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Austin Maxi

Published: 27th Jun 2011 - 3 Comments

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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…

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This review has 3 comments

  • It always angers me so called classic car journalists write about the Maxi as if it was a new car driving round today, maybe they still remember the disaterious model launch in Oporto in Portugal which was a BLMC own goal, not only where they stering marbles with knitting kneedles, but asking,, Where the hell was Issi??? Its worth remembering every motoring journalist who loves the Mini appears to hate the Maxi coz it showed Alec's flaws and how Roy Haynes had tried to correct it.
    There where some brilliant bits in it though, the rear suspension design was purposly designed for an estate/hatchback and gave the Maxi an unrivalled flat wide rear boot,, no suspension turrets here, and low centre of gravity and weight in the middle ensured fantastic road manners, in later hydrogas possibly the best riding Molton car, utilisiting his fluid bottles to there best in a space saving capacity..
    So why is the Maxi derided so much?
    The Mini had a much worse launch with early ones being dubbed the "BMC's Bucket Baby" there was so much water slooshing around inside them thanks to a bulkhead design flaw and then what about the CV joint recalls after a couple of early accidents? Yet this little car we take to our heart..
    Maybe the Maxi was launched badly because of the fact that before its launch BMC prior to the merger with Leyland where wooing the audiences at Motor Shows with the swish Pinnifarina style 1100/1300 and 1800 replacements that in 1968 looked like starships of the 70's when sat next to an A60!! Made worse by having the 1800 made a road going version that everyone could see driving down the road, which would obviously beg the question when can we see that in the showrooms? But the fact was BMC was skint, the transverse cars never made a profit for them in the 60's despite outselling everything else, and when Ian Smith the Rhoedisian (Zimbawe) PM nationalised BMC's huge factory investment there, suddenly overnight the wall came down on the BMH empire and cash flow became tight.
    By this time at the Longbridge drawing office Alec was now becoming deciliousioned with the volume cars, as he knew the new propsed power and transmission plant for the up and coming new model was wrong, the "E series" was short and ideal for a transverse design, but in 5 speed form there was no length of throw in the syncro-cones for the proven cable-operated system to work correctly. The trouble was that by then Alec had begun to realise that cars needed to be profitable not just showcases for briliant forward thinking engineering and in a way he showed this by handing E5 developement down to his subordinates in the department and going away to work on his "pet-project" the ill-fated 9X Mini replacement. In himself he new the fundementals of the new OHC E series mated to the E5 transmission in the sump where fundamentally wrong, and other manufacturers by then showed him this with there transverse designs with end on gearboxes. Given the finncial state BMH where in at the time one can only guess that he didnt have it in him to go back to senior management and ask them to start all over again with it.
    In many ways it was Donald Stokes and Harry Webster that did this for him, for they could see BMC's problem it was putting advanced cars into production without the means to make them cheaply and rationally..
    So when they finally did arrive the ADO14 project was right in their firing line, and the proposed BMC 1500 would be the lighning conductor for all the wrongs at the former BMC managemnet both from the new British Leyland team and from the motoring press..

    Basically ADO14 was origionally going to be two models,, the Austin 1500 "Estate" (hatchback had not yet been coined) and the Morris 1500 saloon, with a tiny piano style boot lid.

    Well first George Turnbull took one look at the proposed model and instantlly hated it, he wanted to can it but all the Austin's tooling and lines where installed at Cowley and ready to go, he did get his way however with the booted Morris version and instead the tools for this where almost cerimonally "packed off to the colonies" to form the updated Austrailian 1800 in the guise of the Kimberley and Tasmin models.

    So only the Austin 1500 was to go ahead, and in a last minute decision, Stokes, being a marketing man decided that "we had the Mini 10 years ago, so why not call this the Maxi?"

    Well as we all know April 24th 1969 came and went and the press reaction was unfavouriable but the Maxi was born out off the strife of the late 60's at BMC and its poor marketing, getting everyone hyped up with Pinnifarina designs which got everyone excited only to see a car that looked like a small 5 year old 1800!

    Comment by: Ian Pennick     Posted on: 30 Aug 2011 at 12:32 AM

  • And then of course there was something else too, The motoring press by then had realised that times had changed and women bought cars now as well as men, in the past the man of the house bought the family car, by the sixties it was a joint event,, so cars had to look sleek and stylish for the wife too,, Of course Ford knew this long ago, and what made the press so scathing about the Maxi was not really its marbles in the gearbox, It was only three months earlier Ford wooed and showed the press how to make cars and more importantly make money ...
    Take a basic Cortina or even a Transit engine and running gear, and but it in a car thats as sexy as an E type and as appealing but with Escort running costs,,
    Yes of course the "Car You Always Promised Yourself!" Capri..
    With that the Maxi became the lightning bolt then and to some extent still today why British Leyland slowly died..

    Which is a shame because the later 1750 was always praised for its sheer space and practicality years ahead of anything else and its design has been copied all over europe and is the basic for a modern front wheel drive transverse hatchback which inspired the world beating Golf and Peugeots in later generations. In 1976 Motor summed it all up revieing a 1750 in mid life by saying here is one of Leyland's better products, even a world beater, its just they havent the finaices to make up for the shortcomings. Basically its a good car,, but not quite a great one.

    Comment by: Ian Pennick     Posted on: 30 Aug 2011 at 12:36 AM

  • Thanks for your interesting feedback. As we say in our articles the Maxi was essentially a very good car but badly developed

    Comment by: editor     Posted on: 09 Sep 2011 at 08:33 AM

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