Friday August 24, 2018
There are several myths surrounding the BMC Landcrab. Firstly, when compared with a six-cylinder Ford or Vauxhall of the mid-1960s it does not feel especially heavy. Secondly, the coachwork may be idiosyncratic, but it could never be described as ‘ugly’, for this is a car that was truly ground-breaking.
It offered quite remarkable space efficiency and was incredibly strong; the engine and front suspension were directly mounted on the body. The Austin 1800’s creator Alec Issigonis thought that there was no reason why ‘mileages in the region of 150,000 should not be achieved without major work having to be done’.
The Landcrab was launched in October 1964 and was greeted with such praise as ‘ Given similar development to the Mini, the Austin 1800 will emerge as one of Britain's truly great family cars’ (Motor Sport) and ‘Have Alec Issigonis and his team done the hat trick with this car? The public will make the final decision but from the Press Box it certainly looks as though they have’ (Autocar).
It went on to become Car of The Year 1965, but Austin dealers were soon noting a comparative lack of sales. One problem was in the detailing (an all-too-familiar issue with British Motor Corporation products) for an average sized motorist wearing a static safety belt would have to operate the heater with his/her foot.
Another was that a car Longbridge had originally indented to be a successor to the 1 ½ litre “Farina” range evolved into a model that was positioned mid-way between the A60 Cambridge and the A110 Westminster.
Meanwhile, the 1800 was also suffering from a comparative lack of showroom appeal. Imagine that you were a middle manager circa 1965 who wished to celebrate a recent promotion and increase on company car price ceiling with a new set of wheels. There is the Ford Corsair De Luxe, with its dashing Thunderbird-style looks or maybe a Singer Vogue with its elaborately trimmed cabin but that new Austin not only has a sideways mounted engine, it also appears to lack a fascia.
The minimalistic approach taken by Issigonis now looks far-sighted – ‘Styling? I don’t approve of the word. It tends to date a car, and I hate designing cars that date’ – and this Movietone footage displays just how different an 1800 seemed in comparison with other family saloons of the day:
Alas, this was also a time when a chap (a manager would probably have been “a chap” at that time) jolly well expected chrome decoration and a well-stocked fascia for his £808 14s 7d.
The Austin version was joined by a now phenomenally rare Morris version in 1966 and in the following year there was a rather nice Wolseley version with a modified rear end, leather upholstery and PAS all for £1,040. There was never to be a Riley or MG version although Kingsbury did famously make a Vanden Plas 1800 which was one of the stars of the 2017 Lancaster Insurance Classic Motor Show.
An estate version was considered but this would have robbed sales from both the A60 Countryman/Oxford Traveller and their Maxi replacement. However, Crayford did offer a hatchback conversion for £180 - a small price to pay for a vehicle of exceptional versatility and load carrying capacity’; one example is believed to survive. By 1968 there was a Mk. II facelift and for the enthusiastic motorist, an “S” option of twin carburettors and a Downton cylinder head.
‘It is clearly a car that anyone with £1,000 or so to spend should think about very seriously’, mused Car of the 1800S, while the Wolseley 18/85S was an intriguing alternative to the Rover or Triumph 2000.
The final incarnation of the Landcrab debuted in March 1972 with, at long last, the option of a larger engine, although the Australian built Austin Tasman/Kimberley had featured the 2.2 litre E6 plant since 1970. The four-cylinder unit was no longer available on the Wolseley and the new Six was a very appealing executive car, particularly if you specified automatic transmission with that strange dashboard-mounted vertical selector.
Car evaluated its cheaper Morris 2200 stablemate and praised the ‘combination of interior space, smooth flow of torque and excellent rice’ but grumbles that ‘its styling is horrible out of date’; one can only imagine the irate reaction of Sir Alec on reading the report.
The Austin/Morris/Wolseley 1800/2200 were replaced by the 18-22 “Wedge” in early 1975, and its story remains one of ‘What Ifs’. What if there had been five-door version with PAS and the 2.2 litre engine as standard to provide a competitor for the Renault 16TX? What if BMC had the courage to put the 1967 Pininfarina “Aerodinamica” 1800 into full-scale production?
Issigonis was delighted but the response of the Corporation’s MD George Harriman was sadly revealing – ‘ ‘fantastic but not for us. Perhaps it is good for Jaguar’. As it is, the Landcrab remains one of the most individual mass-produced British cars of its generation – and one that really was Built to Last: