(first posted 11/6/2013) The story of the Issigonis-BMC range of bold new FWD cars is a huge one, an ambitious attempt to remake BMC into a builder of leading-edge cars a lá Citroen. It seems we’re on track here at CC to tell it in reverse, but perhaps that’s fitting as the whole effort had so many setbacks. Earlier this month we looked at the Austin Maxi, and considered its origins and history as the smaller offshoot of today’s car, the Austin 1800. A highly ambitious undertaking, Alec Issigonis’ ADO17 was a car of huge contrasts. Colloquially known as “the Landcrab”, it alternated between being the “British Citroen DS” and a “misconceived, unsuccessful Ford competitor”.
Tempted back to BMC from Alvis in 1955, Alec Issigonis was tasked with developing a full range of modern family cars, starting with a new mid-range model and then to be followed up with several smaller cars.
The plan, devised by BMC Chairman Leonard Lord and Issigonis, called first for a saloon car, known as XC9001. It was to be similar in size to the Morris Oxford/Austin Cambridge twins, with the wheels pushed to each corner and a rubber-cone suspension, but with rear-wheel drive; the expectation was that it would be on the market by 1960.
Lord then changed the plan in response to the Suez crisis of 1956 (which was by no means Britain’s finest hour, but that’s a story for another day); as a result, the first Issigonis BMC car to appear was the Mini, in 1959 (CC here). Next came the Morris (and later, Austin) 1100, known as the ADO16, in 1962; the third was the 1964 Austin/Morris 1800, which was known as the ADO17 internally, and as the Landcrab everywhere else.
Defined by Issigonis as the next logical development of the concept of the Mini and 1100, it used the familiar BMC transverse engine/front-wheel drive layout, with the engine and gearbox mounted ahead of the front axle, the gearbox underneath and the radiator to one side, facing the inner wing (fender).
And then it all started going wrong. The B-series engine was the obvious default choice, given the car’s mission as a successor to the RWD Farina range; Issigonis selected the 1800 cc version that was being developed for the MGB, stretched the wheelbase to 106 inches – six inches longer than the Farina saloon’s – and also widened it to match. The ADO17 was now 165 in long and 67 in wide; for comparison, the Cortina Mk1 was 168 in and 62 in; the Hillman Super Minx 165 in and 63 in; the Austin Cambridge 175 in and 63.5 in. The ADO was a widebody in its class. Suspension was by the BMC hydrolastic system, with the control spheres tucked away within a tubular cross member, which in turn was part of the bulkhead. These were very strong cars, structurally.
Consequently, the ADO17 had an immense amount of interior space – I have clear memories, as a 12-year-old, of a four-way, all-in wrestling match in the rear footwell of a Wolseley 18/85, which was stopped only when the Dad driving touched 90 mph and said, “I thought that would get you off the floor!” The fact of its awful driving position seems to have slipped through the net, along with the weight of the thing. It was strong, though, and had a very comfortable ride. This came at the price of increased weight–around 30% more than a Cortina–which would have had to be paid for in raw material and manufacturing costs.
Another disadvantage was that the car’s proportions made it very difficult to style elegantly, since Issigonis had widened the body to balance out the extra wheelbase. The final result was something that was nowhere nearly as stylish as the 1100; in fact, it was downright dumpy, and soon earned the nickname Landcrab, which is still recognised today.
image courtesy aronline.uk
After their successful work on the 1100 and many earlier BMC products, Pininfarina naturally was involved in the development of the ADO17. They created their own design proposals (above), this one clearly reflecting their earlier design for the 1100/ADO16.
There was also a six-light (window) version developed in house, and that was chosen as the way to go, in part to distinguish the ADO17 more thoroughly from the smaller 1100. Pininfarina then continued to work on the front and rear ends, including the distinctive drooping tail that would reappear on the Peugeot 504. The front of this car (above) looked rather similar to the Austin version of the ADO16, and so the Italian styling house undertook a final restyle of the front end to lend a touch of individuality that would associate it with the ADO16, albeit not too closely. One can see the reasoning behind this decision; after all, the ADO16 had been extremely well received, but it also has to be said that Pininfarina was much more involved in styling that car than they were with the ADO17.
In the end, Pininfarina could only actually claim credit for the headlights, grille and front wings; the centre section remained pretty much untouched from the 1958 proposal, and was arguably the ADO17’s most unhappy aspect.
Despite all this, BMC dealers thought they could sell 4,000 a week – a higher sales rate than the ADO16 series had ever achieved in the UK, and four times the rate at which the Farinas were being built – after all, it was named the Car of the Year for 1965. But BMC made a rather fatal flaw in their calculations: 1960 UK registrations showed that only 5% of new cars sold were in the 1700-1800cc class, whereas the 1400-1500cc class had almost a 20% market share. Ford obviously acted rightly on this information, and its Cortina prospered. Not so the larger and more expensive ADO17.
In 1968, BMC upgraded the ADO17 to the Mk 2, with revised rear wings and tail lights, and offered an S version with twin carburettors; in 1972, BL created the Austin and Morris 2200, using a six-cylinder, 2.2-litre version of the Maxi E series engine.
The Austin/Morris 1800s carried on with minor cosmetic revisions, but the Wolseley version of the 1800, the 18/85 (above), was discontinued in favour of the 2.2-litre Wolseley Six, which, interestingly, would outsell the six-cylinder Austin/Morris by 25% over the next three years.
BMC produced the Landcrab only as an Austin for the first two years, as Morris had had first rights on the 1100 when it went on sale in 1964. It was priced at 15% above the Farinas, which stayed in production because the 1800 had strayed so far from its original brief as development progressed. The highest-ever annual production was 57,000 units – a far cry from 4,000 per week – and so the Farina range soldiered on to 1969 in an effort to protect BMC’s market miscalculation versus the Ford Cortina.
However, it did earn a reputation for great comfort, even if a driver wearing a seat belt had to use his left foot to adjust the heater controls. And the odd angle of the steering wheel took some adjustment for those coming to a BMC FWD car for the first time. Mini and 1100 drivers were of course well familiar with it.
One area where the Landcrab was, perhaps surprisingly, successful was in long distance endurance rallying – it proved a strong competitor in the late 1960s, finishing second in the 1968 London-Sydney Marathon and achieving three of the top 20 positions in the 1970 London to Mexico World Cup Rally. This is an example in rally specification, including traditional BMC white over red rally colours, retained as part of the British Motor Industry Heritage Trust Collection, alongside a rallying Maxi and Austin Healey 3000.
The ADO17 had obvious potential as an estate/wagon, given its low and flat rear floor and being built like the Forth Bridge (Brooklyn Bridge?). Preliminary development work was undertaken on one (above), but the plug was pulled due to the development of the Maxi.
To make things even worse, in 1970 Leyland Australia introduced the Austin Tasman and Kimberley (sold in New Zealand as the Morris Tasman and Kimberley – go figure!), which were nothing more than Landcrabs with the E- Series six-cylinder engine and thoroughly revised styling, which featured a much more contemporary front and rear, and a bit of extra length that balanced the look remarkably well while still using the same centre section.
BL, being BL, never brought these to Europe despite the many other reasons to do besides the more modern look and more substantial separation from the Maxi. It may not have been a great car, but it seems the potential benefits of a thorough update would have been staring BL in the face. Thus the Landcrab struggled on, and Leyland Australia was closed in 1976.
So, in summary, the Landcrab was a bigger and heavier car than both its predecessor and its competitors, was unrewarding to drive, unattractive to look at and produced in lower than expected volumes–all in all, not a great recipe for commercial success. The plug was pulled in 1975, and BMC sold around 386,000 in 11 years, with Austin outselling Morris by 2 to 1 and the luxury Wolseley 18/85 and later Six taking around 15%.
The ADO17 was replaced by another disappointing car, the ADO71 “Princess”, touted as “the car that got it all together”. But that’s a (sad) story for another day.