The Austin Maxi

An Assessment

The eventual arrival, in show rooms as well as in the pages of the Technical Press, of the long-promised new Austin 1500, represents a landmark in motoring history, so cannot be ignored. The new car, the last true B.M.C. product, was presented to the Press in Portugal but my invitation was long delayed, so a colleague went at the last moment. His opinion of the latest B.L.M.C. saloon appeared last month—he is a young enthusiast who had no hesitation in saying that enthusiasts are not likely to rush out and buy it, but he left a more detailed assessment to me. His tabulated data gave a h.p. figure which suggested that he thought this Austin was a four-wheeler version of that other new Maxi, the Steyr-Puch auto-bike, but this was carelessness on the part of printers and proof-readers, and the 1,485-c.c. Austin gives not 14 but 74 net b.h.p., at 5,500 r.p.m.

That apart, I am not in favour of the name. My preference for mini instead of maxi in another context may have some bearing on this, for I frequently give thank that I live in an age when women wear micro-skirts and tight slacks. But I also find Maxi for the new Austin confusing, inasmuch as it gives away over 2 in. on wheelbase, nearly 5½ in. on overall length, and 313 c.c. to the Austin 1800. If the name is intended to imply that this is the maximum that can be done with the Issigonis Mini-Formula, then the first modern all-Leyland private car, promised by Lord Stokes by about 1972, will presumably be to a different pattern?

Be that as it may, it behoves us to look at the newcomer which is being churned out at the rate of 2,000 a week, the o.h.c. power units being produced at the new £16-million factory at Cofton Hackett. Clearly the engine was planned several years ago and I cannot but feel some disappointment that it is out-dated in comparison with the under-bonnet engineering of more modern rivals, in respect of a non-crossflow iron head, iron block, under-square 76 x 81 mm. bore and stroke, single S.U. carburettor, and chain-drive for the o.h. camshaft, and that the Maxi is therefore underpowered and out-performed by the M.G. 1300.

But there are compensations, like five bearings for the c.i. crankshaft, a five-speed gearbox, and a new five-door vented body with a back seat that can be folded to form a luggage space of estate-car dimensions slightly restricted by a sloping back window, or to form two full-length beds for campers, etc. This suggests that Issigonis may have been banished to Billancourt for a while. Obviously someone at B.M.C. has been talking a good look at the Renault 16, coming up with a better-looking but less refined copy. But the Maxi’s body arrangement is very practical, and I proved that this compact car will swallow a load of furniture, almost like a small van, and carry three people in front if need be.

First impressions were that here was a cleaned-up 1300. There are two similar-size keys of which only one opens the doors (and why must the locks be upside down, this applying also to the steering-column lock operated by a bigger key?). The mean-sized pedals are located so that the accelerator-foot feels as if it is on the brake, an un-natural posture. The central gear-lever is long, and has long movements. The p.v.c.-upholstered seats are large but rather hard but rather hard and unsupporting, with coarse adjustment for the reclining squabs. Instrumentation is minimal, just two deeply recessed dials, as if B.M.C. had stolen them from Ford, for the 100-m.p.h. speedometer and combined thermometer/ignition-light/fuel gauge. Although speed is recorded in k.p.h. as well as in m.p.h., the milometer is total only, with tenths, and it is astonishing that in this de luxe car the girls are denied a vanity mirror. On the central facia panel tumbler switches to appease nervous Americans control two-speed wipers, heater fan and washers, with a low-set knob for the heater water valve, which I mistook for a cigarette lighter (which is on the centre facia panel), and a r.h. tumbler switch for the lamps. A r.h. stalk works dipping, flashing and horn. The Lucas auxiliary lamps have a small Lucas switch-panel, with switches that do not comply with U.S.A. safety requirements but there is a tumbler blank which would presumably accommodate them. The heater quadrant levers have coloured markings which clash with the all-black, nicely contrived interior upholstery; there are swivelling air-vents at the facia ends. A manual mixture enrichener ensures prompt starting.

Oddments stowage is in a lockable plastic cubby-hole, on an under-facia shelf, and on a detachable back-shelf, the last-named something of an innovation in a saloon/brake body, although I seem to recall one which goes up automatically with the tail-gate, nor have B.M.C. got all the wonderful seat-folding combinations that Renault contrive in their splendid R16.

What of Maxi motoring? The engine is noisy and has to be kept turning fast to get any worthwhile acceleration. It quietens when 5th (or overdrive) gear is engaged and in this ratio displays excellent flexibility. I suspect that five forward gears are provided from the quietness viewpoint, rather than to close-space the ratios (they are 13.4, 8.4, 5.75, 4.2 and 3.3 to 1). Much has been made of the fact that the gate layout is as on five-speed Continental cars such as Alfa Romeo, Lancia and Fiat, etc., but these are normally l.h.d. vehicles whereas on the r.h.d. Maxi 5th is towards the driver and forward, a less happy action, perhaps, than pushing the lever away from one for a final satisfactory change-up into the cruising gear. The cable-operated gear-change is notchy and not particularly enjoyable but should cause no real concern. Reverse is obtained by lifting the lever to the position behind the 5th speed slot. A central floor hand-brake has been conveniently contrived, following Col. Rixon Bucknall’s demonstration that this could be done on transverse-engine B.M.C. several years ago.

On the road the Maxi feels like a 1300 or 1800—comfortable but choppy all-independent inter-connected Hydrolastic suspension, with improved characteristics, understeer promoted by front-wheel-drive which diminishes with throttle lift-off, and that impeccable Issigonis-inspired road clinging, aided by 13-in. Dunlop SP68 radial tyres, of which I hear excellent reports. The driving stance is still too ‘bus-like.

The Girling disc/drum servo brakes are effective, but squealed. Unfortunately, allied to engine noise, which gear and fan whine and road sounds accentuate, and the mediocre performance (a s.s. ¼-mile takes over 20 sec., top speed is 90 m.p.h. in 4th, with a very noisy 70 in 3rd), there is the rack-and-pinion steering, which calls for four turns, lock-to-lock, plus a little sponge, and thus remains too low-geared, especially in conjunction with the Maxi’s column rake and 16¼-in. steering wheel, and is not particularly light for the bigger movements. There is quick castor-return and about the cornering ability I have no complaints, am indeed decidedly enthusiastic, while the safe grip of f.w.d. B.M.C. cars on snow and other slippery surfaces needs no qualification.

The suspension is hard enough to create some body shake. Huge doors as on the 1800 without front quarter-lights, and a low, unobstructed floor, make for easy access but the door “keeps” are weak. The interior handles-cum-locks are those neat B.M.C. type used by Lotus, but I was sorry to find that in erecting the back-seat cushion from the bed-made position it fouled a window winder until the o/s back door had been opened. The interior lamp has a crude switch.

By making miserly use of 5th gear whenever possible I got a consumption of 99-octane fuel as low as 31.3 m.p.g. in commuter driving; the overall figure was 30.8 m.p.g. But for fast running on the 9-to-1 c.r. 101-octane petrol is specified, putting up the running costs. The fuel filler, under a flap on the n/s of the car is too stiff, as on Service-Station girl pointed out. The bonnet self-props and the dip-stick is accessible in a tube at the front of the engine—it showed the engine/gearbox level to have fallen hardly at all after 800 miles.

Fuel feed is by a mechanical pump which primes quickly and the tank is said to hold 10 gallons, so should give a range in the region of 300 miles. The spare wheel is under the luggage compartment floor and, surprisingly, is exposed to road dirt. As on more recent B.M.C. small cars, all the gears have synchromesh (my dears, they must be holding Alec Issigonis down!), but bottom sometimes tended to baulk. The test car had Lucas quartz-halogen sealed-beam spot-lamps, Kangol seat-harness, a good Radiomobile radio with rather big plated knobs, and door mirrors supplementing a good rear-view mirror of which the n/s one was broken by a careless cyclist in London traffic. The corner-style rear lamp cluster is rather ugly, in my view. The fuse-box is located on the n/s of the under-facia shelf.

To sum up, the Austin Maxi is the best-yet of the transverse-engined B.M.C. models but it is not sufficiently revolutionary to merit all the ballyhoo that preceded it. Those who are sold on sophisticated suspension, front-drive, and who want to carry large loads or camp, will find it a good car. Those who want more performance, a nicer gear-change, less cacophony and a conventional saloon, at the expense of ride and comfort and perhaps handling, may prefer, say, a Ford Cortina GT or a Hillman Hunter. It is interesting that the Austin Maxi costs £978 16s 11d. inclusive of p.t., the Ford GT in four-door form £986, and the Renault 16, with which the Maxi will inevitably be compared, £970. It is nice to know that this B.M.C. model was pre-production tested for a distance exceeding 835,000 miles.

Personally, I hope that I shall feel greater enthusiasm for the “true British Leyland car” which Lord Stokes promised us, at the same time as he was promoting the Austin Maxi was a “new era in British motoring” and saying, in his pre-release speech, that he hoped you would like it.—W. B.