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And both were destined to grace only the most respectable of driveways.
The British Motor Corporation’s first attempt at an upmarket Mini was the Super, which made its debut in June 1961.
Unfortunately, sales were slow, and it would be the Wolseley Hornet and its Riley Elf stablemate that became the perfect vehicles for haute suburbia.
The upmarket duo took a bow in October of that year, and BMC proclaimed that: ‘For those who applaud the functional but nevertheless find satisfaction in quality for its own sake, the Wolseley Hornet is an obvious choice.’
The price of a Hornet was £672 1s 5d, and the Elf was £693 18s 11d; the Riley’s higher fee was due to its full-width fascia with twin lidded glove compartments.
This meant the Wolseley was vastly more expensive than a Mini De Luxe, but then what price cutting a dash at the local tearoom?
A Hornet was equally suited to the sort of executive housing estate that often appeared in the B-film series The Scales of Justice.
However, not everyone was enamoured of the Riley and the Wolseley. Mini designer Alec Issigonis, perhaps somewhat inevitably, lamented the ‘styling gimmicks’ and writer LJK Setright ranted that the Riley and Wolseley were for: ‘Those small-minded snobs who found the idea of a Mini intriguing but the name of Austin or Morris offensive and the evidence of austerity.’
But the nation’s social climbers ignored such negativity and revelled in the trappings of the Elf and Hornet
When Autocar tested the Riley in 1962, it wrote: ‘To many, the higher price asked for this “executive Mini” (or, perhaps, executive’s wife’s Mini) will be fully justified.’
By November of that year the Mk2 featured a 998cc detuned Cooper engine in place of the 848ccc unit.
In another piece of casual sexism, the 1964 Motor Sport test regarded the Elf as: ‘An appropriate present for debutantes, daughters, wives and mistresses.’
It really was another world; a Wolseley advertisement of the same period boasted: ‘Her errands were never easier.’
Looking at ‘our’ duotone Hornet is to be reminded how unusual it was in 1963.
A buyer in search of an upmarket British-built front-wheel-drive small two-door saloon had only one other option: the Citroën Bijou.
The French company established its Slough plant in 1926 to circumvent import duties and produce cars for British and Empire markets.
The factory commenced assembly of the 2CV in 1953, and at just £593 7s it was an ideal alternative to the Morris Minor and Austin A30.
Yet, despite the endorsement of The Motor – ‘A sensible buy for a significant number of British motorists’ – sales remained low.
Citroën’s claim that here was family transport capable of negotiating ‘all European mountain passes without overheating’ mattered less than the Deux Chevaux’s unconventional appearance.
And so the Bijou came about at the suggestion of Nigel Somerset-Leake, the sales manager of Citroën GB, and Louis Garbe, the director of the company’s British division.
It was a bold move, for while the Slough-built DS used local components to comply with local content rules, it retained the coachwork of the parent car.
In contrast, the Bijou’s glassfibre body – by Peter Kirwan-Taylor of Lotus Elite fame – bore little resemblance to any of the company’s line-up.
If the British 2CV appealed to only a select number of sandal-wearing bohemians, Slough intended the new model for those affluent DS drivers who wished to own a second Citroën.
Nor was it supposed to compete directly with popular mass-produced small cars, because the Bijou was for the discriminating motorist.
Whether you favoured a Daffodil, Coral, Dove Grey or Sherwood Green paint finish, it would surely add distinction to any home.
Better still, the company boasted that the rust-resistant body wouldn’t require the building of another garage.
Citroën unveiled the Bijou to the press shortly before the 1959 London Motor Show where, so the story goes, the rear windscreen fell out of the demonstrator due to a journalist slamming the door.
Such Norman Wisdom moments aside, it had the misfortune to make its first major public appearance in the same year as a certain BMC product.
Visitors to Earls Court must have wondered how the Citroën’s price-tag could be £674, as opposed to £536 for a De Luxe version of the Morris Mini-Minor/Austin Se7en.
The Bijou possessed an undoubted charm; the 1961 Autocar test found the bodywork: ‘Transformed the appearance completely, making it acceptable in British eyes.’
Yet it was simply too expensive for its intended customer base. The 1962 budget resulted in a significant price reduction, but it was to no avail.
A further challenge was that Bijou production was so labour-intensive that the model made Citroën no profit.
The company initially planned to build 1500 examples per annum, but sales ended in 1964 after a mere 211 in total.
Of all the Hornets in the country, 669 GGF is probably one of the finest.
“It was subjected to a £15k-plus restoration back in 2002,” explains owner Phil Caunt, who came by the Wolseley in 2019 after it had been stored for over a decade.
“I have all receipts,” he adds. Since then it has covered a mere 500 miles, and now shows just under 25,000 on the odometer.
“It can just about keep up with modern traffic,” he explains. “It is not really a motorway car, but around town and in the suburbs it more than holds its own. The direct-link gearchange is a bit of a pudding-stirrer, but I am used to that from the Moke.”
The Hornet is 8in longer than an Austin/Morris Mini, resulting in 2.5 cu ft of additional luggage space.
It is also somehow dated compared with the timeless standard design, the vestigial tailfins and upright radiator grille firmly locking its styling into the Harold Macmillan era.
Similarly, the interior is a strange mélange of Issigonis Minimalism – see the sliding windows – and petit-bourgeois aspirations with the walnut-veneered instrument nacelle.
The Wolseley’s appearance is best described as ‘early-period June Whitfield’ – Terry Scott might have ordered a Hornet as an anniversary present in Terry and June – while the Citroën veers more towards Juliette Gréco in Bonjour Tristesse.
The Bijou’s cabin is starkly spartan, for all its DS steering wheel, PVC-coated cloth upholstery and carpeted floor.
‘Our’ car, 937 FRX, was one of the last examples built and was registered at Forge Garage in Berkshire in January 1964.
“I bought it in 1976,” says owner Gary Whelan. “At that time, the Bijou was laid up due to it having failed its MoT.
“The bodywork was a bit distressed, and the paintwork needed tidying up. The restoration process took some 30 years, on and off.”
The proud owner of a Bijou benefited from a pleasant level of appointments such as a folding rear seat, internally adjustable headlamps, a trip recorder, ashtrays on both doors, removable front seats and a heater (via hot air from the cylinders) with separate controls for the driver and passenger.
Citroën referred to the car as an ‘occasional’ four-seater.
“The driving position is not hugely comfortable,” Whelan says. “I have to lean back to have a clear field of vision.”
Aside from the limited cabin space and the price-tag, a further Bijou drawback was its performance – or, rather, the lack of it.
Despite the delicate appearance, a combination of the multiple-section moulded hull and a metal floor meant that it was nearly 2cwt (100kg) heavier than a 2CV.
Autocar posted a top speed a fraction under 51mph, with 40mph achieved from rest in 31.3 secs – ‘Hills have a considerable influence on the car’s performance,’ it added.
Such complaints were echoed by The Motor, which managed just 44.7mph and grumbled that it was: ‘Difficult to avoid obstructing the normal brisk flow of rush-hour suburban traffic.’
It concluded that the Bijou was: ‘Unlikely ever to kindle the same enthusiasm bordering on fanaticism with which other Citroën models inspire many owners.’
Whelan believes his Citroën is capable of a heady 47mph, and agrees with both titles: “Compared with anything modern the Bijou does feel sluggish. I would sometimes say that it can be a nuisance to other road users!”
Yet the Citroën offered many advantages to the discerning buyer, with benefits to its 425cc engine. “It will run and run. I’ve only had to adjust the tappets,” points out Whelan. “The handling is great, and the ride is very smooth.”
Another Bijou plus point is the ease of operation of the three-speed transmission with overdrive. The specification includes a centrifugal clutch that operates on first and second gears and, being a Citroën, the system also works on reverse.
“If you are in slow-moving traffic, you can depress the clutch, select the gear, operate the foot brake and take your foot off the clutch,” explains Whelan. “When the lights change, you just release the brake.”
The Slough plant closed in 1966, and the Bijou became a footnote in Deux Chevaux history.
Meanwhile, BMC continued to develop the Elf/Hornet, fitting Hydrolastic suspension in 1964 and offering AP automatic transmission in ’65.
The Mk3 of the following October came with a remote-control gearchange, reclining front seats and fresh-air vents. There were even winding windows some three years before they were found on British-market Minis.
By 1968, the final examples boasted an all-synchromesh ’box shortly before the end of production in late 1969, after 28,455 Hornets and 30,912 Elfs.
The square-nosed Clubman served as their successor, but it was a less ornate form of Mini. Artificial materials replaced timber and leather, and the ethos was more out-of-town Sainsbury’s than gymkhana transport. The true heir to the Elf and Hornet was probably the 1982 Metro Vanden Plas.
Both the Wolseley and the Citroën are, in their very individual ways, the perfect second car for the early 1960s.
The Bijou was probably best suited to the solo motorist – a family of four plus holiday luggage would find some difficulty in actually leaving their driveway.
Had Citroën decided to use the 602cc engine it might have proved an intriguing town car and a better seller in the UK than the Ami 6.
As it is, 937 FRX is a demonstration of the sheer ingenuity of the Slough works and a vehicle that still causes a minor sensation at any classic show.
The Wolseley has – somewhat ironically, given its image – too often been the victim of automotive snobbery.
For many years enthusiasts tended to dismiss the Hornet and its Elf twin as a minor joke compared to the other major new Mini of 1961, the Cooper.
The standard narrative was that the racy Mini not only redefined rally competition, but also became the epitome of ‘Swinging London’ transport.
The Wolseley and Riley, meanwhile, were merely the embodiments of faded mock gentility, forever trapped in 1954.
The truth is that the Cooper and the Elf/Hornet had equally important roles and each carved a distinctive niche.
Caunt regards the Wolseley as streets ahead of other Minis of that time, and very much a car for the 1960s. “It was perfect for a Mildred Roper-style TV housewife,” he says.
Alternatively, the Wolseley dates from that remote decade when sales brochures could suggest a Hornet was ideal for: ‘The hopping, shopping, bargain-grabbing hustle of the High Street.’
Leaving the Citroën as perfect weekend transport to the local coffee bar – provided you don’t live near any inconvenient hills.
Images: Olgun Kordal
- Sold/number built 1961-’69/28,455
- Construction steel monocoque
- Engine all-iron, ohv 998cc ‘four’, with single SU carburettor
- Max power 38bhp @ 5250rpm
- Max torque 52lb ft @ 2700rpm
- Transmission four-speed manual (all-synchro from 1968) or AP auto, FWD
- Suspension independent, at front by wishbones rear trailing arms; rubber-cone springs and telescopic dampers or Hydrolastic f/r
- Steering rack and pinion
- Brakes Lockheed 7in drums
- Length 10ft 10in (3302mm)
- Width 4ft 7½in (1410mm)
- Height 4ft 4½in (1334mm)
- Wheelbase 6ft 8¼in (2038mm)
- Weight 1428lb (649kg)
- 0-60mph 24.1 secs
- Top speed 78mph
- Mpg 33-50
- Price new £556 7s 1d
- Price now £3-12,000*
- Sold/number built 1959-’64/211
- Construction rectangular-tube chassis, welded floor; glassfibre body
- Engine all-alloy, ohv 425cc flat-twin, with single Solex carb
- Max power 12bhp @ 4000rpm
- Max torque 17lb ft @ 2500rpm
- Transmission three-speed manual with overdrive, FWD
- Suspension independent, at front by single leading arms rear single trailing arms; underfloor coil springs f/r
- Steering rack and pinion
- Brakes drums
- Length 12ft 11in (3937mm)
- Width 5ft 1in (1549mm)
- Height 4ft 10in (1473mm)
- Wheelbase 7ft 9½in (2375mm)
- Weight 1330lb (603kg)
- 0-40mph 31.3 secs
- Top speed 50mph
- Mpg 49
- Price new £493
- Price now £8-20,000*
*Prices correct at date of original publication