The Austin Maxi might appear to have successfully mixed the space and packaging advantages of the transverse engine layout with the then new hatchback configuration to create arguably the most contemporary car to come out of Britain in the 1960s. However, it also became one of the biggest failures, technically and commercially, of the BMC story.
Prior to the launch of the Maxi in 1969, we had the Renault 16, from 1965, and then the smaller Simca 1100 in 1967. In this context, it seemed that the Maxi would be a truly modern car, with the transverse engine configuration, hatchback, flexible interior options, modern overhead camshaft engine and 5 speed gearbox.
The origins of the Maxi lie in Ford’s domination of the UK middle market, especially the success of the Ford Cortina, from 1962, and BMC’s lack of product to directly compete with it. The Cortina came in Ford’s usual extensive range of trim levels, engines and body shapes and initially competed with Morris 1100 at the lower end and BMC’s Morris Oxford and Austin Cambridge at the upper end, with more space than the 1100 and a lot more style than the Oxford and Cambridge.
The Oxford and Cambridge twins (not quite as corny as it sounds – Oxford was an old Morris name and Austin had been using English city and county names for many years) dated from 1957. Styled by Pininfarina, hence they were unofficially known as the Farina range, they were typically conservative and frankly dull cars, with a 1.6 litre version of BMC OHV engine, and ones which BMC had planned to replace after a relatively short life.
The Farina was actually expected to be replaced in 1964 by the Austin and Morris 1800, and later its Morris 1800 twin, known as ADO17. This car was conceived by Issigonis as the next logical development of the concept of the Mini and 1100, using the transverse engine, front wheel drive layout. And then it started to go wrong. The B series had grown to 1.8 litre, for the MGB, and Alec Issigonis, taking advantage of the consequent performance increase stretched the wheelbase of ADO17 to 106 inches. This was despite the fact that 1.4-1.5 litre cars sold at something like 4 times the rate of 1.7-1.8 litre cars in the UK market. Significantly, this was over 6 inches more than the Farina saloons and consequently the ADO17 had such an immense amount interior space, in a car shorter than a 1998 Ford Focus, that it was remarkable. The fact that is also had an awful driving position seems to have got through the net, along with the weight of the thing. It was strong though.
The next disadvantage was that the proportions made the car very difficult to style elegantly, as Issigonis widened the car to reflect the extra wheelbase. The final result was something that was nowhere near as stylish as the elegant Pininfarina styled 1100 – in fact it was downright dumpy, and soon earned the nickname Landcrab, which is still recognised today.
The Landcrab’s size was sufficiently different from the Farina and sales performance were sufficiently poor for BMC to abandon any plans to replace the Farina with the Landcrab; instead BMC recognised the unfilled need for a product to replace the Farinas and take on the Cortina, whilst at the same time hoping for some means to utilise more fully the tooling and production capacity set up for the Landcrab.
Hence, the key point to the tragedy of the Maxi is to acknowledge that the configuration was arrived at by accident. BMC did not set out to create a distinctly modern car. They were after a competitor to the Ford Cortina, Vauxhall Victor and Hillman Hunter, to replace the Farina. BMC Chairman Sir George Harriman dictated that the new car (known internally as ADO14) would use the doors from the Landcrab, and by implication, be based around a development of the Landcrab central structure. This direction did not state any requirement for a hatchback. After all, Ford, Rootes and Vauxhall did not have hatchbacks, so it was not an obviously predictable choice for a Farina replacement.
The hatchback configuration was proposed by the Longbridge stylists, not by the product planners or the engineers, when they found that the combination of the doors (which effectively determined the wheelbase and dictated much of the styling) and the length and rear overhang of the Maxi, as it had to be shorter than the already stumpy Landcrab to fit into the BMC range hierarchy, led to a boot aperture that would be an impractical Mini type opening, or at best like the small aperture on the 1100.
But on the face of it, what a great concept BMC ended up with – a practical, modern hatchback design using all the advantages of the BMC front wheel drive layout, the latest Hydrolastic suspension (comfortable, compact, interconnection front to rear to keep the car level), a new overhead cam engine, a five speed gearbox – what more could anyone want?
The hatchback idea, with a wide range on configuartions in the very flexible interior was sound, and the BMC marketing department obviously were very convinced, because they forecast sales of 6,000 per week! That would have been more than twice the UK sales of the Cortina. Given these volumes, a new factory was built for the Maxi engine, next to the Longbridge assembly factory, that represented an investment of £20m, in 1966.
But the request of Harriman that money be saved by the use of the doors from the Landcrab had a critical impact. The Maxi ended up with a wheelbase of nearly 106 inches – practically the same as a Landcrab. And looking a lot like it too. (Incidentally, using the doors of one car on another was trick BMC had used before, and would use again, on the mid 1980s Austin Maestro and Montego. Also, pre-war Rovers and Hillmans shared doors.) The Maxi could have been a British Renault 16, but was actually a slightly shorter and narrower Landcrab, with a hatchback, an obstructive gearchange and little style. The car that was supposed to replace the Farinas would be practically as big as the one that was too big to replace the Farinas 5 years earlier. It really was a “you couldn’t make it up” moment.
BMC accepted that, given the size they were originally aiming at, a new engine was required, known as the E series. This was a four cylinder engine of 1.5 litres with an overhead camshaft, rather than overhead valves, and Issigonis dictated that if larger capacities were needed, it should be through more cylinders, rather than bigger cylinders. So, it had to be compact, so that a 6 cylinder version would fit (transversely) into the available engine bay space in the future. The 6 cylinder version only ever made it into the Landcrab in the UK, at 2.2 litre capacity but was also developed to 2.6 litre and used on products built by BLMC in Australia and South Africa, including saloons derived from the Landcrab.
This engine proved to be one of the more serious problems of the initial Maxi. It was originally envisaged as a 1.3 litre and 1.5 litre four-cylinder, with a 2.0 litre six-cylinder created by adding an additional two cylinders to the 1.3 litre block. However, as development continued it appeared the 1.3 litre E-series would not have any huge benefits over the existing 1275cc A-series, so the 1.3 litre E-series was dropped. The result was a saving in development costs for BMC, but also meant the six-cylinder had to be developed from the 1.5 litre block instead, creating its unusual engine size of 2227 cc, rather than 2 litre. The production 1.5 litre was underpowered and, to make matters worse, had an awful cable gear change. It took a lot of ingenuity to stretch the 1.5 litre E series to 1.75 litre and to fit a rod operated gear change. Incidentally, the real reason the Maxi had a 5 speed gear box was that it was a necessity to help make the most of the inadequate engine, rather than any other “modernity” or “European” reason.
By 1968, BMC was part of the new BLMC led by Donald Stokes, who actually felt the Maxi was so poor that BLMC seriously considered cancelling the car before it was launched. Only the investment made in the new engine plant (to build 6,000 engines a week!) saved the Maxi.
It was introduced in 1969 and Stokes was able to say, quietly, “This isn’t the first BLMC car but the last BMC car – no wonder they were in trouble”. It is fascinating to read the contemporary accounts of the launch of the Maxi, with Donald Stokes talking confidently about building “definitely 100,000 a year and may be 150,000 in the first year”. The BLMC marketing department pushed the car hard, using Sir Alec Issigonis (with a drawing board and a cigarette!), the only celebrity car designer Britain has had, in advertisements like this. Ironically, by the time the Maxi had come out, Issigonis had been moved sideways, into long term research, by Donald Stokes and replaced by Harry Webster, from Leyland owned Triumph.
Eighteen months later the Maxi 1750 was introduced, with a new interior, the 1750cc version of the E series and a rod operated gearchange, plus a few visual tweaks. It didn’t sell at 6,000 per week either, or even 150,000 a year – the best the Maxi ever managed was about 62,000 in 1972 and it faded to a steady 35,000 or so per year until 1981. It is worth noting that for the Maxi to have sold 100-150,000 a year, it would have had to replace all the Farinas and the Landcrab sales and still take at least half of its target sales from competitors, such as the Cortina, Hunter and Victor. Instead, in its first year, 1969, the Maxi sold 23,294, 23% less than the Farina had sold the year before. Combined Maxi and Farina sales in 1969 were just 500 more than the Farina sold in 1968. The Farina was finally pensioned off in 1969, and effectively replaced by the Morris Marina as much as by the Maxi.
The example in these photos is a 1972 Maxi 1500, with a single owner history of around 50,000 miles. One of BLMC’s problems in the early 1970s, though not their greatest, was the colour range but this car looks very smart in navy blue with red interior. The (very friendly and cooperative) owner was clearly a member of the loyal Maxi owners’ fraternity, of whom there were many in the 1970s and early 1980s, and solidly bought the car repeatedly. Others were a tougher nut to crack, with BLMC having effectively first to sell the concept of a hatchback and then sell the Maxi.
There are few left on the roads in the UK now – I have seen 2 in the last 4 years. But how many hatchbacks with an overhead cam engine, a 5 speed gearbox and folding seats?