A short history of BMC and its successor companies’ trouble with doors.
Car doors: we take them for granted. They are there simply to provide a means of entry to and egress from a cabin sealed off from the elements, to ensure the comfort and security of the vehicle’s occupants. In engineering terms, they are mainly pretty simple: two hinges at the front, a locating pin and lock at the rear, and a mechanism to move the glass up and down either manually or electrically(1). So far, so straightforward.
However, doors are of far greater importance than might be implied by their mere functionality. They define the side profile of the car and are integral to its overall design. While cars are routinely given facelifts to freshen up their appearance after a few years on the market, such facelifts are typically confined to the front (and, occasionally, rear) end. The centre section of the bodyshell usually(2) remains untouched. Hence, it is very important to get the doors right in the first place, since you’re likely to be stuck with them throughout the model’s lifecycle.
The British Motor Corporation and the companies that succeeded it have had a long and troubled history with doors. The most widely known incidence of this problem began with the 1964 ADO17 Austin 1800. Designed by Alec Issigonis, this car was a packaging masterpiece, with a truly enormous interior relative to its overall length.
Only the most charitable or myopic would call the 1800 good-looking, however, with its exceptionally long cabin, snub-nosed front end and stumpy boot(3). Its doors were entirely functional, with one-piece inner and outer skins incorporating the window frames. Their shape, dictated by the car’s extremely long 106” (2,692mm) wheelbase(4) meant that there was no need for fixed quarter-lights front or rear.
When the time came to design a replacement for the geriatric Farina Austin Cambridge and Morris Oxford, the 1800 having proved too large to fulfil this, its intended role, early discussions centred around a car with a 100” (2,540mm) wheelbase. This made sense in that it was almost exactly half way between the smaller ADO16 Austin 1100’s 93½” (2,375mm) and the 1800’s. Moreover, it would pitch the car directly against the UK market leader in that segment, the Ford Cortina(5).
Issigonis was again in charge of the design for the new model. Even though it would feature an all-new unitary bodyshell, a decision was taken to repurpose the 1800’s distinctive doors for the car. Whether this was driven by cost-saving or some irrational love for those doors is a moot point, but the immediate effect was to force an increase in wheelbase to 104¾” (2,661mm). This was only 1¼” (32mm) shorter than the 1800’s but the new car, to be called Maxi, was actually 6” (152mm) shorter overall than the 1800.
The result was a rather Manx-tailed look whereby the rear overhang was no longer than the front. It was not exactly ugly, but was certainly unconventional in a market segment where convention still ruled. Hence, selling the Maxi was always an uphill struggle and it failed to mount any serious challenge to the Cortina’s dominance.
Now renamed BLMC following the merger with Leyland, the company’s next door-related issue concerned another attempt to challenge the Cortina and make serious inroads into the fleet market, this time with the wholly conventional 1971 Morris Marina. The starting point in 1967 for this new model’s mechanical package was the pensionable but tough and reliable Morris Minor, which was already almost twenty years old. The styling of the new car, however, would be wholly contemporary and conventional, with nothing remotely controversial to frighten away prospective customers.
BLMC had just the man for this job: Roy Haynes had previously worked for Ford, where he had been responsible for designing the Cortina Mk2. Working to a very tight timescale, Haynes quickly produced designs for the new car. He proposed one significant innovation, however: rather than simply make the two-door model identical in all other respects to the three-box four-door saloon, it would be given a unique fastback rear end and marketed as a coupé(6) to appeal to younger buyers, while the saloon (and estate) would be pitched at the family market.
This is where the door trouble started, however. In order to save costs, it was decided to utilise the front doors from the four-door saloon on the coupé. At a stroke, this ruined the proportions of the latter by giving it a B-pillar that was positioned too far forward and an excessively long rear side window. Practicality also suffered, as access to the rear seats was constricted.
Instead of being a potential rival to the Ford Capri, the Marina Coupé was a frumpy looking and misbegotten thing. One cannot help wondering if BLMC would have been better off spending the money it shelled out for the bespoke coupé rear end on longer doors and went for an Opel Manta A three-box coupé look instead. Certainly, nobody in the market for either a Capri or Manta would seriously have considered the Marina Coupé as a possible alternative.
Another reincarnation, this time as Austin Rover, and the door problem reared its ugly head again. In the early 1980s, the company was developing a new C-segment hatchback and D-segment saloon and estate in parallel. The former, codenamed LM10, would be launched in 1982 as the Maestro. The latter, codenamed LM11, came to market in 1984 as the Montego, following a protracted and occasionally troubled gestation which left both models somewhat outdated even at launch.
They shared a great deal mechanically under the skin but, during its development process, the Montego had been enlarged somewhat to position it above the Triumph Acclaim, the rebadged and British built Honda Ballade, which had not been in the product plan when development of the Maestro and Montego started in 1977. The Montego’s wheelbase was stretched by 2¼” (57mm) to 101” (2,565mm) to this end.
Once again, in order to save costs, it was decided that the Montego would utilise the doors from the Maestro. This was problematic thanks to the longer wheelbase. The Montego’s wheel arch blisters were enlarged in an attempt to disguise the mismatch, but there remained a slightly awkward looking section of bodywork between the rear door trailing-edge shut-line and rear wheel arch, unfortunately highlighted by a sliver of side-rubbing strip.
To bulk them up visually, the door windows were surrounded by a framing of black plastic with bright metal inserts. This included thick cappings at the base of the windows to disguise the Maestro’s lower window line, which fell slightly from front to rear and looked incompatible with the Montego’s styling. The fixed size and shape of the Maestro’s door window frames caused further trouble when it came to resolving the Montego’s rear screen and high rear deck. The resulting three-part rear window was certainly distinctive but was by no means universally liked.
In service, the thick cappings at the base of the door windows regularly warped in the heat of the summer sun, leaving them misaligned. The concave indentations in the door skins that looked okay-ish on the Maestro left the bigger Montego looking rather emaciated, especially in lower trim levels.
Our final door saga concerns the 1985 Rover 800. This was the XX/HX joint-venture project with Honda to produce a new executive car for both automakers, the Honda version being the original Legend. The 800 was styled by Gordon Sked and the design was characterised by flat(tish) planes, sharp creases and a series of horizontal feature lines running the length of the flanks. It was a style that would not be used on any subsequent Rover model and, by the end of the decade, was beginning to look rather dated, out of step with the curvaceous ‘organic’ designs that would become commonplace in the 1990s.
Rover Group, as the company was now named, having ditched Austin in 1988, was keen to move itself upmarket and decided that an excavation of its heritage was the way to go. The company decided on a major facelift of the 800, dubbed R17, which would give it more brightwork, a traditional chromed grille and more rounded front and rear end styling. The facelifted model arrived in 1991.
Unfortunately, the company decided to carry over the doors, including their outer skins, unchanged. Hence, their sharp horizontal creases were retained and had to be continued onto the front wings and rear quarter panels, where they sat rather uneasily against the softer revised front and rear styling. Wider side rubbing strips covered the lowest crease line, but the effect was still to make the car look rather long and narrow, and somehow less substantial than it ought to have been, given the quality and visual heft of the cars against which it was pitched.
After the decision to retain the doors unchanged had been taken, it was discovered that the dies used to press them were nearing the end of their service life and needed to be replaced anyway, so the expected savings never materialised.
So, there you have it, a short history of the company’s door troubles. I am well aware that the cars featured all had other foibles that might have hampered their sales, but that’s beyond the remit of this piece and I’ve already strayed well beyond my allowed word-count and am probably in trouble (again) with our esteemed editor.
(1) Yes, I’m well aware that there are many variations on this theme, from reverse-hinged ‘suicide’ or (less morbidly) ‘coach’ doors to exotic ‘gull-wing’ doors on supercars, and don’t get me started on the Renault Avantime’s complex hinges. Such engineering adventures are, however, beyond the scope of this piece.
(2) But not always, however: the 1983 Fiat Regata is an unusual example of a car that, when facelifted in 1986, was given new doors with a higher window line, eliminating the distinctive upticks at either end that it had inherited from the Ritmo hatchback.
(3) The 1967 Austin Three-Litre, which combined the 1800’s centre section with a longer bonnet and boot, was a rather better balanced design, although it’s cabin space was actually inferior to the 1800’s thanks to the intrusion of its RWD driveline.
(4) The length of the wheelbase meant that there was no requirement for the rear door to be sculpted around the wheel arch, so there was room to wind down a single piece of glass fully, hence no need for a fixed quarter-light.
(5) The 1966 Cortina Mk2 had a wheelbase of 98” (2,489mm) but this would grow to 101” (2,565mm) with the introduction of the Mk3 in 1970.
(6) There was little that was ‘coupé’ about it in that it shared the saloon’s 96” (2,438mm) wheelbase and was only 3” (76mm) shorter overall at 163” (4,140mm).