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Austin Maxi (1969 - 1981)

Last updated 3 April 2013

 
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Austin Maxi compared with Renault 16

Introduction

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…

Character

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…

Performance

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.

Handling

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.

Ride

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.

Gearbox

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…

Braking

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.

Luggage Space

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.

Running Costs

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.

Verdict

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.

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