Modern Family [Part Five]

Super Mini or simply a better Mini?

Morris 1300 GT. Image: Classic Car Catalogue

For a car which would become their most commercially important product, the BMC motor business took a rather quixotic approach to ADO 16’s furtherance, with initial production being restricted to BMC’s Cowley plant where it was built (for almost a decade) alongside the car it had been intended to replace[1]. But as potential customers hungrily clamoured for delivery, it would remain some considerable time before the carmaker found itself capable of balancing demand and supply[2].

It has been well documented that BMC sold the Mini at a price which allowed for little meaningful profit, yet it would appear that with ADO 16, they simply repeated the error, selling the 1100 on similarly tight margins[3], which given its technical superiority, its lack of genuine domestic rivals and the pent up demand for the car, appears almost wilfully irrational. And while later, more upmarket models may have aided profitability, there were too many of them and as explored previously, they were not a cost-effective means of resolving the issue.

Throughout its lifespan, BMC management appeared to take the 1100/1300 series’ success for granted, allowing themselves to become distracted with a myriad of costly and in some cases, vanity-driven model programmes, few of which served the business well when a disciplined, carefully targeted and costed programme of upward development for the 1100[4] might not only have proven a better use of resources, but could potentially have obviated the necessity for a number of other less than stellar BMC products which would arrive in the fullness of time and fail to ignite with the buying public.

Yet despite its commercial significance, and the respect and admiration it engendered across innumerable markets for its many fine qualities, the 1100/1300 series suffered, amongst other better known foibles, from something of an image problem. Whereas, by mid-Sixties, sibling-Mini, from which so much of the 1100’s technical and creative background was rooted had assumed nailed-on cult status (and eternal sanctification thereafter), ADO 16’s iconography would prove far more nebulous.

1970 Morris 1300 Mk II. Image: Classic Car Catalogue

Mini’s upswing was part-rooted in celebrity endorsement, but primarily in competition success, where the halo effect of the Mini-Cooper’s giant-killing antics on race tracks and rally stages turned it into not only the most fashionable thing on four wheels, but also the car every budding young hotshot lusted after, mostly from afar. But lacking a Cooper-branded halo model[5], or indeed the motorsport pedigree to go with it, ADO 16’s image remained stubbornly suburban in nature[6].

BMC’s complacency could also be observed in the manner in which the car was developed. Following its half-cocked introduction, the model was left largely untouched for five years before gaining a mild facelift in 1967, which would include the belated and much-requested provision of the larger capacity 1275 cc engine[7]. Ideally, an even larger unit would have aided matters by then, but this was not forthcoming – not outside of Australia at least. Thereafter, the 1100 was again left fallow, apart from a third set of last-minute cosmetic revisions in 1971.

During 1967, work had (belatedly) begun on the ADO 22 programme, a fully re-engineered update, utilising ADO 16’s centre section, with a restyled nose and tail, courtesy of ex-Ford designer, Roy Heynes[8]. Technically, it was believed to have employed the improvements to Alex Moulton’s Hydrolastic suspension which would ultimately find their way into the Maxi, but progress stalled during the rancorous merger with Leyland, and when the dust settled, newly appointed Technical Director, Harry Webster elected instead to start anew[9].

1971 Austin 1300 Mk III Countryman. Image: Carpedia

Latterly, the Mini has become indelibly branded upon the consciousness of the public – a now unassailable icon, as beloved as any other archetype of Great British endeavour. Yet while survivors are rightfully cherished by their owner-enthusiast base, the 1100 is a car that remains barely recognised by the general public. And while the Mini’s level of adulation is not one every car attains in afterlife, ADO 16’s ambivalent fate remains a curious outcome for something so once ubiquitous.

But perhaps this very ubiquity is what proved its undoing. During its heyday, 1100s were a fixture on every street corner, as essential and anonymous a component of the cityscape as parking meters or red telephone boxes. But as Britain’s post-Sixties malaise slumped into Seventies social unrest and political upheaval, the 1100 instead embodied the prevailing sense of shattered optimism – all the more so as age and entropy reduced so many into shavings of ferrous oxide, slowly decomposing onto the bump stops as the hydrolastic displacers de-pressurised. Rust, above all took the vast majority to the crusher.

So much promise: both in terms of the car itself and the times in which it came into being. The dream of mobility – both of the social and physical variety. The white heat of industry. The hope of betterment for the modern (family) man. The 1100 offered the promise of more, modestly, yet elegantly wrapped in a body shape which spoke of today, yet felt bracingly like tomorrow. Because, say what you will about Issigonis, he was not a man to look backwards.

Many historians have posited the view that ADO 16 was the best-realised of the eminent engineer’s designs, and one can go along with that – up to a point at least. Lending more weight however is the profound influence of Charles Griffin,[10] pivotal in making the 1100 into the well-rounded, pleasing consumer durable it became. Certainly, without the refinements he pushed for, it is unlikely that the car would have appealed so broadly.

Image: Minimania

Usefully larger in all dimensions; longer legged, offering superior comfort, performance and refinement, yet giving little away in agility or compactness, the 1100/1300 was to a great extent, the next logical step forward. It also identified the limit of the appeal for truly small cars, the market coalescing around vehicles of the 1100’s dimensions as the next decade dawned, heralding the advent of the supermini class – a boat which in a case of the most profound irony, BLMC and its successors missed entirely for close to a decade.

The best car BMC ever made? Possibly. The better Mini? I wouldn’t blame you if you thought so.

[1] According to marque chronicler, Chris Cowan, the Morris Minor was in later life sold at a loss, which if accurate (and I see no reason to doubt him), makes its continuance even less logical. This appears to have been a sop to the Nuffield dealer body rather than any joined-up corporate strategy.

[2] Longbridge 1100s came on stream a full year after launch, but it’s unclear as to whether volumes ever reached optimum level, owing to BMC’s chaotic management, in addition to the resultant labour and supplier problems.

[3] The 1100’s early warranty costs further ate into profitability.

[4] Some downward development would probably not have hurt either.

[5] Apparently, Downton Engineering produced a tuned version of the 1100, said by LJK Setright to have been “astonishingly quick and competent.”

[6] In its best-known British TV and movie characterisations, the 1100 appeared to have been characterised as a rolling metaphor for conformity and defeat.

[7] When the 1275 cc version was announced, a UK waiting list formed for a second time, BMC once again wholly unable to meet demand. 

[8] Heynes was best known for his input into the second-series Ford Cortina. During his stint at B(L)MC, he oversaw cosmetic revisions to the pre-production Maxi, the external style of the Marina and left his stamp all over the Mini Clubman.

[9] The 1973 Allegro never came close to matching the 1100/1300’s customer appeal, failing to meet sales projections.

[10] Griffin went on the lead the engineering design for a number of BLMC and BL models, including the ADO 88 Metro.

In excess of 2.2 million ADO 16 models were built Worldwide between 1962-1977

Sources and quotations: Issigonis: The Official Biography – Gillian Bardsley (Icon)/ Mini: the design icon of a generation – LJK Setright (Virgin)/ British Leyland – Chronicle of a Car Crash: Chris Cowan. Alec Issigonis & Charles Griffin interview – Motor: August 1962/ Autocar 17 August 1962/ AROline/ owners club/ Wolesley Owners Club/ Vanden Plas Owners Club.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

30 thoughts on “Modern Family [Part Five]”

  1. Thank your for this fine series on a great car!

    It’s not the only one that’s unfairly forgotten.
    Many others that also were important steps on the way to the modern car as we knew it until a couple of years ago also sank without a trace – Fiat 128, Simca 1100, Peugeot 204 for example. The only one that seems to stay in public awareness is the Golf.

  2. Good morning Eóin. An excellent, insightful summary into the history of ADO16 and the manner in which a potentially great car was mismanaged and neglected so that it’s potential was never fully realised. At least Roy Haynes’ ugly ADO22 facelift never made production. Slapping a Mk2 Cortina face on it would have completely destroyed the delicacy of the Pininfarina design. For me, the stylistic zenith was the Mk2 with its wider grille and smoother tail lights:


  3. Outstanding set of articles on a very underappreciated car, especially the foreigners.
    We had three examples in quick succession in the 1970s, all Austins: a persian blue 4 door (Mk1), a white 2 door and finally a teal blue 1300 4 door. I can’t remember the years, but Minis were never on the wishlist. The Austin was a proper family car, with space for four and a boot big enough for a suitcase (people travelled light in those days).
    Sadly, we have no photos. Despite them being the second most expensive purchase we ever made and his first of many cars, my father didn’t record the fact on film.
    I don’t remember much of the “driving” qualities, being less than 10 years old at the time. On longer journeys I was usually bent over a map plotting the route, sometimes having to pretend to know the way! After fitting “Town and Country” tyres to the front wheels the MW/LW radio was pretty useless anyway.
    I remember my dad doing basic maintenance such as oil changes, tappet adjustments, usually with much cursing and swearing. I still have his copy of the “AA Book of the Car” which, as a kid, I was fascinated by.
    Rust first appeared around the front indicators and he tried to combat it with “Jelonite” and red primer. The worst aspect was the poor damp starting, resulting from having the whole ignition system in the front of the engine. The climate in Manchester didn’t help matters either.
    The last one was replaced in about 1975 by a Datsun 120Y.

  4. More fascinated by the performance comparisons between the 70 hp 1300 GT and equivalent MG 1300 with the 75 hp Simca 1100 Special and 82 hp Simca 1100Ti, the latter two being quicker than the former two despite being larger and carrying more weight.

    Which would suggest a flaw relating to the gearbox in ADO16 precluding the possibility of high performance versions (similar to how Hydrolastic – effective in ADO16 was hardly useful in the Mini) rather than any issue with the A-Series that was known to be capable of putting out more power. The performance sweet-spot for a larger engined range-topping ADO16 GT or Cooper IMHO should have roughly been above the Simca 1100TI and mk2 Ford Cortina 1600GT yet below the Lotus Cortina and BMW 1600 Ti. The following would suggest an output of around 96-97+ hp was possible for a 1600cc E-Series. –

    The Roy Haynes ADO22 sketch does not look flattering, however get the impression the physical car would have likely resembled a Clubman and Maxi at the front end or a single pair headlight version of the Austin Victoria which would not have been a complete downer. As happened with the Maxi over its production life when it switched from Hydrolastic to Hydragas, did wonder how ADO22 would have fared once it gained Hydragas let alone any other developments the smaller Mini (and Metro) received during the course of its long production life.

    ADO16 only heralded the supermini class due to its choice of engines, its dimensions IMHO can be described as more 2nd generation post-1980s B-Segment if not early C-Segment. Something like the original Metro in terms of dimensions (if defining a plausible downward extension of ADO16) instead of the Clubman or Innocenti Mini would have been more than sufficient to competitively take on early supermini rivals for over a decade.

    Would ADO16 have benefited from a C-Pillar window similar to the Nomad and Autobianchi Primula 5-door hatchback? That would have then allowed for the existing ADO16 body to both be used as a coupe if not a sportier MG specific two-box hatchback.

    1. Hi Bob. That Autobianchi is such a pretty car. An ADO16 version with that rear end design would have been delightful, as would a five-door estate with a more upright tailgate.

    2. Hello Daniel. Would have to agree, the rear also gives an idea as to how a decent three-box saloon variant could have worked.

      Less certain would be how best to envision a 5-door estate version of ADO16 (or the Primula), the Peugeot 404 and Datsun Cedric 30 estates appear to be the best place to start yet could see a rebodied version in the manner of the Peugeot 204 Brake and Simca 1100 estate also being pretty feasible solutions.

  5. You make an interesting point about the car’s ‘character’, Eóin. While I would associate something like a Ford Cortina with business sales, 1100 / 1300 has much more of a ‘domestic’ air, for some reason.

    It’s true that it’s not as well-remembered as cars such as the Mini and the Minor, but then it was in production for a much shorter time; and although it was a ‘better’ car in many ways, it had less character and therefore has a similar status to many other vehicles which served a similar role, such as Astras, etc.

    The idea of something like a faster Cooper variant is an interesting one, but I’ve always wondered how well hydrolastic suspension would cope with a higher performance vehicle. It seems a bit at odds with the concept and I’d say that Citroën had the same issue with their hydropneumatic systems. On a related note, I wonder if BMC ever considered doing an MG Mini.

    Your article also made me wonder when BMC started to fall out of favour with the car buying public, or at least when people started to question the company’s decision making; perhaps with the launch of the 1800?

    1. Charles: From what I’ve read about hydrolastic, I see no reason to believe that it would have been unsuitable for a performance car, especially one such as this. The 1100 was an inherently well-handling car anyway, so an injection of performance would not have been anything the chassis could not handle. To be blunt, the halo of Cooper branding alone might even have been enough to provide the image boost the car needed. Now, of course I fully accept that when the car was conceived the Mini Cooper had not entered the market or enjoyed its successes, so BMC management couldn’t have known how much of a cult car it would become. However, I question the manner in which the MG version was presented as BMC’s sporting offering – as charming as it might be in isolation.

      From my understanding, BMC did consider an MG branded Mini, prior to the Cooper model being initiated. If it had been anything like the Wolesley or Riley versions it is unlikely to have been be recalled with anything but mild embarrassment. BMC did also investigate a Mini based two-seater with styling by Pininfarina (the prototype is at the National Motor Museum in Gaydon) which rather resembled a Peugeot 204 Cabriolet in miniature (There was also a Coupé), which was at least well executed.

      As to BMC falling out of favour, I would suggest that rather than the 1800, which was clearly a disappointment, the Maxi was the point when the carmaker’s sequins began to shed uncontrollably. In contrast, ADO 16 maintained its popularity. UK sales dropped in 1967, but once the 1300 engine became available, sales swung back up again. Sales also fell in 1971, but this coincided not only with the advent of the Marina, but the cessation of Morris-badged 1300s, which halved the sales channels through which the car could be sold.

    2. Hello Eóin – yes, I’ve seen the two-seater, which I thought was pretty good. I think BMC resented the royalties they paid to Cooper, which is a shame.

    3. Charles: From my understanding, it was Donald Stokes who had the problem with paying royalties to John Cooper, and it was he who terminated the agreement. The royalty payments might have rankled, but surely a salesman can recognise a valuable brand when it comes up and bites him. I know Stokes gets more than his fair share of flack in retrospect, but really, a good deal of it was deserved, in my view.

      The ADO 34 concept is a lovely little thing. I’ve viewed it several times, but I can imagine the business case for it would have been tenuous in the extreme.

    4. IMHO ADO34 had much promise and not only in terms of being a possible replacement if not a smaller companion to the successful if aging Midget, but also with regards to its general exterior which could have been utilized more widely beyond indirectly the Vanden Plas X6 1800 prototype at BMC to help refresh its range mid-decade.

      The exterior theme would have made for a more effective and even attractive MG (or even a Vanden Plas) version of the Elf/Hornet saloon as well as an ADO16 three-box saloon (that would have looked contemporary by the mid-60s at the back similar to the mk2 Cortina), which again would share visual links with the X6.

  6. Not directly related to ADO16 at all, but it does say something about the state of the family car segment today: Ford have announced that Focus production will end in Saarlouis in 2025, and there won’t be a replacement built there. A moment’s silence, please…

    1. Crikey. Having looked it up, I see they sell around 6,000 a month in Europe, which is low.

      Oddly enough, when I was reading the article above, I wondered how many younger people would even know what a Ford Escort was. Not many, I guess, since it’s been out of production for 20 years.

      Investment in new EV production will be in Valencia; I hope it turns out okay for the people employed at Saarlouis.

    2. Charles, where I live the roads are frequently awash with Mk1 & Mk2 Escorts – albeit in much modified form. They are highly prized in 2-door form, and you can even buy brand new replicas if your pockets are deep.
      FWIW, I’m told a Mk2 will ‘turn in’ better than a MK1 – though I don’t understand why, since the chassis are the same.

    3. That’s interesting Mervyn. I suppose the early ones have so much motor sport heritage that they will never be forgotten. I guess you could pretty much make your own new Escort, which would be fun.

  7. I thought I might play around with the 1100 to see if I could incorporate a sixth light and hatchback in a less ‘Maxi-ish’ way than the Australian Nomad. The Pininfarina lines of the original are fiendishly difficult to adjust without messing it up. Here’s the best I managed, original first for comparison:

    1. Please leave alone Daniel, the original was well judged – ‘C’ pillar and all.

    2. I guess it’s the mark of a really strong design when it’s difficult to change anything without making it worse?

    1. Looks very smart, although the union flag antimacassars are rather naff. (Has anyone ever used that word in a DTW piece or comment before? Probably not, I guess!)

  8. “……it does say something about the state of the family car segment today: Ford have announced that Focus production will end in Saarlouis in 2025, and there won’t be a replacement built there.”

    The elephant in the room is that those who used to purchase this type of car can’t afford to any more – not in Europe anyway. Now the manufacturers move up market (“everything will be a luxury brand”) vainly trying to chase revenue and perhaps some decent profit- for just a little longer perhaps. The problem lies in market dislocations and there doesn’t appear to be anyone prepared to do anything about it.

    Prepare for the demise of some well known brands….

  9. Since encountering the rather lackluster photoshop effort below, have been thinking about how a pre-Apache three-box ADO16 saloon could have worked visually.

    austin 1100 sedan

    The Crayford convertible gives a slight idea without the roof yet could it have benefited from more cues found in the (relatively plain) mk2 ADO17, Austin 3-litre and Peugeot 404 Coupe?

    1. That is similar to the Innocenti effort, IMHO , the waistline continuing through to the peak of the tail light would be a continuous line, (as it is on the convertible and the Apache/Victoria.) Perhaps being another inch or two longer, with more of the proportions of a Mk 1/2 Cortina would help too. By the way, thank you for your photoshop efforts, they are much appreciated and really add substantially to the level of discourse here.
      Tying in the ‘c’ pillar/ sail panel line with the transition to a horizontal surface is clearly the problem, but a better solution than the Elf/Hornet surely can’t be hard?

    2. Cannot claim credit for the photoshop of the above, it was done by a Dutch guy who creates at times thought-provoking photoshops of various cars.

      Would also add the Gordon Keeble to the mix as what an ADO16 three-box saloon should aim for, since a 2-door version would have made for an expedient yet potentially attractively styled coupe (and three-box derived alternative to the Crayford convertible conversion). Both the Innocenti and Apache efforts are too Michelotti influenced to get a proper idea of a pre-existing Pininfarina influenced three-box ADO16 saloon.

    3. I wanted to jump in and say that had the 1800 looked like that photoshop (but obviously larger) and remained at the more applicable 1600cc sized B Series engine, it’s much much much more likely that BMC in some form may still be around.

      That’s all they needed; a decent and pretty yet also conveniently styled body to wrap their advanced mechanicals in.

    4. J C C

      Would have to second that view, albeit with a more extensive engine range that stretches both downwards and upwards (without needing a Six). Its smaller size would have also likely had a positive impact on ADO61, where the latter would have not needed to carry over the doors or be so large and heavy, thus allowing for other engine options to be considered besides the revised 2.9 C-Series.

  10. The continually excellent AR Online has a new article about one of the Australian proposals for a ‘1500’ to replace the ‘1100’, the rear styling is particularly well resolved as a ‘booted’ version. The car was dropped in favour of the Marina, with it’s potential for six cylinder engines and rwd layout.
    Another ‘What could have been?’

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