1966 Austin 1100 Princess. Click image to enlarge
Article and photo by Bill Vance
The decline and fall of the British automobile industry was a tragic story. Following the Second World War, England was the world’s leading car exporting nation, sending cars like Austins, Morrises, Hillmans, MGs and Jaguars to countries around the world.
Canadian sales of Austin’s new post-war A40 sedan were so strong in the late 1940s that an Austin assembly plant was planned for Hamilton, Ontario. By mid-1948 Austin Motor Co. of England had acquired a building, installed tooling and hired some workers. Projected staff levels as high as 10,000 were mentioned.
Then in 1949 the whole scheme collapsed for several reasons: internal turmoil at Austin; Canadian taxing policies; and erosion of Austin sales brought on by the end of the post-war, pent-up demand for cars. The building was converted to an import centre and parts depot for Austins and Morrises.
In spite of failing to establish a North American plant, Britain still dominated imports for a few years. In sports cars, in particular, it had the market virtually to itself.
But there were problems. Britain didn’t seem very responsive to the different requirements of North American motorists. Their cars were often unsuited to our environment, and mechanical and electrical reliability suffered in the harsh climate and long distances. And Canadians and Americans were not as prepared to baby and tinker with their cars. Assembly quality was also sometimes spotty.
The quality was highlighted by the ever forthright Tom McCahill of Mechanix Illustrated (4/’50) in the Jaguar XK120 test. Although he loved its performance and road holding, McCahill found paint peeling and rust spots “peeking out all over.” The brakes were leaking fluid and the hub caps flew off. “As a matter of fact,” he concluded, “I think it would have been better if they had just shovelled the unassembled parts of the car I drove into an old bag and shipped them over by parcel post.”
But despite some problems and rising competition from cars like German Volkswagens and French Renault Dauphines, Britain carried on. Their brilliant stroke came in 1959 with the tiny Austin Seven/Morris Mini Minor, soon referred to simply as the Mini. It was the vehicle that redefined the architecture of the car.
Created by Alec Issigonis, a gifted but eccentric Greek-born, British engineer, the Mini’s transverse engine/front-wheel drive yielded a car with accommodation way beyond its size. Although only 3,048 mm (10 ft) long, its layout and tiny wheels-at-the-corners provided space for four people and their luggage.
Besides being a marvel of packaging the Mini was a tenacious road holder. Fitting larger, more powerful engines in Cooper and Cooper S versions made it a formidable competition machine.
Britain’s Mini had clearly stolen a march on the rest of the world. But its parent British Motor Corporation, formed in 1952 through the merger of Austin and Morris, realized that the Mini was too small for wide acceptance in North America so it set out to produce a larger version.
This was the Austin/Morris/MG 1100 – the Austin was marketed as the Austin 1100 Princess in North America – introduced in 1963. The 1100’s 2,375 mm wheelbase provided ample room for four passengers. A 1,098-cc overhead valve four yielded adequate performance and good fuel economy, and a novel “Hydrolastic” suspension, comprised of rubber cones and fluid that moved between front and rear, gave a level and comfortable ride.
The 1100 was followed in 1969 by the larger 1800 Maxi using the same cross-engine layout. It had a truly cavernous interior, but unfortunately its trim level and fit and finish prevented it from enjoying the popularity it should have.
The parallel between the Mini/1100 and the Honda Civic/Accord is striking. It took Honda 14 years to respond to the Mini’s outstanding packaging, but when they did it pointed up how the Mini had been allowed to languish. The 1973 front-drive Civic had a transverse, high-tech, overhead cam, alloy engine, compared with the Mini’s old fashioned, cast iron, pushrod four. The Civic was impeccably finished and provided a superb driving experience.
Honda followed with the larger Accord in 1976, an evolution of the Civic and a replay of the Mini/1100 scenario. The Accord quickly became the benchmark small car, and Honda was very responsive to the world automotive market. It paid off handsomely.
It was ironic that the British had been first with a superior automobile configuration. With continuous improvement, cars like the BMC 1100 could have been the foundation for a thriving auto industry. For a variety of reasons, however, including militant labour unions, governments bent on nationalization, and an unwillingness or inability to adapt, all encapsulated in the term “The British Disease,” Britain succumbed to the competition and lost its industry. It could have been so different.