Friday December 2, 2016
Written by Andy Roberts
The Austin Maxi is a car that deserves to be better remembered – a FWD hatchback with a transversely mounted OHC engine and a five-speed gearbox was a truly radical idea for a family saloon in 1969.
This was a new BMC offering that was launched at a time when the Vauxhall Victor FD 1600 could still be ordered with a three on the column and, even more incredibly, it was intended to replace the A60 Cambridge.
Five years earlier the British Motor Corporation was in desperate need of a successor to their medium-sized ‘Farina’ range, sales of which were now decimated by the Ford Cortina. The idea for a front wheel drive successor which would be smaller than the 1800 ‘Landcrab’ and offer greater space and performance than the ADO16 1100 was a logical one. The styling was comprised early in the development process as BMC’s chairman George Harriman insisted on using the doors from the 1800 on the new design, which governed the Maxi’s appearance. Additional challenges to the project were the 1.5-litre engine proving to be very inadequate and considerable problems with the cable-operated gear change but any delay of the launch was deemed to be impossible.
And so, the Maxi debuted on 24th April 1969, the first of a new, and very short-lived, marketing scheme to have Austin badges on FWD cars and rear wheel drive models bearing the Morris logo. The body could best be described as ‘functional’ but as compared the Renault 16, the seat folding mechanism was more straightforward and could produce a more plausible double-bed. There was also the clever Maxis from Mars promotion scheme that resembled Charlie and the Chocolate Factory as rewritten to feature Austin Maxis; 25 cars could be won if a number inside a Mars Bar wrapping paper corresponded with digits painted on the doors of a promotional vehicle. That year also saw the Maxi achieve fame of a less welcome variety when John Lennon became the first international celebrity to crash one.
Just in case enthusiastic motorists believed the Maxi was overly staid, would-be Jackie Stewarts were lured away from their Hillman Hunters by the promise of the five-on-the-floor transmission. Alas, this proved to be of the many elements used to castigate the Maxi by journalists and early customers alike; if they were not bemoaning how operating the lever was akin to stirring a knitting needle in a bag of marbles, many pioneer owners entirely failed to enjoy the steering and general lack of performance.
In late 1970 British Leyland made the rather unfortunate announcement ‘You told us what we could do with the Austin Maxi’, as there was now the welcome option of a 1,750cc engine and a rod-operated gear change. However, the damage to the car’s image was almost irrevocable and a planned four-door version was cancelled on the joint grounds of limited aesthetics and the parent car’s poor sales.
By the mid-1970s it was clear that BL lacked both the inclination and the funds for any major facelifts but at least the 1980 HLS prompted some truly magnificent PR copy. ‘This superb motor car…purposeful…black banded hubcaps’ promised the brochure but a ‘leather clad steering wheel’ never looked entirely appropriate when the driver was confronted with a dashboard sparsely populated with dials. Besides the Austin managed to naturally achieve fame without the need for gimmicks, serving as official Wimbledon transport and appearing in the supporting cast of Fawlty Towers.
When production ceased in 1981 only 486,273 examples had been sold but by that time the Austin offered quite a bargain. The problems with the transmission had largely been resolved, the ride quality was very acceptable and the spaciousness of the cabin was still remarkable when compared with the much larger Cortina Mk. V. Had there been the option of power steering from the Princess 2200 and a greater array of trim levels it might have stood more of a chance but as it was the Maxi remains an early example of British Leyland’s corporate neglect. Sadly, it was far from the last.