Elemental Spirit Part 4: The Sisyphus Game

The Spridget turned out to be a difficult product to replace. We look at a diverse selection of proposals developed through the 1960s.

Image: MG Cheshire Owners Club

Far from perfect, and never very advanced in its design or engineering, replacing the Spridget became one of several long-running displacement activities within BMC and pre-Edwardes BLMC, although in a far lower league than The New Mini, and ‘The Little Engine That Could’ (replace the A Series). All turned out to be as pointless and unproductive as parlour games, with the participants’ abundant creativity never rewarded with a tangible prize.

When Leonard Lord and Donald Healey first imagined the low-budget car which would become the Austin-Healey Sprite, they probably envisaged a production life of possibly 3-4 years before technology and fashion left it behind. Within MG a ‘New Midget based on Sputnik FWD’, was registered in the experimental department register as EX 220, four months before Sputnik (better known as the ADO15 Mini) went on sale in August 1959. The project was given a proper Longbridge code, ADO34, despite the strong disproval of Alec Issigonis[a], and progressed for some time with competing design teams from Abingdon and Longbridge.

ADO34 prototype Image: Maximum Mini

ADO35, a Pininfarina-built – and possibly styled[b] – coupe was added to the project, along with a Healey derivative codenamed ADO36.

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Some time in 1962, BMC management decreed that the future of the front wheel drive ADO34/35/36 should decided in an part-internal, part-external three-way competition with two other designs, all using Hydrolastic suspension. The competing hopefuls were a Healey proposal identified as WAEC (wheel at each corner) with a mid/rear mounted engine, and Abingdon’s EX229, a front engined / rear wheel drive car which was based on the ADO47 Midget Mark 1 introduced in 1961, but extensively adapted to accommodate the fluid interconnected rubber suspension.

Healey WAEC prototype Image: Maximum Mini

The striking and prescient Healey proposal, underpinned by two ADO16 front subframes, soon fell by the wayside owing to the imagined complexity of achieving an acceptable gearchange linkage with the rear /mid-mounted powertrain[c], and doubts about the acceptability of a mid-engined sports car in the USA. The front wheel drive prototypes did not find favour either, and BMC’s management decided that the steel-sprung Sprite and Midget were still sufficiently competitive to continue with an evolutionary programme of ad-hoc improvements to the car already in production.

Image: drive-my.com

In early 1964, work began on the EX234 ‘hydrolastic sports car’, which had evolved from the EX229 prototype and now took shape as an elegant Pininfarina styled two-seater with rear wheel drive and all independent interconnected suspension using the Hydrolastic displacers from the ADO17 BMC 1800. There is some dispute as to whether the car was intended to replace the Midget and MGB, or just the smaller car. The prototype used a 1275cc A series engine, and no development was ever carried out on a B series engine installation.

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Of all the potential Spridget replacements, EX234 looked the most convincing, with the potential to become a scalable platform capable of replacing the Midget, MGB, and possibly even the Austin-Healey 3000.

Image: drive-my.com

Despite being admired by all who saw it and drove it, the project was abandoned by 1966 owing to the lack of financial and engineering resources to take it to production. The familiar Harriman-era excuse applied; why spend money on development and tooling when the customers are still buying plenty of the products we already make?

ADO21 Early Paul Hughes sketch. Image: AROnline

By 1969, the post-consolidation turmoil had stabilised sufficiently for design work to start on ADO21, a putative replacement for both the Midget and the Triumph Spitfire. Styling work was handled by Paul Hughes, working in Harris Mann’s team in Longbridge, while MG took on engineering responsibilities. The design proposal was a visually striking and well-proportioned fixed-head coupe with mid-mounted A and E series engines, and the potential to expand it to an MGB replacement with the 2.2 litre E6 engine was quickly recognised. The styling sketches and models show an attractive and up to the minute design, having more affinity with the newly-emerging junior Italian supercars than MG and Triumph’s staid and ageing roadsters.

ADO21 model. Image: AROnline

In complete contrast to the dramatic styling, the ADO21 engineering work suggests an under-resourced project, with development being centred on an MGB GT mule with an early 1748cc Maxi engine and its associated transaxle – including the notorious selector cables – installed behind a bulkhead fitted aft of the B-pillars.

ADO21 model. Image: AROnline

By mid-1970, the future sports car strategy had become a broader-based discussion with the British Leyland body corporate, and although a full sized ADO 21 model was presented to BLMC management in early 1970, the mid-engined proposal had already been effectively abandoned.

ADO70 prototype Image: All Car Index

Almost concurrently with ADO21, the front wheel drive Mini-based Midget idea had a final fling in the ADO70 Calypso, a neat targa-roofed two-seater also styled by Paul Hughes. The project, which seems to have no coherent relationship with anything else in BLMC’s product plan, was instigated in early 1970 by ex-Triumph BLMC Chief Engineer Harry Webster, with the direction “I want a fun car”.

It was built on the unmodified platform of a Mini 1275GT, driven to Turin in May 1970 by stylist Rob Owen, where Giovanni Michelotti’s services were engaged to construct a prototype from the Longbridge drawings. Between May and October 1970 Michelotti’s team created a hand-built, fully trimmed driveable[d] car.  Perhaps the most interesting Calypso fact is that it was intended to be built by Innocenti in Turin, and possibly sold under their name in Europe, with the MG branding reserved for exports to the USA.

Image: AROnline

More enlightening is the cost of the project: £15,000, mainly for 4-5 months of the Michelotti’s team’s design and construction work. At the time that sum would have bought three examples of British Leyland’s most expensive passenger vehicle, the Daimler DS420 Limousine, or fifteen Mini Cooper Ss. Styling and on-paper engineering were cheap, and external specialists like Michelotti provided spectacularly good value. Convincing one-off prototypes could be produced at modest cost, but tooling for large-scale production was vastly more expensive, and a product failing in the market after heavy investment would be a disaster. Remember that when contemplating all those intriguing what-might-have-beens

Between ADO70’s instigation and its realisation as a three-dimensional driveable entity, BLMC’s plans had found a different direction, and the Michelotti prototype was briefly inspected by management, who then decided that a front wheel drive sports car with the eleven year old Mini powertrain had no place in the business strategy.

By late 1970 development of MG’s mid-engined ADO21 ceased. Much earlier that year, at a top-tier meeting at Jaguar’s exhibition hall, the keel had been laid for the Corporate Sports Car, a shared conventionally engineered front engine, rear wheel drive platform which would, during the mid-1970s replace every non-Jaguar BLMC sports car. The company had no choice, as their hands were tied by impending US emissions and safety legislation, and the need to rationalise their fragmented production infrastructure.

The shape of things to come. Image: CAR

Thus ended the endless game. Happily many of the prototypes have survived and their history has been widely documented in detail well beyond the scope of this article. The Midget would not have a direct replacement, and its future would be decided by customer demand, and how much longer it could kept on the right side of the law in the USA, without the changes breaching the bounds of cost-effectiveness.

In a few year’s time, MG would surprise us when they showed how far they were prepared to go.

To be continued.

[a] Despite his opposition to the MG EX220 project on the grounds that a proper sports car had to be rear wheel driven, Issigonis, along with Jack Daniels and Riccardo Burzi, had already designed the ADO56 “MG Sports” proposal based on an elongated ADO15 platform.

Image: AROnline

The fixed-head coupe was shown as a 1:1 scale model, with a particularly incongruous MG radiator grille, as early as March 1959.

[b] Opinions on the authorship of the design vary, but it has some strong similarities to Pininfarina’s 1966 Peugeot 204 Coupe.

[c] The 1961 Deep Sanderson 301 used the Mini powertrain in a similar layout, as did the later 1966 Unipower GT and 1967 Cox GTM.

[d] The ADO70 prototype was driveable enough for Rob Owens to take it solo and unescorted by road from Turin to Birmingham, fortified by the prayers and hard work of the Innocenti management and staff who prepared it for the trans-Alpine journey.

14 thoughts on “Elemental Spirit Part 4: The Sisyphus Game”

  1. Some fascinating possibilities.

    The second photo down (green ADO34) immediately made me think of Peugeot 304.

    And the photos of AD021…. the razor-like front edge looks perfectly designed to slice pedestrians in half.

    1. I can see what you mean, but I’m sure these Michelotti boys wouldn’t dream of cutting corners by welding in bits of an old Ford.

      Has anyone else noted the similarity of ADO70’s discontinuous side swage to those on the L319 Discovery?

  2. The MG ADO34’s visual cues IMHO represents untapped potential for BMC with use beyond a Spridget successor, both as a more modern basis for an alternative Elf/Hornet likely to be more commercially successful with MG & VP badges as well as a three-box ADO16 in place of Michelotti’s saloon proposals.

    The Austin-Healey ADO36 version meanwhile opens up the possibility for a more tasteful looking Mini Marcos-like Sebring Sprite model, which could have similarly evolved into an in-house Midas-meets-CRX Mk1 (& CRX Straman roadster) inspired successor to ADO34.

    Second EX234 being the most convincing of the one-off prototypes whether as a Midget and B successor or an MGB successor. Would be rather surprised if a Six could fit into EX234 as was the case with the MGB becoming the MGC, given its smaller size compared to the MGB. Mention was made of EX234 being planned to be equipped with a 1.5-litre engine.

    EX234 also has one thinking of whether a production version could have transitioned to feature more ADO21 styling cues to bestow it a more modern body suitable for the decade ahead, similar to how the Triumph Bullet evolved before it became the Harris Mann styled TR7.


    The Healey WAEC proposal would have probably benefited from a more potent yet lighter and compact engine, IIRC the mid-engined Cherry F10 based Nissan AD-1 prototype was said to have featured a similar gearbox layout although an X1/9 layout would have been ideal. The Cox GTM seems to give an idea of what WAEC could have been had it not been overweight.

    Cannot say that I rate ADO70 on a visual level, while have heard ADO56 was derived from an ADO16 platform along with a LWB Mini platform.

  3. Another fascinating and clearly-written article that manages to give some order to BMC’s way of operating. More than ever, it’s clear that they needed a (better) planning department to define what needed to be launched and when.

    There was an exceptional amount of talent in the company, but it looks like people just did their own thing, played about a bit, got bored and then moved on to something else. For products that actually did get launched, some of it was in development so long that either the spec changed as people tinkered with it or the market had actually moved on by the time of launch.

    Some of the concepts mentioned in the article have potential, but others don’t. They all have one thing in common, though; they were ultimately all a waste of time.

    I’m writing this with hindsight, but it must have been clear at the time to any manager who sat down and said, ‘Right, what’s the plan, then?’. Other companies had similar problems, of course (Volkswagen with their interminable air-cooled dead-ends, whatever it was that Lancia was[n’t] doing, etc). I wonder if this level of messing around is no longer possible; I certainly hope so.

  4. Thanks for the comments.

    Looking at the EX234, it appears very narrow-tracked for the body width. I wonder if the platform retains elements of the Midget, given the evolutionary process involved. Widening the track would have been easy for production, and the Pininfarina body’s extra width was an unquestionable benefit – even in 1958 the Sprite was too narrow for comfort, safety, and future improvements.

    I agree about the firm’s inability to make useful benefit of some clearly very talented stylists.

    ADO21 is something of a flight of fancy, but the ADO70 design demonstrates an emerging ‘vocabulary’ which could have been used in more mainstream vehicles. I reckon ADO70’s closest relative is the CV154 van, which also never went further than the running prototype stage. That said, the ‘Calypso’ elements could translate just as readily to saloons and hatchbacks of various sizes.

    The big regret is that not much of this creative talent fed through to the products which did go into production, particularly the dull and unresolved Marina, and the downright odd Allegro.

    1. Based on the idea EX234 was allegedly sized between the Midget and MGB as well as linked somewhat to earlier experiments into hydrolastic Midgets, is it possible the Innocenti C coupé (at 140.9 inch length / 60.6 inch width / 85.8 inch wheelbase) could provide a rough approximation of EX234’s likely dimensions (unless the latter’s is already known)?

      It is difficult to see divergences such as the growth in dimensions from the Sprite / Spider to the Innocenti C coupé occurring in a vacuum rather than as originally part of or derived from projects that ultimately did not amount to much. The unrealised provision for the B-Series engine would also tie EX234 back to previous investigations into experimental MGA-engined Sprites like MG’s EX221 and Austin-Healey’s Project Mars.

  5. Another excellent instalment, thank you Robertas. As ever with BMC and its successor companies, one is struck by the enormous effort expended on prospective new models without much (or anything) to show for it. Has any automaker ever had worse ‘hit’ rate?

    Incidentally, ‘Sputnik’ seems a very odd choice as a development code name at the time. Was BMC really trying to annoy the Americans, which seems perverse, given the size and importance of the US sports car market?

    1. Daniel – worse hit rate? I’d suggest looking in at the VW Stiftung Museum next time you’re in Wolfsburg.

      The undercapitalised Russians and Eastern Europeans had many interesting ‘what might have beens’ too, but I suspect it’s endemic across the whole industry.

      At BMC/BLMC the problem was compounded by design and development staff numbers far below their British and European competitors. As Charles says, management needed to make the best use of available resources.

    2. Daniel: Sputnik was an unofficial nickname given by Issigonis and his ‘cell’ to the nascent ‘orange box’ prototypes for what became ADO 15, aka the Mini. It probably appealed not just to dear Alec’s sense of humour, but to his ego; both being small, yet due to become highly impactful.

    3. Here I am talking about the unknown.

      I once read the AROnline history of BMC – BL, and the sadness of it all seems to me to be rooted on two moments:

      1 – when austin and morris merged, they never fully integrated both companies strategies, factories and product planning. They never quite understood what to do with themselves and the numerous satelite marques they already had.

      2 – when, around a decade later Leyland joins the party, it already has little chance: It comits itself to put order on a big house on fire, adding more timber ( itself) to the flames.

      One could argue that Stokes never had a chance.
      AROnline does it, I guess.
      The game was lost since BMC was born without neither a clear goal nor an organizacional cohesion.

      All these eye-watering posts are heart breaking and beautiful, as many stillborn propositions shown here.

      I mean no offence, but I can’t avoid wandering about British automotive management quality at the time…
      …or even if they were not still in the first half of the 20th century.

  6. But please keep writing these beautiful posts.
    Half the cars shown here seem marvellous to me.

  7. Fortunately, Datsun all but built the ADO70 (around the same time BL were considering it):

    One can image the decision not to go through with it on the basis that it’s on an eleven-year-old platform – until one considers the age of the Sprite/Midget.

    “They are buying the current product now, so why bother replacing it? Ever?” speaks of a forward-thinking mind… In reality, many such decisions have to be made, I’d imagine, within a very complex reality in which a variety of products need managing. The sense I do get from BLMC’s history from reading AROnline is, however, that BLMC were never very adept at handling that complexity, making decisions that were obsolete very quickly and being unable or unwilling to reverse of modify those decisions. Then again, thanks to AROnline, I’m probably more familiar with BLMC’s history than that of most other companies, so I have little comparison.

    The EX234 is obviously the most convincing, although the ADO35 looks nice as well. The ADO21 looks very of its time and very un-british at that (although the forthcoming TR7 did, too). Somehow I don’t find it completely convincing, the stance, maybe. Given the vagaries of getting a design into production, one shudders to think how that would have turned out.

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