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.
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.
Alec Issigonis had become a knight of the realm and a ‘star designer’ a part which he played with arrogant aplomb.
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 what the outcome would be.
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 that it’s 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 engine with the new 1275cc Cooper S capacity could be mass produced, 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. 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.
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.
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, as proven 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; they wanted a hatchback, a conventional saloon was decreed.
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.
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.
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.