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BMC 1800

BMC 1800 Published: 31st Jul 2019 - 0 Comments - Be the first, contribute now!

BMC 1800
BMC 1800
BMC 1800
BMC 1800
BMC 1800
BMC 1800
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Why did the logical Austin 1800 saloon – the Mini theme taken as large as it could go and Car Of The Year of 1964 – fail to capture the public’s approval like that small wonder?

ADO 67 was Alec Issigonis’s third attempt using the front-wheel-drive, maximum interior space ‘Mini’ principle, but it wasn’t half as lucky for BMC’s most famous innovator. Issigonis thought that, by simply bigging up the 1100 – which essentially was the Mini in terms of design and packaging – he was onto another winner. He wasn’t.

Designed initially to replace the old and ancient Farinas saloons, high production costs soon scuppered that idea – just as it did for the idea of the 1100 replacing the much loved Morris Minor two years earlier in 1962. But the 1800 also got off to such a bad start that it could never realise its considerable promise. Launched in 1964, the body was a joint effort of its stylist Pininfarina although Issigonis insisted that he did the middle hull leaving the Italian to top and tail it; the results were predictable… Worst still, Issigonis’s minimalist trademark that served the Mini well was carried over to the 1800 in extremes and the interior was unbelievably stark as a result for such an expensive car (£769 in 1964). In fact, the 1800 offered little more for the money other than a stretched Austin 1100’s living quarters from which the dash layout was simply cribbed.

Like the 1100, the bigger brother used a transverse engine (a detuned MGB unit) and Hyrdolastic suspension. Initially badged Austin, a Morris derivative didn’t surface until early ‘66 which further led to a badge-engineered luxury Wolseley 18/85 version, which at least boasted a more acceptable cabin.

However, then the numerous teething troubles were surfacing, such as bursting suspension pipes, sticky steering and driveshaft issues. But the biggest concern were engine failures for no apparent reason at all. Launched in the motorway age, it was initially thought that sustained high speed cruising (which the 1800 did so well) was too much for the car (strange as the B-Series engine was proving ultra durable in the MGB), so the gearing was raised and the engine power lowered a tad to keep it out of danger. Yet still UK owners – rarely foreign ones or those exported to Australia where it was very popular – were blowing up their engines. New style piston rings and bore surfacing techniques were tried but to little success, as Car detailed in a special August 1968 issue.

In a right old lather

It was only careful deduction and examining the wrecked engines that the truth slowly dawned. Dealers quizzing their customers discovered that a bit too much TLC was being showered on their lovely new cars, who religiously kept the engine oil up to the max mark – and a drop more for luck. As the lubricant also served the transmission, a whopping 15 pints were sloshing around, so much so that in certain instances the con rods were submerged and whipped the oil up into a froth – you can guess the rest. The cure was simply a recalibrated dipstick and a reduction of three pints of 20W/50. Then there was the saga of cars running poorly in hot weather. This was purely caused by air cleaner maker, Coopers, putting the wrong instruction on the filter’s casing – so in the summer it was pointing to a piping hot exhaust manifold… Bad luck you say? Perhaps but’s difficult to imagine Ford not discovering this before going into production.

By the time the MKII was introduced in late 1968 the car’s numerous teething troubles were mostly cured but by then the motor trade was very wary about taking one in as part exchange. It’s was said that the assorted warranty issues cost BMC almost £200 on every 1800 affected.

When the MkII was launched automatic transmission and much needed power steering were on the options list. A mild facelift cheered up the dumpy looks and the car’s gearing was raised still further to counter over revving, and a resultant oil burning problem.

For a few months during 1969 the new BLMC marketed three mid-sized family ranges; the Farinas, the 1800 and the new Maxi, which incidentally shared the 1800’s doors, and so dictated the dull similar styling. Despite the fact that the Maxi boasted a more advanced engine, a useful hatch facility, and a new five-speed transmission, the 1800 was the more expensive purchase of them all. In 1972, a Maxi 1750 retailed at £1324, against £1363 for the 1800, for instance.

In the same year, BL introduced its new six-cylinder engine, itself a descendant of the Maxi engine. The 2200 replaced the short-lived MGB-powered 1800S (Wolseley 18/85S) and also the biggest mistake of all the 1967 Austin 3 Litre. A stretched 1800 with a new longer top and tail, it was designed in the early ‘60s to replace the Westminster flagship but, despite its 124bhp MGC-derived engine, rear-wheel drive chassis and self-levelling rear suspension, it only sold 10,000 – which was slightly better than the much criticised MGC launched at the same time! Luxurious and roomy it may have been but with those gawky looks – even worse than the 1800’s – what company head would want to be seen in one, when a base Jaguar XJ6 2.8 cost the same money?

It predictably bowed out in 1971. The 110bhp 2200 was a good car with smooth performance far superior to the old 3 Litre although curiously couldn’t be fitted with the Maxi’s five-speed transmission.

By the time the 1800 made way for the futuristically-styled 18-22 (Princess) series in 1975, less than 400,000 ADO 67s had been made, falling well short of its anticipated target. The idea of a large, functional, roomy car sounded ideal for most families – except they didn’t like the look of this stumpy over-wide saloon – hence the nickname Land Crab.

Interestingly, BLMC could have salvaged the car as early as 1968. Its co-designer Sergio Pininfarina designed a concept 1800 which was exhibited at the Turin show. It created a lot of interest, but the UK car giant turned the Italian’s offer down. What did it look like? Well, the next time you see a sleek Citroën CX, think of what an 1800 could well have been!

Why we love them

Thanks to the 1800’s strength (claimed to be the strongest bodyshell ever made at the time) the car proved its worth in rallying and would have won the 1968 London-Sydney Marathon but for an accident, leaving that other unlikely hero – the Hillman Hunter – to take overall, if not moral, victory. But the 1800 was best suited to more domestic duties, where its people carrier-like interior capacity in ordinary saloon dimensions meant that it swallowed families and their luggage with supreme ease. That the BMC 1800 was almost too big was one criticism at the time. The car’s strength and mass meant it was rock solid on the road and the Hydrolastic suspension worked better in the larger body than it ever did with the bouncy Mini or the 1100 plus that stalwart 1798cc engine had torque to spare with the 1800S ideal for those who had grown out of their MGBs.

Motor said that the 1800 was “one of the most maligned British cars on the market” and concluded that (in 1968) it was “one of the best medium-priced big cars available anywhere in the world today”. It was just what many right thinking motorists were looking for… just like the best selling 1100 but bigger. But this plain common sense philosophy was taken a step too far with the 1800; buyers also wanted style for the money asked. You can level this purely subjective comment at today’s SUV market we reckon!

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