, although Issigonis’ input to the Maxi project was sporadic and remote.

In Dante Giacosa’s words, “On 3rd January 1970, the chequered flag signalled my arrival at the finish of my career”. He had reached the age of 65, and resigned in compliance with company rules.

Issigonis, 22 months Giacosa’s junior, had been cast to the margins of BLMC, to a new “Forward Research” department by the time the Austin Maxi was launched in late April 1969.

(c) curbside classic

Alec Issigonis’ knighthood was awarded a few months after the Maxi’s launch.   Long before, he was a ‘star designer’ and a significant public figure, a role which he played with arrogant aplomb.

Dante Giacosa Image: Fiat SpA

Dante Giacosa was highly regarded within Fiat, and the wider motor industry, but never attained, and certainly never sought, the public recognition enjoyed by his British counterpart. While Issigonis’ star fell along with the reputation of British Leyland, Giacosa’s standing continued to grow, and he is widely acclaimed as the father of the modern motor car.

The 128 and Maxi were not direct competitors, but they represented the state of the art as seen by  their respective manufacturers. Not quite ten years had passed since the Mini was launched: both it and the larger 1100/1300 had achieved international sales success and critical acclaim.

In modern classification, the Fiat and Austin would be C and D segment cars respectively. Both were short by the standards of their class, the Maxi because of Issigonis’ obsession with packaging, and the Fiat because Giacosa and lead stylist Mario Boano took up the challenge of matching the BMC Mini’s accommodation of mechanical components within only 20% of the car’s length.

Both of the 1969 cars are front wheel drive, with all-new transversely-mounted engines, all-round independent suspension and Italian styling.  That last matter is perhaps a stretch of the facts in the case of the Austin, but no less a stylist than Leonardo Fioravanti contributed some ameliorations to Austin Drawing Office’s first design, although most were swept away at the hands of Roy Haynes and Pressed Steel.

Both were intended to replace product lines which were not so much cars as dynasties. The Fiat 1100’s 1228cc engined variants had been withdrawn in February 1966 on the introduction of the 124. A 1088cc 1100 Rinovata was introduced at that time to hold the place to be filled by its FWD successor.

In the intended order of things at BMC, the ADO17 1800 would have replaced the Farina Oxford and Cambridge, but they had grown too heavy and expensive for the task. At least the Maxi killed off the A60 Cambridge. The Oxford lumbered on for another two years before the Marina delivered the silver bullet.

So far, so similar, but venture beyond the superficial and the differences are manifest.

A man walks into a styling studio…

No, it’s not a joke, but as the man in question was George Harriman, it was highly likely that the outcome would be.

ADO 14 Prototype June 1965. Image: Haynes Publishing

The Hamletic Chief Executive of BMC requested that Ricardo Burzi’s team make him a car sized to fit between the 1100 and 1800, with the stipulation that the doors should be shared with the latter larger car. The hatch was not part of the brief, but the truncated semi-fastback tail resulted in an impractically small boot opening. Designers Sid Goble and Fred Boubier proposed the estate car-like tailgate as a pragmatic solution, although the chronology suggests that they would have been aware of the Renault 16 by the time the June 1965 prototype appeared.

It has to be said the early iteration of the ADO14 project pictured is not a bad looking car at all.  It’s not hard to imagine that if introduced in late 1967 in saloon (there was one, but more of that story later) and hatchback form it could have battened on Middle England’s new-found love for front wheel drive and fluid suspension, and killed off the Farina Oxbridge cars in short order.

There was, however, a major inhibition to progress. Harriman had imagined the new car would be powered by the A series engine, in 1100cc 48bhp form.  There was no certainty that the miniature four could be mass-produced with the recently developed 1275cc Cooper S capacity, and the new mid-liner weighed around 2000lb, 120lb more than the Austin / Morris 1100, itself no lightweight.

Logic would suggest adopting the heavy but bulletproof B series powertrain from the 1800, in 1489cc or 1622cc capacities, to bring the car to market as quickly as possible. Logic was largely alien to Harriman’s world, so a new engine and gearbox were decreed. The development of the powertrain, and the construction of a new plant at Cofton Hackett, on a greenfield site close to the Longbridge works added at least two years to the Maxi’s gestation.

The reader will note that the name Alec Issigonis has not yet been mentioned since the introductory paragraphs. He maintained a more than arm’s length distance from the ADO14 project. It was not one of the Holy Trinity of ‘XC 9000’ cars, which evolved – in reverse numerical order – into the Mini, 1100, and 1800.

However with a new engine in prospect, Issigonis was quick to intervene.  The experimental engine had a belt-driven overhead camshaft, but this was vetoed in favour of chain drive. Issigonis’ real ambition had nothing to do with ADO14. He wanted a ‘modular’ engine which could be expanded into a straight six which could fit transversely into his beloved 1800.

He got it too, but it compromised the Maxi engine, dictating undersquare dimensions, siamesed bores, narrow crankshaft bearings, and no prospect of outward expansion beyond the three inch bore shared by all versions of the engine.

Put that radiator in the proper place and a B series would fit no bother at all… Image: BLMC

The gearbox and final drive were packaged in the characteristic Issigonis “bunk-bed” arrangement, with the gears in the sump, sharing oil with the engine. It had five forward speeds with no four speed option, a feature which was either fifteen years ahead of its time, or the answer to a question nobody had asked.

There’s a distinct feeling that the Issigonis’ heart was far away from the ADO14 project. In the crucial later stages of the Maxi’s development he was sidelined to “forward research”, working on the unrealised ‘9X’ Mini and ADO16 replacement. ADO14 development was led by BMC veteran Eric Bareham, an engine designer, answering to Charles Griffin, Austin-Morris’s Director of Engineering.

The other wizard of the XC cars, Alex Moulton was more committed, and used the Maxi to advance and refine his suspension ideas, both in dynamic functionality and cost-effectiveness.

Pininfarina had proposed some ameliorations to Goble and Boubier’s original design, but under the new Leyland regime, Pressed Steel took control of body engineering, with Roy Haynes reverting largely to the 1965 design for the flanks and tail. Pininfarina’s characterful nose and grille were replaced by a visage of apologetic blandness. As introduced in April 1969, the Maxi was neither sporty nor imposing, but it was half-baked development rather than insipid styling which would blight its future.

Image: Fiat SpA

Moving to Turin, Project X1/1 was already underway when Dr. Ing. Dante Giacosa was placed in charge of Motor Vehicle Design and Studies in a management restructure at Fiat in October 1965, with Oscar Montabone as his deputy. With his new standing, Giacosa was able to call on the top tier of engineering talent; Aurelio Lampredi, Ettore Cordiano, Severino Nutarelli.  Mario Boano took on styling duties.

The X1/1 project was a two-headed beast comprising a 3.2 metre long car with the venerable 843cc 100 engine, and a 3.9m long car weighing 700 kg, with an all-new engine of around 1.0 litres. The smaller car became the Autobianchi A112, whose direct heir, over half a century later, is the second best-selling car in Italy.

Both cars would have transverse engines and end-on gearboxes, the concept proven in production with the 1964 Autobianchi Primula. The larger car is the one of relevance here, planned to be produced at the rate of 1500 per day at a new factory at Rivalta, north-west of Turin.

(As a matter of record, the Maxi sales forecast was 6000 per week. The engines and gearboxes were produced in Birmingham and the cars were built at Cowley, Oxford)

By comparison with the BMC car, the 128 was a marvel of clarity of vision, and objectives were largely met; where the brief was stretched, it was to the advantage of the outcome. Lampredi provided a mass-produced racing engine, brilliantly designed for cost-efficiency.

Giacosa insisted on suspension matching the capabilities of the complicated systems of French rivals, and the objective was largely achieved with deceptive simplicity, at far lower cost. Giacosa and Boano deferred to Fiat’s management on the morphology of the 128’s bodywork; the designers wanted a hatchback, a conventional saloon was decreed instead.

Not that it mattered. The 128, in saloon and 3 door estate car form, was a huge success, both in sales and critical acclaim, and the entire automobile industry would sooner or later follow Giacosa’s lead.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Umberto Agnelli and Dante Giacosa (right) receive the 1970 European Car of the Year Award. It was a 1-2 for Fiat, with the Autobianchi A112 taking second place. The Renault 12 took third place, the Maxi was nowhere.


Reference sources:

Autocropley: 24 April 1968

Forty Years of Design with Fiat. Dante Giacosa. Automobilia srl; 1979

Men and Motors of “The Austin”.  Barney Sharratt.  Haynes Publishing: 2005.

The Last Chance Saloon – The Rise and Fall of an Industry BMC to MG Rover.  Keith Adams: 2004.

22 thoughts on “128 v. Maxi Part 1 : Last Tango of the Titans”

  1. If the related Yugo Skala is any indication, the Fiat 128’s success could have been further enhanced by the presence of a 3/5-door hatchback variant.

    Never knew the 128 engine was originally conceived as a 1-litre unit, OTOH had they decided on a more entry-level 128 model Fiat would have probably been better off using the 48 hp 965cc version of the Fiat 100 Series engine (also have to wonder whether 1050cc was the largest the latter was capable of). Abarth planned 108 hp Abarth version of the Autobianchi A112 with Twin-Cam 982cc engine

    As for the Austin Maxi, while it would have still needed a new engine in any case. Had it not been burdened with carrying over the 1800’s doors (thereby featuring 100-inch wheelbase and being much lighter as a result), it could have probably still made use of the 1275cc A-Series engine.

    Since Eric Bareham was involved with ADO14 / E-Series engine as well as played a role in the development of both the A-Series and B-Series engines, was the E-Series’s limitations down to him (despite his previous track record) or Alec Issigonis? The former could have taken in evolutionary approach with regards to the A-Series or from the A-Series’s conception changed things how scope for further enlargement was available (up to 1485-1596cc as on the Nissan E/A engines), while the Issigonis given his bad track record on engine building need not impose the limitations he did on the E-Series becoming making it a modular B/C-Series replacement (with a downsized small-block relation/half-relation replacing the A-Series).

    Do any images exist of Pininfarina’s proposed ameliorations to the Maxi design?

    1. The penny eventually dropped for Fiat regarding the absence of a hatchback version of the 128. The company’s belated and rather half-hearted response was the Panorama, effectively the estate version of the 128 with a shorter, single-piece rear side window. This was introduced in 1976 with the Mk2 facelift of the range.

      The original Familiare estate:

      The Panorama:

    2. Late to this but for the sake of completeness here’s the 5-door wagon made in Argentina but nowhere else;

  2. Fiat also replaced their very pretty coupe version of the 128 with a more modern but slightly prosaic looking hatchback version, called the 3P. Here’s the original:

    And the 3P:

    1. Continuing the theme of pretty Fiat (based) small coupés, Seat produced this little beauty from 1976 to 1979:

      It was based on a mix of 124 and 128 mechanicals with a body design bought in from NSU after that company abandoned a small coupé proposal based on the Prinz.

    2. Beauty indeed, it has an 87.6″ wheelbase, that is remarkable. Bill Mitchell reportedly said: “doing a small car is like tailoring a dwarf”, this SEAT proves he was wrong.

  3. Here’s the hatchback 128:

    This comparison is interesting because it shows the different approaches to designing these cars.
    The Maxi is a full power assault down a blind alley with lots of answwers to questions nobody ever asked and of idiosyncratic solutions just for the sake of it. Deliberately designing a brand new engine with no room for expansion just to make sure that larger versions had to have six cylinders is of at least questionable wisdom and things like the weird suspension design and (above all) the gears in sump transmissoin were done just for the sake of it.
    The 128 is the exact opposite with thorougly practical thinking behind its design. The only thing making you scratch your head is the exhaust running on top of the tilted engine but even this is logical considering Lampredi’s head design. The 128’s rear suspension is a stroke of genius avoiding the geometrical and dynamic deficits of French trailing arm solutions by using a transverse leaf spring with two mounting points providing strong anti roll without unwanted lateral load transfer.
    As a result the 128 is a typical Italian car of that time that is fun to drive and begs to be driven hard without punishing its driver for doing so.

    1. There are a few more images of the 128 hatchback for what became the Yugoslav version on page 333. Also seems Dante Giacosa had plans to develop station wagon and pick-up versions of the A112 on page 323, along with a version featuring an air-cooled 850cc flat-twin engine (possibly as an indirect replacement for the Fiat 500 akin to the later 704cc 2-cylinder Fiat Cinquecento)? Kind of surprised the layout was not downsized further to replace the 500, whilst carrying over the existing 500/126 2-cylinder engine. The Poles themselves look at FWD hatchback versions of the 126, so it is shame Fiat never contemplated it.

      Click to access Dante_Giacosa_-_Forty_Years_of_Design_with_Fiat.pdf

      IMHO the only minuses the 128 (and 127) had was no 85-100+ hp 1500-1600cc engine, even the related X1/9 had a 1500cc engine.

      The Fiat 128 and even the Autobianchi Primula brings to mind the near criminal lack of development on ADO16-based derivatives, the Primula formed the basis of the Fiat 238 for example while the 128 formed the basis of the mid-engined X1/9 sportscar with shrunken down versions of the 128 also spawning the A112 and 127. Additionally read of the Ritmo/Strada being a development of 128, yet eventually capable using larger Twin-Cam engines. Curious the basic design by Fiat remained in production until the mid/late-1980s before being replaced, while being built in other markets for much longer.

      The closest thing to an ADO16-based transverse-mounted mid-engine sportscar was the Healey WAEC (Wheel At Each Corner) prototype with removable targa top as a possible Midget replacement, which was built around two ADO16 front subframes plus hydrolastic suspension as well as the its rather low-geared steering yet with the benefit of a four-wheel disc-brake system. However the car was allegedly overweight and suffered from poor performance even with the 1275cc Cooper S engine. – http://www.gtmdrivers.com/forum/healey-waec-t2876.html

      However what perplexes me is why X1/9 was a success and unburdened by the same limitations as the similar WAEC prototype, was it simply down to the former’s newer 128 SOHC engine or the latter possibly carrying over ADO16’s in-sump gearbox layout?

    2. Hi Bob, that’s a fascinating book about Giacosa. Thanks for sharing.

      The three-door hatchback proposal on page 333 with the flat, rather than kinked, tailgate looks rather more modern than the production car, but using a flat tailgate on the five-door would have necessitated very wide C-pillars, ir a major body redesign. I guess the three-door never made production as a Fiat because it would have been uncomfortably close in size to the 127.

      Dave, your point about the 128 being fun to drive is a good one and it shared with the 127 a very Italianate character in this regard. The Ritmo (Strada) successor to the 128 disappointed many fans of the earlier cars with its softly sprung, comfort orientated setup that was more French than Italian in character.

    3. danieljocallaghan

      In terms of length it seem roughly 2-inches (or 146-148-inches) separates the 127-based Seat Frua (that was available as a 5-door hatchback) and the 128-based Yugo Skala. Not sure if the Seat 127 5-door hatchback featured the same length as the later Seat Frua however.

      Perhaps Fiat should have either considered a 5-door version of the Autobianchi A112 (with the latter rebadged as a Fiat from the outset) in place of the Fiat 127, thereby preventing the latter from overlapping with a 3/5-door hatchback version of the Fiat 128?

      OTOH Fiat could have stuck to its original plan with the 127 and 128, yet with the former being a 3/5-door hatchback (like the Seat 127 / Seat Frua), while the latter remains a 2/4-door saloon (still featuring coupes, estates and pick-up) until it is replaced by the larger Fiat Ritmo / Strada.

      Curiously the Brazilian version of the Fiat 127 not only formed the basis of the Fiat 147, but also the Fiat Oggi 2-door three-box saloon. Which given the development of the 5-door hatchback Spanish built versions of the 127 makes one wonder why they never bothered making a 4-door version for the Brazilian / South American markets.

    4. Perhaps Fiat simply should have done what they did. At least this helped them sell 2.77 million 128s and can’t have been completely wrong.

  4. “Issigonis’ real ambition had nothing to do with ADO14. He wanted a ‘modular’ engine which could be expanded into a straight six which could fit transversely into his beloved 1800.

    He got it too, but it compromised the Maxi engine, dictating undersquare dimensions, siamesed bores, narrow crankshaft bearings, and no prospect of outward expansion beyond the three inch bore shared by all versions of the engine.”

    Frankly, Issigonis reminds of Ed Cole at Chevrolet. Cole had a huge early success as lead engineer on the smallblock V8, and everything he did after that was a disaster (Corvair, Vega).

    1. Issigonis seemed really intent on designing every aspect of a car down to the engine, despite engines not really being his strong point and wonder if that became a source of frustration for him in later years as a designer. Dante Giacosa might have achieved the feat of designing an all-new car from the ground up with the Fiat 500, 600 and more including their respective engines though later engines were designed by Aurelio Lampredi.

      It was the case with the post-war Morris models where he nevertheless designed a Flat-4 (possibly they were two Flat-4s ranging from 800-2500cc), ignoring the fact that designing engines was not in his brief. Then he attempted to design a V8 (and related 4-cylinder) at Alvis for the TA/350 (with apparently similar weaknesses as on W. O. Bentley’s Lagonda V12, etc), which put out at most 124 hp (though the TA/350 prototype was said to be fairly quick due to being light when tested against a Jaguar) and after the E-Series, there was the unviable DX engines.

      In the case of the DX engines, Issigonis spent almost 2 decades pleading his cause for the DX units up to the 1980s even against the K-Series yet find it difficult to believe he never spent those years managing to make the engine more viable for production.

      That said. From the Vanden Plas 1800 article a while back, am now convinced the E-Series could have been a much better engine than it was using its better developed conceptually similar rival at Wolfsburg as a rough guide.

  5. Damn, that ADO14 prototype looks pretty! That actually looks real good, and with a nice family resemblence to the 1800. But somehow they tweaked the lines and made it pretty? I guess it’s the slightly smaller scale that makes for an antropomorphic cute baby-look. So, you mean they were sitting on that for two years missing an engine? That’s just… incredible. ..

    I think it’s funny some the best looking of the English cars are those that really wasn’t styled but just happened by chance, like the Mini and the Range Rover. Issigonis was an engineer first and a designer second, and the designs usually suffered. The Mini as a design only differs very slighly from the prototype, it is basically only the technical package with a tailored frock. And that’s the genius about it. If you look at the XC9000 Issigonis repeated that trick only on a slightly larger scale, it really looks like a larger Mini before they sent it away to Italy to get its tailored suit. I mean the difference between the cars is a difference in styling, where the Italian designs are clearly styled, while I would call the Issigonis designs “not-styled”.

    So at one end you got Team Issigonis with the not-styled but somehow becoming sixties style leader the Mini. At the other end you got Team Pininfarina and the very neat and clearly styled 1100. And in the middle you got all the hodge podge of styling compromises of the 1800 and the Maxi. There seems to have been a tug of war of these models and I think the cars were evidently compromised because of it.

    The Maxi always reminded me of the botched Clubman facelift of the Mini, because it really looks like Roy Haynes stole the prints of the Ford Cortina before he left office and plastered them all over the walls.

    I also think it’s ironic both the Maxi and the 128 got it so right and so wrong at the same time. The Fiat got it right on the technical package but got it wrong on the form factor, while it was the complete opposite for the Maxi. I still think it’s funny the Maxi is within millimetres of being at the same size of the ’98 Focus. And perhaps the 128 had been the new Golf five years early only had they got the form right.

    1. I’m hesitating to say that Fiat got the 128 fundamentally wrong when they managed to sell 2.77 million of it (compare thar with 470 thousand Maxis over a comparable production run).
      The standard booted saloon form of the 128 was exactly what conservative customers around the Mediterannean wanted (which later gave us booted Polos and Corsas because Spanish and Portuguese customers wouldn’t buy hatchbacks) and with 1,100 cc it was considered a relatively large car for Italian standards.

    2. Good morning, Ingvar. The ADO14 prototype with the ADO17 front end made perfect sense in 1965, a year after the launch of the latter. Had the Maxi been launched then, it would have given the ADO16, 14 and 17 hierarchy a recognisable family face. However, by 1969, the Maxi’s smaller and larger siblings had been on the market for six and five years respectively and were looking distinctly old-fashioned. Hence, Roy Haynes decided that the new model needed a more current look. I’m not making an aesthetic judgement either way, but wonder if the Maxi would have sold any better with the 1800 style front end? Frankly, I doubt it and actually think the Haynes front end is fine.

      I think Roy Haynes did his best within the constraints placed on him. The Mini Clubman was a mis-step, certainly, but in Haynes’s defence, after a decade BMC/BL should have had a successor ready to go and not have to rely on a facelift.

      History, of course, has a habit of repeating itself. Roy Axe faced exactly the same dilemma with the Montego when he took over as Austin/Rover’s design director in 1982. He made limited changes to the design in order to make it more palatable to prospective customers. The Montego was also partly hobbled by having to share its doors with a sibling. That said, an early design prototype was, if somewhat anonymous, certainly cleaner and less polarising than the production car:

    3. Yes, but VW produced close to 7 million of the first generation Golf. And they still make about a million of them every year in consecutive generations for a total tally of over 30 million cars. It’s the difference between being the biggest car maker in the world (VW) and being on the brink of bankruptcy (Fiat).

  6. Fiat was really at the top of the game in 1970. Even the typefaces used in their advertising were modern, just compare it to the Maxi ad side-by-side.

  7. Hi PJ. Yes, you’re right. As an avid collector of car brochures in the late 60’s and early 70’s I recall that Fiat and VW stood out for their lovely, crisp house styles and excellent photography. Here’s a typical VW page layout from the French Passat brochure:

  8. Great article, owned a 79 128 1300 sedan in the 80s. Great drive and, thanks to the spare under the bonnet, was surprising what you could fit in that boot. I remember people being surprised when an adult 10 speed bike (with wheels off) fitted in easily.

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