Curbside Classic: 1955 Morris Oxford Series II Traveller – From Cowley to Kolkatta, in 60 years

1955_morris_oxford_traveller_3Can there be a more English name for a car than “Morris Oxford” – a combination of an old English family name and the home of Britain’s oldest university dating back to 12th century, from the founder of the company that built it and the city it was built in, respectively?

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From 1913 to 1936 and again from 1948 to 1970, the Oxford name was applied to a family car by Morris; in 1926, over 40% of the cars produced in the UK were Morris Oxfords. Few model names have a history of that size.

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In 1948, at the same time as the wonderful Issigonis designed Morris Minor was launched, Morris, then still separate from Austin, also launched a new Morris Oxford, known as the MO Series. This was the first monocoque Oxford, and stylistically looked liked a larger version of the Minor. Like many other examples of scaling styling up and down, it was not as visually successful as the original template, but nevertheless it was solid and capable vehicle. Power was from a 1476cc side valve four cylinder engine, and it was good for around 75 mph. This great example was spotted by johnh875 in Werribee, near Melbourne in Australia.

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And for proof that it looked like a large Minor….I think they said “compare and contrast” at school

Morris, with the engineering being led by Alec Issigonis, had a replacement planned and with the merger with Austin in 1952 to create BMC, a major revision on this was imposed, as BMC quickly adopted a common engine policy.

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BMC got many things wrong, had some bad luck and were just too insular and inward looking much of the time, but credit is due to them for one thing, at least. By 1955, three years after the Austin-Morris merger, all the main market products were powered one of three engines – the famous BMC A, B and C Series engines. The A Series is perhaps best known for its use in the Mini, Minor and ADO16; the C Series in the large Austin Westminster, Austin-Healey 3000 and MGC; and the B Series in everything in between, including the Oxford, the ADO17 Austin 1800 Landcrab, MGB and the Morris Marina, up to 1981.

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The 1954 Oxford, known as the Series II, was the first Morris to use the B Series engine, alongside the new Austin A40 and A50 Cambridge saloons. The cars looked very different, in the UK at least were sold through different and competing dealer chains, but shared not just the B Series engine but also the gearbox and rear axles. The A40 was a 1.2 litre, the A50 was 1.5 litre; Morris had the 1.2 litre Morris Cowley (another old Morris name, taken from the area of Oxford the factory is in) and the 1.5 litre Oxford. The link between the Austin Cambridge and the Morris Oxford was not heavily publicised or even known, but subtly was there; you only had to look at the model names.

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The styling of the Oxford was purely Morris though; this car was styled ahead of the merger and re-engined after it ahead of production. It shares several aesthetic details with potential Morris Minor replacements mocked up by Morris and with the Issigonis link, you can almost see some Mini in the grille and headlights. But, it lacks the charm and appeal of the Minor and now looks like a bulky, bulbous shape. Nicley intergrated parking lights, though, in the corners of the grille.

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The Series II Oxford was an almost deliberately conservative car, with a typical leaf spring rear suspension, front torsion bar suspension, rack and pinion steering with a column coming into the cabin at an offset angle, so that a home market driver needed a longer right arm than left, and a column gear shift for the four speed box. The wheelbase was 97 inches, and it weighed just over a ton.

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There was long wheelbase six cylinder version also, with an ten inch extension between the bulkhead and the front wheel to take the 2.6 litre BMC C Series engine, and known as the Morris Isis., named after the part of the River Thames that flows through the city of Oxford. This version was a sales disappointment, achieving around only 12,000 sales in four years.

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The station wagon version, known as the Traveller (double l in the English English spelling of course) was the only two door variant, apart from the light commercial derivatives. The wagon area was again timber framed, in a similar way to the previous MO Series car and the Morris Minor Traveller but with a simpler construction. The construction method can clearly be taken as a pretty clear sign of the expected production volumes.

At this time, the station wagon (estate car is a more common British term) was very much in a state of evolution and definition. Rootes did not offer a Hillman Minx estate until the 1956 model; Vauxhall’s first estate was based on the 1957 Victor and the first factory estate from Ford was the 1961 Cortina. Prior to this, conversions similar in concept to this Morris were common, along with the smaller Hillman Husky and Ford Prefect Squire being available, as well as the Morris Minor Traveller.

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The feature car, seen at Lord Nuffield’s home last summer, is a 1955 Oxford Traveller. Interestingly, this car has a third row of seats, folding into a well in the rear floor when not required, which were a factory fit option, creating a seven seater (2+3+2) layout. The seat belts are obviously a newer addition, but even so, it might not be most comfortable ride you’ve ever had.

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In 1956, the car went to a Series III with some minor bodywork changes and some rather contrived two tone paint schemes. Mechanically, a higher compression ratio gave more power but no more speed. At the same time the Traveller was similarly updated.

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The Traveller was revised much more comprehensively in 1958, with the two door wooden frame car being replaced by a four door, all steel body full on estate car, and which was only Series IV version of the Oxford.

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The Nuffield Organisation (Morris, MG, Wosleley and Riley) had a long history of badge engineering, with Wolseley saloons matching Morris almost model for model and MG spinning variations from compact Morris cars for many years. The MO Series was matched by a Wolseley, and although the Series II Oxford was not turned into a Wolseley, its link to the Austin Cambridge was a clear sign of the future BMC had planned. BMC were already badge engineering Wolseley and MG saloons, using the B series engine, and so, in 1959, when the new Morris Oxford Series V, or Farina, was launched and shared not just its mechanical composition but the entire bodyshell with the Austin, and the MG, Wolseley and Riley versions, few were that surprised. After all, BMC still had two competing dealer chains to feed and over 40% of the UK market.

But the 1955 Oxford Series II is perhaps best known for its history 5000 miles from Oxford, in Kolkata, (then known as Calcutta) in north east India, close to the Bangladeshi border. In 1957, BMC sold the tooling and rights to the car to Hindustan Motors.

Hindustan Landmaster

Hindustan Motors had an existing and lengthy relationship with Morris, having previously assembled the pre-war Morris 10 and the Oxford Series MO. It is worth noting that for many years, from the 1920s into the early 1950s, the exports from the British motor industry were heavily tilted in favour of the USA, cars like Jaguar, Triumph and MG, or to the British Empire and Commonwealth markets in India, Australasia and Africa. Often, exporting seemed to mean adding a tougher suspension and sun shade above the windscreen, and may be local assembly from a kit shipped out from Britain.

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From 1954, the Series II Oxford had been assembled in Kolkata as the Hindustan Landmaster, but by 1958 it was adapted as the Ambassador. There were some minor styling changes and a new interior, and the original batch of cars had the old Morris side valve engine, before upgrading to the B Series in 1959. Not much changed on this car until 1979, when the option of a diesel version of the B Series engine was offered, with 37 bhp. Hindustan%20Ambassador%201800%201998%2001

In 1992, this was replaced with an Isuzu engine, with a five speed gearbox and another new interior.

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The Ambassador was for many years the car most commonly associated with India – it was used for everything from a taxi in Kolkata and Delhi (but not Mumbai – there the Premier Padmini based on the 1950s Fiat was the preferred choice), to the preferred car of the middle classes and of government ministers and the armed forces, as well as the police.

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Arriving in a white Ambassador with a red light on the roof will still quickly get you where you need to be in India today.

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The Ambassador was in production, uninterrupted, from 1958 to 2014, a total of 56 years. At its peak it was selling 25,000 a year in India and Pakistan, where it was the undisputed national car – a sort of combination of Ford Model T, VW Beetle and Rolls-Royce. It may have been, by the end of its production, grossly inadequate by Western standards but its position in Indian motoring history is completely assured, and the link from Ambassador to Morris Oxford always present. There was even an attempt to import and market the car in the UK in 1993, although this was unsuccessful. Arguably, it was the last Issigonis designed car to be in production.

II wonder if you did expected to read that when you started this piece.