Road test

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The Austin Maxi High-Line

A useful front-wheel-drive load-carrier

WHEN British Leyland introduced the overhead-camshaft, five-speed, five-door Austin Maxi on the pattern of the Issigonis small cars, which had sold so well, it proved a disappointing car, noisy, underpowered and with an unpleasant gear shift. Then the Abingdon tuning chaps got to work on it and it became a very much nicer car, with its more lively and powerful, mildly “souped” engine. BL also had a go at making the basically acceptable Maxi a better car, which included making available a 1,750 c.c. engine as well as the original 1,500 c.c. unit, improving the gear linkage, etc.

This 1,750-c.c. engine is used in the oddly-termed “High Line” Maxi, a long-stroke (76.2 x 95.75 mm.) transverse power unit with chain-driven overhead-camshaft, now with twin HS6 SU carburetters, different valve timing and a higher cr. The output is said to have benefitted by an additional eleven b.h.p., obtained at a 350-r.p.m. increase over the former 5,000-r.p.m. power peak. Slightly higher gear ratios (top is now 3.65 to 1, before you get into 5th speed, which is geared up) match wider tyres.

Not exactly an intriguing specification. Yet this very spacious, boxy-looking Austin Maxi HL fulfils many peoples’ needs. It converts to estate-car form very easily indeed and it is simplicity to load, via the 5th door, which automatically rises after it has been opened, to give a huge opening.

The four seats, now embellished with brush-nylon, are comfortable and of generous size, and the ride is excellent if you like the feel of Hydrolastic inter-connected all-round independence. The handling is that of any BL front-wheel-drive small-car, very safe and predictable, with an understeer tendency. The steering is geared just under four turns, lock-to-lock and is fairly light and quick, with sensible return action. The gear change is indefinite as well as horribly notchy and at times baulky, the floor lever lifting into reverse 5th speed, although geared-up, is low enough for very frequent use, and is thus in no way a Motorway overdrive. Indeed, it can be held from 30 m.p.h. upwards.

At first I thought this a noisy, rattly car compared with what are called “conventional” front-engined cars, and the engine is loud-voiced, with quite a sporting exhaust note, heard from without. Nor is there as much urge as might be expected from a 1 3/4-litre o.h.c. car weighing under a ton at the kerb. Maximum speed is short of the other ton except under good conditions and 0-60 m.p.h. takes over 13 seconds. Rather absurdly, you can press the Maxi HL to practically the same top speed in normal top gear as it likes to do in the 5th gear. Even in third gear 85 m.p.h. is obtainable: the gap comes between the 3rd and 2nd gears.

In many ways the Maxi is old-fashioned. There is the rather fussy long-stroke engine, which vibrates at idle, in spite of the five-bearing camshaft. There is a manual enrichener for the Skinner Unions, which the engine needs from cold, although it was always a very sure commencer even after a night out in zero temperatures. As this “choke” is not spring-loaded and has no warning light, it is apt to be left on in this age of automatic chokes. Fortunately, it needs a good pull to make it function, so it usually backs off on its own. There are two facia tumbler switches for lamps, wipers (two-speed) two-speed heater fan, and electric washers, the r.h. stalk control dipping the headlamps (and with an upward movement at that), working the turn-indicators and the horn. Instrumentation consists only of a 110-m.p.h. speedometer and matching heat and fuel gauge. Heating and demisting is well contrived, with powerful fresh-air admission from the end-located, adjustable gimble facia vents, which cut off effectively on turning the centre buttons. The small steering wheel has drilled spokes and a leather-clad rim, the front seat backs recline under lever control, but the central hand-brake lies too close to the floor.

The doors have the usual excellent BL locks but weak “keeps”. Some cars may have more convenient minor controls but standardised layouts would take much of the fun out of motoring for those who drive more than one car, so let’s not be too harsh about the Maxi’s. The driving stance has been improved, there is a lockable front cubby, a full-width underfacia shelf, and “Issigonis bins” on the front doors and the boot, with detachable shelf or lid for use when the back seat is in the normal position, is uncluttered, although this involves hanging the spare wheel below, exposed to road dirt— roll on Dunlop’s Sparewheel obviator. The back compartment is carpeted, a feature farmers and motoring—dogowners will view with mixed feelings. The Maxi HL is not faultless but it does represent good value as a bigger-than-small five-door saloon which so many people will enjoy. It gave me 28.8 m.p.g. under mostly cold, short-haul running of 4 Star (capacity 9 gallons) and after 500 miles, the dip-stick was at “low”, equal to an oil consumption of approx. 1,000 m.p.p., indicated after topping up with Castrol GTX.

When MOTOR SPORT’S Production Manager asked us rather hastily to think of our ideal pairs of cars, so that he could photograph them for a colour feature, I went for a vintage car and a rear-drive Ford Consul or Granada. During the recent snowy weather the desirability of having a front-drive car in the garage for winter use was emphasised, time and time again, by the Maxi, so after getting my vintage-car requirements sorted out, I would be happy to have a BL front-driver as a second-string. The Dunlop SP68-shod Maxi HL got up snow-covered hills effectively, handled very safely on slippery roads, and possessed a useful heated back window and, I am told, some of the most convenient (Britax) safety-belts my passengers have encountered for some time. But it is too noisy for long-distance work. The seat belts are extra, puffing the price of this faster Austin Maxi to a modest £1,391.51. Equipment includes non-dazzle rear-view mirror, exterior mirror, vanity mirror, cigarette lighter, reversing lamps, etc., but the Smith’s speedometer has no trip, although the total mileometer has decimal readings. The Triplex Hot-Line heated rear window was appreciated. Under the rear-hinged, self-propping bonnet there is still that crude cardboard shield for the plugs, from which the dip-stick peeps. The small Lucas Pacemaker battery is also accessible. In a total of 2,000 wintery miles this handy Maxi gave no anxieties, apart from a squeak from a rear hub. An annoying omission concerns coat-hooks, badly needed when the back seat is folded; the screen-wipers do far more for the frontseat passenger than the driver, and the reversing lights went out unless the gear lever was held while in reverse location. Big people with loads to carry cannot go far wrong in ordering a British Maxi, and the HL version offers a very worthwhile performance increase over the normal 1750 model.—W.B.