Built To Last
When Alec Issigonis re-joined BMC in December 1955, it was as Technical Director with overall control of new product development, and with a brief from Leonard Lord to come up with a new range of cars to modernize BMC.
We have looked at the development of the Mini and 1100 in previous issues, and will look in detail at the Austin 1800 in later issues, so this will be a more general look to celebrate 50 years of this under-appreciated vehicle in Australia.
However, an important point is that while Issigonis always envisioned a small “people’s car”, it was the larger and middle-sized family cars that he began working on, with the smallest of the trio to be developed afterwards.
It was only after the Suez Crisis in late 1956, the subsequent fears of oil shortages and the rise in popularity of European “bubble cars”, that Issigonis was given the order to stop work on the two larger cars and concentrate on the smallest car, ADO15, which became the Mini.
As a result and through a logical progression, the next car to be developed was ADO16, becoming the 1100, with the larger car, ADO17, being the last to reach the market as the 1800, in October 1964.
With lessons learned from the smaller cars, and with a larger platform to work with, the resultant design gave the 1800 a staggering level of torsional rigidity. Where a comparably sized integrated chassis car of the day was considered good to require 6,000lbs/ft of twisting force to distort the body by one degree, the Austin 1800 achieved a level of 13,000 lbs/ft/degree.
Limited motorsport success
This made the 1800 ideally suited to Australia’s rough road conditions, and also made it an admirable car for the long-distance marathon rallies of the late 1960s and early 1970s. With a bit more development and a smidgen of luck, the 1800 could have been a real successor to the Cooper S Minis in rallying. In fact a Works 1800 with the engine in full MGB-tune won the 1967 Danube Rally outright, 1800s were second and fifth in the 1968 London-Sydney Marathon and privately entered 1800s were 9th and 11th in the 1970 World Cup Rally. By that time, though, the emphasis was on the Maxi and would later be concentrated on various Triumph models.
In Australia, Andrew Cowan and David Johnson won the 1969 Southern Cross Rally in one of the ex-London to Sydney 1800s.
Australianising The 1800
The promise of the 1800’s rallying was still in the future when Australian engineers began testing a handful of the cars imported from the UK in late 1964. They were subjected to the usual rigours of outback testing through the back blocks around Charleville, Qld., and in the laboratory at Zetland.
These tests resulted in over 40 changes being made to the 1800 for the Australian market. However, although dust sealing needed significant improvement, no changes were required to the actual structure of the car or to the suspension mounting points.
One problem that did occur, and was discovered by accident, was the potential for the car to bottom out and hit the sump in rough country, necessitating the fitment of a sump guard as standard equipment.
Roger Foy explained what happened. “I took a pre-production Austin 1800 to visit my brother in the Riverina area. Returning to Sydney on the Sunday afternoon…there was a detour around some roadworks. The detour had been well graded, with a slight dip where it crossed the small water-way. I slowed to about 40mph, at which speed the 1800 was deemed to be able to negotiate the hazard without a problem. At the bottom of the dip the sump hit the ground, rotating the engine on its mounts, shearing the right-hand Hydrolastic pipe, catching the radiator drain plug and partially pulling it away from the bottom tank, and bending the steering rack.”
“On return to the plant next day, the problem was assessed and it was established that at full bump stop, metal to metal, the 1800 had 2” (50mm) negative ground clearance. The Chief Engineer, Bill Serjeantson, made the mandatory decision that the Austin 1800 should have a sump guard from the start of production.”
“As the public release was only two weeks away, a crash programme was instituted to achieve this. Cars were already in the hands of dealers, and many had to be retrofitted, possibly at the first service.”
On The Aussie Market
Surviving this near catastrophe, the Austin 1800 went on sale in Australia on 22 November 1965, to rave reviews from the motoring press.
The 1800 was featured on the front covers of Wheels, Modern Motor and Australian Motor Sports & Automobiles magazines.
Pix magzine declared it The Car Of The Year, saying; “Handling and road-holding can only be described as superb. In these it is more than comparable to cars more than twice its price. The 13in. pressed-steel wheels with their big, radial-ply tyres as standard fitting are right at the extremities so the car goes around corners as flat as a four-poster bed. And the Hydrolastic suspension makes it just as comfortable as one.”
Following a two-month road test, Wheels reported; “overall the testing staff felt that it came through with flying colours, although it lacked the immediate appeal of the 1100 and the Mini, in spite of similar specifications.”
“The 1800 is a very deceptive car”, Wheels said. “From outside it looks fairly compact…and it is not by any means a pretty car. The six-window treatment, combined with a humpy rear, make it look quite awkward and neither light nor dark colours seem to relieve this. But the room in the interior is astonishing.”
They also described the interior space as “incredible”, the brakes “superb”, while the handling on dirt roads was “phenomenally good”.
“Surely with ‘fail-safe’ handling, tremendous braking, safety-design interior and seat belts as standard equipment this is one car that the road safety ‘experts’ cannot attack.”
The magazine declared the 1800; “BMC’s big challenge to the supremacy of the six-cylinder bread-and-butter image”.
Interestingly, a Brisbane newspaper reported; “The car’s suitability for bad country roads was difficult to establish because of a particularly badly designed sump-guard which was fitted. In fact, without the guard the car appears to be well suited to all but the roughest country tracks. A more suitable sump guard is now available for the 1800 and will be fitted free of cost at the owner’s discretion.” It would appear their early-build test car had perhaps been hastily fitted with a non-factory sump guard before being loaned to the journalist.
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The BMC Experience Issue 15. Oct-Dec 2015 Magazine
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