We continue our examination of Sir Alec Issigonis’ BMC legacy.
While development of the Mini was progressing at Longbridge, the XC/9002 family car project, now carrying the ADO16 development code, was initiated. Issigonis envisaged ADO16 in very much the same austere style as the Mini, simply larger and with four doors. A prototype Big Mini was built at Longbridge and shipped to Cowley for further development.
Issigonis visited Cowley regularly, but was still a step removed from the detail development work overseen by Charles Griffin, who headed the ADO16 engineering ‘cell’, so he had much less opportunity to impose his will on the design. Notwithstanding Issigonis’ vision for ADO16, BMC Chairman Leonard Lord and his CEO, George Harriman wanted the new car to be rather more distinguished and stylish, so they commissioned Pininfarina to rework the exterior. The Italian carrozzeria produced a neat and pert design around the proportions dictated by Issigonis’ mechanical package.
Issigonis would later grudgingly admit that Pininfarina had done a fine job on a design with which he had struggled, although quite why Issigonis believed he should be attempting this in the first place without any formal training in automotive styling is an indication of just how proprietorial his mindset was towards his (not BMC’s) cars.
ADO16 was launched in 1962 in four-door form as the Morris 1100, with the Austin version following a year later. Like the Mini, it was remarkably spacious for its compact exterior dimensions. The 1100 had Alex Moulton’s Hydrolastic suspension system intended for the Mini but unready when it was launched, so the ride was much improved over its smaller stablemate.
Proportionally, the 1100 was like an enlarged Mini, but the body style was, as Lord and Harriman intended, far more sophisticated, and the 1100 was an immediate success. Such was the demand that there was often a waiting list for deliveries and the 1100/1300 (and its badge-engineered variants) became the best-selling British car throughout the 1960’s.
After the highly successful launch of the 1100, and with Issigonis’ star very much at its zenith, the XC/9001 large family car was next in line, under the development code ADO17. The explicit intention was for this car to directly replace the Farina Austin A60 Cambridge, Morris Oxford and their badge-engineered siblings. What emerged was, however, far removed from this brief.
Leonard Lord retired in 1961 and was succeeded by George Harriman as Chairman and Managing Director of BMC. Under Lord’s management, Issigonis had been constrained somewhat, and to good effect regarding the development of the 1100, but Harriman was a far less forceful and more collegiate personality than Lord. He acquiesced completely to Issigonis, absolutely trusting his judgement regarding the new model.
Once again, Issigonis’ initial concept was for a further enlargement of the Mini design, notwithstanding the lessons that should have been learnt from Pininfarina’s successful involvement with the 1100. This did not translate at all well to a much larger car, its proportions still dictated by the mechanical package. The new model would once again feature the transverse-engined FWD gearbox-in-sump layout. There seemed to be no serious investigation as to whether or not this layout was still optimal for a larger car, and it was certainly much larger.
The A60 Farina RWD saloon had a wheelbase of 100.5” (2,553mm) and overall length of 174.5” (4,432mm). A notionally more space-efficient FWD replacement should not have needed to be any larger, yet Issigonis settled on an exceptionally long wheelbase of 106” (2,692mm) within an overall length of 165” (4,191mm) for the new model. The width was increased by 3.25” (83mm) a consequence of planning to accommodate a (yet to be designed) transverse inline six-cylinder engine.
What caused Issigonis effectively to ignore his brief for ADO17? He was supposedly a great admirer of the Citroën Déesse and may have harboured ambitions to build a British equivalent that would be similarly fêted for its technical innovation. That he was allowed to do so unfettered was a sign of just how ineffectually he was being managed.
BMC again consulted Pininfarina on ADO17’s styling, which had largely been set by Issigonis. Unfortunately, the design’s pre-existing hardpoints and Issigonis’ alleged intransigence placed so many restrictions upon the carrozzeria that the final design remained hugely compromised. In truth, nobody could have worked wonders with those proportions and, in particular, ‘those doors’ which were, allegedly, imposed upon the Italians and deemed inviolate.
While obsessing with Pininfarina over details of the design, Issigonis seemingly neglected to put ADO17 prototypes through a thorough overseas proving regime. No car was tested outside the UK prior to launch and this omission would lead to a host of issues which had to then be resolved at customer’s behest.
Launched in 1964 as the Austin 1800, it was, to say the least, a challenging design. It was enormously capacious inside, if rather spartan and an ergonomic disgrace, but this came at the cost of a most odd appearance that earned it the nickname of the landcrab. The front and rear ends looked too short for the cabin, and the car looked extremely wide, exacerbated by the full-width front grille and slim horizontal rear light clusters, These elements were later addressed in the Mk2 facelift, albeit with counterproductive results at the rear, where new tail fins and vertical rear lights replaced the neat looking originals.
Issigonis stated on the record that it was the favourite of his ADO designs, but the public was not enamoured of the 1800. Because of its unusually long wheelbase and enormous cabin, it was perceived as a much larger car than the Farina saloon it was intended to replace, even though it was actually shorter overall. More importantly, the 1,798cc B-series engine was simply too large: the market had coalesced around 1,500 to 1,600cc engines and most families just did not need so large a cabin. Moreover, they wanted something with rather more style, luxury and dynamic appeal than the austere and curious looking 1800 offered.
It quickly became apparent that BMC had inadvertently created a yawning gap in its range. The pensionable Farina saloon was forced to remain in production until 1971 in a largely futile attempt to fill the breach. Work also began on a proper mid-sized replacement in 1965, when it became clear that the 1800 had resoundingly missed the mark.
The commercial failure of the 1800 was a significant contributor to BMC’s financial difficulties later in the decade. Had it been a success, the carmaker would undoubtedly have been in a stronger financial position to avoid or at least mitigate the acrimonious merger with Leyland, which brought a whole new set of problems and conflicts.
The new mid-sized model, development code ADO14, would enter the market in 1969 as the Maxi. The new car was initially intended to have a wheelbase of 100” (2,540mm) almost exactly halfway between the 93.5” (2,375mm) of the 1100 and 106” (2,692mm) of the 1800. That seemed eminently sensible, but the project was soon derailed by the inexplicable decision to utilise the doors from the 1800, one taken by Harriman himself.
At a stroke, the wheelbase was pushed back out to almost 105” (2,661mm) and the 1800’s awkward proportions were inflicted on the new car, albeit exacerbated by a shorter tail. The Maxi would be the last production car fully overseen by Alec Issigonis before his (semi)retirement in 1971.
The story continues in Part Three.