Tuesday December 3, 2019
The array of models produced by the overseas plants of BMC/BL do tend to prompt one question – could any of them have succeeded in the UK?
The Australian-market Wolseley 24/80 - a 16/60 powered by the locally-designed “Blue Streak” 2.4-litre six - certainly had its merits but by 1964 it would have clashed with the Austin 1800 “Landcrab”.
This applies to the 1969 Morris Nomad 1500, a five-door ADO16 which would almost certainly have impacted on Maxi sales.
Of course, some cars would have probably struggled to find favour with British motorists – the 2.6-litre “Leyland Marina Six” was not exactly a sensation in its home territory as a Holden rival – but others do look plausible.
The X6-series Austin Tasman/Kimberley may have been awkwardly styled (it resembles a strange blend of Landcrab and Ford Zodiac Mk. IV) but it was a versatile and spacious saloon.
And, were it not for the Fuel Crisis, a Vanden Plas badged Leyland P76 might well have appealed to drivers who craved the ultimate in chintz.
But the overseas BL car that seemed to stand the greatest chance of success in the UK was the Innocenti Mini 90/120.
The Milanese factory was contemplating an in-house interpretation of the Issigonis design as early as 1967, only two years after they commenced Mini production under licence.
The introduction of the Autobianchi A112 in 1969 only increased the need for an upgraded rival.
Work commenced on the 90/120 in May 1972, after the Italian concern became a wholly-owned subsidiary of BL, with Longbridge allotting funds for the project on the advice of Graham Robinson, who became Innocenti’s MD.
The coachwork was to be an entirely new three-door Bertone design, combined with the familiar 998cc and 1,275cc engines, transmission and floorpan; one mechanical difference was the front-mounted radiator. The 120 was the flagship version and came with the 1.3-litre engine, cloth upholstery and a heated rear window.
Innocenti unveiled the 90/120 at the 1974 Turin Motor Show and to say they were relying on its sales would be a minor understatement.
Their interpretation of the Austin Allegro, the Regent, was not proving especially popular, the Italian economy was in a state of meltdown, and British Leyland was on the verge of bankruptcy. Yet, the new Mini certainly appeared to be the ideal town car for Rome or Naples - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q2Nta8atqPU.
However, in the words of Keith Adams https://www.aronline.co.uk/:
“The main problem with the Innocenti 90/120 was that it was more expensive than its rivals on the Italian market. Also, its interior packaging was inferior to the original Mini, and it was not a genuine four seater, although it was good enough to carry children in the rear. Geoffrey Robinson was of the opinion that the car had needed an extra 9in in length, and that would have cost an extra £1 million, which Leyland Innocenti did not have.”
Italian production of the standard Mini ceased in 1975, but in that same year BL severed ties with Innocenti.
The firm was acquired by De Tomaso, who was to develop the Bertone Mini, including the very appealing top-of-the-range “Innocenti Mini De Tomaso” of 1976, a more powerful 120 with front fog lamps and an aggressive matt black spoiler.
Production of the Bertone design would continue until as recently as 1993, the later versions featuring Daihatsu engines after the supply of BL power plants ceased at the end of 1981.
And one question remains – should the 90/120 have been sold or even manufactured in the UK? By the mid-1970s there was a considerable amount of press comment about the age of the Mini and the need for BL to create a hatchback rival to the Fiat 127 and Renault 5.
The Innocenti may have been extremely compact – it is just three inches longer than a standard Mini – but it had vast quantities of showroom appeal.
Sadly, ideas for a British version were soon abandoned, although a small number of 90/120s were privately imported and given a right-hand-drive conversion.
In August 1979, Motor tested a Mini De Tomaso and noted that in terms of power it was:
“To all intents and purposes in Cooper ‘S’ tune, though it uses a single 1.25in SU in place of the S’s twin 1.25s, and has an ordinary 1275 camshaft, advanced by 4 degrees, rather than the old S’s wider-overlap grind. What’s more, these pokey units are not specially breathed upon by some Italian tuning wizard, but are actually produced in the UK and then shipped out to the Italian manufacturer, which makes you wonder what’s to stop BL from slotting them into the 1275GT; excuses about ‘rationalisation’ begin to sound a bit hollow.”
The writer also praised the acceleration of 0-60 in 12 seconds - superior to the Ford Fiesta 1.3S - while the top speed was nearly 95 mph, as opposed to the 92.5 mph of the Fiat 127 Sport.
Comparable figures for the Mini 1275GT were 12.9 seconds and 88.7 mph.
The test concluded with ‘We found it irresistible; an engaging little car with an on-the-road performance as chirpy as its appearance’ and argued ‘there would surely be a market for it as a cult-car appealing both to chic-about-town Chelsea-ites, and “bring-back the Cooper S” enthusiasts’.
Of course, by that time BL was already preparing for the Metro in the following year, so the chances of construction, or official imports, of the De Tomaso into the UK were minimal.
Yet, had British sales commenced in 1976, Leyland might have been able to steal some of the thunder from the new Fiesta and, as several automotive historians have suggested, alter their new model programme.
The media claimed British Leyland urgently needed a new small car to succeed the Mini, but Project ADO88 and LC8 were arguably of less importance than successors to the Maxi, Allegro and Marina/Ital.
And so, in a parallel world, a UK-built 90/120 would have allowed the Maestro to debut in 1980 – the year of the Ford Escort Mk. III – and the Montego in 1981 – the year of the Vauxhall Cavalier Mk. II and several months before the launch of the Sierra.
As for the Metro, it would have been the star of the 1982 Motor Show, with a five-speed gearbox and a five-door option from the outset. File under Leyland’s list of “Could Have Been/Should Have Been”.