Between 1964 and 1971 the Austin 1100 or 1300 – in one of their many guises – were Britain’s biggest-selling cars every year, apart from 1967 when the Ford Cortina took the top spot.
Now the car that was so common on our roads is a rare sight, thanks to that enemy of the British car industry at the time – rust.
We take a look at the forgotten car that defined family motoring.
We all know that Sir Alec Issigonis designed the iconic Mini – but fewer people know that he was also behind this hugely successful design.
Like the Mini, the BMC ADO16 – the name given to the whole family of cars created by badge engineering – had a cheerful, friendly “face” and the British people fell almost equally in love with this four-door family saloon until it was replaced by the Allegro, of all cars, in the mid 70s.
I was one of them.
One of the first cars I can remember my father owning was a 1970, red Austin 1300 GT. I loved the vinyl roof, the black and chrome side stripes, the bucket seats and that sporty GT grille badge.
I loved it despite – or maybe because of – what happened in France in 1976. We had left behind England’s long hot summer to carry it on in the even hotter south of France – driving all the way there and back in the little Austin.
But what made this a wholly flawed plan – it would not be legal now – was the load my seemingly sensible parents inflicted on the poor car: four adults (two well over six feet tall) and two children aged seven (me) and 10 (my brother), plus a boot full of luggage and a fully loaded roof rack. What could go wrong?
As it turned out, quite a lot.
Everything went slowly, but smoothly, until we hit the French autoroutes, where the car began overheating at anything above 30mph – slower on the hills.
Regular cooling stops and sticking to a crawl ensured we made tortuous progress through France – my brother and I waving at sister BMCs we spotted along the route.
Then, disaster, as the sort of rain you only seem to encounter overseas or on TV proved too much for the windscreen wipers, which packed up somewhere on a dark autoroute.
It amazes me to this day that my father didn’t take a leaf out of Basil’s book and batter the thing with a suitcase.
But, showing commendable ingenuity, the adults set about rigging up a Heath Robinson, string-operated wiper system, with my uncle and aunt pulling the strings through the partially open front windows from the back seat.
It worked for a few hundred yards, but when one of the strings broke and had to be re-tied my uncle realised, to everyone’s horror, that he must have dropped all his holiday money by the busy road some way behind us.
While I tried to sleep, a warning triangle was placed behind the Austin and my uncle scoured the hard shoulder for his cash – remarkably found and recovered, if a little damp.
I remember stopping in a village, staying overnight and paying a local garage to fix the car – he may or may not have mentioned ze crazy English.
Anyway, the car somehow got us there and back – but was sold shortly afterwards. I’d love to have it back, but I suspect it has long since rotted away as there are now only 38 1300 GTs left on the road in the UK.
Launched in 1962, ADO16 (Amalgamated Drawing Office project number 16) shared the Mini’s BMC A-series engine driving the front wheels, with disc brakes and hydrolastic suspension, and bodywork styled by Pininfarina.
When the hydrolastic suspension was introduced, aimed at giving a smoother ride thanks to the fluid-based connection between front and rear wheels on each side, sceptics foretold shattering explosions and breakdowns, but such scare stories proved unfounded.
Autocar described how the system “gives a ride almost unparalleled in certain respects by any but the most sophisticated conventional steel springs. Most roads appear to have acquired a sudden billiard table smoothness.”
The 1100 could hit 80mph, and crawled t0 50mph in 21.9 seconds, but the handling was surpassed only by the roller skate-like Mini.
“On motorways, the Austin 1100 was quite content to cruise all day at about 70mph, in reasonable quietness and complete comfort,” said Autocar.
“The car’s remarkable handling qualities really show up on twisty roads, where much faster cars can be left behind.”
Like the Mini, the car’s pretty shape drew almost universal praise at the time, including from Autocar: “The Austin 1100 is one of the neatest and handsome small cars on the roads today.”
The range would go on to sell 2.1m units between 1962 and 1974.
Its modern design knocked spots off rivals such as the Ford Anglia, Vauxhall Viva HA and the trusty Morris Minor while, as was usual at the time, the car could be bought with a vast array of badges and styling tweaks.
As well as the Austin, there was an MG version, a Morris, Riley, Van Den Plas Princess and Wolseley – each with their own character and trim levels.
The twin-carb GT was introduced in 1969 – as was I – to combat the Ford Escort GT and Viva GT, with a 1275cc Mini Cooper engine, 70bhp over the standard 56bhp, three-spoke steering wheel, black vinyl roof, sports seats, black body stripe, and even a rev counter.
It was a smart looking car, and was advertised as the answer to the family man’s “repressed instincts” to free him from the constraints of boring family motors.
It was joined by the badge-engineered MG1300 and Riley Kestrel (renamed Riley 1300 for its second incarnation). The MG featured a chrome grille, inset from the headlights. It may have looked grander, but the car looked a little less cute than its Austin/Morris siblings.
The 1275cc cars could now hit 100mph and reach 0-60mph in about 14 seconds, and came with a smaller, leather-rimmed steering wheel and more luxurious interior.
Autocar described the MG as “great fun to drive”, though rather expensive at a little over £925, and threw in a touch of 1960s gender stereotyping in its summing up: “It is refined and gentlemanly and will serve equally well the enthusiastic driver and his not-so-enthusiastic wife.”
In the early 70s, ADO16 was toppled from its perch as the larger Cortina took over the mantle of Britain’s best-selling car.
Rust problems ensured that maybe only a couple of thousand of the 2.1million survive today, and prices for top notch examples of the GT – to my mind by far the prettiest and sportiest looking of the lot – can reach almost £10,000. Restoration projects can be picked up for a few hundred pounds, but be prepared to unearth plenty of horrors and it will help if you’re a dab hand with a welder.
Although most of the cars were made at strike-hit Cowley, they were also built in Spain by Authi, in Italy by Innocenti, and in Belgium.
It also formed the platform for similar cars manufactured in Australia and South Africa, while various versions were built in kit form in New Zealand.
In Australia, ADO16 became the Morris 1500 Sedan, Morris 1300 Sedan and the five-door Morris Nomad.
In Holland, it was sold as the Austin Glider, while in the US it became the Austin America (unimaginative or genius marketing?).
The Italian Innocenti Morris IM3 and Austin I4 and I5 had restyled front ends that arguably didn’t quite work, while the South African Austin Apache and Spanish Austin Victoria were designed by Michelotti and looked rather like a Triumph Dolomite. The Apache was the last ADO16 variant to be produced, ending its run in 1978.