CCOTY 1962 Nomination #2: Austin 1100 Family (BMC ADO16) – The Template For The Modern Small Car

The 1959 BMC Mini deserves the accolades that are showered on it, for its remarkable space efficiency and transverse FWD. But although it was a pioneer, the Mini was never a best seller, being too small for that role. But Alec Issigonis’ ADO 16, his second go at redefining the whole range of BMC cars, nailed it. The ADO 16 hit the sweet spot, and with four doors available, quickly zoomed to the top of the charts in the UK, and stayed there for at least a decade. In today’s standards, it was still quite small, just three inches longer than a modern MINI, which in most dimensions it is quite similar to. But its space utilization was much better than the MINI’s; it was a legitimate family hauler, at least in those leaner times. But its legacy is anything but small; more than any other single car, it created the very template for the modern European compact car.

The ADO 16 was a radical design in its time, completely breaking the mold that had shaped the typical conservative British saloon. Everything that was first explored with the Mini was now re-sized and re-thought fro the mainstream. And unlike the Mini, the AD) 16 had handsome lines designed by Pininfarina. The only thing missing was a  hatchback.

That was available too, just not on the sedans. The Countryman had a low flat floor and a big hatch. With fold down seats, it could be turned into a bed without breakfast.

Was Issigonis inspired by what Citroen was doing across the Channel? Absolutely. But he took a different approach: rather than two rather very different platforms on the extreme ends of the spectrum (2CV; DS), Issigonis created a basic format that he then adapted to different sized platforms: the Mini, ADO 16, the 1800, and Maxi.

And BMC’s Hydrolastic suspension developed with Alex Moulton  was in a way a hybrid of the 2CVs mechanical interconnected suspension and the DS’ hydropneumatic suspension, which required a pump and was otherwise more complicated. It was quite a brilliant system.

The principle is simple. The front and rear suspension units have Hydrolastic displacers, one per side. These are interconnected by a small bore pipe. Each displacer incorporates a rubber spring (as in the Moulton rubber suspension system), and damping of the system is achieved by rubber valves. So when a front wheel is deflected, fluid is displaced to the corresponding suspension unit. That pressurises the interconnecting pipe which in turn stiffens the rear wheel damping and lowers it. The rubber springs are only slightly brought into play and the car is effectively kept level and freed from any tendency to pitch. That’s clever enough, but the fact that it can do this without hindering the full range of motion of either suspension unit is even more clever, because it has the effect of producing a soft ride. Pictures and images of anything to do with hydrolastic suspension are few and far between now, so you’ll have to excuse the plagiarism of the following image. The animation below shows the self-leveling effect – notice the body stays level and doesn’t pitch.

But what happens when the front and rear wheels encounter bumps or dips together? One cannot take precedent over the other, so the fluid suspension stiffens in response to the combined upward motion and, while acting as a damper, transfers the load to the rubber springs instead, giving a controlled, vertical, but level motion to the car.
Remember I said the units were connected with a small bore pipe? The restriction of the fluid flow, imposed by this pipe, rises with the speed of the car. This means a steadier ride at high speed, and a softer more comfortable ride at low speed.

Hydrolastic suspension is hermetically sealed and thus shouldn’t require much, if any, attention or maintenance during its normal working life. Bear in mind that hydrolastic suspension was introduced in 1964 (on the prototype BMC ADO16) and you’d be lucky to find a unit today that has had anywork done to it.

I’m not one to vouch for the last line or two, but it certainly was much more reliable than Citroen’s hydropneumatic suspension. Of course, it didn’t offer some of its features either, like ride level adjustment.

The ADO 16 was available in a plethora of brands and price levels. The Morris mirrored the Austin, as the entry level brands.

The MG 1100/1300 was the only version imported to the US, until the later ill-fated Austin America supplanted it in a belated attempt to capture a share of the growing small0car market. While these cars were far from perfect, the spotty US dealer network and American’s growing disdain for maintenance exacerbated their problems. Build quality actually got worse during the BL-Malaise era.These cars deserved better.

The Wolseley 1100/1300 was the next fine gradient in BMC’s dying class-structure.

Next up the ladder, the Riley Kestrel was quite a bit more popular than the Wolsey, and had round instrument gauges.

The top rung was the Vanden Plas Princess 1300, with its top-tier interior of fine leather, wood and wool.

This nomination has become a wee bit long, but it only touches on the vast ADO 16 story. It was made in Italy by Innocenti, which had a big influence on future Fiats, most of all the 128. And variants were built in Spain, Australia and South Africa, if not elsewhere too.

The final version, the Austin Apache, was built in South Africa as late as 1977. Ironically, the original Pininfarina design was redone extensively by Michelotti, giving it a decidedly Triumph-ish look, as well as a traditional trunk.

You may not agree on this one, but at least show the ADO 16 a bit of respect. Despite its poor showing in the US, its influence is still to be seen; everywhere.