A Question of Scale

Some things simply don’t enlarge well. 

(c) autoclassiques

Success can often be a less clarifying state than failure. Enzo Ferrari famously asserted that he learned more from the fabled Scuderia’s many reversals on the racetrack than its more celebrated victories. Of course, one would never intentionally look to dear old Enzo as any kind of managerial sage, but we can perhaps all coalesce around the idea that he was no fool. Nobody who ascends to the top seat of any large carmaking concern is – which is not to suggest that some were more capable than others.

It’s therefore safe to contend that by the mid-sixties neither the senior management of either the British Motor Corporation nor Volkswagen AG were entirely fit for purpose. Both fell victim to dogmatic orthodoxies which had served them well in certain applications, but were not, as they would find to their cost, all-encompassing.

In 1968, Volkswagen introduced the 411, the largest car to bear the VW roundel at that point. It was not a success – commercially or creatively. A year later, BMC announced the Maxi, a similarly oriented mid-market offering. It too was a commercial and creative failure. On the surface of things, the cars couldn’t have been more different, yet the similarities are not only compelling, but surprisingly numerous. You doubt this? Let us examine the ways.

Image: Robertas Parazitas

Conceived to enter broadly similar sections of the market, both 411 and Maxi were five-seater mid-range ‘family saloons’. The Austin was originally conceived as a smaller car, but owing to matters charitably filed under ‘project drift’, not to mention, those doors, it ended up within a hair’s breadth of the larger (ADO17) Austin 1800, which some might have considered as being more the VW’s natural equivalent.

Both cars debuted with power units designed specifically for the application. In the Maxi’s case, its transversely mounted inline E-Series engine of 1485 cc (in launch spec) forming a powertrain family which would ultimately underpin several model lines – going some way to amortising its creation. Volkswagen’s new 1679cc horizontally opposed, air-cooled engine family would also see use in VW’s long-running Transporter/Microbus range (and in the VW/Porsche 914), which in turn probably helped make the numbers add up.

Both cars were based upon long-running engineering orthodoxies – utilising the principles applied to smaller, more successful cars, scaled up, yet in both cases, this was (albeit for differing reasons), an inappropriate choice. In the case of the Austin, the car was, thanks to the dogmatism of BMC’s technical director, essentially an upscaled Mini, with all the positives and drawbacks that would entail – as indeed was every front-wheel drive model BMC developed throughout the 1960s.

Similarly, the VW appears more like an enlarged version of the 1961 Type 3 model; itself a derivation of the Beetle, one which despite sales of over 2.5 million worldwide, was not the commercial success Volkswagen’s management had hoped for. Created during the mid-60s, the 411 was underpinned by a belief that VW customers would reject any Wolfsburg offering which deviated from the rear-engine, air-cooled engineering template which the carmaker had built its reputation, despite the clear evidence of the (entirely different) direction rival European carmakers were taking.

A fundamentally mistaken technical course was not the issue at Longbridge. Quite the contrary in fact, the British carmaker being at the vanguard of the switch to transverse front-wheel drive layouts. In principle then, the Austin was cutting edge, but only in principle. By the time the Maxi programme was in train (around 1966) it has to have been apparent to BMC CEO, Sir George Harriman that the larger 1800 saloon was falling well short of sales expectations, a factor of its size, positioning and its unorthodox and to many eyes, ungainly appearance. Yet despite this, the project team, lead by technical director, Sir Alec Issigonis was given leave to replicate most of the larger car’s drawbacks, with a few added ones for good measure.

The cars’ relative dimensions tell their own story. In overall length, the Maxi was 4013mm, the VW 4553mm – the difference most likely being forward of the 411’s front axle line. The cars were closer in width, the Austin being 1626mm wide, while the Volkswagen again stretched the envelope at 1675mm. When it came to the all-important wheelbase however, the Maxi had the Vee-dub licked, at 2661mm, against Wolfsburg’s 2500mm – a direct consequence of ‘those doors‘.

We cannot attribute the source of this image.

Neither car was anything approaching stylish. Indeed, a cogent argument could be made to suggest that both cars were styled in defiance of contemporary trends. Both in their individual ways were engineers’ cars insofar as matters of aesthetics were deemed subservient to the technical package. Curiously, both benefited from the input of Pininfarina, who was drafted in to sprinkle some fairy dust. However, the Italians were hamstrung by the limitations imposed upon them, since both car’s design hard points were imposed upon them. And while both exude their own somewhat jolie laide appeal, neither can be described as even approaching conventional nostrums of aesthetics with an entirely straight face.

Faced with products which were actively repelling customers, both were subject to frantic revision. After less than a year on the market, the 411 gained revised nose styling, and fuel injection, to facilitate its entry into the US market; allegedly not in the original plan, but driven by its failure to gain traction in its home market. It was further revised in 1972 entailing not only an entirely revised nose section, but a larger 1.8 litre engine and a name-change.

The Maxi was even more embattled. It was essentially relaunched in 1970 with a redesigned gear linkage, a new dashboard, a larger, more powerful 1750cc engine and fresh hope for a reversal of fortune. That done, the car was largely ignored for the remainder of its relatively lengthy career, selling modestly, but consistently until it was finally retired in 1981, with a total of 450,297 built over twelve years.

The VW Type 4 lasted half that time – a mayfly lifespan by VW standards, amassing sales of 367,728. Volkswagen have had their share of loss-leaders, especially under the Piëch era, but if this was to have been a vanity project, it was a very strange one indeed. Either way, it can be stated without ambiguity, that both proved costly and embarrassing failures.

Image: author’s collection

Yet the Maxi held tremendous promise – unfulfilled – largely due to the car’s careless scoping, woeful execution, and subsequent neglect. Conceptually speaking, the 411 seemed almost perverse by late ’60s standards – akin to a more compact, latter-day Tatra, and with no disrespect to the respected Czech carmaker who had little choice but to cleave to a hopelessly outdated concept, Volkswagen (and by inference, Nordhoff) by then really ought to have known better. So while one was quite the wrong idea, competently executed, the other was the correct one, entirely botched.

Having achieved the seemingly impossible with the Mini, Sir Alec Issigonis became hopelessly fixated upon replicating it in every possible size and permutation. While over in Germany, Heinz Heinrich Nordhoff became implacably convinced that a super-sized Beetle was what the market was awaiting. Neither party was prepared to see beyond the narrow prism of their respective orthodoxies, and the results very much speak for themselves.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

20 thoughts on “A Question of Scale”

  1. Thank you for this fine article.
    I’d ever seen these cars as being comparable but I like the conclusion that one is the wrong idea, competently executed and the other one is the right idea, completely botched.
    The former is found quite often in German cars up to the mid Seventies – think air cooled VWs and Porsches or swing axle Benzes.

  2. Good morning Eóin. I would never have thought to compare these two cars, but your arguments are compelling and your conclusion is spot-on. Of the two, the Maxi is by far the more tragic: if BMC had stuck to its original brief for a 100″ wheelbase, which was scuppered by Harriman’s extraordinary decision to utilise those wretched doors , it could have been in the mainstream of a new generation of family cars instead of an odd outlier. In contrast, the Type 4 was simply a competent execution of an outdated concept.

    1. The Maxi was a brilliant idea taken a step too far by the engineers and then ruined by the bean counters.
      The Type 4 was a non-idea executed by I don’t know whom. If engineers were responsible for it they were sort sighted and phantasy-less, if it were the bean counters they were counting the wrong beans with their mis interpretation of the market and resulting exaggerated sales predictions.
      The Maxi tragically missed the point of being an answer to a question everybody asked a few years later and the Type 4 was an answer to a question nobody ever asked.

    2. Well, it’s kind of you (and Dave) to say so, Daniel, but you may have had more than a little to do with it as well. While I’m at it, might I also commend Robertas for the initial germ of an idea?

  3. It has previously been said elsewhere a properly-developed Maxi extending even to the engine, gearbox, wheelbase and styling would have butterflied away the need to develop the Allegro (though could have still seen a role for something like ADO22 had it appeared around the same time).

    As for the Type 4 cannot really see a way Volkswagen could have broken free from its orthodoxy earlier on without the presence of Auto Union and NSU, sure they did develop the EA48 that could have in turn evolved into a family of FWD Boxer powered EA276 type cars with influences from Lloyd / Borgward (via Arabella, Hansa), Subaru and Lancia though obviously got cold feet about the idea as well as leaving open the question of how the company could have expanded upmarket with a FWD layout for a EA128 and Karmann Ghia/SP2 type car.

    Volkswagen did look at a Flat-6 version of the Type 4 engine during the development of the 914 project (followed by a Flat-6 Wasserboxer) though whether due to its financial problems or wanting to reduce ties or influences from Porsche it never happened, yet apart from the EA128 cannot really see them really needing a 6-cylinder engine as opposed to a 1.7-2.4 Type-4 engine.

    Otherwise unsure how the Type 4’s styling could have been improved (either by Pininfarina, Marcio Piancastelli or another styling house) had Volkswagen been given the opportunity to salvage the design during its development as opposed to being scrapped.

    1. Fitting six cylinder boxers of the Zuffenhausen variety into anything air cooled from Wolfsburg was a popular pastime.
      Results went from Artz’ Käfer Carrera to Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung who had about a dozen 911-engined VW transporters next to their sizeable fleet of Tissier six wheeled CXs to get their newspaper to European readers overnight.
      VW at least initially saw a market for a flat six Type 2 T3 until the project became too expensive and was dumped on Oettinger who finished its development and sold it as 3.2 or 3.6 WBX.

    2. Interesting, thanks for the link.

      Know Volkswagen did contemplate fitting larger engines to the Type 4.

      Given its size and as with the 1800, SD1 and Gamma, a case could be made as to whether it really needed to be a fastback.

      With the right styling could the Type 4 have been salvaged to some extent had it featured a notchback body style and 2-litre flat-6 from the outset (as considered in EA128 and used in the 914/6) putting out roughly 90-120 hp?

    3. Do you know how expensive to make a 901/911 type engine is with all that manual work involved? This is not suitable for mass consumption if it can be produced in the intended numbers at all.

    4. Either no one told Volkswagen that or they dismissed it entirely while developing the EA128 nor when considering the engine as a possible option for a sportier Type 4, unless the 901/911 type engines used were temporary placeholders for something else or contemplated for very limited production runs.

    1. Good morning, Clive, and thanks for dropping by. It’s a good question: the size of the doors from the 1800 forced the wheelbase back up to almost 105″, only an inch shorter than the 1800, which was already failing in the market because of its excessive size and dowdy looks. The originally planned 100″ wheelbase would have placed the Maxi equidistant from the 1100 and 1800.

  4. A couple of 411-related films. First, an ad from the US.

    Secondly, a film showing the Volkswagen Group range for 1971 (VW 1302 S, VW Variant 1600, VW 411, VW K70, VW-Porsche 914, Audi 100, NSU Ro80).

    1. Don’t forget that only shortly before this film forty-three percent of all cars on German roads were VW Beetles. Going from there to bankruptcy is something only VW could do (and repeat).

  5. I’ll briefly note that front wheel drive and the air-cooled flat four were not mutually exclusive at Volkswagen, as demonstrated by the c.1976 EA489 Basistransporter, and early examples of the 1980 Brazilian BX platform Gol.

  6. Was there a sudden shortage of stadium-shaped headlamps around 1968-9, or were they just such a turn-off that VW and Austin dropped them almost immediately in favour of twinned circular lamps, which still carried some premium cachet at the time?

    The wall-eyed ADO61 never reached official production, but featured on a large pre-production batch handed out to good customers for evaluation, and some of these cars survive.

    1. Call me perverse Robertas (not for the first time), but I prefer the oblong headlamp treatment to the production arrangement on ADO61. It was at least a nod to modernity.

    2. The ‘stadium’ (a good descriptor, thanks Robertas) headlamps on the ADO61 didn’t fit the apertures properly because they were virtually rectangular. Figuratively speaking, they were a square peg in a round hole. At least the Type 4 and 204’s items fitted properly. Were the ADO61 items custom made for the car? If so, then they were a pretty odd design.

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