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Austin Maxi

Austin Maxi Published: 31st Jan 2019 - 0 Comments - Be the first, contribute now!

Austin Maxi
Austin Maxi
Austin Maxi
Austin Maxi
Austin Maxi
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It was Alec Issigonis’ final car design and in many ways he saved the best until last – even if its buyers hardly saw it that way

Fresh from launching his bigged-up 1100 – the 1800 – Mini creator Alec Issigonis had yet another one of his brilliant brainwaves way back in 1965. He can foresee a time when the average motorist demands more versatility in the shape of a roomy compact and practical family ferrier that was a cross between a saloon and estate – a five-door hatchback in other words.

It will be powered by a new fangled overhead camshaft design of engine, fed via a fi ve-speed gearbox for relaxed overdrive cruising; front-wheel drive, naturally, with big Mini-like handling and roadholding. So what on earth went wrong with the Austin Maxi when launched 50 years ago?

It’s easy yet wrong to slate both the car and British Leyland boss Lord Stokes over the calamity that was badged Maxi, because they were both innocent victims of the idiosyncrasies of Issigonis. As we know, this legendary engineer and father of the Mini was pure genius at penning small cars, but rather less inspirational when it came to bigger ones, like his bulky and basic 1800, for example. The Maxi slipped in between the 1100/1300 ranges and the 1800 ‘land crab’ (as it was also known due to its rallying exploits-ed), employing an economic mix of both car parts, Ford-style, to contain costs.

Typically BMC, apart from the 1800’s doors and centre hull section, few common parts actually made it into production, delaying the launch date and bumping up the costs. Stokes, now the head of the newly formed British Leyland empire in 1968, was desperate that the corporate’s first all new launch called Maxi had to be right.

Sadly, the Austin was plagued by many faults (the dreadful gearchange was never fully sorted) but the chief one was a hideously barren interior design “ridiculously stark – like a hen’s coop” said Stokes on first viewing the car – so it was hastily modified. 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 fit for sale until early 1969. When it was finally launched (and if it wasn’t for the new £20million engine plant built, serious consideration was given to scrapping ADO14 entirely), the Maxi was hardly a thing of beauty – typical Issigonis. In fact, even more desperate was a saloon derivative that was deemed so ugly by Stokes that it would never see a showroom, despite the fact that it was ready for production!

All photographic evidence was apparently destroyed… Stokes got the blame for something he had no control over and ‘his Maxi will always be remembered for being a fl op when it should have the blueprint for modern motoring because so much about the design was so right from the outset, not least Maxi’s forward thinking design that was a decade ahead of its time.

One gets the impression that even before the Maxi hit the forecourts, Austin’s Drawing Office was busy on a revamp, as by October 1970, the second generation was introduced with virtually all its faults addressed, including performance from an enlarged 1750cc engine plus an all-new gear change design that was hailed as BL’s best front-wheel drive effort yet!

Motor magazine summed it up right in its 1970 road test headline “Maxi makes good” with an opening gambit that said it all: “There’s no doubt that the first 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 first place?’”. In contrast, the 1500 ohc powerhouse that was to be the prime mover for many future British Leyland models, was too lethargic for words, to the point where the fi fth gear was considered only useful “downhill”, according to the same weekly.

As you can imagine, the damage had been done, and despite a commendable transformation, the Maxi’s fate was effectively sealed before it even got into its fifth. A 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 five-door MG 1300 – but quicker and a lot better! A cleaned up and now well sorted Maxi 3 saw out the production run in the early 1980s before it was replaced by Maestro after some 420,000 (60,000 the sportier HL) sales.

Why we like them…

Few cars infuriate as much as Maxi insofar that if it had been developed right, Ford-style 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 the critical Car magazine put it, “Almost a good car”.

Certainly a 1750 impressed with its overall competence and usability if not style – just as today’s SUV do these days… In terms of ride and handling of its era, the Maxi was streets ahead of a crude Cortina or Hillman Minx, while only Renault’s dive-door hatchback 16 (ironically launched in 1965) could match the Austin for overall 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 that afficted the first batch of buyers – for this read unreliability – was not as prevalent as previously with the Mini and in particular the 1800.

Sadly, you don’t see many Maxis gracing classic car shows and even then they’re often tucked away out of sight in some section of the field, almost as an embarrassment – placed alongside the Allegro perhaps? Yet the Maxi has nothing to be ashamed of. Motor summed the car up perfectly in 1976 just when BL had already given up on the car 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 50 years on?

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