The Austin 1800: Brilliance and a slight stumble in one
“Issigonis was deaf to all criticism and would say time after time to journalists, to colleagues and to friends that the 1800 was the car he was most proud of.” (Bardsley, G. (2005). Issigonis – The Official Biography)
I have decided to write a page on the Austin 1800 because quite frankly it is my favourite car. Now many a reader may ask how my favourite car can be the ungainly Landcrab, well the heart is a fickle thing and when I was a young chap my grandfather (Pop) owned two Austin 1800s so my love for them was cemented through him.
The 1800, also called ADO17 after its Austin Drawing Office (ADO) designation number, was the third design in Alec Issigonis’ family of front wheel drive cars for the British Motor Corporation (BMC). By many it was expected to be a hat trick for BMC, the third great design, but sadly this was not to be. The natural extension of the Mini’s revolutionary layout suffered a number of problems that the smaller cars avoided.
The 1800 had a very long gestation period primarily because it was the car Issigonis first started on when he rejoined BMC. Issigonis started working on his XC9001 experimental prototype which was around the size of the 1800. But with the Suez Crisis in 1956 the thinking moved away from a big car to a smaller car, and hence why the Mini was released first. With the Mini’s move to transverse engine and front wheel drive the XC9001 became the XC9005, which was effectively the future 1800.
Given the internal company designation ADO17 (ADO stands for Austin Drawing office), the 1800 started life as a replacement for the Austin Cambridge/Morris Oxford conventional Farina cars. This meant using the BMC series engine in 1.5 litre form with a wheelbase of around 96 inches. But in 1963 the B series was stretched to 1.8 litres for the MGB, so Issigonis chose to use it in ADO17. This now meant that with more power than originally thought Issigonis could design an altogether larger car that would showcase the advantages of transverse front wheel drive packaging. The cars wheelbase became 106 inches and this pushed up the weight, buy the larger motor could handle this.
What emerged was a car with moderate external dimensions yet immense interior space, unsurpassed by any car in its class or in the classes above. To put it into a modern framework for the Australian reader, imagine a car the size of a Honda Civic with more room than a Holden Commodore. This was of course partly achieved by having a minimalist and Spartan interior, which whiles providing great space savings made the interior style very uninspiring.
Alec Issigonis was more concerned with maximising is space saving concept and making a good drivers car than fitting it with niceties and stylish elaborate interiors. As such upon release the car was criticised for an eccentric and awkward driving position, essentially like a bigger Mini. In fact it exaggerated all the ergonomic shortcomings of the Mini.
Another problem for ADO17 was the lack of style. This comment may upset some 1800 fans but it is essentially true. The Mini was put simply odd and ugly, it became popular by becoming a cult hero; a fun little car that was loved by all and sundry. In spite of its lack of style it was popular. The BMC 1100 was a highly styled car, Pininfarina’s styling worked and the car was quite popular, more popular than the Mini. But for the 1800, Pininfarina’s proposals were modified by Issigonis to produce a Plain Jane style without any flair. The utilitarian shape did not inspire people who let style and shape decide their purchase. The 1800 stood out as the odd ball after the full of character Mini and the stylish 1100.
There was a lot to praise in the car and that was indeed praised. Besides the aforementioned copious space it also was quite a good handling large car with a smooth ride, due to its all independent suspension with Moulton Hydrolastic springing. Coupled with this the road holding advantages of the front wheel drive layout the 1800 was not short of grip. The 1800 was fitted with an all synchromesh gearbox unlike the preceding Issigonis models and it also had radial tyres, in fact it was the first Australian built car to be fitted with radial tyres as standard.
However using the heavy B series engine in FWD form paid a price in terms of weight and steering. The steering was significantly heavier and the 1800 was firmly in the territory of a car requiring power steering. This was not forthcoming until 1967 and never in Australian markets. The car was fine above 20 mph, but parking was indeed hard work.
To be continued…
For further information either e-mail me, or visit one of the links below.
The Unofficial Austin Rover Resource – An excellent site with information about most BMC/British Leyland cars.
Landcrab Owners Club International – The owners club for Landcrab lovers.Also includes an exellent write up about the Pininfarina Aerodynamica, the car the 1800 could have been.
Australian Austin 1800 site – An excellent Antipodean source for the 1800 lover.
Another Australian Austin 1800 site – Another Antipodean source for the 1800 lover, complete with old brochures.