British Leyland at Silverstone

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The future of British-owned motor manufacturing lies just with BLMC on a mass-production scale at present, a fact which has not exactly inspired patriotic hearts as the mammoth corporation struggled with labour disputes and the problems of welding highly individual divisions into one. Although the latest SMMT figures we have to hand, which were the subject of Matters of Moment in last month’s Motor Sport, show an overall loss in output, there are signs that the FWD cars are heading a sales revival. The Maxi has improved its position considerably and the changes announced recently to that car can only make it more popular—so long as production keeps pace with demand that is!

To show off the Mk. 2 Maxis (1,485 and 1,750 c.c.), plus some important changes to the Spitfire, GT6 and minor revisions to the MGs, Austin Healey Sprite and Rover 3500 models, BL chose to hire Silverstone and brought a generous selection of the relevant cars for the press to play with. Apart from the Grand Prix circuit, one could also drive on a straw-baled handling course and plough the Range Rover over a field.

We began with Maxis, first choice falling on the 1750. The extra capacity has been obtained just by lengthening the stroke from 81.28 mm. to 95.75 mm.; bore is the same for both of the single overhead-camshaft units at 76.2 mm. Peak horsepower is raised (up 10 b.h.p. from the 1500’s 74), but it is the extra torque that is really impressive, the 1750 offering 105 lb. ft. at 3,000 r.p.m., versus 84 b.h.p. at 3,600 r.p.m. for the smaller unit. The next most significant change is in the gearbox, which is now rod-actuated instead of the previous porridge-action cables. The 1750 has new ratios as well, which effectively raise the intermediate gear speeds and provide more relaxed 5th-gear cruising.

The interior has come in for a complete revamp, the most obvious changes being an almost “dishless” steering wheel, full-width walnut dashboard, proper carpeting, and a more attractive and efficient look to the controls and switches.

In other words the Maxi in 1750 form, and to a lesser extent in 1500 guise, is a completely transformed motor car; an impression that was reinforced by devoting most of our time to Maxi-motoring. Prices are detailed at the end of this article but suffice it to say that with the 1750 one has a well-insulated car that handles extremely well within the considerable limits of adhesion offered by Goodyear radial-ply tyres. The five-speed gearbox is now enjoyable in its own right and the performance, coupled to excellent braking, allowed us to keep up quite nicely with the “Spridgefires” circulating at the same time.

The 1500 shares the bigger capacity Maxi’s solid and restful air at speeds up to the legal limit, but when accelerating hard or cruising in the 80s the 1500 sounds far more strained and, not unnaturally, is rather slower throughout. Some of this overall noise can be traced to the choice of gear ratios, but in balance it is still a vast improvement over the old car and both machines are now competitive with world competition. The only exception to this statement being that in terms of straight-line speed the 1750 is still not a match for the Renault 16 TS. Performance claims for the cars are : Maxi 1750: 0-60 m.p.h. in 14.0 sec., maximum speed 92 m.p.h.; in comparison the 1500 accelerates to 60 m.p.h. in 16.5 sec. and is said to manage 90 m.p.h.

We moved next to the Spitfire Mk. 4 and GT6 Mk. 3, which share fresh, and much smoother, lines broadly based on the previous cars, but employing a miniaturised version of the Stag’s rear end (should it be bottom?) styling. The Spitfire also has revised back suspension, still independent via a transverse leaf, but using a central pivot point with radius rods for more hygienic handling. Apparently BL engineers considered equipping the Spitfire with the GT6 rear suspension (introduced in 1968 for the Vitesse as well) but cost ruled this move out. The Spitfire now has both speedometer and tachometer placed directly in front of the driver (instead of centrally).

There are some mechanical differences in the latest Spitfires, too, such as revised inlet and exhaust manifolding, a 3.89-to-1 final-drive ratio and a front anti-roll bar. Power has been raised by 4-5 b.h.p., but the real objective of the new manifolding, was to offer quieter performance. The GT6 also has an extra 4-5 b.h.p. from much the same changes, ventilation has been improved, and top speed is said to be improved by a few miles an hour as a result of the cleaner styling and small power bonus. Both cars have slightly more window area than before, but one wouldn’t know without being told.

Our driving impressions of the Spitfire were simply that the changes were all worthwhile: the handling is now beyond reproach—even if the crude Spridget can run rings round it—and the car is quieter than before. Performance is much the same but sharp corners no longer require instant steering correction if taken in brisk style. Obviously, swapping directions quickly with the old set-up used to upset the Spitfire considerably, but now it is much more predictable under these conditions. Incidentally the Spitfire now has synchromesh on all forward gears, while the Sprite and Midget do without.

Other cars that we drove during the day included the silky Rover 3500 with its much improved dashboard (shared with the 2000 TC) and minor exterior styling changes, the MG-B tourer, which now has a better hood giving less wind noise, and the everlasting Sprite which boasts an improved heater, as does the “B”. A trip in the Range Rover was fun, even though I found the steering too slow-moving for the tight little track. I left having been convinced as to why the Rover division of BLMC find such a strong demand for their well engineered products.

After lunch I was privileged to be flown and to try for myself, a privately-owned Tiger Moth (circa 1942 with a Gipsy Major engine) which was able to keep pace with the cars on the GP circuit until a corner appeared, when the Moth simply banked over at 85-90 m.p.h. and rather outshone the efforts of my colleagues below on the tarmac!

The prices of the changes we detailed can be partially seen from the following list of prices for the 1971 BL cars : Maxi 1500, £1,057 3s. 7d.; 1750, £1,102 17s. 6d.; Spitfire Mk. 4, £961 75. 6d.; GT6 Mk. 3: £1,268 135. 7d.; Rover 3500, £2,049 8s. Checking through and comparing with previous model prices you will find that the Maxi 1500 is up by £39, the Rover by approximately £50 and the Spitfire is raised by £86.—J. W.

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