Every Day Is Judgement Day.

Continuing our meditation on the Austin Maxi and Fiat 128, some thoughts prompted by encounters with two survivors.

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The two cars pictured were photographed in the last 12 months. As well as being impressively original and looking as if they work for a living, they’re also examples of the last of their breeds.

The Maxi is one of the final ‘Maxi 2’ iteration, introduced to a largely indifferent world in August 1980, just 11 months from the end of production. The bright colour – ‘Snapdragon’ in BL parlance – suits it well. Far too many Maxis were specified in Russet Brown, Damask Red, or hearing-aid beige (formally known as “Champagne”), 1950s colours two decades on, in a time when BLMC’s Austin Morris colour pallet suddenly became positively vibrant. Tellingly, the archetypal Maxi customer avoided Bronze Yellow, Limeflower, or Blaze Red.

Reinforcing the notion of the Maxi as BLMC’s forgotten car, not much had changed since the October 1970 “A good idea made better” revisions which brought the rod-operated gearchange and the 1748cc engine option.

Image: BLMC

There was no ‘Mark 2’ or similar signifier at that time, just the addition of engine capacity numbers. Perhaps BLMC just pretended that the first 40,000 or so Maxis had never existed.

Hydragas displacers replaced the Hydrolastic type in 1978, and the 1485cc engine option was discontinued in December 1979. In the home market at least, few chose it anyway. In September 1979 the extra 263cc came at a modest £178 premium over the base 1500’s £3939 list price.

‘Maxi 2’ brought hefty new bumpers, plastic wheelcovers borrowed from the Allegro, and a substantial increase in equipment levels. Bereft of the new mid-range cars they desperately needed, BL had embarked on a “value offensive” to maintain interest in their aged product line-up.

Photo BL Cars

The modest changes allowed the Maxi to exit the stage with decorum – it was not subjected to the indignity of full Ital-ification. The upgrade did little to resuscitate sales. There was a modest dead-car bounce in its final seven-months of production in 1981 with 12,435 sold, compared with 15,778 in the previous year. The numbers are a small fraction of the Maxi pinnacle of 70,846 in registration year 1972/73.

Photo: R Parazitas

The 128 pictured has the October 1976 facelift, but could be far newer. A sub-clause in The Fiat Charter, now rarely invoked, states that cars nominally superseded can remain in production for many more years, usually just for home-market consumption. It happened with the first-generation Panda, the Seicento, and long before with the 128 which, until early 1985, filled the gap between the 127 and the 1978 Ritmo.

Disastrous or merely inept facelifts are at the heart of The Fiat Charter, but I don’t mind this one at all. The bigger bumpers, incorporating the indicators at the front, anticipate the Maxi 2’s makeover for the next decade. The 128 Special’s rectangular headlamps are adopted across the range, but in a new grille which could hardly be plainer. The big blocky tail-lights look rational and contemporary, with a pleasing chamfer.

The two door 128 really did miss out on reversing lights. Mean times… Image: Fiat SpA

It’s my guess that the plastic dustbin-lid wheeltrims on the Pisa-registered 128 are from a later Fiat; the 1976 facelift had minimal black moulded covers to conceal the wheelnuts and hub centre grease cap.

As the 128 was set to become one of Fiat’s ‘value range’ offerings, it was spared the swathes of functionless applied plastic which were soon to blight its rivals from Pomigliano D’Arco, Rennes, and even Longbridge.

The interior, biodegrading gracefully in the red Pisa-registered example, is another matter.

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The 1969 128 had an instrument panel in the ‘60s Italian tradition, with two large dials in a nacelle.  The circular gauges were not quite saucer-sized, and only 128 Rally drivers got a rev counter, but the intent was enough for the ordinary 128 owner to live out their Fulvia HF or Giulia Sprint GT fantasies, should they so choose. The 1978 rework is truly horrible, cheap and grim, without even the saving grace of improved ergonomics or a decent ashtray.

24 thoughts on “Every Day Is Judgement Day.”

  1. I well remember the introduction of the facelifted 128 in 1976. While it was ostensibly modernised, the overriding impression was of a formerly pleasant car cheapened, with dull grey* plastics, partly covered in silver paint, in place of brightwork. As Robertas observed, the new dashboard was horrible, with scratchy hard plastics that creaked and groaned as one drove along.

    One odd addition on the four-door model only was a superfluous piece of plastic trim at the base of the C-pillar, styled to look like a vent. It was the sort of thing one might expect to find covering an untidy joint, but the 128 was perfectly neat here. Another Fiat innovation was translucent, colour-matched plastic Phillips-head screws used to secure the tail and side/ indicator lamp lenses. A neat idea, but the screws were prone to crack when over tightened by a heavy-handed mechanic changing a blown bulb, then often replaced with a regular steel screw, which quickly went rusty.

    *At least, they quickly faded to this colour.

  2. Apart from the fresh colours, there really wasn’t much new about the Maxi2. It did, however, receive the steering wheel from the Metro. This is noteworthy only because it was unclear as to which way up it should be installed and was occasionally reinstalled upside down after maintenance work. Here it is, the right way up:

    And upside-down (Note the orientation of the Austin-Rover logo.):

    I’ll get my anorak…

  3. Bizarrely, someone on EBay is offering the naff plastic cappings for the 128 facelift model’s C-pillars, yours…at £180 for the pair!

  4. Snapdragons, hearing aids, fluctuating figures and upside-down steering wheels. Just four little reasons for enjoying DTW whilst on a superfast afternoon work-break.

  5. Have feet got bigger over the years? Or were drivers more accurate? Something I’ve noticed from photos like the above is how tiny the pedals are in old cars!

  6. Hi John. I have no idea about whether or not average feet sizes have changed over the past few decades. All I can remember is that, back in the 70’s, car testers obsessed about the relative position (height) of the pedals, because this apparently relates to the ease or otherwise of being able to “heel and toe”. This sounds like a Latin dance movement to me, but apparently relates to maintaining momentum while changing gears. This all sounds like a bit of a faff to me…

    1. Hi Daniel. Something else I’ve observed since becoming a driver and paying more attention to these things is that VAG cars all have floor-hinged accelerators. Often pretty big ones, almost bus or coach-like. Perhaps for the heavy-footed Germans on the autobahn?

    2. Perhaps it’s a legacy from the original Beetle, where all of the pedals were floor hinged? I learned to drive on a Beetle and recently drove my sister’s restored 1970’s model. The action seemed really rather peculiar, but I (re)acclimatised to it fairly quickly.

    3. Many driver-focused cars had floor hinged pedals. Air cooled 911s, early Alfa Giulia (changed to hanging pedals around 1969 together with the introduction of twin circuit brakes), BMW 02 and derivatives.

      Heel and toe is very useful when driving a car with recalcitrant syncromesh like Giulias or 02s where double declutching and a blip of throttle makes inserting second gear on a downshift much easier.
      In today’s cars with valium throttle response this is not possible and heel and toe is a lost art.
      I’m convinced that the average feet have grown over the last forty years or so. When I started to need size ten/eleven shoes as a teenager it was very difficult to find shoes of that size. Today that’s the standard size on offer everywhere and for everything. As a result cars with pedals like the Alfasud (always press the clutch first and brake second because with a shoe on the brake there’s no way get at the clutch pedal afterwards) are gone.

  7. The late LJKS enthused about floor hinged pedals because the pivot point was as close as possible to the natural pivot of the ankle.
    By contrast top pivot design would seem to require some slippage where shoe sole meets the pedal.
    Can’t say I’ve found it makes much difference but as usual with LJKS the theory seems right.

    Thank you for an enjoyable set of articles – Maxis bring back memories, as do the 128…

  8. ah, Daniel, the faffing of heeling and toeing was always
    part of the fun for me. it eased transmission loads and
    sounded racy. over 50 years of such boy racering ended for me
    a year ago when we bought our 2012 Civic Hatch. lovely gear
    change but pedal set up and throttle response, not to mention
    exhaust quietude, introduced yet another diminishment to ageing.

  9. Good morning, Lorender. Although I have never in my life preformed a “heel and toe” gearchange (to my knowledge!) I do appreciate that it is a useful technique, and was being a bit mischievous and provocative in my post above. It is a tribute to the good manners of the DTW readership that nobody called me an idiot, or worse!

    Because my partner learned to drive in the US and, consequently, has an “automatic only” licence, our vehicles have largely been automatic over the past thirty years. My only experience of manual transmission is with hire cars in Europe, when the first ten minutes or so are slightly comedic as I reacquaint myself with the dark art of changing gears.

  10. It would be instructive if the Fiat Charter could be translated from Torinese to English. I am fascinated by Robertas´ continued allusions to the document.
    The “revised” interior of the Fiat displays the same problems of Alfa Romeo and possibly Lancia at the same time, a use of an unusually horrid type of black plastic. It´d be lovely to know if this was forced by the cost of other types of material or something else. Looking at the first and second image I see a change from a pleasant and comprehensive IP to something like a tractor or industrial vehicle. There´s a whole lot less material in the later version and you might even think the later one was the original if asked to place them chronologically.

  11. Hi Robertas,

    Looking at the Maxi I thought, like the Allegro, it has some design cues very similar to Peugeot (or vice versa) but I thought there was something Citroën about it too. I think its the Maxi’s stance. It seems to have the same sloping towards the back and rising front that the original DS had. Yes, I just compared the Maxi to the original DS. Also, I think the first Citroen C-Cactus concept had something of the Maxi in its stance and overall proportions.


    1. This one?

      The production C4 Cactus looks very BMC – the sort of car the ADO16 1100/1300 might have become had fortune permitted it a Golf-like evolution.

      The Cactus colours are very close to late ’60s / early ’70s BLMC Austin-Morris shades. I don’t think it’s coincidental, given that Linda Jackson worked for BLMC and its successor companies from 1977 to 2005.

  12. It’s unusual to have the rain gutter coming down the C pillar in the way the 128 had, Iam not sure I like it.

    1. This could be a subtle reference to the 128’s 1100 predecessor:

      The final 1100R (for Rinnovata) didn’t have this feature.

      (Giacosa notes in 40YODWF that the 1100R was originally intended only for production in “Pakistan”, but a decision was taken to sell the new version alongside the 124 in Italy and around 300,000 were produced. There is something not quite right here. I can’t find any evidence of Fiat 1000 production in Pakistan – could Giacosa be thinking of Premier Automobiles Ltd in Bombay?)

    2. Hi NRJ. I was amused by the, er, rather patinated example you chose to illustrate your point about the rain gutters, but I played with it anyway and, I think you’re right, the car does look better without the gutter running down the C-pillar:

      I also corrected the aspect ratio of the photo and tidied up a few other bits. The rain gutter probably forms and conceals a folded joinf between body side and roof, but continuing the gutter to touch the upper corners the rear window would have also worked.

  13. I’m pleased to report that the Fiat 128 was still being assembled here in New Zealand up to 1978 and we thankfully didn’t get the ’76 facelift.

    1. We only got half of it in the US as well. Single square headlights weren’t legal until the 1978 model year so they carried over the series 2 grille unchanged, and there had always been redundant bumper-mount turn signals even before the 5mph rule. IMO combining that with the deletion of the corner turn signals made a frumpier look. Fake vents on the 4-door sedan (the 2-door was spared) and the wagon was discontinued rather than going over to the Panorama model with its’ cheaped-out quarter windows.

  14. Apparently Giannini managed to fit a 1600cc engine in the Fiat 128 to create the Fiat Giannini 128 Rally 1600, not sure what the story was or if the motor was indeed a 1.6 Twin-Cam (or another engine).

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