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Was any car born under such an unlucky star as the Austin Maxi?
With five doors, five seats, five gears and five main bearings in its all-new overhead cam E-series engine, it should have been the newly formed British Leyland’s rational front-wheel-drive saviour for the 1970s, the perfect family holdall to sweep away the ageing A60 Farina range and square up to the sophisticated foreign competition at a projected 6000 sales a week. That was the theory.
In practice, this four-years-in-the-making newcomer was the victim of so many engineering shortcuts and supposedly money-saving compromises that it was doomed, at least in its original form, before the wheels of the first production examples had hit the road in 1968.
Well conceived but poorly executed, the Maxi was the original dog with a bad name, its fate caught up in the trauma of the BMC/Leyland merger and the conflicting egos and allegiances this unholy coming together had exposed.
Longbridge newcomers, recently poached from Ford, were openly shocked by its looks.
Some said it should be killed off, but BL boss Lord Stokes compromised by ordering a last-minute facelift to give the critical 1½-litre model more showroom appeal.
Had it been a prettier car, early buyers might have forgiven the Maxi its nasty cable-operated gearchange; it was for this that the phrase ‘stirring a knitting needle in a bucket of marbles’ was coined, although Colin Chapman put the Maxi’s gear clusters to good use in his first homegrown five-speeders.
The creators of the Maxi’s shape were, in fairness, hampered by MD George Harriman’s insistence that ADO14 should share its doors with the longer and wider 1800, thus helping to amortise production costs on a model that had never sold in the numbers envisaged.
But those infamous doors dictated the Maxi’s clumsy profile to a tragic degree.
Sitting on a wheelbase that was only 1in shorter than the Landcrab’s, it managed to look like an abbreviated version of the bigger car.
Yet, in reality, the Maxi didn’t share enough components with the 1800 to enjoy the economies of scale that would have lowered production costs in a Leyland range that already had too many widely differing models.
The Maxi was the first new car launched under the British Leyland regime and thus signed off by ex-Triumph man Harry Webster.
Created at a cost of £9m, ADO14 was a logical enough proposal: it was designed to fill the gap between the oversized 1800 and the still popular 1100/1300 range.
But it badly misjudged the mood of late-’60s customers, who were buying into the ‘suburban glamour’ appeal of the Mk2 Ford Cortina in increasing numbers.
At less than £1000, the austerely practical, one-size-fits-all Maxi could not have been further away in concept from the simple, handsome and optionable Dagenham favourite.
In fact it had been conceived from the off to avoid head-on comparisons with the Ford, instead to put technological distance between Longbridge and Cowley.
The idea was that, henceforth, Morris would produce Leyland’s traditional rear-drive models, leaving Austin as the home of ‘high-tech’ front-drive offerings.
With its interconnected Hydrolastic suspension and transverse, gearbox-in-sump drivetrain (the first in a British family car), the Maxi’s advanced engineering credentials were not in question.
It even had that new overhead-camshaft engine built in a dedicated plant at Cofton Hackett in Birmingham. But here, too, some lamentable early decisions had been taken.
To keep the length of the block to a minimum – making space for the side-mounted radiator – the siamesed bores were small, which meant adopting an unfashionably long stroke to achieve capacity while not leaving much room for future increases; all to allow the block to be machined on the same transfer lines as a proposed six-cylinder version.
Ironically the eventual six-pot E-series, as fitted to the ADO17, ended up with a conventionally positioned radiator, so all the space-saving fuss had been for naught.
With the opportunity to go crossflow missed, the tall, all-iron 1500 E-series made a very average 72bhp on a 9:1 compression ratio and even demanded a diet of five-star fuel.
The Maxi was launched to muted press approval in Portugal in May 1968.
It was praised for its spaciousness, its fifth-gear cruising ability, viceless ‘big Mini’ handling and the versatility of its five-cars-in-one seating arrangements, pointing to the fact that with the front seats fully reclined you had a passable 6ft 5in sleeping area.
It also had the best ride yet of BMC’s Hydrolastic cars, but few could forgive it for its gutless, noisy engine and notchy, obstructive gearchange.
The Maxi would actually get much better, and very quickly.
An improved 1500 version was joined by a 1750 at the end of 1970, in which an extra 12bhp had been found by extending the stroke.
Improving the manifolding yielded extra torque as well. More importantly, the notorious gearchange cables had been replaced by rods engaging with bell cranks inside the transmission housing for a much better shift.
The ’68 Maxi had been a one-spec Deluxe, but the range would soon include HL and HLS trims, plus twin-carb and automatic versions.
Meanwhile, the Renault 16 had created the market for versatile half-saloon, half-estate family cars single-handedly, and was four seasons into a 1.8m-unit, 15-year production run by the time the Maxi appeared.
Heavily trailed in the French press, the R16 made its debut at Geneva and was voted Car of theYear in 1965.
While in no sense pretty, Gaston Juchet’s two-box, six-window body had a confident and functional yet rather eccentric elegance.
Tall, with an integrated drip rail and rectangular Cibié headlights (which could be adjusted on an external lever to take account of load), it was unmistakeable and timeless, hence the lengthy production run, and featured a number of world patents including a one-piece side pressing.
Prior to the Maxi, the R16 didn’t have a rival if you wanted a five-seat, five-door saloon with rear seats that could be folded in to five or six combinations, depending on the task in hand.
In effect replacing the long-dead Frégate as Renault’s family sized offering, the R16 was a brave and radical move that represented a huge amount of investment.
It had been conceived as a ‘lifestyle’ car for an emerging young French post-war middle class that had both money and a certain amount of leisure time on its hands.
Renault had spotted a niche for a saloon that could be used for work and playtime, with the comfort and refinement needed for the long trips sometimes necessary in a large country such as France, where road surfaces were still often poor.
On long-travel torsion bars, the R16 had a ride quality that approached Citroën DS standards but in a less expensive, less complex and lower-maintenance package where even chassis greasing had been eliminated.
Having pioneered disc brakes on affordable cars, Renault went a step further by incorporating an anti-lock mechanism on the rear axle that changed the cut-off pressure according to load.
As on the R4, the mounting of the rear torsion bars was staggered from side-to-side, which resulted in a 2½ indiscrepancy in wheelbase between the near and offside.
It really was an all-new car with a freshly conceived four-cylinder engine – the first in Europe to have a pressure-diecast alloy block for enhanced precision and repeatability of the casting process – and featuring the then uncommon refinements of an electric fan and a sealed cooling system.
Giving less than 60bhp at first, this 1470cc pushrod engine didn’t make a rocketship out of the not notably light 90mph R16, but it was willing, smooth and well placed – Citroën-style – behind the four-speed ’box, where it jostled for space with the spare wheel in what almost amounted to a front/mid position.
Chapman spotted the potential in this package for his mid-engined 1966 Europa.
Two years later the R16 would get a dramatic boost in power for the TS, with inclined valves and more efficient breathing.
Along with a modest increase in capacity, these changes took output to 83bhp and top speed to just over 100mph.
Throughout its run the R16 had a column gearchange; it must have been one of the last European cars so equipped when production at the factory near Le Havre ended in 1980.
Five speeds didn’t appear until the quad-headlamp TX of 1973, but there were automatics from the late ’60s on, equipped with the first auto ’boxes built in France.
Retired electronics engineer Richard Allen has not been without a 16 since 1967 and still drives an early ’70s TL – updated to five speeds and with a TS dash – every week.
He’s been restoring this second, also a TL, to original after rescuing it from the crusher in the ’90s.
Meanwhile Maxi owner Paul Stanley now works in the world of finance after a long career in the Midlands motor industry.
Stanley grew up with these Austins and owns two 1750s: this low-mileage car, with Allegro-style Hydragas rather than Hydrolastic suspension, dates from 1978.
Visually the Renault has more charm with its deep windows, rakishly sloping tail and ‘finned’ roof.
Yet the Maxi looks nowhere near as unappealing as I remember: it is a pugnacious, low-slung, wheel-at-each-corner piece of utility that, in its way, is as distinctive as the Renault.
Viewed as a roomy-for-its-size people-mover the Maxi was a packaging success at the very least; its much-touted fifth door was a last-minute addition.
On the basis of versatility and spaciousness, it’s round one to the Maxi (just) with its wide, low-silled tailgate and slightly greater load area with the back seats folded, and superior rear-seat legroom with them reinstated. However, the R16’s soft, plush chairs are a cut above.
There’s more appeal to the Renault’s cabin with its sliver of fake wood around the ribbon speedometer and idiosyncratic detailing that somehow lets you know you are in a French car.
The heater controls look like something from a domestic boiler and sit down by your right knee.
The Maxi has wood, too, but it’s hard to warm to the steeply raked, Mini-like steering-wheel position.
The low seatbacks, bereft of headrests, give you a slightly vulnerable feeling, but the all-round vision is superb and the airy atmosphere of the roomy cabin creates the positive vibe of a cheerful car going about its business.
The engine has decent torque, so you don’t need to rev it hard.
There’s a coarse edge to its unmusical hum but, combined with the transmission whine (from its transfer gears and nine cogs in mesh at any one time), it’s more nostalgic than grating.
There’s a gear for every occasion in the five-speed ’box, which can be moved easily and fairly quickly around its slightly sloppy gate as you wind the Maxi along. The steering position doesn’t feel like a problem now and, best of all, it is precise and light.
The Maxi rolls very little in corners and pulls itself neatly through them to fully justify the front-wheel-drive layout.
On the other hand, the bouncy low-speed ride hardly does justice to the supposed sophistication of the interconnected Hydragas suspension system, though it copes well at higher speeds.
Most cars would struggle to match the superbly comfortable Renault in the way it glides serenely and unfazed. Its sweet engine revs its heart out in every gear, worked by a light, precise and nearly idiot-proof column change.
It feels natural to use it freely to get the best out of the R16, although the flexibility is quite good – it is not quick in any ultimate sense, but has a willing nature verging on the sporty.
It is equally content to lollop along in top, feeling somehow less fussy in fourth than the Maxi in fifth.
Corners taken fast look more alarming than they feel and the Renault hangs on well despite the prodigious body roll, tidy enough as long as you don’t ask it to make sharp changes of direction in quick succession.
The steering is slightly heavier than the Maxi’s but it’s not a deal-breaker: on his other R16 Allen, being 76 years young, has fitted electric assistance.
The Maxi was not just the last production car from Sir Alec Issigonis, but also Leyland’s final chance to build a real winner in a market sector that was rapidly shaping up to be the most bitterly fought of all.
Brilliant as a creator of small cars, Issigonis had a way of sucking the joy out of bigger vehicles with his austere, ‘I know best’ approach, something all too manifest in the chillingly unglamorous Maxi 1500.
The facelifted post-1970 Maxi was so much better that it almost deserved a new name (something the Maxi 2 got in 1980).
Maybe if Leyland had combined a judicious rechristening with a more appealing body, this eminently practical and strangely appealing machine might have won more friends.
The R16, in the face of the Maxi’s perceived shortcomings, only got more popular.
Priced to within a few pounds of its BL rival it spearheaded the foreign assault on the British market (some 64,000 were sold in the UK up to 1974 alone), as an ever-weaker Leyland grappled with poor labour relations and low productivity.
At 412,121 in 12 years, ADO14 never achieved anything like the hoped-for sales but it remained the only real British alternative to the R16.
Even in the late ’70s sales of 30,000 a year could be depended on from a loyal home-market following that appreciated its unpretentious utility.
That said, it doesn’t pay to get too misty-eyed about its fate when the R16 was a better resolved and more significant car with charm to burn, created by engineers with a clear vision and enabled by management brave enough to let them get on with it.
Management, interestingly, that answered to the French government.
Like the Maxi, the R16 is the product of a state-owned manufacturer, which just goes to show that nationalisation isn’t always a bad thing.
Images: Max Edleston
Austin Maxi 1750
- Sold/number built 1968-’80/412,121
- Construction steel monocoque
- Engine all-iron, sohc 1748cc ‘four’ with single SU HS6 carburettor
- Max power 84bhp @ 5000rpm
- Max torque 105Ib ft @ 2500rpm
- Transmission five-speed manual, FWD
- Suspension independent, with interconnected Hydrolastic/Hydragas units
- Steering rack and pinion
- Brakes discs/drums
- Length 13ft 2¼in (4021mm)
- Width 5ft 5in (1629mm)
- Height 4ft 6¼in (1412mm)
- Wheelbase 8ft 8½in (2644mm)
- Weight 2170Ib (984kg)
- 0-60mph 15.3 secs
- Top speed 91mph
- Mpg 28
- Price new £1103
- Price now £5000*
Renault 16 TL
- Sold/number built 1964-’80/1,845,959
- Construction steel monocoque
- Engine all-alloy, ohv 1565cc ‘four’, Solex carb
- Max power 67bhp @ 5000rpm
- Max torque 84Ib ft @ 3000rpm
- Transmission four-speed manual, FWD
- Suspension independent, at front by double wishbones, longitudinal torsion bars rear trailing arms, transverse torsion bars; anti-roll bar, telescopic dampers f/r
- Steering rack and pinion
- Brakes discs/drums
- Length 13ft 10¾in (4235mm)
- Width 5ft 5in (1651mm)
- Height 4ft 9in (1448mm)
- Wheelbase 8ft 11in/8ft 8¼in (2718mm/2648mm)
- Weight 2160Ib (980kg)
- Mpg 26
- 0-60mph 15.7 secs
- Top speed 90mph
- Price new £1028
- Price now £5000*
*Prices correct at date of original publication