Curbside Classic: 1965 MG1100 (ADO16) – BMC’s Greatest Hit

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What was BMC’s best car? Many people’s immediate answer to the question will be “the Mini”, and it’s fair to say that the Mini was the most technically, industrially and socially advanced car Britain ever produced. It also certainly ranks high among the most technically significant cars built since 1945, and made its creator Alec Issigonis famous.  However, my belief is that the follow-on to the Mini, the ADO16, was even better.  First introduced as the Morris 1100 of 1962, this new range of cars also included this MG 1100.

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The Mini was an expedient reaction to the 1956 Suez Crisis, which cut off a vital supply of oil to Great Britain. It was the smallest conceivable way to seat four adults, but it really wasn’t family-friendly, a significant drawback during the great post-war baby boom. And dealers weren’t happy with the lack of profits selling the Mini, never mind BMC. The result was that the Mini’s success as a mass-market commodity was limited; it really found its calling as a sporty-specialty car.

1963 Morris 1100 -2Morris 1100

The ADO16 took the Mini concept and scaled it up to function as a viable family car, becoming the top choice in Britain over the decade following its introduction, regularly taking 12-15% of the total market, and selling over 200,000 a year for seven years; a genuine hit. To mark forty years since its retirement from the showroom frontline, a CC on the ADO16 is called for.

DSC03220.1Austin A40

In 1962, the compact family car market in the UK was dominated by such conservative products such as the Morris Minor, Ford Anglia, Vauxhall Viva and Austin A40. Rootes did not really have a competitor at that level in the market – the Minx was a bit above and the (later) Imp was smaller. Triumph offered the Herald, though as a semi-premium product. European competition came from cars like the VW Beetle, Renault Dauphine, Fiat 1100 saloon and Opel Kadett. Technically, these cars were either very conservative or ploughing the rear engined furrow, a concept that was becoming increasingly dated by this time for this segment of the market.

Morris MinorMorris Minor

Compared with its competition, the Morris 1100 was the most significant step change in engineering and ability for the lower-mid market since the 1948 introduction of Issigonis’ first great success, the Minor.

BMC ADO16 prototype ado16dev_11image: aronline.co.uk

Work on what would become the ADO16 began around 1958, which is the date of this early prototype. It was what it looked like: a bigger Mini; stylistically as well as technically, except for the Hydrolastic suspension that the Mini was supposed to also have, but which wasn’t ready in time for its introduction.

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The Morris 1100 arrived in 1962, with smart, modern Italian styling by Pininfarina, a Mini-based drive train of the transverse engine with the gearbox in the sump, an enlarged and more powerful A-series engine, and perhaps most significantly, the advanced and very effective Hydrolastic suspension.  Introduced at a time when competitors were still using leaf springs, this was a car that even non-car people would have seen as significant, attractive and affordable.

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This was also the last new Morris photographed with William Morris, Viscount Nuffield, before he died in 1963, aged 84.  This photo may be less than perfect but I make no apologies for showing it as part of this story, and as one of the last photos of one of the greatest figures in British industrial history, and possibly the world’s greatest philanthropic industrialist. And one of my personal heroes.

Ironically, despite the fact the car was first produced in Cowley and initially sold only as a Morris, you are now much more likely in the UK to hear a reference to an Austin 1100 than a Morris.

1963 Morris 1100Morris 1100 Mk1

Its advantage over the European competition (there was no Japanese competition then) was just as great, and it has to be considered Sir Alec Issigonis’ finest hour, a very strong candidate for the world-wide car of decade for the 1960s, and is my nominee for the most influential car of that decade. The next cars in this sector of the market to approach its levels, simultaneously, of modernity and effectiveness were the VW Golf of 1974, and the first Ford Focus in 1998–it was that significant and influential. (Fiat 128? – ED)

1969 Morris 1100Morris 1100 Mk2

Significant also is the fact that by the time the ADO16 went out of production in 1974, Chrysler Europe, Renault, Peugeot, VW, Nissan and Fiat all had cars on sale (or about to go on sale) that directly mirrored the transverse engine and general size of the ADO16. Only the conservative American-owned manufacturers resisted, and then only until Ford followed in 1975, with the Fiesta.

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Size-wise, this car is almost exactly the same wheelbase and length as the original Golf; or if you prefer a current yardstick, it’s virtually identical in overall length to the current MINI, although the ADO16 is four inches shorter in wheelbase. One could argue that the MG1100/1300 is the true inspiration for the MINI, until one looks into the back seat.

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Yes, these cars are the exact same length, but no one would ever call the MINI “family-friendly”, especially in the back seat. Cars have been getting bigger for the last 50 years, but certainly not more space efficient.

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Undoubtedly, the greatest missed opportunity with the ADO16 was the lack of a hatchback. If it had been given one, there’s no question as to it being the most influential car of the whole postwar era.

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The 1964 Autobianchi Primula stole that crown from the ADO16, as well as being the first to have the modern side-by-side engine-transmission configuration that everyone else eventually adopted. Ironic too, since the Austin A40 had a hatch, and was quite popular because of it.

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The Traveller wagon did join the ADO16 line-up in 1966, but that wasn’t quite the same. It certainly did pack a lot of room into a very small package (146.6″ overall length, same as the saloon), but BMC would only get on the hatchback bandwagon with the release of the ill-fated Maxi in 1969 (CC here).

morris 1100

There are some other points about the ADO16 that deserve a pause for thought. One is that Alec Issigonis objected to the use of front disc brakes. Issigonis was quoted as regarding disc brakes as: ‘…fashionable: the things to have. I was not particularly in favour of them’, and they were only fitted when Issigonis was overruled by Leonard Lord and George Harriman.

More significantly, Issigonis had originally intended the car to be fitted with an longitudinally-mounted V4 engine, in a front wheel drive installation not dissimilar to that of the 1966 Triumph 1300. This engine had been inspired by a Lancia engine with an unusual V-angle of 18 degrees and a shared central overhead camshaft driven by a toothed rubber belt, which would have been quite an innovative feature for 1962.

ADO16 engine bay

Issigonis is quoted as saying ‘it didn’t fit in with our design philosophy… Cars must be smaller but the ‘living room’ increased. When we started work on the V4 we were using north-south engines but since we have switched to east-west in our small cars the V4 no longer fits in with our concept because an inline engine takes up less room fitted in that way’. By comparison with the Mini and Austin – Morris 1800 (the Landcrab), the ADO16 had excellent engine access space under the bonnet – a consequence of the change from longitudinal to transverse engine installation.

 BMC ado16dev_09

The styling was all Pininfarina, with none the back-sliding BMC adjustments seen on the later Landcrab. These are pictures of an early Pininfarina proposal from 1959. Obviously, further development was still in the works before it was finalized.

There is no doubt that the end result came out just about exactly right, a key factor to the quick acceptance of the car by the conservative British market. Incidentally, when Sergio Pininfarina first saw the Mini, he joked to Issigonis: “Why didn’t you style it a bit?” to which Issigonis quickly replied “It’ll still be fashionable when I’m dead and gone”. How right he was!

1970 Riley KestrelRiley Kestrel

The original intention, believe it or not, was for the marketing of the car to bring BMC’s policy of badge engineering to its logical conclusion. This may have been to the preference of Leonard Lord, BMC’s dominant Chairman, but it also highlighted a political situation that had been brewing between the competing dealer networks (formerly linked to Austin or the Nuffield Organization, the Morris brands) since the practice had begun after the 1952 merger. Lord had entered semi-retirement, to be replaced by the much more emollient, and frankly complacent, George Harriman, just before the launch of ADO16. By this time, the marketing situation had descended into a slanging match between the competing networks and the situation was getting worse rather than better.

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The first of the six differently badged ADO16 cars (after the Morris 1100) was the MG 1100, arriving in October of 1962, just two months after the Morris. It was the only ADO16 exported to the US until the ill-fated Austin America replaced it in 1968.

MG 1100-600x446

The MG 1100 engine (12G295) had a new cylinder head with better breathing, and generated 55hp vs 48 hp for the standard 1100 engine. It was sold in the US starting that year, as a 1963 model. US prices for the MG were in the $1850-$1998 range, some $300 less than a VW Beetle, for both the two door and four door. Of course, the MG 1100 exceeded the Beetle’s capabilities in every conceivable way, except when it came to reliability, as the more complex ADO16 quickly presented a challenge for the small British import dealers, particularly because of its Hydrolastic suspension.

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The MG 1100 was of course nicely trimmed, and starting in 1967, it received the larger 1275 cc engine, and became the MG1300. The new four-speed automatic gearbox was also available as of 1968. The 1300 upped power to 65hp, which was actually more than the MG Midget 1300’s 62 hp.

tintin MG1100

The MG 1100/1300 was a delightful car for those who could fully appreciate its charms. There was really nothing remotely like it on the American market, and although it sold in quite modest numbers, it endeared itself to those that had the pleasure of spending time behind its rather bus-like steering wheel.

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After the Austin 1100, which went into production in September of 1963, the next variant was the upscale Vanden Plas Princess 1100, in 1964. Featuring top-level traditional British interior appointments, the Princess was also sold in the US as the MG Princess, for the princessly sum of $3016.

Wolseley 1300 CCCWolseley 1100

The mid-range Riley Kestrel and Wolseley 1100 both arrived in September of 1965, the last versions to round out the full range. Consider them the Olds and Buick versions.

Ford CortinaFord Cortina Mk1

In the UK, the mass-market Austin and Morris 1100 sold initially against the Cortina Mk1,which was of course a very conventional car, but in many ways quite appealing too, especially when it received a 1500cc engine in 1963. That was the beginning of Ford’s clever move to make the Cortina increasingly larger and more powerful (as with the Mk2 version), and as such, ever more competitive. With Ford’s release of its smaller Escort in 1968, the ADO16 really began to feel the squeeze from above and below, marking the beginning of the end.

As was typical for BMC, the car received precious little development over its life, with great delay and birthing pains accompanying each change. Just getting the critically-needed larger 1275cc engine into full production became a boondoggle, and began to show the profound limitations of the BMC organization, as compared to the nimbler and more profitable Leyland Motors, never mind Ford and Vauxhall. When compared to the changes Ford made to the Cortina between 1962 and 1974, it was easy to see how static the ADO16 programme had become.

Morris 19701970 Morris brochure

Crucially, as with the Mini, BMC did not replace any existing product with the ADO16. The Morris Minor and Austin A40 both continued in production, until 1970 and 1968 respectively. BMC’s confused range was getting more so, not less.

Rather than tackling these issues head-on – something that really should have been done years previously whilst BMC had the market share to manage such a transition – Harriman acceded to the wishes of the Nuffield dealers, and agreed to release the ADO16 just as a Morris model initially. An Austin version would appear only after a significant delay. This sop to the dealers may have seemed like an expedient way to appease a particularly vocal source of dissension, but it undoubtedly cost BMC sales by giving the ADO16 a slower start in life than would otherwise have been the case. However, from a production view, there was a benefit to this, as the new car came in one basic form, initially from one factory (Cowley in Oxford, which historically belonged to Morris), thus helping the familiarisation process a bit, and simplifying the handling of the initial teething troubles.

BMC Austin 1100 -auto-pictures-pLongbridge

The ADO16 became Britain’s bestseller very quickly, and kept that slot for a number of years, taking up to 15% of the entire UK market. By autumn 1963, BMC were building 5500 a week, at Longbridge and Cowley, of which 40% were exported. In the first 18 months, over 220,000 had been built.

The international view of the ADO16 is also fascinating – it was assembled in many countries around the world and sold under many names and combination of features from the home market variants, including as the Morris Marina in Denmark.

Morris 1500Morris 1500 Nomad

The Australian built Morris 1500 was an ADO16 saloon fitted with the E series engine and 5 speed gearbox from the Maxi, covered by an ugly raised bonnet. This was later developed into the Morris Nomad, which resembled the Maxi in concept and in proportions, and was produced until 1974 when it was replaced by a locally assembled Morris Marina.

Austin Apache

The Apache and Victoria were South African and Spanish variants, respectively and essentially the same–the central section of the original car was retained but with a very Triumph Dolomite-like front and a rear styled by Michelotti grafted on. The taillights were actually the items used on the Triumph 2000 MK2, another Michelotti design. The resulting car may have been more elegant but with the additional length lost some of the ADO16’s legendary packaging efficiency. The Apache was produced in Blackheath on the Cape, partly from CKD (completely knocked down) kits shipped from the UK.

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The Victoria was assembled alongside the more traditional ADO16 variants and the Mini at a plant in Pamplona, owned by BMC’s Spanish affiliate Authi (formally known as Automoviles de Turismo Hispano Ingleses).  Authi was established in 1964 as a way of avoiding Spanish import duties on completed cars and the engine and gearbox for the Spanish cars were manufactured locally, by NMQ, BMC’s Spanish partner in Authi, with body pressings coming from BMC. BL withdrew from Spain in 1975, selling the plant to SEAT, (then government controlled) who used it to assemble various Fiat-derived products under license, and which today makes SEAT Ibizas and VW Polos under Wolfsburg’s ownership.

Innocenti 1100Innocenti 1100

In Italy, the Innocenti company also assembled the ADO16 in a form tailored very handsomely to the local market, with a modified interior, revised front end and headlights and, on later models, a universal joint in the steering column allowing a more upright steering wheel angle, a change not adopted in UK production.

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To find a curbside ADO16 in 2014 is not easy. Curiously enough (or not) the featured car was found in the epicentre of the CC, Eugene, Oregon, just two blocks from Paul Niedermeyer’s home, and is an MG1100, from around 1965 or so. It’s been sitting in the driveway of this house for almost twenty years, and the owner is finally getting around to doing a bit of work on it.  I suspect the interior colours and trims are factory standard, though possibly renewed at some point.

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When the ADO16 went out of (UK) production in 1974, BL had to provide two cars, the front wheel drive Austin Allegro and the rear drive, slightly larger Morris Marina, to replace it, and failed. Partly this was because the centre of gravity of the market had moved upwards, a trend Ford spotted (and led) but which BL missed completely. And partly because both the Allegro and Marina were nowhere near good enough.

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But, when someone tells you British car buyers are conservative, remind them that the best selling car in Britain in the 1960s was a technically innovative, front wheel drive, fluid suspended car styled by an Italian and engineered by a Turkish Greek, which was quickly and widely copied across Europe.

It is without doubt the best car BMC ever made, quite possibly the best small car of the 1960s and arguably the first modern family car.

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Related reading  Austin Allegro  Ford Cortina  VW Golf  Hillman Minx