An Open and Shut Case

A short history of BMC and its successor companies’ trouble with doors.

Austin Manx…sorry, Maxi. Image: evoke-classics.com

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.

Image: bonhams.com

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.

Image: country classics

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.

Image: favcars.com

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.

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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.

Image: aronline.co.uk

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.

Image: racem.org

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.

Image: en.amklassiek.nl

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).

Author: Daniel O'Callaghan

Shut-line obsessive...Hates rudeness, loves biscuits.

37 thoughts on “An Open and Shut Case”

  1. It’s suspiciously quiet at this end of the trenches this morning but a first scan with the periscope reveals no sign of movement. Perhaps I’ll risk sticking my head above the parapet…. I’m really sorry Daniel – I’ve always rather admired the Austin 1800 and considered it to be thoughtfully designed and well engineered. Structurally sound (in a way which the 1100/1300 never was) and with an un-matched interior space within the footprint of any class competitor. Not only that, the rear seat passengers sit forward of, rather than over, the rear axle. (Gerald Palmer would have approved). Integral to the success of the design are, of course, the doors……

    But is it good looking? Not by the conventional standards of the time of course but we all know where beauty really lies and even if I am a lone voice I find nothing to dislike about it. Nor do the looks of the Maxi offend me in any way. From the perspectives of 2023, however, only one jarring note creeps in: the dumpy proportions of the 1800 clearly predict the evolution of the SUV – not one of which comes close to matching the elegance of their original inspiration.

  2. Hello Daniel,
    Door sharing and door shenanigans- always interesting stuff as there are quite a few examples in automotive history. One are the 1959 model year GM cars (Chevrolet-Pontiac-Oldsmobile-Buick-Cadillac) that were created in a more rushed than usual program due to Virgil Exner’s stunning finned 1957 “Forward Look” Plymouths, Dodges, DeSotos, Chryslers and Imperials. All originally planned 1959 GM car designs were discarded (surviving photos of the prototype clays show that was the right decision) and in order to save time and money it was decided that the Buick’s front door would serve as the base for all 1959 GM car designs. Since that door had a distinct taper at the top all others were forced to more or less follow the same template. The DLO’s were also very similar as the panoramic windshield and much other glass was also shared between all divisions:

  3. The story of the Maestro/Montego door gap reminds me of Audi 80 B3/B4.
    For the B4 they stretched the wheelbase for more comfort on the rear seat (the B3’s rear seat cushion was exceptionally short to give the impression of sufficient leg room) but they kept the B3’s doors. In the hope nobody would notice they made the B4’s wheelarch lips more pronounced
    B3

    B4

  4. The earlier Austin A40 Cambridge and A90 Westminster shared doors too, as did Vauxhall’s FB Victor and PB Cresta (and the following FC and PC models shared front doors), though the re-use in Vauxhall’s cases was just one year later, not five as for the Maxi.

  5. Using the Maxi as a rough starting point for what ADO17 could have been, it would be interesting to see a photoshop with a shorter wheelbase of about 99-100-inches via say ADO16 doors together with maybe with the addition of a conventional down scaled X6 rear.

  6. Good morning Daniel, and thank you for the article! I always had a feeling that with the slightest of tweaks the Marina Coupe would have been a pretty decent design. So nearly there, like so much of their stuff.

    With the 1800 that started the whole thing, a wheelbase that long works on a 2 box design, as Pininfarina beautifully demonstrated with their concept, and hell even the maxi shows off better, but not so much on a 3 box design. Not unless you’re prepared to stretch out the front and back to proportionally match.

    The front door on the 1800 isn’t too bad, but the rear one is really messing it up. I’m tempted to break out the photoshop or digital pen to see if reducing the wheelbase and sculpting that door around the back arch might have saved the design.

    Also your article has made me realise how the British Car Company of the era kept making this pretty fundamental mistake over and over and over again. At some point you would think, nay hope, that someone would go “ok be sure to get the doors right this time, we don’t want a repeat of the last one”. I despair.

  7. Another prominent example of door sharing was the Alfa 75.
    Alfa was so poor they had to re-use the Giulietta doors and just like in case of the Montego they fitted thick black plastic planks at the lower edge of the glass. These also served to hide the notorious rust trap under the rubber seal. And because these plastic planks were so visible they had to continue them as useless plastic strips along the wings and around the rear.

    Here some door sharing at another level, using the same doors front and rear:

  8. In the old days it was normal to use the same doors – even the same cabin – on your medium and premium saloons. You just stretched the platform ahead of the scuttle to accommodate the two extra cylinders ( A40/A50/A90 or Morris Oxford/Morris Cowley) Even Riley did it, even though their 2.1/2 litre didn’t have any more cylinders than their 1.1/2, they still needed a longer bonnet.
    Sadly some of the doors BMC used were not very attractive to begin with. It took a while before I realised the Victor and Cresta shared doors, ditto the final (BJ Series) Mazda 323 with the contemporary 626.

    1. Peugeot 504 and 604 had the same doors, much to the detriment of the latter.

      One prominent example of cabin sharing must be Mercedes’ tailfin model range of the Sixties.
      Everything from the humble 190Dc to the 300 SE had the same cabin, combined with two front sections of different length for four and six cylinder versions (which didn’t prevent them from offering the six in the short nose with the 220). The desire to differentiate between models led to an overdose of chrome for the 300 SE and SEL which even had a square chrome frame around its type designation, a feature never used on any other Benz.
      Mercedes planned to repeat the trick with the W114/115 /8 models for which the six cylinder versions originally were planned to have a longer front but ended identical to the four cylindes except for the 280/280E where the DOHC engine necessitated a completely different front end which looked the same from outside.

    1. Good evening all and apologies for being inattentive to matters DTW today.

      There’s nothing wrong with door sharing per se, especially between cars of a similar size, as in brrruno’s excellent example above. Volkswagen Group does quite a lot of it, although sometimes they apply different door skins to differentiate the different marques’ similarly sized crossovers, for example. The issue I was addressing was mainly repurposing doors inappropriately, so that they compromise the car for which they were not primarily intended.

      By the way, I do admire both the 1800 and Maxi for their ruthless functionalism. Moreover, I think the Maxi actually looks the better of the two, but it was just not the car BL needed to challenge the Cortina, at least in part thanks those doors. I think that the car that carried them off best, though, was the Austin 3-Litre, which is weirdly appealing on RoStyle wheels:


      Of course, badging it an Austin was idiotic. Here is one dressed up as a Vanden Plas, which looks rather handsome:

  9. I remember when the Mk5 Golf came out, my son came home for a weekend with a new company one. As an admirer of the Mk4, I spent ages examining it, especially those doors ( and the OTT way they were constructed..)
    Also the way the “B” pillar obstructed your view at junctions, but that is a whole different topic.

  10. A somewhat negative slant of the doors from Rover and its decedents, shutting out any positivity. No mention of Rover seamlessly ‘recycling’ the rear Honda Accord doors for the 600 then? Or recycling Range Rover door frames for the 89-2004 Discovery? Or the tailgate of said car being used without jarring the eye despite the significant styling overhaul in 1998 which ditched Maestro van rear lamp units. We’ll not mention the same front doors used regardless of 3 or 5 door on that model.

    In defence to the Maestro and Nonego, the doors were quite old tech (they’re closely related to the above mentioned Solihull products), no one-piece pressing as found on the 3-litre, 1800-2200 series or Maxi. This meant the Nonego Estate has properly fitting upper door frames on the estate, unlike the awful Volvo 200-series. Its open to debate what came first, Maestro or Montego wheelbase.

    Finally, lets look at the good work done, such as the Metro gaining 5 elegant little doors in a 3-door class. Or the fitting of side intrusion beams to Metro and Mini (and again, in the Disco and Classic Range Rover). Such internal strengthening was also undertook when the MGB door pressings were refurbished as part of the exhumation that gave us MG-RV8.

    Thankfully, 800 doors went from strength-to-strength with the addition of side intrusion beams, despite the old external pressings being used (some blame Andy Barr for this oversight). Rover did give the the 800 beautiful Coupé doors however. But the R8 Rover 200 must rank as the one car The Firm gave us with the greatest number of door variations, besting even the Metro multiple efforts: 4 door, 2 door, and Coupe/Cabriolet (frameless). Not forgetting two tailgates (hatch, estate) and two separate boot pressings (saloon, coupe/Cab).

    1. Good evening Steven and thank you for your welcome counterpoint.

      The Rover 600 and Honda Accord did indeed share doors, but the rear door window frames were different as the 600 had a four-light DLO whereas the Accord had a six-light arrangement:


      Regarding the Discovery, it shared the original Range Rover’s 100-inch (2,540mm) wheelbase, so reusing the latter’s doors made perfect sense, as did retaining the Series I Discovery’s rear door on the longer but otherwise pretty similar looking Series II.

  11. @ Daniel The 3 litre is actually a handsome looking thing, so long as you overlook the grill. As a concept it didn’t quite work; too big, too thirsty, too late and with a badge too downmarket for a luxury car, but as a Wolseley it’s superb.

    Had the 1800 looked like a shrunk down version of the 3 litres basic design, with the 1.6l engine, that company may still be with us in some shape or form. Even with those doors (and that grill) which yeah, actually do suit it very well in that guise.

  12. A two-door Marina three-box-coupé (or just two-door sedan) with bespoke doors might have worked:

    It’s still no Ford Capri, though. Overall, the Marina was a frumpy looking thing, but that was in line with the style of the times, as most contemporaries were similarly frumpy. The jump from the 510 Datsun Bluebird to the 610 looks particularly galling to me.

    The Rover 800 would have benefitted from being a little wider more than having new doors, I think. Shame the money (of will) wasn’t there to base it on the wider second generation Honda Legend. Honda seems temperamentally unsuited to forming a conglomerate with other brands (although they do have some joint ventures here and there), so the Rover thing was probably never going to work in the long term. Interesting alternative history though: what if Rover and Honda had continued?

    The Ford Scorpio (or Granada, then Scorpio in the UK) had similar issues to the 800 regarding the doors. Then again, the doors are the least of the Scorpio’s problems.

  13. What a delightful topic to start 2023 with. I was blissfully unaware of most examples here, so a big thanks to Daniel and the commentariat for yet another school day 🙂

  14. Those doors were used on the Australian Austin Tasman/Kimberly versions of the 1800 and were to have been used on the proposal for an English version.

    1. This is why it’s so frustrating sometimes; the answers were right there in front of them. That top car, at the right 99-100” wheelbase, right size of engine and perhaps some minor styling tweaks, in the mid 60s they’d have had a cortina rival that could flourish in Europe. And the bottom shows it had potential to go up market. What a shame.

    2. Hi JCC. You’re right, but I guess ‘not invented here’ syndrome was rife in Longbridge at the time, given all the other internecine battles that were going on at the time.

    3. There was one mid-1960s ADO17 facelift proposal in the Jeff Daniels book on BL that while possessing a gawky looking tail-light treatment (unlike the attractive X6 rear), did have more promise at the front as a more contemporary styled alternative to the VDP 1800 prototype.

      The ADO17 facelift proposal featuring a de-chromed black-grilled twin-headlight front-end treatment loosely resembling an Austin Victoria-meets-Lancia 2000 Berlina (minus the latter’s centre grille), while preceding both by about 4-5 years.

  15. The choice to brand the three litre as an Austin wasn’t idiotic given that as well as smaller vehicles Austin had also been known for producing larger luxury models.

    Just another point, while the Montego’s rear door skin and frame pressings are pretty much the same as the Maestro’s the window frame is a completely different profile.

    1. Good afternoon Chris and welcome to Driven To Write.

      We’ll have to agree to differ regarding the 3-Litre, although I would argue its failure in the market would tend to support my contention. Regarding the Maestro and Montego, I stand corrected, but it was the door itself, not the shape of the window frame, that was the problem when it was repurposed for the Montego.

  16. Happy New Year all, and I’ll take the discussion off on a slight tangent, if I may?

    Supposing, when the idea of using the 1800’s doors for the Maxi was mooted, someone had suggested carrying over the front doors, but adapting the rear door design for a shorter wheelbase? Three or four inches of wheel arch intrusion could have given the world a much better looking Maxi. Or alternatively, that viable three-box competitor for the Cortina that they so desperately needed. There was nothing wrong with the front doors; it was the rear doors that caused the stylistic problems for a shorter vehicle.

    1. Hi Peter. We love tangents here at DTW! I may well get out my crayons to test your hypothesis, but it will be later in the week when I’ve time to get around to it. Watch this space…!

    2. I got around to playing with the Maxi earlier today. Here’s an interesting thing (well, to me anyway). Just by shortening the wheelbase and giving it more rear overhang, i think the stance is improved noticeably. Original first for comparison:


      Some will argue, with justification, that I just made it more conventional looking. The trouble is, I don’t the Maxi is distinctive enough to pull off the highly unusual ‘pulled not pushed’ stance in the way the Citroën DS did.

      (I have also mocked up a six-light three-box saloon version of the Maxi on the shorter wheelbase, but my creaky laptop is playing silly buggers with Photoshop ‘not responding’ so I may lose it.)

    3. Here’s the three-box saloon on the shorter wheelbase. Original first for comparison:


    4. Daniel, thanks so much for taking up my idea. That hatchback looks way better, though perhaps the saloon’s boot needs to be a little longer? I think you’re right about the Maxi not being distinctive enough to pull off the ultra-long-wheelbase look like a DS (or even a Renault 16?). I mentally tried skirting the Maxi’s rear wheels, but no…

  17. Would second the three-box being an improvement over the original proposal, did wonder if a scaled-down X6 rear would have been effective on the Maxi (and too a lesser extent ADO16 in place of the Apache/Victoria for a range three-box saloons with a common family look at the rear)?

    The same goes on whether a quad-headlight treatment would have worked on the Maxi like it did with certain BL models, if not a more Leyland Mini 998 LS inspired treatment with grille mounted / integrated foglights.

    1. Just looking at the profile of the guards and bonnet, if you put quad lights on that it’d look a bit like an Isuzu Bellett. This is not necessarily a bad thing.

    2. How about this?

      It’s getting dangerously close to desirable!

    3. Thanks Daniel. It certainly improves thing at the front, giving the Maxi the sort of detailing it otherwise lacked.

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