Austin Maxi (1969 – 1981) Review
Austin Maxi (1969 – 1981) At A Glance
Loads of room, hatchback versatility, five-speed cruising
Heavy steering, obstructive gearchange, lack of refinement from the engine
BMC became British Leyland in 1968, and one of its first products was the Austin Maxi. Of course, it was really the final new BMC, and Leyland management was keen to tell everyone that at launch - so, the Maxi ended up being unloved by those who built it. Which is a shame, because it was a great concept, and with those who 'get' it, the Maxi makes for the perfect classic car.
It was essentially a good car with some innovative ideas, but the finer details, lack of quality, and poor execution let the Maxi down – traits that would later go on to characterise BL. It was Britain’s first genuinely family-sized hatchback had plenty of space and seats that folded down into a lumpy double bed, yet taking the passenger doors from the 1800/2200 (again!) meant looks were strange and disjointed.
Hydrolastic (and later Hydragas) suspension and five gears were its good points, but the gearchange itself was memorably bad, even after it was improved in 1972.
- June 1965: BMC began work on a new mid-sized car
- January 0001: 01-10-1967 Details of the Maxi's new engine factory were released
- November 1967: Final testing begun
- January 0001: 01-05-1968 Maxi received a pre-launch facelift
- April 1969: Maxi was launched to the press
- June 1969: Buyers failed to get excited about the Maxi
- October 1969: Cowley production line modified to improve quality
- October 1970: Revised Maxi with 1750cc engine was launched
- October 1972: Maxi 1750HL with twin-carbs was launched
- May 1980: Maxi 'Series 2' was launched
- July 1981: The last Maxi was produced at Cowley
BMC began work on a new mid-sized car
BMC decided to fill the gap between ADO16 and ADO17. 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 new car’s wheelbase was roughly three-eights of the way between the two cars, exactly 100 inches.
Of course, it didn’t 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 – massively longer than the Cortina. Also the 1800’s doors dictated the windscreen rake on the new car.
More alarmingly, it also meant all Austin-badged cars between 1.5- and 3-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. 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 1100, 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.
ADO14 would result in being an 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 – as it 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.
When questioned in 1969 on 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.
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. 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.
01-10-1967 Details of the Maxi's new engine factory were released
In October 1967, only weeks before production of the new E-series engine was due to begin in the new Cofton Hackett plant, Mr Bill Davis, deputy managing director in charge of production, described the new factory to the Times newspaper, which had cost BMC £14 million in machinery alone, as, ‘the greatest concentration of modern equipment in an area of comparable size anywhere in the motor vehicle manufacturing world. 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.’
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.
Final testing begun
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 autobahnen.
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.
In 1969 Charles Griffin was asked why the Austin Maxi had a five speed gearbox.
‘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 15½mph per 1000rpm for the normal family saloon. Now overdrive lifts all that up to about 19½mph 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.’
A major problem for ADO14 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 became clear British Motor Holdings (BMC’s parent company, since the purchase of Jaguar in 1966) 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, and was 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 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. In The Times 22 April 1968, the story, Styling troubles delay new BMC saloon, Geoffrey Charles went on to describe 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…’
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, now renamed the Austin Morris division of British Leyland, Alec Issigonis wrote to his future boss on April 101968.
‘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 4 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 4-speed automatic transmission unit.
- Development of a 6 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 6 inches shorter than the present car (120 inches) and another 10 inches longer or 4 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 BMC 1500 which was supposed to be 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 saleable 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.
01-05-1968 Maxi received a pre-launch facelift
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. 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 left). 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 more 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.
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. But 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.
In terms of marketing the Maxi, it would fit in perfectly with the plans that Stokes had for the Austin marque and how it fit 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 therefore was 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.
But 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.’
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.
Maxi was launched to the press
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 magazine in its May 1969 issue described the Austin Maxi’s launch in Portugal. ‘Lord Stokes was furiously fielding criticism of the years 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 failing that overshadowed all others, though, 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. Unlike its older counterparts, however, the Maxi was also a quiet and long-legged motorway cruiser, thanks to its overdriven top gear. Unlike its principle 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 (to make some kind of lumpy double bed).
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.’
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 fulfil the majority of requirements of the middle class motorist in this context.’
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 motorcar 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.’
Buyers failed to get excited about the Maxi
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. Car’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 engines 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.’
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…
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 publicized 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.
‘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 2% 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 or 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.’ 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). 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.’
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.’
Cowley production line modified to improve quality
The results were clear – Maxi was substandard, and therefore, 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 – brainchild of Sir Alec Issigonis – 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 over 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.
Revised Maxi with 1750cc engine was launched
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.’
Maxi 1750HL with twin-carbs was launched
But 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.
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 it 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. This equates to £12,800 in modern terms and the kit cost an extra £799.
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.
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. 0-60mph was achieved in 10.1 seconds. Motor summed up the Downton Maxi as ‘ a very desirable, versatile, and civilised Q-car for town, Coventry or motorway.’
But 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 ADO21 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.
Maxi 'Series 2' was launched
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 – new bumpers, wheeltrims and interior trim brightened the car, but did not significantly improve it. It was left completely untouched to battle through the ’70s – 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.
The 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.
The last Maxi was produced at Cowley
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. But 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.
Also it could be argued that the 1750 Maxi faced internal competition from the ADO17 1800 and later the ADO71 Princess. In the Maxi’s peak year of production, 1972/73, 70846 emerged from Cowley along with 37831 1800/2200’s 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?
Driving Austin Maxi (1969 – 1981)
Austin Maxi compared with Renault 16
To fully understand why we think the Austin Maxi and Renault 16 are both exceptional cars, you only have to look at what they could offer in terms of accommodation and features compared with their contemporaries. We may now take features such as the hatchback, front wheel drive, positive steering and keen roadholding for granted now, but at the end of the 1960s, these were real novelty points.
Both cars were the creation of single-minded designers, who were given a carte blanche to produce something new to fill a specific market niche for their employers. For Renault, it was upward expansion. The company had been doing good business with the Dauphine, Floride and Renault 8, but it lacked a top of the range model to sate the demand of increasingly affluent buyers. Renault designers were tasked with producing the car, and because Citroen’s ID offered masses of space, comfort and style for the money, he came to the conclusion that the new Renault needed to offer something genuinely new.
His solution was to produce a hold-all; a cross between luxury family saloon and estate car – offering the buyer the option of two cars in one. Little did he know how much influence his idea would have… When the first pictures of the car appeared in the press in the autumn of 1964, people didn’t know what to make of it – was the new Renault a saloon or an estate car? Either way, the front wheel drive hatchback aroused huge amounts of interest in France, and buyers anticipated its launch the following year.
Unsurprisingly, French buyers went mad for it – the Renault 16 had no domestically produced rivals, and it hit the spot. Sales were keen, Renault had a hit on its hands, and crowning glory came later that year when it was awarded the then prestigious Car of The Year award.
Just like Renault’s 16, the Austin Maxi was created to plug a gap in the British Motor Corporation’s (BMC) range of cars. Designed to replace the popular, but fading range of Farina bodied saloons, the Maxi was intended to strike fear into rival producers of mid-range cars. The adoption of the hatchback rear was an accident, though, and one created by BMC’s accountants. In order to save money, it was decided the Maxi should use the same side doors as the BMC 1800, and in order to make the car significantly shorter than the existing car, the rear end was shortened – and the best way of doing this, was to add a hatchback door.
Penned by Sir Alec Issigonis, the legendary designer of the Mini and Morris Minor, the Maxi had it all – independent suspension, a five speed gearbox, huge interior and Hydrolastic suspension. How could it possibly fail? And yet it did…
It may have been an accident of design, but the similarities between the two cars were striking. Both were launched with 1.5-litre engines, and both quickly gained more power in the search for more buyers. Both were launched in the '60s, and produced into the '80s – and both were replaced by saloons. Go figure…
To the casual observer, the chances of either car scoring highly here might seem limited. After all, these are mass produced family cars – and front wheel drive ones at that. But dismiss these cars at your peril, because they both offer the spark of genius that separates them from their more humdrum opposition.
First off the Renault – who would have thought that it would be possible to make a two-box design look avant-garde and interesting at the same time. And yet Renault managed it. The R16’s styling has a flamboyance and that marks it out as something special – and just like the Renault 5, VW Golf and Peugeot 205 that came after it, there’s a classless quality here that allows the R16 to fit in anywhere.
The Maxi, on the other hand, is a bit more gawky to look at, and has an awkwardness unknown to the Renault. But what it lacks in natural style, it makes up for in practicality and engineering excellence. It might not look quite as comfortable as the R16 on the French Riviera, but the Maxi is able to please in many other ways.
It’s a very clever car, and drives far better than it looks.
Think of the Maxi as the school swot – the person whose homework we all cribbed off but didn’t really want to hang out with, and you’re not too wide of the mark. The Renault, on the other hand, would be the captain of the rugby team – frighteningly clever, and popular, too…
Look at the figures and you might think this is a Renault walkover; it has a 6mph top speed advantage, and easily outdrags the Maxi off the line. Acceleration from rest is particularly impressive, with the 0-60mph run being dispatched in a flighty 12 seconds.
A new high flow aluminium cylinder head is much of the reason why the R16 TS (which stands for a very romantic sounding Tourisme Sport) performs so impressively. Its adoption adds extra top end zing to the unburstable engine. That makes it a car, which responds well to being driven hard.
The Maxi, on the other hand is a much more sedate beast. At low to mid-revs, it’s very refined, and makes the Renault sound altogether more agricultural. It also delivers a solid slug of torque, which means you can change up a whole lot earlier , and still maintain reasonable progress. This gives the added bonus of sparing it high revs – something the Maxi dislikes in single carburettor form.
But let’s face it neither of these cars will be bought for their sprinting ability, most owners preferring a relaxed and effortless drive to stomach churning acceleration. And it is here that the Maxi scores heavily, thanks to its easy going and torquey nature. It’s quick enough at low revs to maintain a semblance of civility – a world apart from the Renault, which begs to be thrashed.
The Austin might look frumpy and unexciting, but its chassis has a touch of that Issigonis magic that marks out the Mini and 1100 as such fun cars to drive. For a start, it inspires immediate confidence in the driver as soon as you hit the twisty stuff. The combination of positive steering, and low roll angles mean that within moments of setting off, even someone unfamiliar with the Maxi will end up tacking corners at speeds unheard of in conventional rivals such as the Ford Cortina and Morris Marina.
Body roll is contained nicely, but there are no nasty surprises if the driver gets over confidence. Bends ultimately end up an understeery experience –a very safe state of affairs. At no point will the Maxi slide at the rear – and in daily driving conditions, it’s nigh on unbeatable.
The Renault runs it surprisingly close though. Being French and a child of the Sixties, it does like to lean over in corners. And not just a little bit – after the flat Maxi, the R16 actually feels like it could topple over, given half the chance.
Of course, it never does. And just like legendary Frenchies like the 2CV and Renault 4, familiarity with the R16 will soon have the keen driver leaning on it in corners, and finding impressive levels of grip. It’s sensitive to tyre choice and pressures, but when you get these right, the R16 is a real hoot to hustle around corners.
Both cars set high standards, but the Maxi, as soft and controllable as it is, has to give its best to the R16.
Ride quality is possibly the single most exceptional feature of the R16, and even though the TS is nominally the sporting model of the range, it offers that magic carpet experience unique to French cars. For such a light car, the way it dismisses surface irregularities , such as cat’s-eyes, is truly impressive – the only indication for the driver being a muffled thump.
The Maxi is considerably firmer, but still soft by most standards. Ride is affected by indifferent damping, which seems to be a feature of many Hydrolastic cars, and the up-down motion, which suspension interconnection brings can be annoying to some people. However, it’s still a very comfortable ride, and preferable to many drivers, who may find the Renault’s softness can induce car sickness in their passengers.
It might take time for the average driver to find himself at home with a column gearchange, but once acclimatised, it doesn’t take long to appreciate just how good the R16’s gearbox is.
Initially, there’s a little vagueness, but once rolling, the shift is quick and positive in action, and better than some direct floor shifts that we could mention. Strong spring-loading is an issue for first-timers, too, but it gets easier with familiarity. In fact, after even a short period behind the wheel, one soon begins to wonder why column shift are the exception rather than the norm – it’s probably a fashion thing…
Gearing is a little odd, with first to third being close ratio, then with an appreciable jump to fourth. The longish fourth is befitting of a car so happy at speed, but one can’t escape the conclusion that a five-speeder would transform it.
Which is where the Maxi comes into its own. It might have a rubbery, and less than accurate gear change, but get onto the motorway and slip it into that mildly overdriven fifth gear, and much that is wrong with the Maxi’s gearbox can be forgiven. Not all though. If you’re a town driver, the hit and miss nature of its gear selection might drive many to the pits of despair. But with long-term familiarity, the driver soon learns that things can improve if changes aren’t rushed and patience becomes the order of the day. But in the Maxi, you’ll not be changing gear for the fun of it…
THE Renault 16 received larger brakes when it was upgraded to TS specification. The already effective disc/drum set-up benefited enormously from this improvement, and a keen brake action is befitting of the car’s lively performance. Stopping power is impressive, but pedal feel is worthy of note. It would take a very clumsy driver to lock the front wheels on the R16 – even in the murkiest winter conditions.
The Maxi is also an effective stopper. The pedal may feel slightly more ‘dead’ than that of the R16, but its still confidence inspiring, and an object lesson for other manufacturers who delivered sub-standard braking at the time. Both cars can be progressively slowed down, and both also perform well in emergency stops, proving that classics can stop as well as they go…
Cabin and Controls
If you're in any doubt that these cars are very different beasts, a couple of minutes sat behind the wheel of both will soon have you convinced that BMC and Renault had very different design philosophies. Without a shadow of doubt, the Renault is a very charming place to be. It’s difficult not to fall in love with the Renault’s silver dash and racy looking chrome rimmed instruments. It’s a real taste of the sporting life, French style – and it even comes with a rev counter, a real luxury in 1970.
Ergonomics are effective, too, with all switchgear falling nicely to hand. It wasn’t always the case – with R16s running to a manual choke, you had a bit of a stretch to get it going on a cold morning. There is still the awkward handbrake to contend with, but on the whole, the Renault is an object lesson in simply effective dashboard design. Even the electric window switches are obvious and well-planned – slap, bang in the middle of the dashboard…
The seats are soft and luxurious, too – you sink into them, as you would your favourite beanbag. Experts on anatomy might complain about their lack of lumbar support, but we don’t think the driver will struggle at all with comfort on longer runs. Visibility is excellent, and the view out front is commanding, thanks to the high-mounted front seats. Shame about the windscreen wipers, which are set up for left hand drive – a real pain in the neck for taller drivers.
The Maxi is a whole lot more workmanlike in its approach – and surprisingly, a much warmer experience for it. The experience is dominated by the wooden dashboard, which if not exactly the last word in Rover or Jaguar-like luxury, does add a certainly homeliness. Perhaps it is British buyers’ obsession with tree-lined interiors that is responsible for its addition to the Maxi armoury, but it is a welcome one in our eyes.
Whereas the Renault interior seems to ooze character, the Maxi is actually dull inside – the dashboard is a flat plank of wood with a few cutouts in it, and compared with the well-stacked Renault, it’s lacking a little in the equipment stakes. There’s no rev counter, and no electric windows for a start. There is an upside, though – if you want to squirt the screen with clean water, you don’t have to mess around with the silly floor mounted switch as found in the French car…
The seats are clad in vinyl, but even this doesn’t detract from the favourable impression made by the truly cavernous interior. The amount of space inside the Maxi is truly awe-inspiring, and if thought the Renault commodious, the Maxi takes the game on to an entirely new level. It is no exaggeration to compare the legroom with upmarket opposition like the Triumph 2000. The payoff is there though – upright seating positions front and rear. Somehow, sitting upright and sensible suits the Maxi, though.
At last – a decisive victory for the home team. And how.
Considering the Maxi was created to plug a gap in the sprawling BMC range, and there was an element of panic in its design, it is hard to look in the boot and not be impressed. The hatchback door is huge and reaches right down to bumper level, and presents a huge and uncluttered boot, thanks to the joys of the space maximizing Hydrolastic suspension layout.
Obviously, you can remove the luggage cover, and fold down the rear seats. The mechanism is refreshingly simple – pull a lever, lift the rear seat squab and fold down the backrest – and the result is a vast luggage area that puts most medium sized estate cars to shame. If the Maxi had one reason for being in life, its enormous and practical boot would be it. We just wonder how many ex-Farina or Cortina owners would have put it to good use. Perhaps the lumpy double bed facility also offered was more up their street…
In absolute terms, the Renault does pretty well, too. There are various seating and load space permutations you can go through, but none of them are remotely logical, or simple to achieve. There is no simple way of folding down the rear seat as you would in the Maxi – one option is to suspend part of the rear seat from the ceiling. Hmmm.
Once mastered – or at least understood – it is roomy enough. Not in the Maxi class, but acceptable nonetheless.
Fuel consumption on both cars is on the right side of acceptable, with between 25 and 32mpg easily achievable in both. The advantage of the Maxi’s five-speed gearbox does not equate into a real world consumption advantage – unless you spend all day on the motorway. The main difference in terms of running costs would appear to be more about servicing and repairs. The Maxi’s parts availability is good – and the wide level of interchangeability with other BMC and BL cars means that finding servicing items is easy and cheap – especially if you go through the various owners’ clubs.
The Renault also has a high level of parts commonality with other cars in the range – it’s just that they’re all pretty rare in the UK, and finding a sympathetic mechanic isn’t the work of a moment. Get plugged into the Renault Owners Club, and the situation improves dramatically. But not enough for it to score well against the Maxi.
Despite being close on paper, these two cars are poles apart. There may be lots in common between them, especially in terms of size and usefulness, but once you get behind the wheel, huge differences begin to emerge.
The Renault is almost impossible not to fall in love with. It has a vivacious character that engages you quickly, and has you getting up early to take the long way to work. It’s a family car that is enjoyable to drive and in the right colour, will turn heads wherever you take it. There is no danger of seeing another one on your travels…
The Maxi has all the ingredients to crush the Renault into the ground, though. The engine, boot and interior is altogether bigger; it is a clever fusion of Issigonis engineering, and solid design values. It’s truly enormous inside, has an advanced spec sheet, and can cover ground surprisingly rapidly.
Objectively it’s a damned fine car, and one that was sadly overlooked by too many buyers – the sort that couldn’t look beyond its Plain Jane looks and see its overwhelming list of practical positives.
So the Maxi walks it then? Sadly not.
It falls behind the Renault for being too clever for its own good. One gets the impression it’s a ruthlessly efficient piece of engineering, designed to shift families and their luggage with the minimum of fuss. However, when Issigonis and his team put the Maxi together, they forgot to add the most important ingredient of all – charisma.
It’s a good car, but the Renault is a great one – and that’s why I’d be the first in the queue to take this French temptress home with me. It’s one of the true greats.
Austin Maxi (1969 – 1981) Buying Guide
Being a BMC/BL product, the Maxi benefits from the joys of parts sharing, and although the platform was unique to the car, there are plenty of components shared with the better-selling Allegro. In terms of reliability, the Maxi seems to have a better record than the Allegro and Princess – although how much of that is down to a simple case of buyer perception is another matter.
The Maxi’s body is extremely strong, but it is not immune to rust. Corrosion to front wings and doors is not structural but can be extremely unsightly. The front end of the sills is a known weak area – as are the rear suspension mounts, so pay close attention to these areas. Right hand side rear door – these always rot first, and no-one knows why. They are interchangeable with the BMC 1800 and Austin 3-litre, although we suspect finding a Maxi door is the easier than it s bigger brothers.
Hard to find parts: Windscreens, window winder mechanisms, front bumpers, and exhausts (on later cars) are hard to find – so check all these areas carefully.
Front subframes rot between the top and bottom suspension arms – and as these rot from the inside, it’s not easily spotted. Replacement of the subframe is a time-consuming job. On all cars, also listen out for clicking CV joints.
These run forever as long as they’ve had oil and filters, so check for plenty of evidence – at least every 5000 miles for piece of mind.
They can fail anytime between 5000 and 150,000 miles – and it’s a nut on the mainshaft that causes the failure when it spins off. Symptoms are obvious – you end up with no drive – although predicting failure is almost impossible. The oil seal behind clutch can also fail leading to slipping clutches.
Hydrolastic Suspension (1969-1975):
The short flexi-pipe between the Hydrolastic displacer and the steel pipe are known to fail – repairs are not too difficult.
Hydragas Suspension (1975-on):
Replacement displacers are virtually non-existent new – front ones are prone to fail leaving no suspension travel. Rears are more reliable, and some say fronts and rear are interchangeable, although this is not recommended by the club. Ambassador/Princess front displacers are also said to fit.
Leaks are easily rectifiable – pipes are easily changed with standard ½-inch automotive hydraulic pipes. Heavy duty flexible front-rear interconnect pipes are easily obtainable through the club.
Early (pre-1971) parts very hard to come by now, but the rest are easily found on the secondhand market. Basically the interior lasts much better than the exterior, so if the car you’re looking is shabby inside, walk away.
Running Austin Maxi (1969 – 1981)
The parts situation:
GETTING Maxi servicing parts poses no real problems at all, but certain specific parts are now almost impossible to find. As mentioned before, there’s a great deal of parts compatibility with Austin Allegro – and that car enjoys a thriving owners club, with plenty of parts available to members. The Maxi Club itself is also a good source of parts, and second hand panels and suspension parts will see you through any failures.
Typical prices (AGM Spares)
Clutch kit £35
Hydragas displacer £85
Front wing £120 (when available)
Door skins £27.50
Alternator £25 exchange
CV Joint, £25 (boot kit £8)
Parts: AGM Spares, Cambria, Queen Street, Bardney, Lincolnshire, 01526 398377.
Parts: BL Transverse, Les Roberts, 020 8654 3069.
Club: Austin Maxi Club, 01526 398377, www.austinmaxiclub.org.
Austin Maxi 1750
|104 lb ft