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Austin Maxi (1969-1981) – the car that was too clever for its own good

Austin Maxi (ADO14)

‘All the fives’ was the high technology tagline applied to the Austin Maxi when launched – with a five-door hatchback body and five-speed gearbox, Austin’s new mid-range fighter really did seem to have it all.

Sadly, the technology might have been there, but the execution was a little less than marvellous, and this avant-garde car failed to sell as a result. During its 12-year production run, it did win quite a few friends, though…


Austin Maxi development story

The Austin Maxi was created out of the desperate need to replace the aging BMC Farina saloons, which had been selling steadily since their launch in 1958. Originally, the ADO17 had been conceived for the task but, due to a certain amount of project drift, Alec Issigonis‘ solution proved too large and too fast – and wasn’t really up to the task of replacing these important mid-liners.

Sadly, the Oxford and Cambridge saloons were fighting a rearguard action against the Ford Cortina – but didn’t have the armoury to do the Ford-fighting job their long production run had forced them into.

When it became clear the ADO17 wasn’t selling, a plan was put into place. BMC decided the only way forward was to produce a brand new car to fill the gap between ADO16 and ADO17.

Project ADO14 kicks off in Longbridge

Serious work on the new car began in mid-1965 – and, before the Maxi’s project code of ADO14 was dreamed-up, it was known internally as the ‘ADO16 3/8’. The implication of that tag was obvious – the new car’s wheelbase was roughly three-eights of the way between the two cars, exactly 100 inches.

It didn’t take long for this agreeable baseline to fall apart. The first major decision (taken by George Harriman himself) to upset the applecart, was to use the 1800’s doors. They might have been effective doors, but pretty they weren’t, and more worryingly, their use would force the new car’s wheelbase close to 106-inches – rather longer than the Cortina. Also the 1800’s doors dictated the windscreen rake on the new car.

It also meant all Austin-badged cars between 1.5- and 3.0-litres would feature similarly styled centre sections. Alec Issigonis as BMC Technical Director used a cell system to develop BMC’s cars. Each cell was a group of Engineers with responsibility for a particular model.

Austin Maxi development: a question of cells

A-Cell, headed by Jack Daniels was responsible for Mini development, B-Cell, led by Chris Kingham, was tasked with developing the ADO17 1800; while C-Cell, originally led by Charles Griffin, was responsible for the ADO16, which was developed at Cowley until the team moved to Longbridge in May 1962.

For the ADO14 a new D-Cell was created, led by Eric Bareham, Assistant Chief Engineer – Engines and Transmissions and answerable to Charles Griffin, now Director of Engineering.

New engine, new factory…

The ADO14 became a separate project because of the adoption of a new engine and gearbox. Any money-saving measures adopted in the design of the body would have quickly been negated. A requirement in any effective Cortina-fighter needed to be an engine range spanning 1.3- to 1.5-litres.

This ruled out the A-Series straight away – that had only recently been stretched to 1.3-litres in the Mini Cooper, and Engineers felt that was the limit of development.

Reflecting BMC’s bold ambitions of the time, it was decided that an all-new engine was needed. As Alec Issigonis headed up the project, nothing less than cutting edge would do – so it featured an overhead camshaft and plenty of upgrade potential an anticipation of future events.

Charles Griffin on BMC’s engine strategy

When questioned in 1969 about why BMC had opted for an overhead camshaft engine, Charles Griffin replied, ‘Because this is the right way to make an engine. It is right to try and get precise followings between the camshaft and the tappet, and to get the right message to the valve timing.

‘And it’s very much more accurate when you’ve got the direct mechanism of an OHC than when you’ve got pushrods and rockers and things. We are, probably, ahead of the main race in this. On the Continent, of course, they’ve got OHC engines coming quite rapidly – and there are one or two competitive engines in this country. We have a head start.’

As the Marketing Department were forecasting sales of 6000 Maxis a week, it was decided the new engine needed a new factory to build it – located at Cofton Hackett, near Longbridge. The site of the plant was exactly right but, sadly, the planning was all wrong.

E-Series: engineered for expansion

The engineering of the E-Series engine was compromised in order to facilitate upward expansion. Issigonis decided upper range E-Series engines should have an extra pair of cylinders, not more engine capacity, as more usually the case.

That meant it needed to be ultra compact in order to fit transversely into the engine bays of BMC’s front-wheel-drive range. Engineers facilitated this by the adoption of Siamesed cylinder bores, meaning there was no water jacketing between the pots. This design had advantages, but it meant the four-cylinder version was seemingly stuck with a 1500cc ceiling.

Initially, the E-series engine was planned with four different capacities, 1160cc, 1300cc, 1485cc four-cylinder units plus a 2227cc six-cylinder version of the 1485cc engine. Contrary to previous accounts, the two smaller units were never built leaving the 1485cc and 2227cc engines to be developed by BMC’s Engineers.

Engine testing begins in 1966

The first 1485cc engine began testing in March 1966 followed by the first six cylinder unit in July. By September 1966, ADO16 and ADO17 mules were road testing the new engines. Very early on it was decided the E-Series engine needed more torque and, by October 1967, a 1748cc and a 1797cc unit were being tested. The extra capacity was created by lengthening the stroke.

The new Cofton Hackett plant cost BMC £14 million in machinery alone and, in October 1967, just weeks before production of the new E-Series engine was due to begin, Mr Bill Davis, Deputy Managing Director in charge of production, told The Times newspaper that the new plant was ‘the greatest concentration of modern equipment in an area of comparable size anywhere in the motor vehicle manufacturing world.’

Davis added: ‘We shall build engines and gear boxes which will later be assembled in another part of the new plant to produce a complete power unit. It will all be several years ahead of its time so we have a kind of compound interest in our investment before we even begin.’

Efficient production at Cofton Hackett

So automated was the layout that it would require a labour force of only 1100 men. There were five assembly tracks employing transfer bar conveyor systems with major components being fed direct by overhead conveyor from the machining area.

A special feature was the semi-automatic assembly of cylinder heads. The engine and transmission units would be tested on an overhead balcony before the final build-up.

Road-testing of production built engines began on 14 November 1967 and would last until 28 February 1969. By the Spring of 1968 engines were being tested in Spain and Portugal and at high speed on the German motorways.

Maxi development: a change of tack

During the early stages of development of BMC’s Cortina fighter, George Harriman decreed the company would no longer enter into direct competition with Ford – a statement which immediately rendered the ADO14 as it was developing redundant.

ADO14 would also become a high-technology showcase for BMC’s capabilities – and that led to the decision to design a five-speed gearbox, the famous hatchback rear end and its adaptable and spacious interior.

Product Planners were beginning to see a British version of the Renault 16 , and liked what they saw, because it was better – having benefited from several years’ further development over the 1965-vintage Renault.

A new transmission system for ADO14

In 1969 Charles Griffin was asked why the Austin Maxi had a five-speed gearbox. He said: ‘The short answer is: somebody had to take the initiative in this. Once again, as with front drive, we’ve done it. You can’t talk about this without bringing in overdrive.

‘The real objective of an overdrive is to increase the relationship between road speed and engine speed. The normal fourth speed, depending on the power to weight ratio, lies somewhere about 15.5mph per 1000rpm for the normal family saloon. Now overdrive lifts all that up to about 19.5mph per 1000rpm.

‘People buy an overdrive because they just don’t like fuss when cruising. We have therefore built this feature into our car with a fifth speed, replacing the need for an applied separate unit… having driven the ADO14 for many miles myself – I use fifth speed almost continuously. I find myself not waiting to get onto a motorway to go into fifth speed. When I want to listen to the radio at 50mph, that’s the time I enjoy fifth speed. The noise level comes right down, and you’ve got something very nice and refined.’

ADO14: those doors

A closer look at the rear of the four-door Maxi bodyshell

A major problem for ADO14’s Designers was how to give it a palatable style when it had been lumbered with those ADO17 doors. The result was an unappealing situation which made it almost impossible to make the new car significantly smaller than the ADO17 (that car that was already blessed with compact front and rear overhangs).

That resulted in a crisis of confidence over the ADO14’s looks – and, along the way, it received a couple of hasty makeovers. The first was in 1967. When it became clear British Motor Holdings was deep in the mire, Joe Edwards ended up poring over the company’s affairs. When it came to the ADO14, he came to the conclusion its looks simply didn’t add-up – he was also well aware of the commercial significance of the new car and that the whole future of BMH may hinge on its success.

Because of this, he ordered a restyle of the front end. Ex-Ford Design Director, Roy Haynes was tasked with giving the ADO14 a more definite identity – and landed it with a suspiciously Cortina-esque grille and headlight arrangement. Edwards could not order the Designers to go any further because, the majority of the body panels had been signed-off and Pressed Steel was already in the process of building body presses.

The inside view of Austin Maxi development

The car would not prove to be the saviour of BMH. The development of the ADO14 was, at the time, probably the worst kept secret in the British motor industry. The Times of 22 April 1968 ran a story by Geoffrey Charles headlined, Styling troubles delay new BMC saloon, in which he described the evolution of the external style. Charles later revealed how he was privy to so much information.

‘We must jump back to late 1964, when BMC Chairman, George Harriman, and his Technical Director, Alec Issigonis, first showed me ADO14, hidden in the secret projects department at Longbridge.

‘It was almost indistinguishable from the then new 1800; sporting a roof-hinged tailgate and five gears, but decidedly ugly around its snub nose and chopped-off hindquarters. The concept was pure Issigonis: two box body, maximum passenger space, minimum engine room and to hell with styling, Pininfarina must not run riot here…’

British Leyland’s first new-car launch

As events transpired, the ADO14 ended up being the first car launched by the British Leyland Motor Corporation. BLMC was announced in January 1968 but did not officially come into being until the following May. In preparation for Sir Donald Stokes taking personal charge of BMC, Alec Issigonis wrote to his future boss on 10 April 1968:

‘Dear Sir Donald,

I enclose a short resume of work that I am currently engaged on in my new undertaking. Management approval or rejection of these projects is still to be determined, but at the earliest opportunity I shall discuss the matter with Bertie Fogg in greater detail, so that you can appraise the situation with more facts at your disposal.

‘Most of the research work outlined below presupposes that we shall continue to produce a Mini in the foreseeable future. It is very important to arrive at a decision over this matter as soon as possible, because on this depends the speed at which the development work is executed. A low priority programme is both time consuming and costly in the long run. The greatest need in combating increased production costs over the year is the development of a new engine for a small car of this type.

‘The present A-series engine offered a quick way of getting the car into production in 1959, but has outlived its purpose both for weight and cost compared with European competition; although its performance is still well up to modern standards. The enlarged version (1300) is perfectly competitive for cars in the category above the Mini type of vehicle i.e. the lower medium class range.

  • Design and development of a 750/998cc four-cylinder engine and transmission system for transverse or normal drive applications, for a new small car. In addition to this work we are doing a design study, in conjunction with Automotive Products Ltd, for a four-speed automatic transmission unit.
  • Development of a six-cylinder version of the above engine to give capacities from 1300 to 1490cc, using as much common tooling as possible including the same transmission system.
  • Development of a new Mini. This is being studied in two versions, one six inches shorter than the present car (120 inches) and another 10 inches longer or four inches longer than the present model. This will embody common suspension parts but, in order to keep production costs down to a minimum, Hydrolastic has had to be abandoned in favour of conventional springing. This is because a simplified version of the Hydrolastic design, which we have been working on for some time, has not yet materialised.
  • Development of a small hydrostatic suspension system in collaboration with N.E.L. The arrangement incorporates motors in each wheel and eliminates the use of high pressure hoses to transmit oil to these units.
  • General work on induction systems including the use of updraft carburettors for anti-pollution work. This work is very necessary in order that we can dispense with the expensive after burning devices which we have had to incorporate into our cars at present being sold in America.’

Bizarrely, Issigonis failed to mention the ADO14, which was near to production.

When Donald Stokes took over the ailing company in May 1968, he looked at the Maxi and decided it needed more work to be made a more appealing proposition. That resulted in its second pre-launch facelift. So little could be done by this point, all that was changed was the interior – giving it some semblance of habitability – and some very minor exterior detailing.

Making the Austin Maxi work…

Stokes drafted in Harry Webster (pushing Issigonis aside in the process) from Triumph to put right what he saw as the ills of Austin-Morris. The prime suspect on that list was the Maxi.

So many faults were identified by the new management that Harry’s team would end up having their work cut out trying to make good and mend the Maxi. Top of the list of problems for many was the new car’s appalling cable-operated gearbox (pictured right). In the end, the Engineers did much pre-launch tinkering to make the gearbox work, but knew that curing its ills would necessitate a new linkage design.

These weren’t the only problems. By December, Webster was also hearing loud and clear from his Engineers the message that the 1485cc E-Series engine wasn’t up to the task of shifting the Maxi’s bulk. He tasked them with developing the more powerful 1748cc version into production reality, and this would take time. As a result of this news, the decision was taken by the BLMC Board to defer production of the four-door saloon variant for another year.

Harry Webster: re-engineering the Maxi in a hurry

As with the adoption of new gear linkages, the 1748cc variation of the E-Series engine would need over a year to be made production-ready and ended up adding £1 million to the final cost of the ADO14 development programme.

Stokes agonized over the Maxi, questioning whether it should be launched at all. However, in the end, he decided there was no option but to push the ‘launch’ button; the car needed to go because of all the investment ploughed in to the new Cofton Hackett engine facility.

So, the laughably optimistic product planning by BMC back in 1966 had saved the new car’s bacon under the auspices of BLMC’s new management regime – ironic really. Stokes pushed forward with the launch – pencilling in a date Spring of 1969. Webster ‘s modifications would have to wait until it was feasible to incorporate them as a series running improvements to the Maxi.

Getting the Austin Maxi off the ground

Like the Mini and 1800 before it, the Maxi was designed in a very functional way. It is a pleasing shape in retrospect but, in the style conscious 1960s, it was not what buyers wanted (Picture kindly supplied by Graham Arnold)The influence of Roy Haynes’ ex-Ford design principles are clear to see in the Maxi’s interior. Unlike Issigonis’ earlier offerings, the Maxi interior was more obviously design-led. In fact, it was almost a clone of the designs offered by Ford at the time (Picture supplied by Graham Arnold)

In terms of marketing the Maxi, it would fit in perfectly with the plans that Stokes had for the Austin marque and how it fitted into BLMC overall strategy.

BLMC’s management was not shy in coming forwards with a long list of the sins of BMC in the past, the chief among those being that of badge-engineering. In August 1968, the policy was set in place by Stokes that no new British Leyland cars would be badge-engineered. Within the group, Austin’s role would be to represent the high technology end of the market whereas Morris would be developed into a marque that produced cars to fight Ford head on.

Because the ADO14 fitted into the former category perfectly, it was an obvious candidate for the Austin nameplate and was therefore introduced to replace the Austin A60 only (the Morris Oxford would have to live on for another two years). In his heart of hearts, Stokes knew that the Maxi wasn’t good enough, and his strategists were telling him so: their projections were that the Maxi would – at best – take a 4% share of the UK Market.

Expectations lowered before launch

By this time, it was envisaged that the car would only be in production for a few years, to be replaced by the sweeping range of new Leyland-engineered cars.

By January 1969, the press was reporting that the Leyland 1500 would be badged as an Austin. The head of the Austin Morris Division, George Turnbull, was reported as saying that the new car would not go on sale until it was absolutely ready. ‘Preparation and testing, and then more preparation and testing, was my policy at Standard Triumph and it remains my policy here.’

Testing times for the ADO14

He was quoted as saying, as well, ‘We are doing tens of thousands of miles of road testing and general bashing about. The success of the 1500 is of the utmost importance to everyone in the Austin Morris Division. It is aimed at the biggest growth sector of the market and I don’t want it going off half-cock, even if it means holding the car back for a time.’

The world also got its first glimpse of the Leyland 1500 that same month when a Swedish newspaper published four scoop photographs of an ADO14 being tested in wintry conditions in Finland.

The Austin Morris test team, which included Charles Griffin’s son, Brian Griffin, were carpeted by their superiors for letting the Swedish pressmen get close enough to take a photo of the engine bay. In all, fifteen prototypes were employed in the testing.

Mixed reception from the press

And here it is – the Maxi’s raison d’etre: the huge, practical and versatile boot. Here was an area that the Maxi had an advantage over all its rivals, including the vivacious Renault 16

As it was, the Maxi was launched in Estoril, Portugal in April 1969 and it was immediately apparent a new management regime was running the show. CAR’s May 1969 issue contained this description of the Austin Maxi’s launch in Portugal. ‘Lord Stokes was furiously fielding criticism of the year’s non-event, the Austin Maxi, with what his transatlantic rivals would call an NIH response : Not Invented Here.’

Harry Webster briefed the assembled journalists on the Maxi’s finer points, and not the old ‘Austin’ design team. Webster had his work cut out selling the Maxi to the assembled press, and this was to prove even more traumatic after they actually drove the new car.

To say that the initial driving impressions were underwhelming is an understatement: journalists came away with the distinct feeling that not only was the Maxi was underpowered, it also suffered from heavy and low-geared steering.

The Maxi’s famously poor gearchange

The failing that overshadowed all others was the appalling gear change: of course, the Maxi offered the advantage of a five-speed gearbox, but the badly engineered cable operated shift resulted in a bad gear change. Many testers were left with the uneasy feeling that they never really knew whether it was going actually slot into gear or not. Gear changing should never be stressful – in the Maxi, it was.

Julian Mounter, motoring correspondent of The Times summed up the gear change thus: ‘It feels like stirring treacle with a long thin cane.’

Nevertheless, these shortcomings aside, the Maxi was an interesting concept with a great deal to recommend it. For a start, it was wonderfully commodious. Like the Issigonis-engineered cars that preceded it, the Maxi was blessed with keen roadholding and tremendous ride quality. However, unlike its older counterparts, the Maxi was also a quiet and long-legged motorway cruiser, thanks to its overdriven top gear. Unlike its principal rival, the Renault 16 , the Maxi’s hatchback arrangement was straightforward in the extreme. It also had the added advantage of being able to fold all the seats down flat.

Austin Maxi impressions: so near, so far…

All that the Maxi really needed in order to become a good car was more power, an acceptable gear change and, most importantly, a well-styled body. At the time of the Maxi’s launch, Lord Stokes was publicly bullish about the car’s prospects. The New York Times quoted him as saying, ‘We believe that it will create the same kind of revolution in the field of middle-class family motor cars as did the Mini in the realm of small cars.’

He also said: ‘We have made certain that ample supplies are available in our distributors’ and dealers’ showrooms. In fact, almost 5000 are in their hands at this moment and, with a production rate now running at 2000 a week, the car will quickly become a very familiar sight on our roads so that customers won’t have to wait too long to get one. We are passing the starting line at a gallop as far as production of this car is concerned.’

He described the car as, ‘…the most thoroughly tested and proved model the motor industry has ever produced. We have done over a million miles of intensive testing with it up and down the motorways of Europe. in the hot summer of Portugal. and even inside the Arctic Circle in Lapland last winter.’

Austin Maxi: what George Turnbull said

George Turnbull was also quoted at the time as saying: ‘I consider it a must if you’re selling in the family sector of the market and are going to spend heavily on advertising and sales promotion, to stock your dealers up before the fanfare. You can’t afford to go into a launch with 500 cars, keeping your fingers crossed.

‘Your dealers must have one or two cars apiece, and distributors considerably more, with a plentiful supply to follow up. I would be very sorry if we have less than 5000 on announcement day, allowing at least two per dealer, and we ought to have something like 7000. Output? We will certainly do 100,000 a year, maybe up to 150,000 even in the first year.’

Although, the Leyland men would later distance themselves from the Maxi’s development and shift blame onto BMC, publicly they were enthusiastic about the new car. Lord Stokes gave The Guardian newspaper perhaps the best quote of all: ‘Our Designers and market research men have carried out detailed studies on the sociological needs of the Seventies and the impact on the automobile and we firmly believe that the Maxi will fulfill the majority of requirements of the middle-class motorist in this context.’

Austin Maxi: what Charles Griffin said

Charles Griffin summed up the Maxi in May 1969 with this comment: ‘We think that a very wide variety of operators are going to find that this is exactly the sort of motor car they are looking for because it is very much more useful than an ordinary car.

‘For instance; until now, if you wanted the station wagon facility, you had to have something that didn’t look like a motor car. In the UK this is the first time really that we’ve given the best of both worlds.

‘Our ultimate motivation is based on the fact that a motor car is essentially an extension of a person; motoring is a very personalised activity. We have tried to give the customer what he wants – what we feel he wants – an entirely new car with enormous carrying capacity, easily and economically serviced, and attractively priced.’

Project Aquila: the stylish Maxi

This design produced by Chris Field as a result of a 1972 Daily Telegraph young designers competition was based on the Maxi’s running gear. This design proposal was made-up into a full-size car (below).

Although BLMC donated the Maxi, the exercise still cost the newspaper a cool £26,000. If the idea that the Maxi was an excellent car crying out for a more stylish body, it is most potently demonstrated here. Also, note the striking similarity between this car and a 1977 sketch for the ADO99 project by Harris Mann.

Buyers didn’t love the Maxi, either…

In truth the majority of the British motoring press, whatever they might have felt as individuals about the car, if not enthusiastic about the Maxi in print, did not rubbish it either, except the monthly CAR Magazine. The magazine’s Assistant Editor, Jeff Daniels, reviewed the Maxi under the title Back to the drawing board? Reading the article today, it is quite clear that it formed the basis for the chapter on the Maxi in Daniels’ later classic book, British Leyland – the truth behind the cars.

Back in 1969, Daniels complained about the E-Series engine’s breathing and described the gearchange as ‘one of the worst gear-shifts in Europe – this side of the Iron Curtain, at least.’

He went on to write: ‘The nose looks inoffensive if undistinguished, but doesn’t seem to belong to the rest of the car, having clearly been designed by somebody else. In fact, it is a comparatively recent redesign, having been lengthened by several inches in an attempt to give some sort of visual balance… Whether there is any room in the car for a bigger engine seems to depend on which BLMC man you talk to, but Harry Webster says not, at least without rearranging an awful lot of other components.’

Hints about future development

The last statement is interesting as Harry Webster already knew the 1748cc version of the E-Series engine was on its way. Jeff Daniels went on to write: ‘Interior noise assails one from several directions. It never becomes overpowering, but the car could certainly not be called quiet.’

Unfortunately, the Maxi was greeted with total apathy from the British car buying public – and it is easy to see why. For a start, most people failed to understand the Maxi; it was a great concept let down by fairly fundamental detailing, not least the styling.

Whereas the Cortina (despite what Harriman may have decreed, it was a rival to the Maxi) was crisply-styled and was available in a multitude of options, the Maxi was a one-model show: five-doors and five-speeds, take-it-or-leave-it…

An early sales success

The Maxi did enjoy a brief honeymoon with car buyers, by mid-May 1969 the press were reporting that Cowley was introducing a nightshift and that the order book for the car amounted to five months production. George Turnbull was quoted as saying: ‘We are very encouraged by the response of our distributors, dealers and public, to the Maxi. Our only anxiety is that we should fulfil these orders as quickly as possible. We are doing everything we can to build up production.’

However, a series of stoppages, mainly by Pressed Steel Fisher at Cowley, which supplied Maxi body shells tested the patience of the potential customers who had a Maxi on order. Gradually weekly Maxi production dropped from the planned 2000 a week to 1800, then 1600 and, by September 1969, BLMC revealed it was dropping further still to 1300.

In The Times of 16 September 1969, Giles Smith wrote: ‘The share of the British car market won by British Leyland’s new and much publicised Maxi, production of which will be cut back for the second time in a month later this month, dropped to less than 2.5% in the three months following its April launch it was understood last night. Maxi models are estimated to have had a 3.3% share of the May market, 2.5% in June, and 2.4% in July.’

…but the bubble would soon burst

The Times went on to report: ‘Indications are that sales in August are most unlikely to climb above the July figure. Leyland said last night that this had nothing to do with the production reduction at its Oxford plant and claimed the group had always been aiming at a two per cent initial market share figure. But sales of the new car, one of the most publicised and heavily prepared launches by the group’s Austin Morris Division, have clearly been a disappointment to the company’s executives.

‘It is understood the group was thinking in terms of a minimum market share of 5%, possibly rising to 7-8%; no company would seriously consider a launch of the size and cost of the Maxi’s if it were not aiming at a market well above 5%.

‘Leyland confirmed over the weekend that output of the Maxi at Oxford, originally intended to be 2000 a week, but now some 1600 a week. would be cut back to 1300 when the plant re-opens on 29 September. The company said the cutback, involving short-time working, was due to difficulties in getting bodies for the Maxi from Pressed Steel Fisher.’

Poor expectations weren’t met

In fact, in September 1969, the Maxi took a mere 2.2% of the UK car market, by November production had been reduced further to 1000 cars per week and, by December 1969, its market share had fallen disastrously to 1.4%; a mere 681 cars.

In the 1 November 1969 edition of the Daily Express, the newspaper’s motoring correspondent, Basil Cardew, outlined some of the Maxi’s perceived problems: ‘The Maxi has faced mounting criticism since it was launched last April. The output of Maxis is now down to 1000 cars a week – not nearly filling the assembly lines of a £24m factory to build its engine. Its sales are 2.2% of the home market.

‘The Maxi is said to have a ponderous gear change, excessive road noise and disappointing performance. Its price of £979, including purchase tax, is said to be too high in relation to its closest rivals… Renault 16 (£970), Ford Cortina Estate (£958), French Simca 1100 Estate (£959), Vauxhall Victor (£949), and Hillman Minx de luxe (£851).’

Austin Maxi: 10 more years…

‘The Maxi, say the critics, would, be all right if it were sorted out properly. It feels and sounds unrefined – with buzzes, shakes and booms. It gives a bumpy ride and the advantage of the five-speed gearbox is offset by the tortuous gear change.

‘So last night I tackled 53-year-old Lord Stokes who said: ‘We have 31 basic models under the British Leyland umbrella, the Maxi is only one. Yes, I have heard, some of these criticisms but I tell you categorically, that the Maxi is here to stay at least for another 10 years. There were similar criticisms when BMC brought out its 1800 model, but now it is one of our best sellers.’

‘He is convinced that, by next spring, the Maxi will be a best seller. The Austin/Morris 1800 was considerably modified before it gained favour: Will the Maxi also be worked on? Said Lord Stokes: ‘At this time we contemplate no major modifications.’

Marketing and pricing mistakes

His Lordship’s statement about the Maxi remaining in production for a decade is ironic, considering Sir George Harriman also made similar promises about previous Issigonis cars to the media. In reality, as early as September 1969, the BLMC Board was expressing concern at the Maxi’s lack of market penetration. Lord Stokes wanted to know why it was not popular with fleet buyers. Sales Director Filmer Paradise’s response was that the Maxi was £75-150 too expensive.

BLMC launched a crash modification programme for the Maxi – Austin Morris Sales Director Filmer Paradise admitted, later in May 1970, that the original car ‘…had some niggling faults.’ Beginning on 17 December, Austin distributors were called to a series of conferences at Longbridge at which, according to Mr. Paradise, ‘…everybody let their hair down. We approached them with stark realism and an acceptance of their problems in selling the Maxi.’

He added: ‘And any salesman who is not enthusiastic, is nothing. Something had to be done.’

Rebooting the Maxi for the 1970s

Maxi was substandard and the unusual step of going for a full relaunch seemed like the only way of saving the Maxi. By the autumn of 1969, modifications were being introduced to the assembly line at Cowley to isolate the causes of excessive vibration and make the gear change more positive. Sound deadening material was liberally applied.

Twenty of the newly-modified cars were handed over for trial runs. Countrywide re-training of showroom salesmen was next – distributors and dealers were given financial incentives to put more than 1500 demonstrators on the road, in order to get potential buyers behind the wheel of the Maxi.

Next came a mass-mailshot of 1.5 million would-be customers that the Maxi was well worth buying. However, the most telling move was the decision to hold the Maxi’s price at £1018 during price increases, thereby increasing its competitiveness. The modified cars were met with a warmer response from Press and, by February 1970, market penetration increased to 2.2%; March’s was 2.5% and April climbed to more than 3%. By May 1970, costs for repairs under warranty were the lowest of any BLMC car, but output was now way down on the production targets originally set.

Austin Maxi 1750 breaks cover

Eighteen months later, on 12 October 1970 and after a lot of back-room work on the car, the 1750cc E-Series version of the Maxi appeared, along with the new rod-operated gearchange – and, at that point, the Maxi started to come good as a car. The new version was no less odd-looking and the steering was just as heavy and low-geared, but at least the Maxi now had a reasonable turn of speed and one could now engage gear without the constant fear of wrong-slotting it.

At launch of the revised Maxi, Austin Morris Managing Director, George Turnbull, said: ‘We would be foolish not to concede that the original Maxi needed more refinement and a more positive gear selection mechanism. It is in these areas that we have concentrated our research and development.’

Unfortunately, the damage had been done by now, the premature launch of the cable change 1500 Maxi had terminally tarnished the car. The revised Maxi was the car that should have been launched in the first place. In reality, as far as Maxi development was concerned, that was about it: the twin-carburettor Maxi HL appeared later on, in October 1972, including a useful hike in power to 91bhp.

Special Tuning gets its hands on the Maxi

There were, in fact, factory-backed developments available to improve the Maxi’s performance, care of British Leyland Special Tuning run by Basil Wales at Abingdon, but they would cost a premium over the standard car. Autocar in the shape of Jeff Daniels, who had moved from CAR, visited Special Tuning in late 1970.

Daniels tested several BLMC cars including a Maxi 1500, VVP 430J. The ST conversion comprised of twin SU carburettors, a polished inlet manifold and a new exhaust system all for a cost of £66 at time when the Maxi 1500 retailed at £1057.

The tuning package, known as a Pluspac A, boosted power from 74bhp to 83bhp, almost on a par with the new 1750 variant and pushed top speed up to 91mph from 86mph. The 0-60mph dash was reduced from 16.6 to 14.9 seconds, again indicating that the E-Series engine was severely restricted in standard form. The ST car was actually faster in fifth gear, whereas Autocar’s 1969 road test car was fastest in fourth.

Motor magazine later tested a Pluspac A kit on the Maxi 1750, reaching a maximum top speed of 96.4mph and a 0-60mph time of 12.7 seconds. This tuning package formed the basis of the later Maxi HL minus the bigger bore exhaust system.

Downton improves the Maxi

As usual it was left to Downton Engineering of Wiltshire to demonstrate the Maxi’s true potential. For £203.30 the Maxi owner received their Stage 2 conversion which, in addition to the twin carburettors and performance exhaust offered by Special Tuning, also had a modified cylinder head. This boosted power to 105.7bhp at 6000rpm and torque was also up to 113.2lb ft at 4000rpm. Motor magazine tested UMW 777J in February 1973, lapping MIRA at 100.1mph.

The 0-60mph time was 10.1 seconds. Motor summed up the Downton Maxi as ‘ a very desirable, versatile, and civilised Q-car for town, country or motorway.’ However, as far as the factory was concerned, they were not going to offer any of the improvements devised by Downton or Special Tuning on the E-Series engine as standard, which was left to wither on the vine for a decade.

By this time hopes that the more emissions friendly OHC E-Series engine would find a home in British Leyland’s sports cars had also evaporated. The MGB replacement was slated to use the engine, but the corporate sports car became Project Bullet, later the Triumph TR7. Only the Austin Allegro and Maxi used the four cylinder version of the engine.

Hydrolastic replaced by Hydragas

Beyond that, the Hydrolastic suspension was replaced by Hydragas and, in doing so, the Maxi was brought into line with the rest of the Moulton-suspended range.

Finally, in 1980, the Maxi was further, cosmetically facelifted to become the Maxi 2. New bumpers, wheeltrims and interior trim brightened the car, but did not significantly improve it.

It was left completely untouched to battle through the 1970s – and it has to be said that, although the Maxi never sold in any great numbers, settling down to a steady 20-30,000 a year in the UK, it did pick up a loyal following in the UK.

Carving a niche of its own

The Austin Maxi catered to the family man who needed space aplenty and, as such, there were few cars that could offer anything approaching its space efficiency. Most car magazines tended to view the Maxi as a small estate car and so its appeal was unfortunately severely compromised. Those that did not and compared it with the Renault 16 (the Maxi’s only real rival during its life) found it wanting in too many departments to mount an effective challenge to the charismatic French car.

In a sense part of the reason the Maxi failed to sell in the numbers expected of it was that British Leyland never really understood what they had and failed to exploit its virtues as perhaps the original MPV. Many potential buyers simply looked at the engine options and saw it as a Cortina rival, but without the style and at a higher price.

Those customers who did opt for the Maxi experienced a comfortable, flexible car with excellent ride characteristics provided by its Moulton-designed suspension. However, all the Maxi’s plus points cost money to engineer into the car which was passed onto the customer who could find a cheaper, simpler car from a rival manufacturer which they more readily understood. Even the concept of a fifth overdrive gear was alien to many motorists at the time.

Internal rivalries didn’t help the Maxi

Also it could be argued that the 1750 Maxi faced internal competition from the 1800 and later the Princess. In the Maxi’s peak year of production, 1972/73, 70,846 emerged from Cowley along with 37,831 1800/2200s from Longbridge. The 2200 may have had the edge in performance over the Maxi, but was the 1800 really worth keeping in production alongside the Maxi?

The last Maxi was produced at Cowley on 8 July 1981.

The General puts it into context

On 26 August 1981 General Motors unveiled the Vauxhall Cavalier Mk2, sold as the Opel Ascona in continental Europe. The day of the launch was co-incidentally the anniversary of the announcement of the original Issigonis Mini and, in a sense, the Cavalier/Ascona was as significant as the Mini.

Whereas the Mini and the 1100/1300 had established the front-wheel-drive format in their respective market sectors, the ADO17 1800/2200 and Austin Maxi had completely and totally failed to woo fleet buyers away from simple rear-wheel-drive cars like the Ford Cortina and its rival clones.

The Cavalier/Ascona was a front-wheel-drive car available as a four-door saloon with a boot or a five-door hatchback. The engines were overhead camshaft available in 1.3- to 2.0-litre capacities mated to a five-speed gearbox, which gave above average performance and all this was in a stylish contemporary body.

By 1983, the Cavalier/Ascona was challenging Ford’s new Cortina replacement, the Sierra in the sales chart. It was General Motors which took the Maxi blueprint and created a properly thought out and engineered car in the Cavalier/Ascona – a car which, in short, appealed to both private and fleet buyers and established front-wheel drive as a viable commercial proposition in its respective market sector.

Conclusion

Looking at the size and weight of the Maxi, it is actually shorter and lighter than the 1998 Ford Focus, but manages to have considerably more room inside – which demonstrates that BMC certainly knew how to obtain the most interior room for any given package.

That the Maxi manages to beat the Focus – state of the art in 1998 – for packaging speaks volumes for the concept. The ultimate shame for British Leyland was that, although the concept of the Maxi was fundamentally a good one, its execution (especially at the start of its life) was quite simply, rubbish.

Maxi 2 incorporating cosmetic improvements appeared towards the end of the car’s life, in 1980

British Leyland could have rescued the car by redesigning the body and interior and pushing this redesigned Maxi as a product to sit in the range where the Allegro finally ended up.

The reason for this abandonment of the Maxi is easy to see – it was seen as a product of BMC and, therefore, something from the past – and, by the time of its launch, the newly-installed British Leyland management was already busying itself planning for the launch of the new company’s first car: the Morris Marina.

As Alec Issigonis himself said in 1964, an advanced design only becomes a successful one when others copy it for themselves. The fact that so few rival designers produced an answer to the Maxi speaks volumes about the car.

1969 Austin Maxi 1500 in ‘outdoor pursuits’ mode

Maxi Production figures (Cowley)*

1968/69 1969/70 1970/71 1971/72 1972/73 23,294 27,618 35,742 62,783 55,357 1973/74 1974/75 1975/76 1977 1978 41,639 33,132 43,983 32,479 38,567 1979 1980 1981 Total produced 27,490 15,778 12,435 450,297

* Calendar of years:

1968/69 to 1974/75 (October to September)
1975/76 (October 1975 to December 1976 – 15 Months)
1977 onwards (January to December)


  • With reference to There’s Something About A Maxi by Paul Jefford

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