Some things simply don’t enlarge well.
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.
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‘.
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.
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.