Morris Major Elite

BMC Australia came into being in 1954 when the Australian arms of Austin and Nuffield merged, with its headquarters at Zetland. Originally with George Lloyd at the helm, John Buckley soon took over as Managing Director. 

Buckley always felt that the cars then being assembled by BMCA were not really suited to Australian conditions. He wanted the company to focus on designing and building its own car to meet local needs. 

With the decision to consolidate all car assembly at Zetland, an expansion of the site was already under way, with a new body pressing facility, paint shop and assembly hall beginning construction in 1956 and completed by the end of 1957.

With the completion of the new plant at Zetland, Austin’s two factories in Melbourne were closed down, and Zetland became the primary plant for all BMC cars in Australia.

The first cars to be built in the new facility, in early 1958, were the Morris Major, Austin Lancer and Wolseley 1500 – all versions of the same car. It was originally conceived as a replacement for the Morris Minor in the UK; using the Minor’s floorpan, torsion bar front suspension, rack and pinion steering, 14” wheels and other components. 

The new car, given Morris (Cowley) Drawing Office designation DO1101, was planned to use a 1200cc B-series engine which was a development of the engine from the Austin A40. However, the increased weight of both the new body and the B-series engine over the Morris Minor with A-series, meant a  severe reduction in performance. It therefore received the 1489cc B-series, similar to that used in the MGA. (The 1200cc  version was produced only for the Irish market.)

Roger Foy, former Road Proving Supervisor at Zetland, remembers seeing at least three prototype cars with 1200cc engines at Zetland in late 1957, but doesn’t know what became of them.

By this time, though, the engineers at Cowley realised that the DO1101 would not be a replacement for the Minor, but a slightly larger and more powerful car to compliment it in the company’s range. It was released in the UK in 1957 as the Wolseley 1500, with single carburettor, and Riley 1.5 with twin carbs. The Morris and Austin versions would only be built in Australia, and as an addition to the Minor, rather than a replacement of it.

As the start of John Buckley’s grand plan for BMCA, he recruited one of Holden’s top chassis engineers Bill Abbott to start up a production engineering section at Zetland. 

As former BMC engineer Reg Fulford wrote in the BMC-Leyland Australia Heritage Group’s newsletter in November 2005; “(Abbott) had been involved with the Holden car from its beginning and had served in many other engineering positions in that company.”

Abbott began recruiting others from Holden and approached Fulford and Bill Serjeantson, as Fulford recalled. “Bill Serj. would be the chief as Experimental Engineer and I was to be his off-sider as  Test Engineer…(Buckley) told us of his plans for Product Engineering. He’d come to the conclusion that the UK had no interest in designing models that could sell in large enough volume for the plant to be profitable.”

“He could see nothing on the horizon at BMC that could compete in the Holden segment of the market which had become easily the largest”, Fulford continued. “He believed that the only solution was to design our own car, and he wanted an engineering department that could be developed to eventually have that capability.”

Meanwhile, as it would take some time to build up that sort of capability, the immediate priority was to get the new DO1101 series cars into production in the new CAB (Car Assembly Building). 

Roger Foy recalls; “A number of pre-production cars were completed late in 1957 in the then new barely completed plant, mostly Morris Majors, although there was at least one Wolseley 1500 which was operated by Experimental Department along with four Morris Majors used on Durability type          operation. Full-scale production started in January 1958 with the public release in March.”

Even before production began, perhaps as early as 1956, design work began on what would be a Series II version, designated DO1115, specifically and uniquely for the Australian market.

It featured revised front panel work, raised tail fins, stronger suspension, differential and rear axles, a bench front seat and improved instrumentation and ventilation. It was 9” (229mm) longer, with corresponding longer wheelbase, and had rugged new under-body box sections added. 

The new drawing office at Zetland was finally in operation, and was given a new numbering system to signify its projects, to be YDO – where Y stood for Australia, basically because all the other logical choices had already been allocated.

Meanwhile, Buckley resigned, apparently disgruntled over continuous arguments with the British parent company over his plans to build suitable cars for Australia (although some sources say he was sacked). 

George Lloyd returned as joint Managing Director alongside HJ (Joe) Graves, and in 1959 Graves was officially appointed to the role.

Lindsay Shimmin was another ex-Holden appointee, who had come to BMCA in 1957 as Spare Parts Manager. In 1961 he was appointed Sales Director and that same year, together with Graves, developed what would be the defining point of BMC Australia’s rationalization, and the corner stone of the company’s success for the 1960s.

All Australian dealerships were to become BMC dealers and would sell the entire range of cars produced or imported by the company. Where two competing dealerships were in the same town, one would lose its agency, which would be handed to the other. Although this left some dealers rather       disappointed, in the long term it was a more sensible arrangement and allowed dealerships to make reasonable profits on their sales. 

BMC also took over the distribution to dealers from most of the various state businesses, which allowed BMC to make more profit on each car sold.

The second part of the plan, in order to reduce production costs and customer confusion, was that all BMC cars would each only be built in one brand: with small, economical cars being Morris, family cars Austin and luxury cars Wolseley.

It was into this environment that BMCA’s new engineering team would release its first foray – the Morris Major Elite, which was intended to solve all the criticisms of the previous DO1115 models.

Two proposals were put forward, YDO 1 and YDO 2, with the only difference being that YDO 2 had a re-profiled roofline to give more headroom to rear passengers.

“A prototype car was built, and operated on our durability schedules without problems”, Roger explains. “In the end the tooling costs of the new turret were deemed to be uneconomic by management, and the decision made to go with the YDO1 proposal.”

While outwardly YDO 1 differed little from DO1115 – with chrome treatment and contrasting colour on the tail fins, chrome window surrounds and a full-width grille  being the more obvious – mechanically the car was a substantial improvement.

The basis of this came from the engine, which had been developed locally for the Australian versions of the Farina ADO9 range (Austin A60, Morris Oxford Series V, Wolseley 15/60). 

1489cc was thought by BMC’s UK engineers to be the maximum size that the B-Series engine could safely be taken out. Any larger bore would render the cylinder wall too thin, as it threatened to break through to the water jacket.

The answer, the Australian engineers had realised, was to siamese the bores – that is, to cast the front two cylinders together and the rear two cylinders together, with the water jacket around each pair of cylinders, rather than each single cylinder. 

This would allow an increase in bore from 2 7/8” (73.03mm) to 3” (76.2mm) which, with the same 3½” (88.9mm) stroke would raise the capacity to 1622cc – a considerable improvement.

According to Roger Foy; “Our original assessment was that this car (ADO9) would be grossly underpowered with the 1489cc B-Series engine. UK were adamant that this engine could not be made larger, as in their opinion it was already developed to its limit. Undaunted, the Australian design team in a matter of weeks had a 3-inch bore engine with “siamesed” cylinder bore casting up and running.”

“The increase in size from 1489 to 1622cc was enough to make the performance of the cars acceptable, and was made from first production. The fact that UK followed our lead some three years later is a matter of history, and shows that ‘the tail had indeed wagged the dog’. That the B-Series engine was capable of even further development in the original three-main bearing form was demonstrated by UK in 1962 with the 1798cc MGB engine”, Roger explains.

Yet, BMC’s market share continued to fall, and by 1960 the entire company held less than 10% of the market, with an annual output of only 11,000 cars.

The Austin, Morris and Wolseley versions of ADO9 were assembled in CAB, alongside DO1101, then DO1115, from 1959 to 1962, with the Morris Minor assembled in the original CKD plant (the Morris Oxford having been discontinued in 1957).

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