128 vs Maxi Part 2 : Function over Form

We continue our look at the spring 1969 debutants, contemplating heady matters of gestalt

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The rather Lancia Beta-like profile rendering from the early stages of BMC’s ADO14 project shows considerable promise. Too short in the nose, probably at Issigonis’ prompting, but otherwise elegant in spite of the ‘carry-over’ 1800 doors. So what went wrong along the road to BLMC’s five-door fiasco?

In 1969, the term ‘hatchback’ had possibly not even been coined. The Austin Maxi launch issue of “Autocar” describes the car as having a “five-door all-purpose body”.

Fifty four years on, the 1965 full-size prototype – cut and shut from an 1800 bodyshell – looks rather fine, although the front-end treatment would have looked dated four years later. It does not even suffer particularly from Issigonis’ packaging-obsessed blight of excessively short noses. Crash safety and engine accessibility demands put paid to that particular fixation. Goble and Boubier’s expedient solution which resulted in a rear hatch rather than an 1100-style boot seems to have been accepted without controversy, although there is a puzzle over the timeline.

Image: Haynes

That previously mentioned edition of Autocar makes the comment “Incidentally, a sensible rationalisation which would be hard to spot is that the Maxi uses 1800 door panels”. Oh really? Like nobody saw fit to comment on the fully grown elephant in the middle of the room?  Did the obvious carry-over compromise the visual appeal of the mid-sized newcomer?

It’s a credit to Goble and Boubier’s work on the 1965 prototype that it looks less “all doors” than the 11 inch longer 1800, but the assimilation is still manifestly evident.

The brief to fit ADO14’s dimensions between the 1100 and 1800 was, in part, met successfully.

Length:  (ADO16 / ADO14 / ADO17)  146.75” / 158.0” /  166.75”.
Width:  (ADO16 / ADO14 / ADO17)   60.5” / 64.0” / 66.75”
Wheelbase:  (ADO16 / ADO14 / ADO17)  93.5” / 104.0” / 106.0”

It was all going so well until the wheelbase – only 50mm shorter than the 1800. These doors are to blame, stretching the passenger compartment at the expense of the luggage compartment. A long wheelbase is beneficial to ride, handling and interior space, but adds cost and compromises manoeuvrability. The worst detriment for the Maxi was a woefully small 10 cubic foot boot. It was a characteristic solecism of Issigonis, who was never a family man, and damaged the Maxi’s semi-estate and “multi-purpose” credentials.

Image: Haynes

Farina were brought in to refine ADO14’s styling, producing this late 1967 mock-up, which was destined to be a futile digression. The narrow track suggests it possibly sat on 1100 subframes, and there is a “Hofmeister kink” in the sixth lights which does little other than impair rear visibility. The frontal treatment is more distinctive than the Roy Haynes design which reached production, but then it is hard to imagine anything blander and more anonymous in this area than the 1969 Maxi.

There is some historical intrigue in the Pininfarina Maxi’s similarity to the contemporary Volkswagen 411, another of the studio’s less proud efforts. The sixth light kink is there, as is the peak of the nose. Even the doors of the Volkswagen could almost have been borrowed from the BMC 1800.

Image: auta5p.eu

The posterior view of the Pininfarina buck shows a flat rear screen, and an awkward humped bootlid.

Image: Aronline

And therein lies in a mystery. New facts emerge suggesting that the hatch was a later addition than conventional wisdom suggested. Was part of Pininfarina’s brief to make the Maxi work as a two-volume four door? The prize in this approach was that the torsional rigidity required under The Issigonis Charter would be easier and cheaper to achieve.

If the hatch really was a late addition, the adaptable interior would also have been. It appears partly to be an excuse to conceal the inadequate boot – the Maxi interior only works effectively as a total volume.

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It is hard to imagine the challenge set in 1965 by the Renault 16 went unnoticed. The Renault doesn’t offer a double bed, but who needs that when you have a “rally resting” position?

There was also a saloon Maxi, which even appeared in some of the testing photographs. The conventional wisdom is that the four door would have been sold with the Morris badge, thereby being exclusive to the Nuffield dealer network, who possibly rebelled as the Maxi’s weaknesses became widely known in the scuttlebutt of Austin-Morris.

The saloon bodywork was fully tooled, and had a sign-off date of 15 February 1969, ten weeks before the hatchback went on sale. By this time work was underway on ADO28, the conventional mid-size car which would become the Marina, and BLMC in their wisdom decided that there was no room for front and rear wheel drive cars in the same size and price class.

The sedan is an unlovely thing, but in the two years of waiting for the Marina it could have added much-needed diversity to the Maxi “take it or leave it” non-range.

Finally, a couple of Maxi myths put to rest.

The Maxi’s torsional strength was half that of the 1800. The figure is difficult to track down, but it’s thought to be just a bit more than half the larger car’s industry leading 13,300 lb-ft / degree.  In context, that’s still far more than comparable rivals, for example the Pressed Steel engineered Hillman Hunter’s bodyshell has a torsional strength of 4,650 lb-ft / degree.

The Maxi shell did very well, despite having a gaping hole in the back of the structural ‘box’, and no rear bulkhead. The works rallying Maxis had the tailgate split with the window frame welded in solid, and bracing to the rear compartment to restore torsional rigidity to 1800 figures.

It’s said that the Maxi was grossly overweight. It wasn’t. The kerb weight quoted in 1969 is 2187 lb. (988 kg).  The similarly sized Renault 16 weighs 2161lb. The Maxi is heavy compared with the outgoing Cortina Mark 2, at 1904lbs but Ford went out of their way to make that one as light as possible, the similar-sized, aforementioned Hunter weighs 2036 lb. Lastly, the 1971 1.8 litre Marina saloon weighs only 60 lbs less than the Maxi, has no rear hatch, and far less passenger space.

Through the 1960s Fiat’s depth of engineering talent was admired worldwide and the company’s R&D budget relative to turnover was amongst the highest in the automotive industry, yet they were at heart a conservative business.

Fiat 123 E1 Image 40YODWF (Automobilia)

In the first half of the decade Dante Giacosa was caught up in the whirlwind of early ‘60s free thinking, working on Project 123, which was not so much a defined car as a series of studies with various front engine/front wheel drive and rear engine/rear drive configurations based around a 1157cc three cylinder opposed-valve ohc engine with air cooled cylinder barrels and an air-cooled cylinder head. Nothing acceptable for production emerged directly from Project 123, although the Autobianchi Primula was a by-product.

In parallel with Project 123, Oscar Montabone’s team was given the task of designing a conventional car which was light and cheap to build, and scheduled for production in early 1966. He was allowed a clean sheet, with Aurelio Lampredi on engine duties.

Fiat 124 Image: Fiat SpA

The utterly conventional 124, with staid and functional styling was the outcome, and a great commercial success.  The well-received 125 followed 1967, so close in its visual presentation that it shared the smaller car’s doors.  A sensible rationalisation which would be hard to spot?

Fiat 125 Image: Fiat SpA

Fiat management directed that their first front wheel drive passenger vehicle should not deviate from the established house style. Dante Giacosa might have preferred that it carried forward some of the character of the 123 E1 prototype from mid-1963, a 2½ volume hatchback with the three cylinder engine longitudinally mounted ahead of the front axle line, driving the front wheels.

At Giacosa’s instruction to Centro Stile, the 128 styling proposal presented to Fiat’s top management had a tail treatment capable of accommodating an estate car type tailgate or a conventional bootlid.

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Dante Giacosa and Paolo Boano wanted the 128 to be a hatchback, but all-powerful Fiat Vice-President Guadenzio Bono (he of the “Solomonic wisdom”) insisted on a conventional saloon, with an estate car “Familiare” to follow. Without argument, Boano, was sent off to rework the 128’s tail end into the most conventional and functional boot imaginable, extending the beltline rearwards so far that the leading edge of the bootlid oversailed the rear bumper.

Giacosa still bore resentment many years later, writing in “Forty Years of Design with Fiat”“ in 1979 that: “The original forward-looking design was gradually discarded in favour of something more traditional, subordinate to the style in vogue at the time.”

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To Boano’s credit, the final design had poise and pleasing proportions, and fitted well with the house style established with the 124 and 125. The prototype’s rectangular headlights and large tail lights were discarded on cost grounds.  Guadenzio Bono’s edict ensured that the 128 had decent luggage space – 13 cubic feet, three more the than the Maxi with the parcel shelf in place. In those days boot space sold cars, it is unlikely that unconventionally versatile interiors ever did.

Giacosa got his hatch thanks to Prvoslav Rakovic, general manager of the Zastava factory in Kragujevac, who insisted that the Yugoslavian 128 should be a “break”.

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The design work on the Zastava was carried out in Turin, but Italy never made its own version of the hatchback 128.

Image: Fiat SpA

To the credit of Centro Stile the styling of the definitive 128 saloon never offended, although it hardly excited.

In the words of LJK Setright: “The remarkable thing was that the little car did not look remarkable: its virtues were matters of engineering not mere styling.”

Which is where our journey takes us next.

Reference sources:
See Part one – here

13 thoughts on “128 vs Maxi Part 2 : Function over Form”

  1. Good morning, Robertas. Interesting additional background information on both the Maxi and 128, thank you.

    Looking at the photo of the 1965 Maxi prototype above, does it appear to have a hatchback? If so, was the Pininfarina prototype intended as a complementary model, or did BMC have late doubts about the hatchback format?

    Is it too simplistic to suggest that the Maxi’s small boot capacity might have been mitigated by simply moving the rear seat forwards? The car had exceptional legroom, so a modest reduction would have been acceptable. Even better would have been an adjustable (and split) rear seat, such as is available on some more recent cars.

    1. Daniel – the Renault’s veritable Kama Sutra of seating combinations includes a moveable rear seat; we should wonder why the Maxi’s designers chose not to emulate this feature.

      The bootspace deficiency, and the appearance of the car could have been improved by another 6″ of rear overhang, but that would have brought it too close to the 1800. Of course the 1800 was simply too short, owing to Greek Al’s packaging and wheel-at-each-corner fixations.. If the rest of the world had got the Australian Tasman / Kimberley, all would have been more logical.

  2. On page 90 of Jeff Daniels British Leyland: The Truth about the Cars, there is a “clean-sheet” Maxi sketch without the 1800’s doors. In better circumstances it is easy to see the Maxi being a more attractive car with a shorter wheelbase being light enough to feature 1300-2000cc 4-cylinder engines.

    While there was the 4/6-cylinder RWD Renault Project 114 precursor to the Renault 16, seem to recall a 4-door three-box saloon bodystyle being considered for the latter.

    It is a shame the Fiat 128 never received a 1500-1600cc version of the 128 SOHC engine, though an OHC version of the 124 Series engine could have sufficed up to 1585cc form which combined with developments from the 70 hp 1049cc version used in the 127 Sport would have allowed a 1585cc engined 128 to put out about 104 hp. The Seat 128 was powered by 1197-1438cc OHV versions of the Fiat 124 Series engines, so a Fiat version with OHC does seem feasible.

    While it can be argued about whether the 128 needed a hatchback based on the sales it managed to achieve as a 2/4-door saloon or not as well as if such a variant would have negatively overlapped with the 127, it can be said that such a bodystyle would have certainly not adversely affected the 128’s success (particularly in markets that were well-disposed towards the hatchback layout).

    Was also under the impression the Fiat 123 E1 prototype utilized a 1197cc Fiat 124 Series engine and later formed the basis of both the Autobianchi Primula and A111.

    Given the front-engined FWD layout was an alternate choice for Dante Giacosa during the development of the Fiat 600, one wonders how things would have unfolded had Autobianchi been used earlier to spawn FWD versions of the 600, 500 and 850 instead of being completely discarded in favour of the rear-engined RWD layout until the appearance of the Primula, A111, A112, 127 and 128 (via his work on 123 E1).

    1. Bob -blame Italian and French tax regimes which penalised larger capacity engines disproportionately.

      Things seem to have relaxed by the time the Ritmo arrived – it got a 1.5 litre 128 engine and some 124 family ones too. The 128 engine reached 1839cc in later production, so the stretch room was available.

    2. The 128’s engine size fitted perfectly into its market segment where cars like Peugeot 204 or Simca 1100 had engines of roughly the same capacity. The Fulvia also started with an engine of about that size.
      In Sixties’ Italy a 1,300cc engine was considered quite big and 1,100cc were plenty enough for most needs – Italian drivers compensated for the lack of engine size by driving flat out.

    3. Am thinking in terms of other less restrictive markets as well as the rise of the Hot Hatch via the mk1 Volkswagen Golf 1.6 GTi, Fiat could have tapped into the segment much earlier with a similar-displacement Autobianchi Primula or hatchback version of the Fiat 128. In retrospect it makes sense with the 128 being a 1100-1500/1600cc class car, with the Ritmo being a 1100-2000cc class car in line with their rivals.

    4. Hi Bob. Thank you for reminding me that I really should get hold of a copy of Jeff Daniels’ book on BL. Last time I looked, second-hand copies were hugely expensive on Amazon Marketplace, but I’ve just bought one for £45 and there’s another copy at the same price from a different seller, if anyone’s interested.

      Best of all, my copy was being sold by a hospice charity shop. I guess it must have been donated and the volunteers were sharp enough to check its value. Good for them!

  3. Imagine the UK Treasury “designing” cars in that way — with the unintended consequences for what got made and sold (some good, some bad).

    Now, can you put a 1961 Fulvia Berlina against those 124s, and say where Fiat’s ideas came from?

  4. I just wanted to say how much I like the Landcrab-befronted prototype.

    In the same way the ‘Clubman’ Minis lost a lot of personality compared to the original, the final ‘clubman’ fronted launch Maxi looks so much less elegant than the prototype. Maybe it’s because it’s also in black rather than peanut-butter brown or Lemon yellow, but it looks so nice sat there with it’s pronounced headlamp trim and back-down LWB stance. Almost in the realms of a Citröen DS. It could almost be another car from retro-modernist movie ‘Gattaca’.

    Okay maybe not quite a DS but distance of time is a real eye-opener, and right now I’m imagining buying a clapped out Maxi and a barn-find landcrab shell and a welder, such is the aplomb with which it pulls off its look.

    1. An 1800 bonnet and front wings, and the skills of a good panel beater would sort you out, along with various autojumble trim parts. I look forward to seeing it on the Maxi Owners Club stand at the NEC. They seem a nice bunch, and I don’t think any of them would be aghast at the notion.

  5. A very interesting series of articles and genuinely new information, too – thank you. I hadn’t realised that the saloon had got that far. The tooling would have been expensive, so it was quite a big decision to ditch it.

    Here’s the Maxi’s launch video:

  6. But for your cut-and-shut, which engine would you have? I liked the Maxi’s 1750, as the old B series was well past its use-by date, although many tuning bits are still available via the MG owners club (A lightened flywheel is not your friend for everyday use.).

    Back to the 124.
    The 1963 Fulvia berlina was a 1091cc, ’64 1231cc, ’68GTE 1298cc, to’72, which gave it 100mph. There was a 1216cc too.
    Those little V4s are still some of the smoothest you can drive, all the way up to 6k revs, although 0-100kph would take you 15.6 secs.

    But I remember a 124 Special T, which, being a 1970s car, would have been altogether faster, if never so lovely to drive.

  7. I like those saloons with a conventional-looking boot but that opens like a hatch, as in the prototype on the top slide. In the same vein as the Citroen C5 I and Seat’s Toledo. Iam not sure about their practicality however, especially this prototype which left an awkward opening. Notice it had a “Bubble” rear screen too that went up with the hatch.

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