A Greek fable of a horse which was transformed into a crab.
“The public don’t know what they want – it is our job to tell them…” Sir Alec Issigonis.
Even as Britain entered the 1960s, product planning remained something of an alien concept to its native carmakers, the majority of whom viewed such matters as being the sort of recondite nonsense invented in the United States, and best left there. So too, in the eyes of BMC’s benighted Technical Director was the art of automotive styling, which which he famously once stated “tends to date a car.”
It’s a timeworn nostrum that any creative endeavour is only as good as the brief which underpins it, and in the case of ADO17 (or XC9001), brought to market in 1964 as the Austin 1800, the brief appears to have been a somewhat confused one. Was the car to have been a direct replacement for the ‘Farina’ A60 series, or a larger, more overt statement car? That seemed to depend upon who one spoke to.
It appears extraordinary in retrospect that key decisions surrounding a model programme as important as ADO 17 were taken by those so poorly-equipped to do so. Given that its engineering hard points changed quite notably as it moved through the development process, maintaining styling continuity or visual harmony was going to prove a challenge.
Placing so much of the programme’s creative fate in the expressive hands of Sir Alec Issigonis seems in retrospect a rather poor one, particularly given the eminent engineer’s views towards the customer, his almost wilful ignorance of market requirements and his known horror of adornment. Perhaps he believed that his cars quite literally sold themselves. A day or two on the sales floor might have disabused him of a few notions.
At the time ADO17 was being scoped, the only large European mass-market front-drive saloon on the market was Citroën’s DS19, a car some have suggested Issigonis wished to emulate. The comparative dimensions of both therefore are instructive. The Citroën is larger in all key dimensions: length 4826 mm, width 1791 mm, wheelbase 3124 mm and height 1464 mm. The newer Austin is more compact, as one might expect: length 4200 mm, width 1700 mm, wheelbase 2700 mm and height 1410 mm.
What can be gleaned here is that Issigonis’ engineering cell under Chris Kingham managed to extract almost as much (in passenger accommodation terms) from less, a consequence of a less space-devouring powertrain layout. However, one very useful consequence of the Citroën’s longitudinally mounted power unit was that it allowed for a longer, more penetrating nose. For although the Austin is shorter, it is likely that the difference was most noticeable forward of the front wheels.
But then, BMC’s technical director appeared to have no interest in aerodynamics, all of his designs presenting a bluff cliff-face to the elements. Overhangs after all were decadent things, which inevitably led, as night follows day, to styling. For not only did the Spartan from Smyrna believe that it was necessary for the driver of his creations to exist in a state of perpetual mortification, his dread of frontal overhangs ensured that those whose job it was to service and repair them would also learn to mutter imprecations at his name.
Given their success with the compact ADO16 1100 model from 1961, carrozzeria Pininfarina was commissioned to propose an ADO17 styling study, their initial offering it seems, being very much an 1100 with some additional compressed air, one rather unsurprisingly not favoured at Longbridge.
Team Issigonis also put forward a proposal, the bones of which were to prevail. Defined by the vast cabin, six-light window arrangement and an early version of ‘those doors‘, the story goes that this proposal was created at Longbridge for further refinement in Turin. What is clear is that the stylists involved (those involved remain a mystery) looked to Pininfarina’s back catalogue, and affixed a number of both tried and rejected carrozzeria styling traits front and rear to see what might stick.
This second proposal therefore combined the angled tail treatment with its so-called ‘cut down tailfins’, which would later be seen on Cambiano’s 1961 Lancia Flavia coupé. While at the front, the nose section employed a grille and lighting arrangement redolent of earlier Pininfarina studies for both Cadillac (Starlight) and Maserati (5000 GT).
Further refinement in Turin saw a completely revised frontal aspect which combined a more marque-specific grille/headlamp arrangement. With slim, plated side window frames the canopy looked glassy and modish, but this more elegant approach would not be retained at Longbridge. By this stage the design was gelling, with only the shape and placement of the tail-lamps to be finalised. At the front end, a larger, full-width grille was fitted, with the headlamps now in oval recesses abutting it. While undoubtedly a modernist approach, this latter feature only served to highlight the car’s highly unusual width to length ratio.
For Sir Alec, the pursuit of the maximum cabin space within a given volume was akin to a holy writ. Nothing would be allowed to interfere with this quest, least of all the comfort and convenience of the end user. The 1959 Mini’s pared back driver environment was appropriate to such a singular product, but for 1961’s ADO16, his wishes were to some extent over-ruled by George Harriman’s insistence upon a more appealing interior – not that it was anything approaching lavish.
For ADO17, Issigonis would brook no argument, so despite the 1800 being a considerably more upmarket product, its interior, with its flat expanse of dashboard, with a narrow strip speedometer facing the driver, and an assortment of toggle switches scattered, seemingly at random across the facia would present an eerily familiar sight in all its minimalist glory to any Tesla 3 owner. Ergonomically, the 1800 facia was a disaster, with some switchgear (including the handbrake) inaccessible to a belted-in driver. Additionally, for such a spacious cabin, bootspace, a consequence of the short, dipping tail proved comparatively meagre.
Lacking market intelligence, BMC had no real knowledge of whether a front-drive car would succeed in this section of the market. This, after all was the more conservative end of a quite conservative sector. Certainly, presenting such a technically advanced design to the UK customer would require a highly desirable sales proposition, something the ‘not conventionally handsome‘ and somewhat immature 1800 failed to achieve.
Styling clearly wasn’t the only damning factor for ADO17, but had it looked more appealing, both outside and within, more allowance could perhaps have been made for the car’s early foibles and failings. As it was, the 1800 in any of its forms never gained any meaningful market traction and while it was developed into a good and fairly durable car, and sold in modest, if consistent numbers, it never came close to meeting its sales projections.
“A camel is a horse designed by a committee“, Sir Alec is once believed to have stated, but like most of his pronouncements, one never knows how serious he was. Ironically however, ADO17 did resemble a camel in that it was evolved for maximum utility without regard for fashion or frippery. But while one can debate the validity of that observation, there can be no doubt that the creature ADO17 came to be forever associated with was no desert-dweller.