The Man Who Broke BMC? (Part Two)

We continue our examination of Sir Alec Issigonis’ BMC legacy.

ADO16 Press photo. (c) Autocar

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.

A typical piece of Issigonis non-styling. ADO16 prototype. Image:Curbsideclassic

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.

Hydrolastic suspension: (c) mecaretro

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.

(c) 100auto

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.

(c) classiccarcatalogue

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.

(c) curbsideclassic

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.

Author: Daniel O'Callaghan

Shut-line obsessive...Hates rudeness, loves biscuits.

39 thoughts on “The Man Who Broke BMC? (Part Two)”

  1. Good morning Daniel – well on form as always! You are, obviously, far too young to remember the motoring world into which Mr Issigonis’s designs emerged. It was still a world (I speak only of the UK) wherein most new cars were bought by individuals using their own money. And they were very conservative in their tastes, to the point of deep suspicion of anything remotely innovative. They were also quite parochially patriotic; Birmingham loyalties lay with “The Austin” (pronounced ‘Orstin’), Essex with Fords, etc.
    The buying public were not at all keen to abandon simple, predictable RWD live axles and many of the Ford-owning brigade were still happily trundling around on transverse-leaf springs. Newly-qualified drivers, keen to ‘press on’ soon learnt about opposite lock, usually after disappearing backwards into the scenery. It could be argued that Alec changed all that with the Mini and the young to whom it initially appealed encouraged their parents to try an 1100.
    The 1100 was a revelation to anyone coming from an A40 or Anglia or similar; the ride, the roadholding, the interior space….. But ADO16 had a major design flaw. At a time when elsewhere in the industry attention was engaged in designing crumple zones and passenger cells, the 1100 had a passenger cell which was itself the crumple zone. In an accident they folded up at the B-pillar. Not that it stopped sales and for some considerable time this car was a great success story – until the competitors caught on and did it better.

    1. Good morning JTC, and thank you for your kind words. I’m flattered that you should think me “far too young” (for anything, in fact!) I’m actually younger than the Mini, but older than the 1100. The 1100 always struck me as a nice car (awkward ‘hunchbacked’driving position apart) but my dad, an electrical engineer, hence the “go-to guy” when our neighbours had a technical problem of any sort, disliked them for their (relative) complexity and inaccessibility of the mechanical components. Sadly, I’ve never driven any of Issigonis’ creations.

      Your comment about the crumple zone is disturbing. Was the 11oo significantly worse than its competitors in this regard? I did have the misfortune to be front seat passenger in a Mini when the driver pulled out into the path of a Renault 16. The last thing I remember was the front parcel shelf buckling upward in an inverted ‘V’ shape before I woke up in hospital with a fractured skull, courtesy of the driver’s left elbow making contact with my right temple. I guess side-impact protection wasn’t up to much either!

    2. Hello JTC, here’s some film of various BMC cars being crash tested (at somewhere like the Motor Industry Research Association, or the Road Research Laboratory, I’d guess).

      The footage of ADO16 starts at around 3.28 and shows frontal impacts at 25, 30 and 35 MPH. In those days, cars had to pass the 30 MPH version of the test, by not spearing the driver with the steering column. ADO16 seems to do okay, by the standards of the day, although it looks like the seat belt gives up in the 35 MPH test.

      BMC did quite a lot of safety research, and improved their vehicles over time, so perhaps ADO16 performed badly when it was launched and was strengthened as production progressed. I know that they removed a vertical trim strip from the bonnet, as it had the potential to act as a spear. How the car would have performed after a few years as rust took hold is another matter.

      Here’s some footage of their safety vehicles, including ADO16 modified with pedestrian safety in mind; it looks to be a bit of an amateur effort.

    3. Thanks for sharing those video clips, Charles. Can anyone identify the American car following the crash test cars? It must have had good brakes!

    4. Thanks gooddog. I knew DTW’s expert commentariat would supply the answer!

  2. Daniel – I’m enjoying this series which is both informative and though-provoking.

    Could Issigonis’ hubris about his prowess as a stylist have been inflated by Battista and Sergio Farina’s “don’t change a line” comment on first being shown the Mini prototype?

    The 1100’s acceptability, and resulting huge success, could have been down to the dilution of Issigonis’ influence. The car’s uncharacteristically long nose was intended to accommodate Duncan Stuart’s narrow-arrow angle V4 longitudinally, and the decision to use the Mini’s ‘power pack’ was taken rather late in development, curiously paralleling the development of the Minor, where the intended flat four was dropped in favour of the far simpler pre-war Morris 8 engine.

    Charles Griffin was a very capable engineer, and ADO16 seemed to avoid the early-stage problems which arose with the Mini and 1800.

    On one small point of detail, you seem to have shrunk the Farina A60. The post-1961 dimensions are Length – 174.5″ (4432mm), Wheelbase 100.5″ (2553mm). It doesn’t detract from the point you are making about its intended successor’s odd proportions.

    There wasn’t much consensus in early 60’s Britain about the size of what would now be called a D segment car. The Victor FB matched the BMC cars’ dimensions almost exactly but was lighter, the Cortina was shorter and narrower, and far lighter, but managed to look the part. The Hillman Minx was considerably smaller than the Cortina, but more heavily built. Rootes also offered the larger and more imposing Super Minx, but it was constrained by being based on a dimensionally unaltered Minx platform.

    I can easily forgive the ADO17 its generous width – 3.25″ (82.5mm) wider than the Farina Oxbridge. It was the first post-war Austin that didn’t look four inches too narrow!

    1. Hi Robertas. I think you’re right about the 1100 being more carefully developed than either the Mini or 1800. I imagine Charles Griffin was also more pragmatic and less of a packaging zealot than Issigonis, so was happy to allow Pininfarina more latitude to produce an aesthetically pleasing design, even at the cost of some extra length to get the proportions right. He also, I think, paid more attention to the details.

      Speaking of measurements, thank you for your correction regarding the A60. I wrote down the A50’s measurements in error, but the text above has now been amended. It was really the overly large engine and odd proportions that did for the 1800’s prospects. It was immensely capacious, but people don’t buy cars by the cubic foot or metre, unless they have highly specific needs, where an estate car or van is likely to serve those needs better.

      It’s ironic that BMC never made an estate version of the 1800, which might have made better sense of the proportions. There was a prototype,but it had a sloping rear window which limited practicality somewhat:

      It was canned when they realised how close it was likely to be to the Maxi.

    2. Looking again at that abandoned Maxi-style estate, I wonder if BMC really missed a trick by not offering a proper estate version of ADO 17 with a quite upright tailgate and longer tail? The long wheelbase could easily accommodate a stretch behind the rear wheels and it would have given BMC a proper challenger in the large estate market.

      Here’s a mock-up of what I’m proposing:

      It’s no beauty, but at least it’s better balanced looking than the saloon, I think, and makes sense of the long wheelbase.

    3. If the estate above had been paired with the Tasman (and been given its longer front end) would it have made for a more palatable offering than the six-light, bustle-backed 1800?

    4. I think they are in the different segment.
      The Cortina has 1.2/1.5 ,in the 1.0-1.5 segment
      A60,Viva,Superminx in the 1.5-2.0 segment,Ford has Corsair in this segment
      Cortina rival ADO16 and grown larger with every series ,create the D segment

  3. Lest anyone thinks Duncan Stuart devised a radically new engine configuation, “narrow-arrow” was just a typing stutter, and not a description of a narrow-angle version of the rare three-bank ‘broad-arrow’ configuration.

    Stuart’s V4 and V6 engines were based on Lancia’s thinking with some ideas of his own, like valve operation from a centrally positioned single overhead camshaft, driven by a reinforced rubber toothed belt.

    1. Not wishing to cast aspersions upon Duncan Stuart (or anyone else) but reading the sentence which ended with “valve operation from a centrally positioned single overhead camshaft, driven by a reinforced rubber toothed belt” gave me an involuntary shiver. What could possibly go wrong there – at BMC – in 1961?

    2. When I read that, I was trying to visualise those horizontal(?) pushrods and rockers needed to operate the valves. Would the V4 have had one cylinder head or two? If two, what would have contained the camshaft? BMC dodged a bullet there, I guess.

    3. Chronologically speaking from when the V4/V6 was first conceived under Lord (IIRC in 1956-1958 in a past article) until it was finally cancelled in late-1962 under Harriman, BMC would have been better off taking the time to not only enlarge the A-Series engine earlier on to 1275cc (ideally if more ambitiously even up to 1372cc at most) but also enlarging the B-Series from 1500-1800cc to 2000cc as well as fast tracking some properly-developed short-block 1500-2000cc 4-cylinder S-Series like version of the E-Series (with the clean-sheet design also allowing scope for a Twin-Cam version unlike the B-Series Twin-Cam) for introduction in 1962-1963 at the earliest instead of being hastily conceived in mid-1965 during ADO14 / Maxi for introduction in 1969.

      The above would have been a straightforward and cost-effective approach that would have not only allowed ADO16 (together with early three-box) to better compete with the Cortina as the latter grew to 1500-1600cc in line with market expectations, but also up-gunned the Midget, MGB as well as help salvage ADO17 to some extent in at least remedying the overly-large engine should the latter still evolve along similar lines to real-life (leaving just the odd proportions and other ADO17 flat’s to deal with) .

    4. Here is a drawing of the engine in question, recently posted by Robertas as a comment to the ‘donkey vs. race horse’ Austin Maxi/Fiat 128 comparison.

      What could have gone wrong? Just as Murphy’s law states: what can go wrong, will.
      An engine like this with the associated complexity in its production processes for the narrow angle block from a company that was just able to produce downright primitive would have been a sure call for disaster. Just imagine a tooothed belt sourced from the Prince of Darkness.

  4. Thanks for the crash-test footage Charles – very interesting in light of how such testing has evolved. The problem is that very rarely does an RTC involve a vehicle hitting a solid mass precisely squarely, as in those tests. And when the moving vehicle meets something which isn’t at an angle, the forces are dissipated very differently. In the case of ADO16 the engine mass, spread across most of the width of the vehicle, would often take the A-pillar on the point of impact side back with it while the B-pillar parted company with either the floor or the roof, allowing the C-pillar to attempt to join the A-pillar. I saw rather too many of them.

    ADO17, on the other hand, was a far better performer in real-life crashes. And I actually quite like ‘those’ doors….. I think the whole point of these cars was that they so improved what Small Car/Car magazine, amongst others, at the time were calling ‘primary safety’. They were designed to help the driver to avoid the accident in the first place (‘secondary safety’ being about design features which protected the occupants in the event of one happening) and their handling characteristics were a world away from the wallowing monstrosities which so many contemporary machines were. Now, of course, vehicles seem to be designed on the premise that they will be driven so badly that a crash is inevitable.

    1. Hello JTC – I see what you mean – I’m sure that’s true about ADO16 and offset accidents.

      It doesn’t surprise me that ADO17 was safer – I understand it had a terrifically strong shell.

    2. As I grew up in the ’80s I always wondered why the Maxi’s doors had been used on the dreadful looking 1800….. Of course I have long since learnt the truth and am still learning from your excellent articles, thank you Daniel. But from my mistaken perspective, unencumbered by the baggage of the truth, I was always quite fond of the Maxi and still think it hangs together well. I also think each of its facelifts was sympathetically done.

    3. Hi Adrian. Thank you for your kind words. The poor old Maxi had great potential, but fell foul of BLMC politics, as we shall see in Part Three. In the meantime, here’s a nice example of the Maxi:

      Stay tuned!

  5. Here’s a drawing of the Duncan Stuart V4:

    It actually looks well-resolved, and designed with production considerations in mind.

    However as Eóin and Daniel note, the British automotive industry struggled when implementing even mildly innovative or unusual engine designs in mass production. Refer Jowett Javelin, Hillman Imp, Triumph Slant-4, AEC V8, Leyland 500-Series, Rover PE146/166, K series. I could go on…

  6. Daniel, your ADO17 estate proposal could have been a goer – you just need to slope that C-pillar forward a little and I would certainly have given it a second look in period.

    1. Thanks JTC. I thought the same but was being a bit lazy. My starting point for convenience was actually this:

      A 3-Litre coach-built limousine. I shortened the nose and wheelbase to match the 1800.

  7. I stumbled across this rather wonderful drawing on AROnline of how the ADO 64 Austin 3-Litre might have looked:

    There’s more than a touch of the ‘Grosser’ Mercedes-Benz 600 in it! Seriously, the big difference is, I think, the separate window channels on the door frames, rather than the pressed one-piece skins used on the 1800, Maxi etc. This gives the car a lighter and more elegant look, to my eyes at least.

    Is it my imagination, or does it have a front grille from the Rover 3-Litre?

    1. It’s not your imagination – although it also bears an uncanny resemblance to an AEC. I always thought that the 3-Litre should have had a Wolseley grille; it might then have found a role carrying government minister about….

  8. In my book it was Leonard Lord who broke BMC. On his watch Issigonis replaced Gerald Palmer, and on his watch the new Farina saloons used Austin underpinnings rather than the superior Nuffield underpinnings.

    1. Agreed on Leonard Lord, even the long gestating abortive (as well as heavy yet reputedly potent) V4/V6 engine was his doing and unlike Volkswagen’s VR engines could not be mounted transversely.

      That is not to say the idea wasn’t without merit nor could later be revisited to say help differentiate MG from regular BMC marques at relatively little cost however, since the similar narrow-angle VR (and W) engines were allegedly said to have carried over quite a bit of the EA827/EA113’s architecture to reduce costs and since some like to draw comparisons between the former and the E-Series (later R/S-Series) engines on areas where they share a number of similarities.
      https://blog.heritagepartscentre.com/blog/2017/08/03/vws-v5-v6-engines/

      Given Volkswagen once proposed a V10 created from a pair of Audi 5-cylinder engines to Porsche during the development of the 928, it would be logical to assume the VR engine was unlikely to be a complete clean sheet design.

      As for Gerald Palmer, while he could have definitely made something of the superior Nuffield mechanicals for the late 50s and beyond to challenge conventional opposition at Ford and others if his time at Vauxhall is any indication (as well as help iron out the flaws of the B-Series Twin-Cam). Even he had his blind alley moments such as the idea of developing a compact 900cc 60-degree V4 SV in order to justify the cost of a small FWD car.

  9. Here’s the original vs the revised 1800 rear end:

    An odd change, adding fins and rather dated looking vertical tail lights in place of the neat originals. Were they trying to improve the proportions by making the tail look longer? If so, then they should have been bolder:

    A shame they didn’t lift the boot lid to align with the tops of the rear wings on this Vanden Plas prototype,

  10. No one person ever breaks a company, but it’s usually a failure at the top which has the biggest hand in it. To me, the sense is that Harriman was too weak to manage Issigonis, and then got involved in the minutiae (‘those doors’, for example), giving the sense of a Managing Director who compensated for a lack of senior authority by meddling in stuff best left to others who know better. Issigonis and Moulton were brilliantly innovative engineers, who should have been kept to their brief. Issigonis should also never allowed to forget that he worked for the firm and not that the firm worked around them.

    1. Good morning Bernard. Yes, that would have been an excellent idea. It seems BMC (or Issigonis) just gave upon the 1800 when it initially failed. Instead, they could have productively exploited its best feature, internal space, in estate and van versions.

  11. If no one speaks up for the 1800, I will have to do this…
    I admit that it’s no classical beauty, and some work like on the 1100 with tauter lines and more elaborate details could have made it a much better looking car without changing the main dimensions. But I largely prefer a bold design like this to any conservative, ornate three-box saloon with their ridiculous wheelbases and cramped interiors. Without wanting to offend M. Bertoni, it’s a bit like I prefer the DS to any other saloon of its time. I just love long wheelbases!

    1. I absolutely love the panel van, though I would have preferred less ostentatious rims, and the pre-facelift front end.

    2. Hi Mervyn, yes, it’s rather nice, and appears to be a highly professional conversion. Note the (I think) repurposed ADO 17 Mk1 tail lights mounted vertically – very neat.

  12. Good evening, Daniel. It seems that van was rebuilt from the Australian Ute which would explain both the tail lights and the lower rear panel. It’s done very well though.

    I think you’re right about ADO17 being rather neglected in terms of product development, though I suspect the estate rather than the van would have been the bigger seller. That kind of low van didn’t really catch on much before the 1980s.
    I hadn’t seen that other Vanden Plas prototype before, but clearly the rear end apes the 4-litre R. A range topping VdP would have been sensible but instead they created the pointless Austin 3 litre. That the Wolseley Six was the best selling model in later years perhaps shows the customers understood the car’s market position better than BMC/BL ever did.

    1. Good evening Bernard. Ah, that makes sense about the Ute base. Thank you for the information. I agree that BMC were onto something with the VdP prototype above, whereas the 3-Litre was a white elephant. I wonder if Harriman simply wanted a prestigious car with a BMC badge to swan around in, like his opposite number at Leyland?

    2. Ford has Zodiac,Vauxhall has Viscount,Rootes has Humber Super Snipe,I think is only a convention

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