The great British blunder: 50 years of the Austin Maxi

Austin Maxi 50 years

“We believe that [the Austin Maxi] will create the same kind of revolution in the field of middle-class family motor cars as did the Mini in the realm of small cars.”

The words of Lord Stokes, the newly installed head of the British Leyland Motor Corporation, at the time of the Austin Maxi’s launch in 1969. In truth, even Lord Stokes didn’t believe it. Few people were talking about a revolution – some were even questioning if the Maxi should have been launched at all.

It could have, and probably should have, been great. Work on Project ADO14 began in 1965, when the British Motor Corporation (BMC) was dancing to the tune of the swinging sixties, fuelled by the global success of the Mini. A larger car built on the same principles as the ‘wizardry on wheels’ should have injected some magic into the family car segment.

Minor, Mini, Maxi

60 years of the Mini

But while the world is baking cakes and throwing parties to celebrate 60 years of the Mini, there’s a kind of hush surrounding 50 years of the Austin Maxi. No parades, no cheese and pineapple on sticks, no wild sex- and drug-fuelled parties in the back of the Maxi’s commodious boot. Not unless the owners club is planning something we don’t know about.

Things started well enough. Designed by Sir Alec Issigonis – the genius behind the Morris Minor and Mini – the Maxi was a pioneering hatchback that had the potential to dominate an entirely new market segment. Development started in 1965, just as Renault was demonstrating its ingenuity with the brilliant 16.

BMC spent £16 million on a new factory at Cofton Hackett to build the engine and gearbox, reportedly making it the biggest concentration of modern equipment in an area of comparable size anywhere in the motoring world. The Maxi couldn’t fail. Or so they thought.

An open and shut case

Austin Maxi cutaway

The problems started when the decision was made to lumber the Maxi with the doors from the Austin 1800 ‘Landcrab’. A door’s a door, and you might think that if they open and close correctly, it’s job done. An open and shut case, if you like.

But the doors compromised the styling, if not the packaging, leading to a look that was, at best, a little plain. A more appropriate description might be ‘ungainly’. It led to a succession of makeovers before the launch in 1969, with Roy Haynes giving it a front end look that’s not too dissimilar to the Mini Clubman.

Also note the similarity of the grille and headlight arrangement to the Mk2 Ford Cortina – another Roy Haynes creation. You can also see the influence of Haynes in the two recessed dials on the dashboard.

Ford Cortina Mk2

If the styling wasn’t about to set the automotive world alight, the Austin Maxi still had the potential to light customers’ fires. It was a five-door family hatchback, before the family five-door hatchback was a thing. It had a five-speed gearbox, when the British motorist was accustomed to just four. And the interior was flexible enough for it to be considered an early example of an MPV.

But the development was beset with problems in the four years leading up to the Maxi’s launch in 1969. So much so, that when Lord Stokes took charge of the company in 1968, he considered cancelling the event.

Stokes brought in Harry Webster as technical director and the Maxi was top of the list of priorities for the former Triumph man. The list was long and included a woeful five-speed gearbox and a 1485cc E-Series engine that simply wasn’t up to the task of moving the Maxi forward at a rate that could never be described as ‘rapid’.

Austin Maxi early model

In response, Stokes ordered a new 1748cc version of the E-Series unit, adding an additional £1 million to the cost of the development. It wouldn’t be ready in time for the launch, but it would give the Maxi a fighting chance of achieving strong sales.

The cable-operated gearbox was another issue. Julian Mounter, motoring correspondent for The Times, said: “It feels like stirring treacle with a long thin cane,” and this was after the engineers had fettled with the transmission.

Portuguese start

All of which meant the Austin Maxi debuted in Portugal in April 1969 with a long list of inherent faults and a feeling internally that it would be in production for just a few years. Under-developed, under-engineered and unloved. Not a great way to launch a new car.

BLMC predicted a four percent market share, but by September 1969 it had secured just 2.2 percent. By the end of the year, this had fallen to 1.4 percent.

Austin Maxi 1500

It’s not as though there wasn’t any initial enthusiasm for the product. BLMC claimed the order book at launch was enough for five months production, but a series of stoppages led to delays and cancelled orders.

Production dropped from 2,000 a week to just a thousand by November 1969. For BLMC, it was looking like a case of maximum potential and minimum fulfilment. Something had to done, as the Maxi was in danger of looking like a white elephant with Landcrab doors.

The company acted swiftly. The car was improved, with less vibration on the move, increased sound-deadening and – most critically – an improved gearbox. BLMC also made an effort to re-educate and incentivise its dealer network, while 1.5 million potential customers were sent a mailshot.

It worked. By February 1970, the Maxi’s market share had risen to 2.2 percent, 2.5 percent in March and 3 percent in April. It looked like BLMC had secured victory from the jaws of defeat, but in reality the Maxi never managed to recover from its poor start.

Austin Maxi 1750 HL

In October 1970, the Maxi received the engine it always deserved, when the 1,750cc unit was added to the range. A couple of years later, the twin-carb Maxi High Line (HL) arrived, with more power and a host of interior and exterior upgrades.

BLMC’s family car for the 1970s could finally hold its own and sales settled at 20,000 to 30,000 a year throughout the decade. There’s a sense that British Leyland focused its efforts on the Morris Marina, leaving the Maxi to its own devices, with the Maxi 2 seeming like little more than token effort before production ceased in July 1981.

Faulty to Fawlty

Renault 16

In total, just under half a million Maxis were produced over a 12-year period, a poor return for a car that had the potential to be a million-seller. For some context, the Renault 16 achieved 1,851,502 sales from 1965 until 1980.

The Maxi wasn’t quite as revolutionary as the R16, but it featured a low, unobstructed tailgate opening, a flexible seating arrangement and generally good ride and handling characteristics. It’s also worth noting that, although the Maxi was shorter and lighter than the original Ford Focus, it offered more space inside.

There were high points. Four Maxis were entered into the 1970 London-Mexico World Cup Rally, while the Downton Engineering Stage 2 conversion created what was, by all accounts, a very good car. It also appeared as Basil’s motor in Fawlty Towers.

Austin Maxi World Cup Rally

Perhaps the general apathy is best summarised by two contemporary reviews. At its launch in 1969, Motor Sport said: “The Austin Maxi is the best-yet of the transverse-engine BMC models, but it is not sufficiently revolutionary to merit all the ballyhoo that preceded it.”

Two years later, following the launch of the 1750cc version, Car said: “The changes to the Maxi have turned it from a bad car into one that is acceptable as a practical family vehicle.” Both comments are pretty damning with faint praise.

In many ways, the Austin Maxi doesn’t deserve to be lumped in with the usual suspects when folk start talking about the downfall of the British motor industry. The last vehicle designed by Issigonis was a good car waiting to get out. It was just poorly marketed, misunderstood and not as good as the Renault 16.

Sure, raise a glass to celebrate 60 years of the Mini, but let’s raise a tailgate to the much-maligned Maxi. It might not deserve a street party, but it must be worthy of a few parish notes in passing.

Here’s to you, Austin Maxi, and all those who sat comfortably in its cavernous and comfortable cabin.

With grateful thanks to AROnline and the Austin Maxi Owners Club.