Amongst the more striking aspects of BMC’s front-driven family of cars – if we set aside for a moment their technical courage – was the stark modernism of their design. Whether the Issigonis-inspired ADO series should be considered part of a design movement which would permeate the UK as the Sixties progressed – in architecture, product design, furnishing and in tentative forays amid the domestic automotive domain is perhaps a matter for more learned minds, but it nevertheless required a leap of imagination to have envisaged the 1962 1100 rendered in more traditional garb.
But if this had certainly been the case within the ascetic mind of BMC’s technical supremo, his Kremlin superiors had rather different ideas. Incapable of rationalising the carmaker’s portfolio of revenant car brands, BMC Chairman, Sir George Harriman complacently saw fit to continue his predecessor’s policy of shoehorning heritage styling cues onto inappropriate and unsuspecting machinery – a discredited practice dubbed badge-engineering by the motor press.
The backstory to this overlapping collection of historic nameplates lay rooted in faded loyalties, fragmented dealer networks and a strong element of latent tribalism – to say nothing of a mishandled merger. There was nothing all that wrong about this practice in theory, but the manner in which BMC enacted it was characteristically, misguided.
Having mystifyingly elected to delay introduction of an Austin-branded 1100 for a year, Autumn 1962 saw Nuffield dealers receive a further (minor) boost with the introduction of the higher performance MG 1100. The first compact bodied MG saloon since the immediate post-war YA model, the 1100 came with a number of technical modifications, aimed at improving performance for the more get-ahead driver. With a modified cylinder head (courtesy of Downton engineering) and twin carburettors, the 1098 cc A-Series produced 55 bhp, a useful boost over its Morris counterpart.
Distinguished by the prominent, upright marque grille up front, a chromed side strip allowed for popular duotone paint finishes to be offered as an option. Cabin-wise, both trim and instrumentation were upgraded. The MG model was also intended to spearhead BMC’s push into the US market, on the back of its well-regarded sports cars.
In October 1963, the Vanden Plas Princess 1100 was first shown at the Earls Court motor show, initially as a speculative piece of show fodder. However, such was the level of interest shown that it was put into production for the 1964 model year, featuring a luxury coachbuilt interior of Connolly leather, veneered walnut and West of England cloth. Outside, the imposing VDP grille flanked by twin spot lamps telegraphed the car’s upmarket aspirations, as did its enhanced build quality and refinement, with paint, trim and final assembly taking place at the Vanden Plas works. Offered in a similar state of tune to the MG model, the Princess would mark the pinnacle of the ADO 16 range.
1965 saw further marque expansion, with the introduction of Wolseley and Riley versions. However, with the MG and Vanden Plas models already established in the market and with no export potential worth speaking of, these primarily domestic-market models were simply duplicates aimed at giving the relevant dealer bodies a car to sell. Both models received the same level of tune to that of the MG model, and the requisite luxury enhancements inside. Externally, more vertical marque-specific grilles would variously overwhelm the front end styling, while an array of chrome embellishments enhanced visual fuss.
The Riley marque was phased out entirely in 1969, in the wake of the Leyland takeover, beginning a slow-motion rationalisation of product overlap within the organisation. The MG model would continue until 1971, while the Wolseley variant made it until April 1973 – all of these upmarket models by then fitted exclusively with the larger 1275 cc A-Series unit. The true survivor of the foursome however was the Princess, remaining a durable (if fairly modest) seller right to the end – the very last UK-built ADO 16 variant emerging from Vanden Plas’ Kingsbury lines in June 1974.
It is worth recalling that despite the social and political shifts of the Sixties, Britain remained a society ridden by perceptions of class and position. Viewed in this context, the BMC approach perhaps offered an anachronistic British vision of the General Motors Sloane Ladder. Certain chroniclers have since pointed to the fact that these cars sold well and at considerable mark-up over their more proletarian siblings. But while this may have been the case, they did so with costs which the business not only could have done without, but could largely have avoided.
As far back as 1961, Longbridge’s head of facilities expressed dismay at the number of different floor coverings that were required to be held in stock for all of the various Mini derivations at the time, at one stage running to around 48 individual specifications of carpet. Given the level of trim differentiation between the various ADO 16 models, which included several different dashboard layouts, the level of complexity from a parts procurement and handling perspective, not to mention the costs this would have entailed can only be guessed at.
Furthermore, it would appear that not only were the front panels of the upmarket ADO 16 models subtly different, the bonnet pressings were as well. So too was the choice of indicator unit and surround – some with, others without. Even with the benefit of hindsight, this appears to have been nonsensical. To compound matters, as the Sixties drew to a close, customer tastes were shifting away from the somewhat fusty image that marques such as Riley and Wolseley espoused. Rival makes provided a wholly different vision of contemporary aspiration – one of which wasn’t as far removed from Longbridge as its Trans-Alpine geography might have suggested.
In the city of Milan, the firm of Innocenti, previously known for the Lambretta scooter had started building the BMC A40 under licence. Keen to expand their operations, Italian production of the 1100 began in 1963 – Innocenti offering the car as the IM3 (IM3S). Subtly restyled, it featured a revised grille and headlamps, a three-quarter bright strip along the flanks and a luxury interior. Sold as an upmarket offering, the Mirafiori car giant was untroubled, but nonetheless, the IM3 proved a success without a patrician grille in sight. As a vision of what the mothership could have achieved, it made for a sobering sight.
Badge engineering was not the worst of BMC’s ill-considered decisions when it came to the ADO 16 family, but it was nevertheless a profound one. This applique approach had the effect of trivialising the car, rendering what was a forward-facing design statement in reactive, neo-classical terms. It could even at a stretch, be regarded as proto-retro. The fragmentation of BMC’s upmarket 1100 offerings also had the effect of placing a sticking plaster over the myopic management decisions which prevented the carmaker from maximising the huge demand for ADO 16 during its heyday, and for BMC to extract a meaningful profit from the enterprise.
Which is not to deny the upmarket 1100/1300’s charms. But that charm was less a function of their decorative icing than it was of a fundamentally correct and well judged offering. There were other ways to raise transaction prices, improve profitability and placate BMC’s fragmented dealers. Foolishly, BMC took the most complicated one.
MG 1100/1300 production total 1962-1971: 116,827. [Source: MG Owners Club]
Vanden Plas Princess 1100/1300 production total 1963 to 1974: 38,512 [Source: Vanden Plas Owners Club]
Wolseley 1100/1300 production total 1965 to 1973: 44,867 [Source: Wolseley Owners Club]
Riley 1100/1300 production total 1965 to 1969: 20,000 (Estimated figures) [Source: Classicsworld]
 Taking badge engineering to hitherto unmeasured depths was an MG-badged version of the Vanden Plas 1100 for the US market, where the VDP name was at that time unknown. Built from 1964 to 1966, a mere 156 examples were built.
 The 2-door MG 1100 was export-only for the first few years of production, and in this bodystyle, spearheaded the model’s US fortunes – matter we will return to.
 The VDP was the only ADO 16 model to be offered with a factory-fitted steel sunroof as an option.
 During the 1930s, GM President, Alfred. P. Sloane initiated what was termed ‘The Ladder of Success’. This entailed a distinct stratification between GM marques, allowing customers to progress upwards from Chevrolet to Cadillac as their affluence grew. It worked for a time.
 Innocenti also offered a downmarket Austin-badged I3 variant.
Author’s note: This piece chronicles the UK-built 1100/1300 models only. The various overseas variants of ADO 16 will be profiled in a forthcoming article.
Sources and quotes: See part one.