Continuing our meditation on the Austin Maxi and Fiat 128, some thoughts prompted by encounters with two survivors.
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.
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.
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.
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 A sub-clause in The Fiat Charter, now rarely invoked, states that cars nominally superseded can remain in production for many more years, usually just for home-market consumption.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.
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.
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.