The story continues: BMC struggles with the failure of the 1800 and Maxi, but Issigonis has moved on.
The Austin Maxi was reluctantly launched by BLMC* in 1969 and was greeted with a similarly lukewarm reception to that given to the 1800. With its five-door layout, it was an eminently practical car, but it lacked any element of desirability and, as launched, was plagued with technical issues. Increasingly desperate, BLMC hurriedly cobbled together a conventional RWD saloon and launched it in 1971 as the Morris Marina. It sold well enough, on the back of conventionally attractive looks and simple, proven (if antiquated) mechanicals, but it was still very much in the shadow of the all-conquering Cortina from arch-rivals, Ford.
Conceptually, there was much to like about the Maxi, but Donald Stokes, now chairman of BLMC, would not sanction any serious remedial work, a disastrous decision for a car that had much potential. For his part, Issigonis appeared indifferent and simply abandoned the Maxi to move on to his next project, the 9X, potentially a replacement for both the Mini and 1100.
Stokes seemed to view the Maxi as a BMC legacy car, and that by improving it, he would be tacitly accepting it. As it was, its shortcomings proved a useful stick with which to beat Issigonis and his former employer. In the aftermath of the merger, Stokes effectively demoted Issigonis, consigning him to a skunkworks role as Special Developments Director, responsible solely for the 9X programme. While this should have suited Issigonis temperamentally, he detested the loss of status and influence and felt the perceived (and probably intended) snub keenly.
BL would go on to endure a torrid decade in the 1970’s, hobbled by poor product design and terrible build quality, ineffectual management and an increasingly restive and militant workforce. Facing bankruptcy, the company was nationalised by the UK Labour government in 1975.
Now largely insulated from the company’s wider difficulties however, Issigonis could focus wholly on his latest brainchild. The 9X was another clean-sheet design, 4″ (100mm) shorter than a Mini but even more commodious, with an all-new modular engine including a transverse 1,300cc in-line six-cylinder engine for the larger five-door version. The 9X was undoubtedly clever, but would have been another hugely expensive programme with its all-new drivetrain; one which would not have aligned with where the market was going, towards larger supermini cars like the Fiat 127 and Renault 5. Was Issigonis either too arrogant or too self-absorbed to recognise this?
Issigonis spent the rest of his career at Longbridge vainly trying to get management interested in 9X, but to no avail. He formally retired in 1971 but carried on with consultancy work for the company until Graham Day, CEO of what was then called Rover Group, dispensed with his services. By the mid-1980s, his health began to fail, suffering from a form of vertigo which left him bedbound and ultimately in need of round the clock care. Issigonis died on 2nd October 1988, aged 81.
It could be argued that the circumstances that ultimately led to the collapse of BL can be traced back to the design and launch of the Mini in 1959. Sir Alec was a brilliant and highly talented engineer, but he always designed cars that he would drive, rather than those that would appeal more widely. He seemed to have little regard for anything as trivial or ephemeral as styling. By implication, he had little regard for the tastes of the car-buying public.
Issigonis’ clean-sheet approach to his designs undoubtedly appealed to the purist in him but was commercially disastrous. He seemed not to appreciate that his primary responsibility was to design cars that were well regarded, popular and, above all, profitable, to sustain the business and fund future model development. Had he looked to successful competitors, most notably Ford or Fiat, he would have seen how this required a pragmatic approach to design, carrying over proven mechanical parts from the outgoing model where practicable, to expedite development and curtail costs.
The Mini was, of course, hugely popular because Issigonis’ singular approach was wholly appropriate to the design of a small economy car. However, BMC and its successors seemingly never made sufficient profit from the Mini to fund the development of a replacement. In a 1979 interview published in Vogue magazine, Issigonis alluded to this in characteristic fashion; “The question of the unprofitability of the small car depends entirely upon the number you make, and we never made enough.” They made 5 million of them.
The 1100 was rescued by Leonard Lord’s decision to ask Pininfarina to style it. It was the only truly successful and profitable BMC car of the Issigonis era. This makes the lack of serious further development once it entered production all the more inexcusable: instead of capitalising on the 1100’s success, BMC allowed it to wither on the vine, starving it of investment which could have bolstered it further against its rivals, potentially mitigating the losses made by its stablemates. Creating numerous badge-engineered derivations was a pointless waste of time and effort, kowtowing to internal politics and historic but largely irrelevant customer allegiances.
The 1800 was misconceived and drifted even further away from the requirements of its target customers, while the Maxi simply repeated the errors of the 1800, thanks to those infamous doors and its chronic lack of customer appeal.
External factors also played a part in the chain of events. One wonders for instance, what might have happened had the Suez Crisis not caused a reordering of the rollout of the XC range. If the large car had been released first and struggled in the marketplace, would the 1100 and Mini have even seen the light of day, at least as Issigonis conceived them?
We will draw our conclusions in the final part of this series.
* The name of the company following the 1968 merger between BMC and Leyland, subsequently abbreviated to BL.