Modern Family [Part Three]

Harriman’s Ladder.

Image via ebay

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[1] 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.

1962 MG 1100 in 2-door export spec. Image Favcars

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[2].

1964 Vanden Plas Princess 1100. Image: Honestjohn

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[3] 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 Riley ‘Kestrel’. Image: Readcars

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[3].

Wolseley 1100. Image: Honestjohn

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[4]. 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.

The alternative? 1963 Innocenti IM3S. Image: automotodepoca.altervista

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)[5]. 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]

[1] 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.

[2] 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. 

[3] The VDP was the only ADO 16 model to be offered with a factory-fitted steel sunroof as an option.

[4] 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.

[5] 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.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

27 thoughts on “Modern Family [Part Three]”

  1. Good morning Eóin. I was aware of the many variations of ADO16, but hadn’t considered the point you make about how badge-engineering trivialised what should have been a clean, modern and forward-looking design, turning it into something ersatz and twee. In truth, there was only space for three distinct variants, the ‘everyday’ Austin (or Morris) the ‘sporting’ MG and the ‘luxury’ VdP. Everything else was just needless duplication.

    Even though the MG was supposed to be the performance variant, I recall that there was also an Austin 1300GT that competed directly with it.

    I came across this illustration of the multiplicity of different variants offered both UK and overseas built, including facelifted versions:

    The Apache and Victoria were substantively different, with their elongated tails. Likewise the Nomad, with its Maxi-like rear end, but the rest were purely badge-engineered variants.

    One thing that facilitated (intentionally or otherwise) the multiplicity of front end treatments was the unusually placed body seam at the leading edge of the front wing, visible in the photo below:

    There is also an unusual horizontal seam on the wing along the line of the bodyside crease. I wonder why they needed such complexity in this area?

  2. is it wrong to dream of a restomodded Vanden Plas with a Honda Jazz powertrain, aircon and an upgraded stereo system that only tunes in classical music stations?

    1. Sounds perfectly reasonable to me, the antithesis of the vast majority of modern cars.

  3. Can I pick some minor holes in all this ? The multitude of different floor finishes for one model is clearly ludicrous, but these days I see companies like VW producing a different design rear light for an up-market Golf, just to make spare parts provision harder.
    Badge engineering was copied and made to work in Japan – but of course they were starting from a clean sheet.
    The way one expected the BMC system to work was that Austin/Morris was basic, Wolseley was luxury, MG was sporting, Riley was luxury sporting, and Vanden Plas was for deluded folk – VP having no heritage as a brand.
    I was buying cars in the 60’s, and if I had the means to buy an ADO 16 then it could only be the Riley version as Riley had racing heritage linked to their superior pre-war engine design.Typically, you had to buy the MG or Riley version of a BMC car to get a rev-counter included in the spec, which I always considered vital….
    The Austin 1300 GT, BTW, was a very flash, very late-comer to the party and didn’t really compete with the MG.

    1. That’s an interesting viewpoint Mervyn. I was trying to work out if the various ADO 16 versions actually replaced any models (e.g small Rileys and Wolseleys) and I suppose they did, to some extent. And at least this approach answered the Sales Department’s call for more variety and better specifications. I wonder if Ford’s later approach of having base, L, GL, etc, models was more cost effective. They had fewer sheet metal changes but offered more trim and engine choices.

      Interesting that the Minor never developed in this way (Austin-badged commercial versions apart; and I’m excluding the Wolseley 1500 and Riley 1.5).

      We still have badge engineering – it’s just more carefully done, these days.

    2. Charles, … Or not, as in the case of the new Mazda2 Hybrid, if you care to take a look.

    3. Crickey – they really have just nailed a Mazda badge to a Toyota Yaris. Mind you, they’ve got form in this area, with the Mazda 121 / Ford Fiesta.

    4. When it comes to trim levels, what people consistently have been asking for is a base level car, a sporty alternative, and a luxurious alternative. These days sporty have become the new luxurious, unless we are talking Rollers and S-Classes.

      And BMC had an overlap in exactly every division.

      Austin/Morris as base levels.
      MG/Riley as the sporty cars.
      Wolseley/Vanden Plas as the luxo offerings.

      Riley as a luxo/sporty offering? If they had differentiated the marque enough to build upon that, yes. As is it just became confusing and meaningless. I hate to use BMW as a template but the Riley Kestrel of the thirties really was the English equivalent of the marque today.

      The only reason Morris was first with the ADO16 was that it was given it as some sort of concolation price, BMC deliberately waited with an Austin introduction to placate the Morris dealer network. I can’t think of any other organisation where that made sense?

  4. Leaving aside the 1500/Nomad and Apache/Victoria front ends.

    Like the simplicity of the late model Austin 1100 Deluxe and IMHO it should have largely appeared earlier, although would straightened out the grille like on the Innocenti I5 as it would not look out of place over the next decade if the first 3 series (69-77) of Autobianchi A112 is any indication. Later versions of the A112 also provide an insight as to how ADO16 (and the Mini) could have been updated at the front, along with the 1978 Autobianchi A112 Elegant by Zagato.

    Would have probably had the MG 1100/1300 feature an Innocenti I5 front to bring it in line with the mk3 MG Midget, while it is tempting to leave the Vanden Plas Princess alone a case could be made for it to feature an Innocenti IM35 type front if not just applied only on the regular Austin (or Morris) ADO16.

    The question as to what rear ends should have matched which for the ADO16 two-box bodystyle is another subject (never the three-box saloons..), the existing ADO16 rear would seem to be more suited to the MG 1100/1300 (with a hatchback being like the MGB GT). Could it have been suitably modernized to ditch the subtle tailfins without the rather austere and utilitarian Maxi-like rear of the Morris Nomad that would have probably worked for a 5-door estate at best? Did Pininfarina have anything around that time that would have paired well with the front ends of the Innocenti I5 and Innocenti IM35?

  5. If I remember correctly the Riley/Wolseley/VdPs were not available in Germany. Maybe we got the MG, but I’m nearly sure the only more powerful ADO 16 available was the Austin GT. BMC products at that time were imported by a number of different companies in parallel and it might be that one of them imported the more unusual versions but I’ve never seen one.
    The Austin 1300 GT I once tried had a wooden dashboard with full instrument set including rev counter, a black vinyl roof and some ‘sports’ wheels.

  6. There was nothing fuddy-duddy about Riley or Wolseley until the dead hand of BMC was laid upon them. Interesting that the only brand out of this lot to survive is MG – the one that only ever – before the Chinese got hold of it – consisted of cobbled-together bits of, or re-badged, other makes.

    1. What would have been a better outcome for either Riley or Wolseley without being acquired by Morris or Austin?

      In the case of Riley recall reading of Interest from BMW or AFN Ltd – the owners of Frazer Nash that had BMW-ties (before Bristol acquired the majority of its shares), which would have potentially been advantageous in the post-war era of war reparations and lingering BMW-links to acquire patents and other IP up to BMW’s crisis during the mid/late-50s to early-60s (as opposed to what was achieved by Bristol/Frazer Nash), which roughly corresponds to the period when Riley’s 1.5-litre and 2.5-litre engines were discontinued.

      Whereas unable to find much about Wolseley beyond interest by Austin.

    2. The decline of Riley and Wolseley was probably inevitable, but was not helped by Len Lord’s antipathy towards the Nuffield brands. Why else would he have created Austin-Healey, and developed Vanden Plas as a brand?

      MG was a survivor owing to effective US distribution, and favourable exchange rates.

      As in most things at BMC/BLMC, there were exceptions to the rule, my favourite in the instance of managed decline through badge-engineering, was the Minor-based Wolseley 1500 / Riley One-Point-Five, each the most successful car to carry their marque’s names. The “English Giulietta” could have handled more power and an MG badge, but that doesn’t seen to have been considered.

    3. Looking back, it is unfortunate that both Morris and later BMC under Lord did not fully capitalize on MG’s post-war success in the US as it could have gained a more upmarket and prestigious reputation overtime beginning with the MGA, Magnette ZA/ZB and an MG version of the Wolseley 1500 / Riley One-Point-Five (would admittingly be overambitious to consider a hypothetical MG analogue of the 6/90 and Pathfinder or equivalent MG successor to both).

      Lord should have definitely approached the managed decline of Riley and Wolseley by absorbing them into Vanden Plas, whereas it is more complicated with Austin-Healey in relation to MG. The Healeys were apparently looking to move upmarket via a Big Healey successor, yet beyond a few experiments it is not clear how they intended to follow up with a Midget successor or if they were even interested in development such a model before they started on what became the Jensen-Healey.

  7. Interesting article and comments.
    Other BMC cars had a horizontal weld along the front wing, the MGB and Farina Oxbridge spring to mind, but usually concealed by a trim strip. I always assumed, although without any evidence, that it was an expedient way to press them from smaller parts and therefore with smaller presses.
    The near vertical seam on the front corner also appeared on the Austin Lancer/ Morris Major/ Riley 1.5 and Wolseley 1500. I assumed this was deliberate to facilitate the brand specific fronts on these models and that it was included for this reason on the ADO 16.

  8. Even though it has been mentioned ADO16 was found to be underpowered with a 948cc engine over the course of its development, which served as the catalyst for the expansion to 1098cc. The fact the Spanish-built Austin De Luxe made use of the 55 hp 998cc (Mini Cooper spec) and the heavier Austin Allegro later made use of a 44 hp 998cc (A-Plus) engines (to replace the initial 45 hp 1098cc Allegro), does raise the question of whether an entry-level 40-44/46 hp 998cc engine the lighter ADO16 could have sufficed without overlapping t00 much with the 48-59 hp 1098cc models or being too underpowered?

    1. What ADO16 needed was a bigger engine, rather than a smaller one. Even before the E series appeared in the Maxi, Austin and Morris dealers were clamouring for a 1.6 litre engine option for the 1100/1300.

      I’d mischievously contend that the only improvement of any significance in the ADO 16’s eleven or so years as a mainstream product was the 1275cc A series engine, a daunting engineering and production task accomplished with complete success.

      The E series did of course find its way into ADO 16 – or rather YDO 9 and 15 – as the Australian Nomad and Morris 1500. There was no reason why the combination should not have worked, if properly developed and proven, but that didn’t happen and a promising idea led to awful cars, another blight on BLMC-A’s already fragile reputation.

    2. Agree on ADO16 needing a bigger engine, while the A-Series was not capable of reaching a viable road-going 1.6-litre. Am fascinated by the notion that had it been placed on a modern production line at the time during the early-60s, the A-Series could have not only reached 1275cc much earlier, but also around 1.4-1.5-litres as seen in Vizard’s book (being kind of like a more undersquare Nissan A14 / A15) though even a 1.4-litre would suffice.

      Speaking of the E-Series, how much of the S-Series in essence resembled the 1300cc prototype with belt-driven overhead camshaft aside from both being compact designs against the tall E-Series?

      It could have worked as a 1.6-litre with a similar output range as the R/S-Series at minimum, slotting into the space above say the 80 hp Ford Cortina 1600 GT yet below the 105-110 hp Lotus Cortina (ideally equipped with a Visa/305-type XU engined end-on gearbox if not a 5-speed in-sump layout). As things stood with the existing E-Series, not sure how much of an improvement a 83 hp 1.5 Downton tuned E-Series would be against a 83 hp 1.3 Twin-Carb A-Series used in an MG badged Authi Victoria prototype.

  9. Perhaps what the dealers had in mind was the ADO17’s powertrain with the 1622cc B series. Big, heavy, and over-engineered compared with the A series, but it could just possibly fit , with the radiator and fan moved to the front – there’s a 4½” difference in front track between ADO16 and ADO 17. It would need to give at least 80bhp to make the job worthwhile, given the extra weight, not impossible if the single carb 1800’s 86 or so bhp figure is extrapolated downwards..

    1. What would the extra weight penalty likely be relative to the existing A-Series ADO16? Because unable to see past how the extra weight of the B-Series was said to have affected the Marina or the B-Series Sprite prototype for the Austin-Healey MARS project compared to the well-regarded 1275cc versions, how would the small FWD ADO16 have fared with the additional weight of the B-Series front.

      Could a similar weight reduction programme of the B-Series as applied on the revised C-Series 6-cylinder (both projected 79kg and actual 20kg reductions) have helped matters?

    2. Yet again, the Australians solved this problem by inventing the Nomad, with the ‘E’ series engine, in 1500 cc form and while they were at it, a hatchback. But like the later Tasman/Kinberly sixes, it suffered from ‘Not Invented Here Syndrome’. Imagine having this instead of the Allegro.

    3. For those more conservative buyers who didn’t want a hatchback, there was the Morris 1500 OHC with the new front end styling, the bigger motor, and it’s accompanying five speed box. If they had put these mechanicals with the Victoria/Apache Michelotti styled booted version they might not have needed the Marina either.

    4. The Nomad? Take the Allegro any time.

      The YDO9 idea was clever, but the execution execrable. Everything about the Nomad says “lash-up”. The original ADO16 was a reasonable seller in Australia as a result of local production, and thereby competitive pricing, but was poorly suited to a big, cheap-fuel country. With the 1500/Nomad, quality and reliability problems rose to a new level, with their locally-made E series powertrain and its dysfunctional cable-operated gearchange. BMC/BLMC intended Australia to replace ADO16 with an Australian built Maxi, but the management at Waterloo didn’t want it, and the Nomad was a cheap compromise, mostly engineered at Longbridge. At least BLMC-A put the money saved to good use to develop and produce the X6 Tasman / Kimberly which had far better integrity, but didn’t stand a chance faced with Ford and Holden competition, and the irresistible rise of Japanese products.

      As for the Apache / Victoria, they might have been a good idea in 1962, but in 1971 they would have been totally outclassed in any open market. Michelotti did a nice job, but the purpose of these latecomers was to extend the usefulness of ADO16 tooling in satellite factories in territories where imported cars were excluded through taxation, and competition was thereby limited. The pity is that Innocenti proposed something similar many years before:

      It didn’t make it to production, and probably nobody at Longbridge knew, or else the ‘not invented here’ principle was applied.

  10. The Autin Apache in South Africa and the Authi Victoria in Spain gained new Michelotti front and rear styling with a much larger boot, but only the ‘A’ series to power it.

    1. Thanks for your comment Robert. But I must beg to differ.

      Having driven both 1300 and 1750 Allegros and a 1500 Nomad, I’ll take the Nomad thanks. The Allegro, in 1750 form had the same gearbox and gearchange, but as the sales figures showed, it was not an improvement on the ADO 16 in any way that counted- and was demonstrably worse in many. You would have thought they’d fix the gearchange at least. At least the Nomad kept the nice chuckability of the earlier cars, unlike the lumpen Allegro. Look how the Allegro did in Europe, would facelifted, updated ADO16s have done any worse?

      Instead, change for change sake stood in for actual progress.

      How much more different would the history of British motoring have been with a policy of incremental change rather than throwing out the wrong bits and starting again all the time?

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