Tuning Test: British Leyland Special Tuning Maxi
The Austin Maxi has not met with unanimous acclaim from the critics, in spite of which British Leyland are confident that the model has enormous sales potential. In the all-important export market, its rugged construction and exceptional ground clearance, combined with the ability to transport a worthwhile amount of baggage, could attract buyers.
Existing company policy suggests that it will not be long before there are variations on the basic Maxi theme. An S-type model equipped with twin carburetters and revised exhaust manifolding must be high on the list of these variants. Judging by the tuning firms’ efforts in this direction, most of which seem to have met with motoring press approval, the standard car’s performance leaves plenty of scope for improvement.
The tuned Maxi which Motor Sport recently tried conformed to the S-type specification, having twin carburetters and a few other item to make the Maxi lift up its skirts a little and provide very enjoyable enthusiast’s transport. That BL’s own tuning division, Special Tuning at Abingdon, installed the equipment makes this Maxi of more than passing interest, for some of the ideas utilised on the test car must surely find their way on to a production vehicle. Incidentally, the tuning division is housed in the same building as the Competitions Department so that the interchange of information is easily achieved; head of Special Tuning is Basil Wales and he is assisted by Michael Garton and Ronald Elkins.
The equipment fitted to this Maxi comprised a pair of 1½ in. HS4 SU carburetters (conforming to the American emission regulations with AAB jet needles); a four-branch tubular steel exhaust manifold linking up to a completely revised system up to the tailpipe; an inlet manifold constructed from the same material as the exhaust (although the Department plans to market the production tuning kit with a cast alloy inlet). To finish off the engine modifications, 0.030 in. of metal is removed from the cylinder head face to bring the compression ratio up from the standard 9.0:1 to 9.5:1 and the combustion chambers reshaped and polished. Among the sundry other items of interest to the performance minded, we found 6 in. rim Minilite magnesium wheels, which, together with revised hydrolastic bump-stop settings, transformed the high-speed road-holding. The £15s bucket seat holds one far more securely than the standard fitting, so one can be braced on this, rather than the steering wheel. Rally lamps, two spot and two fog, of 7 in. diameter, were also installed, as were five prototype fibreglass doors fitted with perspex instead of the normal safety glass; the latter items save about 130 lb. and it is interesting to note that the side doors are identical with those of the 1800. No prices have been fixed for the engine tuning equipment as yet, but one can safely estimate that the cost will be around £55.
We only had the Maxi for a short period, but during this time it impressed with strong pulling power in fifth gear and the sheer torque effect which allows one to ascend steep hills in fourth. We were not able accurately to assess the top speed on our test track because fifth gear is an extremely “tall” ratio and the straight part of the track ran out before the car had a chance to attain maximum velocity. Special Tuning had imposed a 6,000 r.p.m. limit on our activities, and this definitely curtailed the acceleration, as with this limit the true gear speeds are 29, 44 and 65 m.p.h. in the first three ratios. This means that from a standstill to 50 m.p.h. one has to change gear three times, and even British Leyland would not describe the gear-change as one of the Maxi’s best points. In fact, the cable-operated mechanism is a nightmare for anyone who’s faced with taking acceleration figures, the swop from second to third being especially fraught and the slightest fault is penalised by non-selection. In spite of this, the car shows an adequate turn of speed, reducing the time taken by the standard car to accelerate to 60 m.p.h. by 3½ seconds and to 80 m.p.h. by nearly six seconds.
The speedometer was rendered somewhat inaccurate by the fitting of 165 x 13 Dunlop Sport radials and registered 90 m.p.h. when the electrically activated instrument connected to our filth wheel was showing a true 80 m.p.h.! The remarkable side of this Maxi’s character shows at these speeds, because the best cruising pace is between 85 and 90 m.p.h. with the throttle barely depressed. However, it comes as a shock to find that gaining an extra 10 miles an hour after this point means initially flooring the throttle for a good half mile and then releasing it to the three-quarter open mark to maintain nearly 100 m.p.h., at which speed the Maxi is fairly noisy, although the tachometer is only showing a little less than 5,500 r.p.m. Apparently the 1,485-c.c. E-series engine is averse to maintaining this rate of crankshaft revolution without telling the driver all about it! The Maxi was also equipped with a 13-row oil cooler and we had no problems with the lubrication or cooling systems.
The wider rim wheels made a considerable difference to the final adhesion limit under both wet and dry conditions. We found when trying really hard on a dry test track that a rear wheel would rise slowly and steadily until the Maxi started to slide straight ahead on full understeer kick. On a rainy day there are no such wheel-waving displays, the large contact areas of rubber relinquishing their hold gradually. The handling is dominated at low speed by the steering, which has a strong castor action, while at a quicker pace the Special Tuning Maxi feels very well balanced and far more surefooted than the standard machine.
The Girling manufactured brakes, using discs at the front and drum behind, are well able to cope with the extra performance and we would imagine that many Maxi owners have been glad that British Leyland did not skimp the specification on this point.
British Leyland have been courageous in introducing a basically honest car that has many useful virtues and the Tuning people have not let the company down, turning out a demonstration vehicle which is respectably equipped on the performance side and immaculately maintained. It will be interesting to see how many of the ideas utilised on this unique Maxi are pressed into commercial production.
In closing, it is worth mentioning that Special Tuning also produce equipment to enhance the handling and performance of the Triumph Spitfire, MG Midget and Austin Healy Sprite, all the FWD BL saloons and the MG-B; booklets are available from the Department which further detail the items available.—J. W.