Road impressions: the Austin 1300 GT Mk III

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Forget the “GT” label, which is, of course, fatuous! The car in question is the latest version of the largest of BL’s 1100/1300 small-car range, in twin-carburetter form. Until the October 1971 sales returns of the SMM & T were published, these BMC-orientated 1100/1300s were Britain’s best-selling cars. The Ford Cortina has now overtaken them.

This fact is interesting; suggesting as it does that, in spite of high unemployment figures and recession rumours, Britain is moving away from breadline motoring. Because the present Cortina range goes from 1,300 to 2,000 c.c. and from £963 to £1,671, compared to £806 to £1,034 for the BL range we are discussing; so the best-seller has moved into a larger-engined, medium-instead-of-small-car bracket.

This is greatly to Ford of Britain’s credit, especially remembering the serious loss of output the strikes at their factories caused. However, the Ford Escort, which as a 1,100/1,300 c.c., £853/£1,139 offering is the direct competitor of the British Leyland 1100s/1300s, is not quite so popular, saleswise, according to the aforesaid October 1971 returns. So the most-expensive and highest-performance model of the BL group is a car of considerable interest.

Whereas Ford have introduced new belt-drive o.h.c. engines for the larger Cortina models, British Leyland rely on continued employment of their now-ancient long-stroke (70.6 x 81.3-mm.) siamese-ported, 3-bearing A-series power unit with iron block and head and push-rod-prodded valves and the allure of the transverse engine (apart from the space-bonus), front-wheel-drive, and Hydrolastic all-independent suspension is less attractive than it was in 1962, when the 1100 was introduced as the logical and eagerly-awaited next-step to the ingenious and widely-accepted Minibric. At first I disliked the snatch of the 1,275-c.c. engine when accelerating, which calls for careful clutch engagement, its noise at the higher revs, and the baulky gearchange in the lower gears; I liked the 1300 GT even less when it took to stalling unexpectedly, in Christmas rush-hour traffic or when braking a bit sharply for a road-junction. These non-refinements, coupled with steering-wheel shake on Motorways, “tinny” doors, and the notorious Issigonis ‘bus-driver’s steering-wheel angle, did not endear me initially to re-acquaintance with this enormously popular BL small car.

Yet there is undoubted refinement about the car’s running and handling, the unconventional suspension, although somewhat lively and thumpy at times, does ride bad surfaces very smoothly, and the enormous cornering power on tyres no more sophisticated than 145-12 Dunlop SP68s is unquestionable. Others commented on the smoothness of the engine, the tachometer of which sets no rev.-limit, and after brief acclimatisation I found myself enjoying again this unique Alec/Alex mode of motoring. A smaller steering wheel has improved things, and the gear-lever is well placed. Admittedly, the instruments disappear behind the wheel’s drilled spokes and the r.h. stalk control has to deal with turn-indicators, flashing, dipping and horn. The press-buttons for 2-speed wipers and side/headlamps are too close together and the washers call for operation of an adjacent press-button. Stowage is not over-generous, for the lidded but unlockable cubby-hole and under-facia shelving are somewhat restricted, the former door-bins have been replaced by elastic-edged map containers, and the boot, although easy to load, is one to appeal to those who abhor unwanted luggage space, for its capacity is less than 6 1/2 cu. ft. The fact is that the 1100/1300 body, unvented and using openable front quarter-lights, has “dated”, and the provision of facia fresh-air vents (non-adjustable and non-rotatable, but able to be shut-off, effectively, by plug-doors), better seats, new instruments with circular speedometer, and improved pedals and carpeting, do not altogether disguise the fact. Incidentally, with the heater on the cubby-hole becomes too warm for the stowage of meltable objects!

I think the roughness of the engine in traffic may be due to poor synchronisation of the dual SUs, which emphasises the absence of any torque-resisting stay, and the “GT” power unit seems to call for rather more use of the mixture control for cold-weather starting, although this never gave rise to any anxiety. Fuel consumption was notable, however—35.6 m.p.g. But after 750 miles the dipstick reading was below the safety mark, a thirst equal to 450 m.p.p.

The appearance of the car has been improved. There is a vinyl roof covering, aping RM Rileys, although these had real leather roof tops in their earliest form, but the single headlamps look rather feeble and didn’t give as good illumination as I would have liked. Under the bonnet the one-time snuffing out of power due to water on the electrics is guarded against by a cardboard shield kept in place by a couple of dried-milk turn-buttons, which has to be removed before the dipstick can be found—a very poor piece of nineteen-seventies’ engineering! That it has only just been deemed necessary, although the basic version of the car was introduced a decade ago, is as remarkable as the precaution is abhorrent.

The £1,034 “GT” version of the 1300 has certain advantages over even the de-luxe single-carburetter models. For instance, the cheap “wooden” facia surrounds are not evident, being replaced by matt-black, the automatic bonnet prop is retained whereas a cheap bent-wire affair is now used on other versions, and the engine revs willingly, although at under 1,700 r.p.m. the running is rough and snatchy, so that 3rd gear has to be resorted to frequently in built-up areas. The bonnet can be opened from outside the car, and although there is provision for four additional switches, this involves an extra panel below the facia, used on the test car for the switch for that excellent institution, the Triplex hot-line rear window (£10.00 extra), the warning light for which was unpleasantly distracting, even in daylight. The disc/drum brakes gave no cause for complaint but the juxtaposition of the engine and transmission gears calls for oil changes every 3,000 miles, or twice as frequently as the other routine servicing; the old bogey of drive-shaft failure seems to have been overcome (if it hasn’t, readers will no doubt inform us!). The transverse silencer reduces the effective ground clearance when the car is fully laden. The heater is excellent and while drivers who belt themselves into their 1300s have been known to complain that they are out of reach, I commend the illumination of these controls when the sidelamps are on.

The BL small cars are as different from Escorts as Brands Hatch is from Spa. It is perhaps a good thing that the car-buying public has such diverse views on what it wants. After some very pleasant driving in this Austin 1300 Mk. III so-called Gran Turismo saloon I can well understand why this range of little cars, so safe and individualistic, have sold over a million and remain Britain’s second-best bestsellers, sandwiched between Ford’s Cortinas and Escorts.—W. B.