Wednesday June 19, 2019
Cowley on the 28th April was the venue for a rather special “Drive It Day”. Naturally the many and various cars associated with the plant over the decades - and indeed with the Nuffield Group, the British Motor Corporation and British Leyland - were present and correct.
There was a late-model Austin Mini Cooper S Mk. I that looked as though it was primed and ready to pay a visit to Turin and a P-registered Allegro that could have strayed from an episode of The Good Life. As for the first-generation Austin 1800, it served as a reminder of just how avant-garde the Landcrab would have appeared to the average “business class” driver in the 1960s.
And this was just a sample of the classics that paid a visit to Oxfordshire. From the south of the county was an MGB Roadster in “rubber bumper” guise while the Magnette Mk. IV was both one of the rarest of the BMC “Farina” range and cars to wear the Octagon badge.
There were also Citroen 2CVs amongst other fine vehicles – and a major celebration. 2019 marks the 50th birthday of a key British Leyland product, as the official launch of the Austin Maxi, took place on 24th April 1969. And so what better reason for a celebratory cake in the presence of no less than 26 examples.
The first thought on encountering a Maxi is their size. Their compact dimensions were a major selling point, but it still comes as a minor surprise to realise they are actually 14 inches shorter than a Ford Focus. The second is, of course, the memories from the brochure hailing the ‘seat facings in expanded PVC’ to the reclining seats fore and aft.
One advertisement promised ‘Become a five-car family for the price of a Maxi’ - i.e. a ‘School Bus’, ‘Estate Car’, ‘Family Saloon’, ‘Overnight Camper’ (of course) and ‘Removal Van’. The last named was demonstrated by a gentleman in quite incredible flared trousers loading a washing machine into blue Maxi.
And the third is just how different the new Austin must have appeared to anyone who, some 50 years ago, might have been considering a quite radical change from their Ford Cortina Mk. II or Hillman Hunter Estate.
Arguments will continue to rage over what constitutes the first “British Hatchback”, but in 1969 a Maxi was not just the first five-door saloon but the FWD car acquired by the average motorist.
Over the past 38 years, the Maxi has acquired a devoted following, which was reflected in the number of cars visiting Cowley. Naturally “Puff The Magic Wagon”, the famous 1970 World Cup Rally Maxi, and his custodian Bron Burrell took part in the celebrations as did Martin Chamberlain, a gentleman who is so devoted to the model that he owns six!
As you can see from the photographs, Mr. Chamberlain thoroughly enjoyed himself - ‘I took Gordon the gold HLS along, and there was a lovely early HL in Damask there, which I would love’.
The Maxi ceased production in July 1981 and, to me at least, the “Austin Rover” logo on the steering wheel of the later “2” versions always seems faintly incongruous. It was launched in the twilight of pounds, shillings and pence, black & white television programmes and cinema newsreels and the last models were sold when The Specials were lamenting about Ghost Towns.
Yet the Austin Maxi always seems to ultra-1970s as unfortunate hair fashions for men, Lyons Maid’s “Goal” ice-lollies and marvelling at the sheer cheapness of Space 1999. And in those days, the 1750 HLS was the must-have version for this writer - perhaps it was the lure of the stylish radiator grille, ‘mellow matt finish’ and ‘burr walnut veneer fascia’…
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