Remembering the Maxi, Forgotten Big Brother of the Legendary Mini
By Andy Bannister
Some 50 years on from its original appearance, the BMC Mini is acknowledged as one of the landmark cars of the century, with its name and some of its spirit living on in the latest models to carry the famous badge.
The Mini’s creator, Sir Alec Issigonis, is frequently lauded as a genius, but few remember the last production car he designed, consciously labelled the Austin Maxi to trade on the family connection.
If the Mini was a miracle of space efficiency in a small package, the Maxi was a family five-seater that took interior space to a new dimension. It was one of Europe’s pioneering hatchbacks and lasted 12 years, but in commercial terms was an almost total failure.
Launched in a blaze of publicity in Portugal in 1969, the Maxi was the first car unveiled after the merger of BMC and Leyland-Triumph to form the ill-fated British Leyland. It should have been a world-beater for a company with big ambitions to stamp its mark on the global stage.
Front-wheel-drive with five doors and a five-speed gearbox, the Maxi had the credentials and pedigree to herald a bright new future for the British motor industry. There were wildly ambitious plans to sell hundreds of thousands every year, just like its little brother.
Issigonis had already had considerable success with his Austin/Morris 1100 model, a small family car which was a big seller right across Europe. However, his concepts didn’t always translate well into larger cars, and the Maxi was a victim of this.
The car was a genuinely new concept in the marketplace. True, it wasn’t the first hatchback in its class – the 1965 Renault 16 predated it by a considerable margin – but the Maxi was in many eyes far more practical and useful.
Inside, as well as the rear seats folding flat to give a huge cargo area, they also folded forwarded to give a comfortable and flat double bed, which made the car a favourite among camping enthusiasts.
Unfortunately, the car fell victim to Issigonis’s dislike of “fancy” styling, as well as a decision by the company’s management that the Maxi should use the front and rear doors of a larger BMC model by Issigonis, the Austin/Morris 1800 – a vehicle unflatteringly nicknamed the “land crab”.
They were ugly and effectively dictated the box-like shape of the car, meaning it was no competitor for the much more stylish Renault in the looks department. This was bad news in a decade when buyers were becoming more status-conscious and wanted a new car which would make a statement about their lifestyle.
Within the cavernous interior, the early Maxis were saddled with a rather ugly and unpleasant dashboard, but the real disaster as far as the car’s reputation was concerned was mechanical. In particular it was the decision to use an all-new engine and gearbox, which were rushed into production with far too little testing, meaning early customers ended up suffering endless teething problems.
The new 1500cc engine, the E-series, later enlarged to a bigger 1750cc unit for a slightly more luxurious HL version of the Maxi, was an advanced unit on paper but struggled when mated to a cable-changed five speed manual gearbox which was notoriously imprecise, leading one commentator to describe its use as “like stirring a knitting needle in a bag of marbles”.
The Maxi replaced a very old model in the company’s line-up, the finned Austin Cambridge, which dated back to the 1950s. It was a huge step forward in modernity and with few rivals it should logically have done well. Most buyers in the UK took one look, however, and bought a conventional rear-wheel-drive Ford, Vauxhall or Hillman instead.
Sales in continental Europe, a market Leyland was desperate to do well in, were hampered by persistently poor quality which would hinder Leyland products throughout the company’s turbulent life.
Too late, the car was quietly improved with a much nicer wooden dashboard and a completely different gearbox, which actually worked.
After the disastrous launch, plans for a more conventional four-door saloon version of the Maxi wearing a Morris badge were abandoned, and instead Morris produced a Ford-rivalling rear-drive model, the Marina. The Maxi stagnated, as Leyland put its effort into the advent of another ill-starred front-wheel-drive Austin, the smaller Allegro.
Oddly, having come up with a model name which dovetailed beautifully with the Mini, Leyland never really pushed the connection and soon ran out of steam marketing the Maxi, faced with problems elsewhere in its huge and over-ambitious range of models.
As a result the model had a core of loyal, mainly older buyers, but sales were pathetic compared to the projections, averaging 30,000 or so in the UK plus a few pitiful export sales.
As late as 1979 a facelifted model appeared, with full-width plastic wheel trims, a modernised dashboard and slightly different grille and bumpers justifying the name Maxi 2. By this time it had been left behind by newer and far more sophisticated competitors, and disappeared quietly just two years later.
Even today, while many of the nearly-but-not-quite products of the British Leyland era are becoming sought after as classic cars, few people remember or love the humble Maxi, despite its status as Issigonis’s last design and the design features it pioneered. Some 40 years on from its debut, perhaps it is time for the Maxi’s contribution to be reassessed.
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