The question that BMC – and later BLMC – faced perpetually from the mid 1960s onwards was: How do you replace the Mini?
Alec Issigonis said in 1964 ‘an advanced design only becomes a successful one when others copy it for themselves’. In 1969, at the time of Issigonis’s knighthood and the production of the two millionth Mini, Lord Stokes, Chairman of BLMC said “The success of the Mini is a great tribute to its original concept……I see no reason why the Mini, should not continue for another 10 years.”
The Mini originated in 1956, with BMC chairman Leonard Lord’s circumstance driven ambition to compete against the imported bubble cars (such as the Heinkel and Messerschmitt) with a small but four seat car. Petrol rationing, at ten gallons a month, may have only lasted until May 1957, but Lord’s reaction had gained momentum.
Issigonis had been working on the XC9001, a large front wheel drive car that utimately became the 1964 Austin 1800 Landcrab. The decision to proceed with an altogether smaller and narrower car led Issigonis to pioneer the gearbox in sump arrangement that would be used for all the first eneration of BMC/BL front wheel drive cars. The transmission in sump arrangement would ultimately prove a dead end, and by 1991 the only BMC/BL/Rover car fitted with it was the Mini itself.
By the mid 1960s, no one had copied the Mini, at that point in the market. So, Issigonis copied it himself in his new position as Director of Advanced Research, utilising all BMC had learnt about front wheel drive with ten years’ experience with the Mini, 1100, 1800 and Maxi.
Looking at the regular Mini, there were aspects that BMC and Issigonis accepted could be improved – the engine was relatively heavy for a small car whilst not being that powerful, the gearbox in the sump was noisy, although spacious for its size the Mini was not that practical, the ride was a bit bouncy, to say the least. Issigonis took this onboard and developed a proposal for a new Mini, known as 9X.
This proposal had an entirely new, aluminium alloy head, 4 cylinder engine of 1000cc, which produced 60 bhp compared with the 1000cc Min’s 40 bhp and was 40lb lighter, the gearbox was below but behind, rather than directly underneath the engine, enabling a much quieter gear train to be developed, it had a hatchback (Issigonis had to be persuaded about this aspect), it had a 1970s style McPherson strut suspension, it had more space inside and was 4 inches shorter than a regular Mini.
So what happened to it? It was a victim of two things – the fact that the current Mini was selling at 300,000 cars a year, so the need to replace it was not as apparent as the temptation to keep it going, and the fact that there was no money available and a new car with a new engine
Issigonis always knew that the 9X was unlikely to be produced, but he had been tasked with doing the long term advanced thinking. This was at least medium term – it was 1972 before anything of this engineering concept was on sale, when the Peugeot 104 followed the ideas quite closely, except it was a little longer. Cars like the Renault 5 and Fiat 127 were also conceptually similar (except for the Renault’s longitudinal engine) but were still larger. It really was a potential Mini successor and world beater – BLMC could have been a decisive step ahead of the competition just as it was catching up.
Issigonis also planned an 1100 successor based on this layout, which was turned down, in favour of the Allegro, which of course failed in the market place. This left a gap in the BL range between the Mini and the Allegro, which was filled very admirably by cars like the Renault 5, Fiat 127, Peugeot 104 and (slightly later) the VW Polo and Ford Fiesta. But not by a BL product – seemingly, BL had created a gap but did not see it, even as Mini sales dropped from their peak volume of over 318,000 in 1971 to 200,000 in 1975 – a decline of 37%.
After the cancellation of the 9X in 1968, Stokes and the new management of Austin-Morris asked for a “quick fix” to update the Mini for the 1970s. Ex-Ford stylist and product planner Roy Haynes responded by grafting a new front end onto the car to create the Mini Clubman. Any resemblance of the front end, which was the only external difference, to the Maxi and Marina was totally deliberate – Haynes was trying to create a coherent Austin-Morris look. As the Cooper, Riley and Wolseley versions of the Mini were discontinued, the Clubman was also trimmed more expensively than a standard Mini, with wind up windows, a more complete dashboard and smarter seat trims, and there was the 1275GT version to fill the void left by the Cooper.
Haynes had also developed a hatchback version of the Clubman, which would have been marketed at a greater premium to the Mini than the Clubman was. This never saw the light of production, due to the cost of development and conservatism within BL about building a small hatchback. The competition would soon prove that to be a false concern.
In 1968-69, BL formally evaluated three options, known internally as Ant, Ladybird and Dragonfly.
Dragonfly was the first to be discounted – it was a size larger at 24-30 inches longer than the Mini (making it Allegro-sized) and would have had 1000cc-1200cc engines. The proposed styling was “classic” three-box and effectively this car would be competing with Ford Escort, which could be permitted as the Morris Marina was growing larger and closer to the Ford Cortina.
Ant was a like for like, size wise, Mini replacement, being similarly sized to the original, with 750cc-950cc engine sizes and both 2 and 3 door body-styles. Ladybird was a larger car than the Mini, being some 15 inches longer and 5ins wider. Its engine range was 900cc-1100cc and it would have been a true supermini, created in the same idiom as the FIAT 127 and Renault 5.
The Ant was also popularly known as the Barrel Mini, for obvious reasons. Take a Mini, and fatten the sides out to create more width inside. The opportunity was also taken to simplify and reduce the number of pressings required to build the car, which was high for a car of this size, and a significant factor in the cost of production. It looked like a Mini that had “gone large with that”, but didn’t offer the step change Issigonis was looking for.
After a lot of internal analysis, including full size mock ups, the Ladybird concept was selected, and become known as ADO74. It was based around an 90 inch wheelbase, with an OHC engine with the gearbox in the sump, contemporary, smart, styling by Harris Mann, simple but effective suspension (similar to the 9X actually) and a bill of £130m.
To John Barber, BLMC’s finance director, this was an unaffordable amount and he considered the car too large, preferring something closer to a direct Mini replacement. Rather than try and fill a niche, Barber felt that BLMC should cover the niche and the existing product with the a new car. In September 1973, it was cancelled, just weeks before the Yom Kippur war. After that, of course, there was no money left for anything, and a year later BL was effectively bust.
One option that was considered seriously was to build a version of the Innocenti Mini at Longbridge. In 1974, Leyland’s Italian subsidiary Innocenti introduced a rebodied Mini, with a 3-door hatchback body styled by Bertone. However, within a year of its launch, BLMC went bankrupt and Innocenti was sold to de Tomaso. Prior to the launch of the Metro, the Innocenti was briefly available in the UK, and it continued to be sold as part of BL’s range in many mainland European countries for several years.
Remarkably, it was available in certain markets up to 1993, with 617 cc or 993cc Daihatsu engines and marketed as a De Tomaso model. As it was based on the original Mini, it was not able to offer anything like the step change Austin-Morris needed, and was expensive to manufacture.
In late 1974 and early 1975, as the dust of the bankruptcy and nationalisation settled, the idea of replacing the Mini was revisited.
The basic building blocks of the car fell into place quickly, and used many Mini and Allegro items. The wheelbase was 88 inches, down from the ADO74, the drive train, based on 998cc and 1275cc A series engines was pure Mini, complete the four speed gearbox in the sump and the suspension was by Hydragas system used on the Maxi, Leyland Princess and Allegro. BL looked very closely at the VW style beam style rear axle and suspension, and rejected it on the grounds of packaging. You suspect cost and time may also have been in the equation. So far, although Issigonis was long gone from BL, you can sense traces of his influence and preferences coming through, and these are only reinforced by the style of the car.
This project was known as ADO88, and whilst this was BL’s final answer, there is one final twist.
The style of ADO88 car had been kept deliberately simple, functional and even plain. It was expected to be selling below cars like the Renault 5, Ford Fiesta and Fiat 127, in the space between these cars and the Mini itself. Indeed, at this time, it was probably the new Mini.
When Sir Michael Edwardes, BL’s new Chairman and the new Austin-Morris chief, Ray Horrocks, viewed ADO88 for the first time in late 1977, both realised immediately that it needed re-evaluation. This was also consistent with the feedback from market research exercises. It was too late in the development cycle to drastically change the car – luckily the basic concept was good – but disastrous customer clinic results from the UK and France were backing up feelings that the concept of the ADO88 was too utilitarian when compared with more sophisticated rivals like the Volkswagen Polo and the new Ford Fiesta. What potential customers were saying was that too “unsophisticated”. With hindsight, you could argue Alec Issigonis’s influemce was still deeply embedded in Longbridge.
The main points of contention were that the almost-vertical tailgate made it look too much like a small van and the flat sides of the car backed-up this impression. If you like, it needed to compete with the Renault 5, not the Renault 4, but it was more of a Renault 4 and less of a Renault 5. Seemingly, this was a repeat of the reception the Maxi got in 1968 from new senior managers.
The combination of the arrival of the new management and the very poor showing in customer clinics were the catalysts needed to get the required changes made – and made quickly. ADO88 got an emergency re-style, in just five weeks, and a year’s delay in coming to the market. At this point, the ADO88 project was renamed LC8 (for Leyland Cars), in order to tie the car in with the upcoming LC10 and LC11, but also to record the car’s changed focus.
The car grew, to be seen as a fully sized member of the supermini club. The length went up by 2.5 inches, the width by 2 inches, gaining the distinctive convex curved side of the Metro, and the rear profile substantially revised. The wheels were now to be 12 inch, not 10 inch as on the Mini, and conventional door handles added, rather than Renault 5 style recessed items into cutouts. A parallel process was conducted on the interior.
All this was conducted with much more press and public scrutiny than any other car in the long tale of the British motor industry. Even so, much of the detail escaped close attention, as the story was largely one of when and of BL’s labour and finance issues. The actual configuration of the car, though, as shown in 1980, was not a great surprise, given the basics BL had to build on.
But the press did try and therefore, in November 1978 when such a “scoop” feature was still unusual in the British press, this was a big one. But it is ADO88, not LC8 and already out of date. Note also, it is headlined as the new Mini, not as a supplementary model.
Eight months later, the photo was clearer, but it is still an ADO88 prototype, not an LC8. Of course, development of much of the car could be completed with the older prototypes, and that may also account for the lack of disguise on this example.
But, still the Austin miniMetro was coming.