BMC’s Farina family: everyday Italian chic

| 15 Jan 2019
Classic & Sports Car – BMC's Italian affair

Born of a Latin liaison, the Farina range brought a dose of style to post-war Britain

Just over 60 years ago, the British Motor Corporation launched its second collaboration with Battista ‘Pinin’ Farina, an all-new range that appeared to symbolise post-war renewal as clearly as tower blocks emerging from bomb sites.

The seven cars gathered in front of Coventry Cathedral describe the history of a badge-engineered classic that today is often taken for granted, but one that, in its own modest way, had originally caused quite a stir.

Let’s look at them in more detail.

Wolseley 15/60

When BMC presented the 15/60 in December 1958, it ran the risk of causing apoplexy among many of its customers.

The outgoing, Gerald Palmer-styled 15/50 was one of the most attractive saloons of its generation, and the famous marque was, to paraphrase Viv Stanshall’s Sir Henry at Rawlinson End: ‘English as tuppence, changing yet changeless as canal-water, nestling in green nowhere’ – indeed, it’s easy to imagine Stanshall as a Wolseley owner.

Furthermore, those tail-fins might have deterred customers who had no desire to be regarded as a skiffle-band leader by association.

Classic & Sports Car – BMC's Italian affair
Classic & Sports Car – BMC's Italian affair
Classic & Sports Car – BMC's Italian affair

Yet to experience this 1961 example owned by Tony Spearman is to appreciate how the timber- and hide-trimmed cabin was more than sufficient to quell any doubts over the 15/60’s identity; this was indeed a true Wolseley.

Spearman regards his 15/60 as “comfortable and very stylish” – and this was the very formula that appealed to Wolseley drivers who wished to experience this brave new Italian-styled world without compromising their social status.

The engineering was utterly straightforward, from the B-series motor to the cam-and-peg steering, but this made for easy maintenance and there was at least a floor-mounted gearlever. Only the Austin and the Morris were available with an optional steering-column change.

The Wolseley’s looks contrived to embody a spirit of urgency; 1958 also marked the opening of Britain’s first motorway, and the advent of the Subscriber Trunk Dialling.

The 15/60 never claimed to be a ball of fire, but it successfully blended tradition with modernity.

Austin A55 Cambridge MkII

By April 1959, the Farina range was established with the Austin as the starting point of the five-car line-up.

The Morris Oxford Series V was slightly more expensive, the 15/60 was for the progressively minded bank manager, while the twin-carb MG Magnette MkIII and Riley 4/68 featured slightly less exuberant fins.

Although it was not the first BMC product to make use of its various marque identities, the Farina established the template for an elaborate hierarchy of badges.

The thinking at Longbridge was that an Austin customer would display such brand loyalty that they wouldn’t dream of buying an Oxford from the local Morris dealer.

Classic & Sports Car – BMC's Italian affair
Classic & Sports Car – BMC's Italian affair
Classic & Sports Car – BMC's Italian affair

The A55 Cambridge MkI was an agreeable-looking machine, but the MkII was far more flamboyant without falling into the social abyss of being considered ‘spivvy’.

When the Austin-badged Farina was launched, many buyers considered it to be less transatlantic in appeal than the Ford Consul, the Hillman Minx and the Vauxhall Victor F-type.

A potential Austin customer might have also considered an Ensign, but although the Standard made its debut just 18 months before the Cambridge, it still conveyed a sense of ration-book utilitarianism.

Roy Presdee’s splendid 1961 MkII looks radiant in its Tartan Red over Farina Grey. It is a vivid reminder of the impact made by the A55 MkII nearly six decades ago, offering quasi-municipal values in a smart new suit – which is just what buyers at the time demanded.

Austin A60 Cambridge

In October 1961, the Farina range was updated.

The wheelbase was elongated, the track slightly widened, the B-series engine enlarged (from 1489 to 1622cc) and, on the Austin, Morris and Wolseley variants, the styling refined to lose its youthful excesses.

The A60 succeeded the A55, with cars such as Ivan Mole’s 1963 Cambridge widely regarded as the bedrock of the range.

Classic & Sports Car – BMC's Italian affair
Classic & Sports Car – BMC's Italian affair
Classic & Sports Car – BMC's Italian affair

By the mid-’60s, however, the A60 not only stood apart from BMC’s front-drive products, but also faced intense competition from Dagenham as Austin drivers transferred their allegiance to Ford within months of the Consul Cortina taking a bow in 1962.

BMC’s plan to replace the Farina with a front-drive design eventually led to the 1964 Austin 1800 ‘Landcrab’, and the Cambridge soldiered on virtually unaltered until the radically different Maxi arrived in ’69.

The soundness of the concept is illustrated by the fact that A60s still operated as rural taxis in the early ’80s; this was a car of integrity, one that would get you to your Swanage holiday guesthouse in good time – and the minimum of fuss.

Morris Oxford Series VI Traveller

Countryman (Austin) and Traveller (Morris) versions of the Farina were launched in 1960, and got the same facelift as the saloons a year later.

Chris Poulter’s Oxford Series VI dates from 1966, and it’s easy to understand why they had a devoted following throughout the ’60s.

In comparison, the Vauxhall Victor FC or Hillman Super Minx estates lacked the BBC Home Service ethos that the Farina station wagon embodied. The Traveller was capacious, well-planned – one nice touch was that the rear seat could be arranged in a sleeping position – and the integrated styling gave real showroom appeal.

Furthermore, Poulter’s Oxford demonstrates the Farina’s capacity for development: this practical Q-car has an MGB cylinder head, along with an MG overdrive and front disc brakes. The result is a car that was recently driven around mountain roads in Snowdonia – “Where other tourists feared to tread,” smiles Poulter.

Classic & Sports Car – BMC's Italian affair
Classic & Sports Car – BMC's Italian affair
Classic & Sports Car – BMC's Italian affair

The Morris looks smart, but few Traveller owners were interested in glamour. They would not have cared less about ‘London: The Swinging City’ as Time magazine famously called it.

That land was the province of beatniks and demented followers of fashion, and thus distanced by any decent Traveller driver.

When the square-jawed Marina replaced the Oxford in 1971, it marked the end of an era.

Just as decimal coinage overtook £sd, a ‘proper’ Morris with a starting handle and a fascia resembling a 1940s radiogram was succeeded by a car whose spiritual home was the concrete shopping precinct. What price progress?

MG Magnette MkIV

Replacing the Magnette ZB, one of the finest sports saloons of the ’50s, presented a major challenge.

The MkIII that arrived in February ’59 had pleasing lines, twin SU carbs and the classic half-octagon speedometer, but was not greeted with universal praise from the flat-hat brigade.

Two years later, the MG was modified into the MkIV, gaining the 1.6-litre engine, then in May 1968 it became the first Farina to cease production.

Classic & Sports Car – BMC's Italian affair
Classic & Sports Car – BMC's Italian affair

Jeremy and Judith Carrington’s ’66 Magnette is not only one of the rarest post-war cars to wear the octagon, but also a reminder of how the MkIV was somewhat misjudged.

This stylish Farina is not so much an heir to the ZB as a charming touring car in its own right.

The MG’s closest rival, the Vauxhall VX4/90, was for sales managers with Bob Monkhouse smiles and a table at the Berni Inn, while the average Magnette driver might have collected horse brasses when taking time out from the chartered accountancy practice in rural Dorset.

Riley 4/72

The Riley was the Farina flagship and, although it cost more than a near-identical Magnette, the owner gained a tachometer and the prestige of driving a car that was ‘as old as the industry, as modern as the hour’.

The 4/68 arrived in 1959, replaced by the larger-engined 4/72 in late ’61.

Early Farinas were seen as faintly raffish, but by the late ’60s they were comfortably conservative – more formal than the Riley’s key rival, the Humber Sceptre with its rockabilly looks.

Classic & Sports Car – BMC's Italian affair
Classic & Sports Car – BMC's Italian affair

Inside, the 4/72 is redolent of a suburban villa, but owner Trevor Porter points out that it is a lively drive: “It keeps up with traffic, so you don’t have to worry about delaying other cars.”

He also notes that the top shade of its duotone paint, Arianca Beige, was unique to the Riley – another touch of distinction in a car that offers circumstance without self-conscious pomp.

Wolseley 24/80

‘Light sixes’ dominated Antipodean new car sales in the early ’60s, so BMC-Australia created the Austin Freeway and Wolseley 24/80 as replacements for its 11/2-litre models.

There was only a limited budget for body mods, but a slightly longer wheelbase made for greater passenger comfort.

The B-series engine was extensively modified and given an extra two cylinders to create the 2.4-litre Blue Streak ‘six’.

The Freeway and 24/80 were unveiled in early 1962, the Austin as an entry-level car for the fleet/taxi buyer, the Wolseley to tempt local motorists away from Holdens, Ford Falcons and Chrysler Valiants, plus imports such as the Nissan Cedric. The duo was facelifted in 1964, a year before production ended.

Classic & Sports Car – BMC's Italian affair
Classic & Sports Car – BMC's Italian affair
Classic & Sports Car – BMC's Italian affair

Robert Hogg acquired this rare example three years ago: “It was imported into the UK in 2002, and has been back on the road for the past two years.”

The standard ’box was a column-mounted three-speed manual, but Hogg’s Wolseley has the optional Borg-Warner auto: “The engine is high-revving, but it is a beautifully smooth unit and the 24/80 makes a great touring car.”

The Wolseley outsold the Austin, and was warmly regarded by the local motoring press. As the advertisements of the period extolled: “Space, comfort, elegance, power, safety. What more do you need in a motor car?” more do you need in a motor car?”

Specifications (all models)

  • Construction steel unitary
  • Engine all-iron, ohv 1489cc/1622cc ‘four’ (2433cc ‘six’ for Wolseley 24/80), fed by single/twin SU carburettors
  • Max power 52bhp @ 4350rpm to 85bhp @ 4400rpm
  • Max torque 82lb ft @ 2100rpm to 123lb ft @ 1650rpm
  • Transmission four-speed manual (three-speed automatic for Wolseley 24/80), RWD
  • Suspension: front independent, by wishbones, coil springs rear live axle, semi-elliptic leaf springs (anti-roll bars f/r from A60)
  • Steering cam and lever
  • Brakes drums
  • Length 14ft 6½in-14ft 10½in (4432-4534mm)
  • Width 5ft 3½in (1613mm)
  • Height 4ft 11in-4ft 11¾in (1499-1518mm)
  • Wheelbase 8ft 3¼in-8ft 4¼in (2521-2549mm)
  • Weight 2465-2935lb (1118-1330kg)
  • 0-60mph 25-18.2 secs
  • Top speed 76-87mph
  • Mpg 28-19
  • Price new £837 18s 9d (MO Traveller) to £1225 (Wolseley 24/60)
  • Price now £5-15,000

French Farina: the Peugeot 404

Classic & Sports Car – BMC's Italian affair

BMC’s Farina range was built across the globe, from Australia to Argentina, but was never a true ‘World Car’ in the manner of the Peugeot 404.

The French car was a near contemporary and of a comparable size, and also had a body styled by Farina.

But when the 404’s 15-year production run ended in 1975, it had achieved more than 1.8m sales in France alone, yet competition and BMC’s focus on the 1800 limited the British model to as few as 30,000 per annum in the mid-’60s.

Peugeot had a far simpler line-up, a less chaotic industrial base and greater quality control, while badge-engineering was commonly a substitute for true development on the other side of the Channel.

The 404 was available with fuel injection and in chic Coupé and Convertible forms, plus the eight-seater Familiale sold across Africa and South America.

Had BMC possessed a sense of focus, the Farina family might have been similarly expanded – but ‘might have been’ is all too often associated with the BMC/BL saga.

Images: Jonathan Jacob. Thanks to Coventry University; MG Car Club; Cambridge-Oxford Owners’ Club; Wolseley Register


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