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In the third of our new series, we look at classic cars that you or your dad perhaps owned (or wanted to own) together with a drive down memory lane to a year that was prominent in the life of that car. This month it’s the Austin Maxi and 1969
The original plan was to call Maxi the Austin 1500!
It’s 1965 and Mini creator Alec Issigonis has had yet another eureka moment. He can visualise a time when the average motorist needs a roomy but compact fi vedoor versatile hatchback, where the rear seat can even form a double bed or be completely removed to morph into a van. It will be powered by a new fangled overhead camshaft engine, fed via a fi ve-speed gearbox for relaxed cruising – and handle like a big Mini. So what on earth went wrong with the Austin Maxi? Answers on a postcard, please… I t’s easy to slate both the car and British Leyland boss Lord Stokes over the ensuring calamity that was badged Maxi, but they were both victims of the idiosyncrasies of Issigonis. As we know, this legendary father of the Mini was a genius at penning small cars, but rather less brilliant when it came to bigger ones like the bulky and austere 1800. The Maxi slipped in between the 1100/1300 ranges and the 1800 ‘land crab’, as it was known, and was supposed to use an economic mix of both car parts, Ford-style, to contain costs. Of course, being BMC, apart from the 1800’s doors and centre hull, few common parts actually featured, delaying the launch date and bumping up the costs. For Stokes, now the head of the newly formed British Leyland empire, the Maxi was the corporate’s fi rst all new launch and it had to go right. It didn’t, though. The Maxi was plagued by many faults but the chief one was a hideously barren interior design “like a hen’s coop” said Stokes on fi rst viewing the car – so it was hastily modifi ed, with little success. But even more desperate was a saloon derivative deemed so ugly it would never see a showroom, despite the fact that it was ready for production! Inevitably the car’s launch was constantly pushed back to make a half decent job of the pre launch facelift, and the Maxi wasn’t deemed fi t for sale until spring 1969.
Despite numerous last gasp changes, the Maxi will always be remembered for its gutless, engine tied to a gear change that was one of the worst ever offered. “A la great daffodil of a lever that had 50 positions – 49 of them neutral”, is how one magazine aptly summed it up. The all new 1500 ohc powerhouse that was to be the prime mover for future British Leyland models was too lethargic for words, to the point where the fi fth was considered only useful “downhill”, according to Motor. It was as a sad start to the car’s life, because so much about the Austin Maxi was so right from the outset, not least its forward thinking design that was a good decade ahead of its time. One gets the impression that even before the Maxi hit the forecourts, the Austin Drawing Offi ce was busy on a revamp, as by October 1970, the second generation was introduced with virtually all its faults addressed, including performance (a much lustier 1750cc engine that slashed the 30-50mph top gear time by a staggering seven seconds saw to that) and an all-new gear change design that was hailed as BL’s best front-wheel drive effort yet! Motor got it spot on with its road test headline “Maxi makes good” and its opening gambit said it all: “There’s no doubt that the fi rst comment of anybody seeing or better still driving the new 1750 Maxi will be: ‘Why couldn’t they have done it this way in the fi rst place?’” Sadly, the damage had been done, and despite this magic transformation, the car’s fate was effectively sealed before it even got into fi fth gear. A grossly long-awaited automatic option didn’t surface until 1974, a year after the highly impressive twin carb HL arrived that was rather akin to a larger fi ve-door MG 1300 – but even quicker and a lot better! A cleaned up, well soted Maxi 3 saw out the production run in the early 1980s when it was replaced by t h e b a r e l y s u p e r i o r Maest ro af ter some 420,000 (60,000 the sportier HL) sales. Worse still, Maxi sales were hardly an improvement over the never popular 1800/2200 saloon series.
Almost a good car
Few cars infuriate as much as Maxi insofar that if it had been developed from the outset, who knows where car design – and the British motor industry for that matter – would be now. By the time this Austin bowed out – just as Ford’s quirky hatchback Sierra replaced the UK’s best selling conventional Cortina – it was, as Car magazine put it, “Almost a good car”. Certainly a 1750 impressed with its competence and usability – just as a Renault Scenic does these days. In terms of ride and handling, Austin’s Maxi was streets ahead of a crude Cortina or worse still, Hillman Minx, while only Renault’s 16 could match the Austin for practicality and sophistication. What’s more, the Maxi was even blessed with a fairly painless production birth, which meant that the usual British Leyland curse affl icting the fi rst batch of buyers – i.e. unreliability – was not as evident as before. Well, sort of, anyway. Sadly, you don’t see many Maxis gracing classic car shows and they’re often tucked away out of sight in some section of the fi eld, almost as an embarrassment – placed alongside the Allegro usually. Yet the Maxi has nothing to be ashamed of. Motor summed the car up perfectly in 1976 when BL had already given up on it as a bad job: “As a sturdy, comfortable and versatile workhorse it’s a very sound vehicle – and a much underrated one.” Who would argue with that?
When The Car Was The Star
The Maxi’s impact on popular culture is wider than commonly assumed. Aside from John Lennon crashing one in 1969, there is National Lampoon’s European Vacation, in which Chevy Chase & Co. use a Maxi to demolish Stonehenge. The most famous Maxi TV appearances have to be on Fawlty Towers (both as Basil’s favoured transport and as a CID car) but the mighty Austin could also be seen transporting (very) low-rent villains in The Sweeney. Best of all, a Maxi was the star of a thoroughly entertaining 1974 British B-fi lm Deadly Strangers, in which a travelling salesman picks up a hitch-hiker just before Radio 4 announces that there is an escaped lunatic on the loose…