Morris 1500 Marathon

In 1969, to try and boost flagging sales of the Morris 1500, BMC came up with a bold plan to drive one for 1,500 miles a day for ten days. Just getting the car to the start was a big enough task in itself.

It seems bizarre now to think of anything as unlikely as a Morris 1500 being used to break speed and endurance records, but times were desperate for BMC Australia back in 1969.

The Morris 1500 and its five-door Nomad stablemate, had been released in June to a mainly underwhelmed Australian public and already sales were not anything at the level of its Morris 1100 predecessor. Something needed to be done quickly to prove the car was up to our conditions and expected reliability.

The YDO15 Morris 1500 was an amalgam of the ADO16 Morris 1100 body shell with the new OHC 1485cc E-series four-cylinder transverse engine from the Austin Maxi.

The Maxi, released in the UK only in April of that year, was a much bigger car, sharing its doors with the Austin 1800 and only available in five-door hatchback form.

BMC Australia was in no position to include the Maxi in its line-up, as it was already committed to the Mini, 1100 and 1800 in the Australian content program. To produce the Maxi here would have resulted in a car at nearly the same price as the 1800, thus cannibalising sales from each other. The only solution was to take the already high Australian content 1100 body shell and use the new power plant.

The Zetland engine plant was duly set up to manufacture both E-Series 4 and 6 cylinder OHC units; the latter for the X6 Kimberley/Tasman range. While the British car came with five speeds, the Australian initially only had four speeds, with a very stretchable cable gear change.

We will have a full history of the 1500 in a later issue of this magazine.

An idea is born

As a member of the PR Department at Zetland, I recall Evan Green, the PR Manager, remarking that as there were no speed limits outside built-up areas in the Northern Territory, it would be ideal for setting a few endurance records. Evan thought that we could do 15,000 miles in ten days averaging 1,500 miles a day – in an appropriately named Morris 1500.

The road between Alice Springs and Darwin was 930 miles (1,500 km) of (barely) sealed bitumen. It was bulldozed through and sealed during the War with help from the Americans to speed troop movements, resulting in very interesting corners and cambers.

A team of experienced drivers was assembled: Trials legend “Gelignite” Jack Murray; racing driver brothers Leo and Ian (Pete) Geoghegan; Evan Green and Alan Kemp from BMC; Evan’s rally navigator Roy Denny; Barry Cooke from Modern Motor magazine; Darwin BMC dealer Mick Nudl; and John Pearce from 2GB.

That was the easy part – we still had to get a car from Sydney to Alice Springs for the start………

Alan Kemp’s Competition Department took two Jet Red 1500s from stock and replaced the local four-speed boxes with imported five-speed Maxi boxes, added 20 gallon (90lt) fuel tanks, driving lights, tow bars and radio/cassette players – the first I had ever seen. Some sadist had donated three cassettes: Orchestral Hits from My Fair LadySing Along with Mrs Miller and Val Doonican’s Greatest Hits.

It was decided to take two cars and use the better one for the run; the other would be used for spares if needed and for extra photography.

The plan was to tow one or other on a trailer behind a press fleet Sapphire Blue Mark II Austin 1800 Ute (AMD803), which would be carrying extra spares as well. We had to hire a car trailer and I remember thinking that the ute was sluggish enough in Sydney traffic with an empty trailer, and concerned at how it was going to cope with a car on it tackling the Blue Mountains and beyond.

Fresh out from England was an un-suspecting mechanic, Alan Ramsbottom. He and I would take this little caravanserai to Alice Springs via Hay, Mildura, Port Augusta and Coober Pedy.

The 1500s, registered APW260 and APW261, were to be alternatively towed or trailered on the way. By the time we got to Port Augusta we would know which one was the better car. We took turns driving both vehicles, setting out on Wednesday 13 August.

I really thought the ute wouldn’t make it up the Blue Mountains – it was down to first gear some of the way, but on the other side I was amazed at how capable these vehicles really were. Fully laden, it cruised effortlessly at about 65 to 70 mph on the long flat roads on the Hay Plain. By the time we got to Port Augusta Alan reckoned 261 was the better car, so it was trailered the rest of the way with 260 tagging along.

Until then, we had been on sealed roads, but about eight miles out of Port Augusta the dirt began. For about 850 miles (1,370km) it alternated between corrugations, light sand and loose gravel, or a combination of all three.

It was my turn in the ute, so off I went with the front wheels scrabbling to get a decent grip on anything. There were undulating hills, so the drill was to build up speed down hill to get over the next rise.

Just near the Woomera Rocket Range, the ute suddenly felt like it was in a slingshot – 1800 utes don’t accelerate like this! To my horror I spied a driverless 1500 beside me on the trailer. The drawbar then dug into a sandhill, catapulting the car clean off the trailer, still upright.

By the time I was able to stop the ute with its new-found freedom, I was well over the next rise.

Alan was about a mile or two behind, avoiding my dust and enjoying Mrs Miller no doubt. He came over the hill to see one 1500, one trailer and no ute: with me panicking back to the scene.

Tow bar mountings on the 1800 utes consisted of three large self-tapping bolts into the frame and of course the dirt corrugations were just too much.

While we were extracting the virtually undamaged car from the mound, the only car to come past during all this time was a black government ZB Ford Fairlane, with four blokes in suits and ties on board. Looking slightly incongruous out there in that clobber, they asked if they could help, but we didn’t have the heart to get their suits dirty.

We mentally thanked whoever had the foresight to fit tow bars to both 1500s. We had no option but to hitch the trailer with the virtually undamaged 261 on board, with 260 doing all the work.

If you would like to read more of this story, grab your copy of the magazine from your nearest newsagent (in Australia), subscribe securely on-line, or download the digital version for your computer or personal device at www.pocketmags.com


The BMC Experience Issue 11. Oct-Dec 2014 Magazine

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