1969 Austin Maxi: Road Test

Something old, something new! Archibald Vicar, Dip. Eng. tries the latest sensation from BLMC, the Austin Maxi.

Image: veikl

From “Today’s Driver” February 1969. Photography by Patrick Lamperay. Due to liquid spillage to the original negative source, stock photos have been used.
Editor’s note: This transcript of the Archie Vicar original first appeared on Driven to Write in November 2013. 

There it was, an Austin Maxi, Leyland’s latest motor car. And we were in Dublin, Eire, to test it. It was eight o’clock in the morning and photographer, Lamperey, and I were at British Leyland’s small factory in the middle of what was once the Empire’s second city. While I ought to have been taking in the generalities of the Maxi’s technicalities I was more cognisant of my rather delicate physical state, that of a rotten hangover.

Said hangover was largely as a result of my failed attempt to anaesthetise myself during the festival of mal de mer that was the ferry from Holyhead to Dublin. The duty-free Guinness was at least remarkably cheap so the experience was merely disagreeable and not costly. I was also able to acquire my full allotment of Sweet Aftons and the tame photographer was able to double the amount on my behalf. Splendid chap!

Prior to our voyage to Hibernia, Mr Slade (the editor) and I discussed why British Leyland might want to send us all the way to Dublin to assess the new Maxi. Which qualities would the Irish road conditions show to the best effect, we wondered? Was it the five and a half foot turning circle we would admire? Was it the uncannily exact similarity of the Maxi’s doors to those found on the imposing Austin 3-liter?

Was it the not-quite-11-gallon fuel tank that would charm us? Or perhaps it was something about the nineteen and a half cwt weight that we would notice. It was quite beyond us but perhaps as the test wore on all would become clear.

Dublin is still a bit rough around the edges but so were we.
Dublin is still a bit rough around the edges but so were we. Unattributed image.

Before beginning a fuller enumeration of the Austin Maxi’s technicalities, I should explain to some readers that the Maxi is a motor car that has been designed by the renowned Mr Issigonis, father of the popular front-wheel drive, Hydrolastically-suspended Mini.

He is the same creative fellow who has supervised the successful Austin 1300, which is a front-wheel drive car with Hydrolastic suspension. And his new creation demonstrates that an old dog does not need to learn new tricks since the Maxi looks very much like a longer and slightly taller Austin 1300.

“…a scattering of switches across a centre console…”

We collected the Austin Maxi from British Leyland’s warehouse having been appraised of the controls by BL’s local representative. This process was as necessary as having someone explain the method of operation for a tin-opener because the Austin Maxi is to all intents a Mini (albeit one that has been unevenly magnified by 25 percent). There’s a scattering of switches across a centre console and one of those odd ashtrays that rotates about a central axis. I think we saw this idea already on the Ford Escort.

I interrupted the redundant explanation and drove off to find the hair of the dog at one of Dublin’s famous pubs, one pointed out by the photographer a little earlier. Seated at the front of Doheny & Nesbitt’s, with the Maxi parked outside on the rain-drenched street, it was a simple matter to wait for the Guinness to settle and gather my strength.

Image: Autocar

“…fried egg, white pudding, eggs, sausages, bacon and more eggs…”

 

The third Guinness finally knocked the sharp edge off the headache but also made the idea of driving the Maxi (one of only four in Eire) somewhat unattractive. So, with the help of Lamperey who has a greater capacity for stout than I, we wandered the short distance to Buswell’s Hotel to eat some vittels and recover the sleep lost on board the ferry. I can exclusively reveal that a large plate of black pudding, fried egg, white pudding, eggs, sausages, bacon and more eggs are of tremendous help in restoring the constitution.

So it was that instead of having a little rest, I fell into conversation with a painter chap by the name of Freud who I chanced on meeting in the bar. Generous to a fault, Freud offered us additional pints of plain and invited us to a festive gathering in the mountains of County Wicklow. I think he just needed a lift for himself and his two leggy blonde girl friends. With the car thus crammed we set off into the hills.

“Lamperey did a fair amount of the driving.”

If the reader is wondering when we will hear a little about the motor car, I must candidly reveal that the friendliness of the locals, the dreadful weather and the remarkable smooth quality of the Guinness meant it was surprisingly hard to put much time in behind the overlarge steering wheel. Lamperey did a fair amount of the driving and, according to him, the gearchanges weren’t much to write home about.

BLMC has used a cable-operated gearshift, I would have thought. This is probably a good idea that just needs a little bit of working on. There’s a fifth gear but I think nobody needs this. Why stop at five, I ask. Why not six or even seven? Madness. A fifth gear is simply something extra to break and, as it is, the bolshie communists at Longbridge find four cogs hard enough to glue together. Five is asking too much.

“…an idea dreamed up by some cove in marketing…”

The roads in Eire are as rotten as the climate there so it would be reckless to draw any conclusions about the quality of the Maxi’s ride. Rubbery, I suppose you could say. One interesting thing about the car is that it has a fifth door but as the Renault 16 also has one, I’m not clear why BL feels the need to try this as well. One fifth door is more than enough in our little world.

auto classiques

It would appear to be an idea dreamed up by some marketing cove who’s been to Le Havre and taken a fancy to Gallic traditions among which are flawed sanitation and mistreatment of their monarchs. Like the Renault, the Maxi has a rear seat that reclines back to make a very uncomfortable camp bed. So, instead of going to a French hotel to experience a terrible night’s sleep, one can doze in one’s Maxi on the front drive and awake with a bad back without travelling a single mile. That’s progress, I would assume.

“…the gearbox can share its oil with the engine…”

Finally, the Maxi has a transverse-engine layout. The main consequence of this is that the gearbox can share its oil with the engine. As long as the clutch oil seal doesn’t leak this ought to be a perfectly reasonable compromise.

 

A choice of new colours (mustard, brown and umber) will add to the car’s appeal. Austin believe the car will compete well against the Ford Consul and Vauxhall Victor.

A 1750 engine is believed to become available at some point.

An edited version of this also appeared in Dublin’s evening paper “The Hibernian Times”.

Author: richard herriott

I like anchovies. I dislike post-war town planning.

27 thoughts on “1969 Austin Maxi: Road Test”

  1. Hah! Easy to be critical of the layout but look what we’re driving now – 5 door, 5+ speed hatchbacks!

  2. There is an article in this month’s Classic & Sportscar about *Keith Richards’ fine 1965 Bentley. However, rich musicians and their exotics are generally rather predictable. More endearingly mundane was *John Lennon’s ownership of an Austin Maxi. Not being a great driver, he crashed it into a ditch in Scotland.

    * For younger readers, the above named were respectively members of “The Rolling Stones” and “The Beatles”, two popular music combos at their heights in the 1960s.

  3. Haha, what a clever and informative road test! Perhaps Mr Vicar dodged a bullet when he met Mr. Freud in Buswell’s: it seems there were characters with plans to smuggle all manner of exotic things hanging out in Dublin’s hostelries at that time. Probably wise to let Lamperey drive, though: too much Guinness and one can indeed blow one’s mind out in a car…

    Readers will be glad to know though that Doheny and Nesbitts and Buswells have long outlasted the misfortunate Maxi and are still going strong. Sláinte!

    1. I shall be back to Buswell´s for a pleasant drink in February. It´s a smashing hotel -right outside Irish parliament and as friendly as a country hotel.

  4. I must agree that in 1969 Ireland one didn’t really need a fifth gear, and I still feel a fifth door is unnecessary in a vehicle that isn’t a ‘station wagon’….

  5. Thanks you for the amusing article Richard! Really interesting to see those initial impressions of what would eventually become the standard for family cars.

    As for the Maxi, yet another one of those nearly their BMC/BL concepts and designs. I was meaning to see if I could improve the design via photoshop, and I came up with this while watching the TV:

    Please excuse the rough and readiness of it, I’m still learning the basics lol

    Developing an idea shown earlier on this site by Daniel O’Callaghan, I gave it a quad light set up and added the Shield emblem, but more importantly I shaved a few inches off the wheelbase to bring it close to that magic 100” number, and adjusted the rear door and corners as necessary.

    Some ideas that didn’t make the final design; the Marina doorhandles and wing mirrors. I could still try it but it may be better to try it in stages first.

    Is it good? Is it terrible? Either way, I’d love to hear all your feedback!

    1. I can see what you´re getting at – overall, it´s a plausible reworking within the styling conventions of the day. If I squint I can see it being a likely version – and that also underlines the fundamental problems with the car. You can make it better but not make it good. That´s the fault of the many elements that make it a Maxi and not a Granada or Carlton. Assuming the frontal area is to be retained, the few ways to complete the car all lead in the same direction, dumpiness. What we learn here is that the package was unworkable in the terms of 1960s engineering/design conventions. It´s like the revision of the C5 Daniel did. Getting the car to “work” means doing a whole new car. You can´t tweak the Maxi into decency. But your research is good at demonstrating this.

    2. Doubt the dumpiness could have been minimized, yet would it have been possible to lower the Maxi’s bonnet line a bit to account for either a more compact engine or conventional gearbox arrangement if not both?

  6. Poor Archie, most of his ‘reviews’ have aged like fine milk. Whatever little content there is about the car anyway.

    1. Surely they had curdled before he finished writing them….

    2. I have to say I was rather disappointed to see Archie refer to the “Austin 3-liter”. I thought a staunch Englishman such as he would have no time for such vulgar Americanisms.

    3. Daniel, I had to read that paragraph several times and it took me a while to understand your disappointment. It’s interesting what a difference two three letters make.

  7. Archie was always more vulgar than commonly thought. He once referred to the “interior mirror” instead of the interior looking glass. I almost choked on my porter.

    1. It’s a tipple. Should one ever find themselves near Tadcaster, North Yorkshire, you’ll spot the name on a motorway sign. A magical force pulled my rented Fiesta off the exit ramp and into town, where I got lucky. Apparently tours are now by advance booking only, so plan ahead.

  8. Interesting that Archie thought the doors were borrowed from the 3-Litre , suggesting he hadn’t ever seen a Landcrab. The problem wasn’t that they kept re-using the same doors, the problem was the doors weren’t very nice in the first place. Ugly doors were part of the problem with the first Sierras. One of the reasons the Jaguar Mk2 looked so much better than the ‘Mk1’ was that they improved the doors.

    1. There was also an Austin Three Litre featured in that episode.

    2. The engine on that Maxi sounded so rough, which is worse when you remember that it would have been a newish car at the time too.

      I remember the jaguar the ‘police’ were driving was a nice motor though. Also I guess the budget couldn’t spring for a Land Rover for UNIT lol.

    3. I never saw that episode but I read the Target novelisation. In the summer I asked if they had some of them in Hodges Figgis bookshop in Dublin: just a compendium of two Dalek stories as retold by Terrance Dicks, “better than the television show” wrote the script editor of the currrent version of the show.

    4. JCC – yes, it sounded as though the exhaust was blowing. I think the Maxi would’ve been practically brand new at the time, so it’s odd. That said, I thought it looked nicely finished.

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