The 4wd Austin Ant was the last Issigonis project for BMC. Jon Pressnell talks to the engineers who turned the idea into a prototype, and drives one.
The Ant nearly happened. The little 4x4 – with its innovative transverse-engined 4wd configuration and unusual combined powerpack and suspension installation – reached the stage where six experimental cars and 24 Full Engineering Prototypes had been built. Body maker Pressed Steel had published an Engineering Report, a sure sign that it was close to production. There was even a draft owner’s manual and a provisional workshop manual.
But by the end of ’68 the Ant had been canned by the new British Leyland management – under pressure from Rover, which didn’t want an in-house Landie rival. After the cold-shouldering of his 9X Mini replacement, and just ahead of the announcement of the Maxi, an out-of-favour Sir Alec Issigonis thus saw his final BMC project put on the shelf. From then on he would be a back-room boffin, kept on by BL under sufferance essentially to pursue his own interests.
There was a clear logic to the Ant. Disappointed by the Army’s rejection of the Moke, and well aware that the twin-engined Moke was never going to be more than an amusing diversion, Issigonis was keen to have another shot at the military market. If, at the same time, he could take a pop at civilian Land-Rover sales, with somewhat greater success than had accompanied the ill-fated Austin Gipsy, then one can imagine that BMC boss Sir George Harriman would not have held him back.
To a large extent the Ant wasn’t closely steered by Issigonis – not in the way 9X had been (C&SC, August ’98). Most of the work was done by body engineer John Sheppard and chassis engineer Jack Daniels, both long-time Issigonis collaborators. “He was in there in the initial thought – the engine idea, with everything all wrapped up as one unit,” Daniels told C&SC before he died in 2004. “But once he’d had the idea, that was about the last we saw of him. John Sheppard and I did the rest. I saw the car that is on show at Gaydon, in the Issigonis section. I said ‘That shouldn’t be there – it should be in the Sheppard and Daniels section’.”
Opinions differ as to whether Issigonis conceived the Ant primarily as a civilian vehicle or a military one. “I can’t give you an answer as to what put it in the Old Man’s mind,” says John Sheppard. “Maybe he could see there was room for a small version of the Land-Rover. He’d been busy doing a baby tractor. He said there were people who hadn’t got a farm, but had a smallholding. Maybe that line of thought took him to the Ant – but I’m guessing.” Daniels agreed: “The Ant was a direct attempt to have a bash at Land-Rover. That’s what it was done for – it was intended largely as a civilian vehicle.”
Dave Seymour, who worked as a draughtsman on the project, is less convinced: “The Ant started out as a military vehicle. Jack Daniels had a spec – the military told him what they wanted. One thing they wanted [and not on the featured car] was a front passenger seat that folded down to accommodate a stretcher. I also remember ‘Issi’ down with John Sheppard, talking doors, and it didn’t have a pocket. And ‘Issi’ said in his affected voice ‘Oh yes, John, we must have a door pocket – the soldiers must have somewhere to put their bullets’. It was typical ‘Issi’.”
Work seems to have begun in 1964 and grew out of experiments with four-wheel-drive Mokes. But the Moke was too tied to the Mini to meet off-road requirements, so a clean-sheet design was unavoidable – albeit one that retained the A-series BMC engine and transmission.
The key feature of the new vehicle, laid down by Issigonis, was to hang the front suspension off the powerpack and to incorporate the steering rack in the transmission housing for the two-speed High-Low transfer box bolted to the rear of the subassembly. This integral steering rack was an idea that he had first explored when sketching out what became the Morris Minor.
“The whole thing – engine, rack, suspension – were there as one assembly,” recalled Daniels. “Partly this was done for production reasons, I’d say. It’s a fairly sound idea to mount just one unit in there. It forms its own subframe, and there it is – ‘bang’. The idea behind it was also that if you put all the noises into one bloc you could isolate the lot in one go. That isn’t quite true, because you can’t afford to let the engine rock too much. We had to mount the engine rather hard, and that gave us a lot of noise, which you can understand. That was what Land-Rover brought out against it – quite rightly, too.”
With rubber-cone or Hydrolastic suspension out of the question, the Ant used steel springs, Daniels returning to the torsion bars that he was familiar with from his Morris Minor days. At the front the two bars were disposed longitudinally, operating with wide-spaced lower wishbones and single upper arms off which beefy long-stroke telescopic dampers were mounted. This all attached to a cradle fixed on the transmission casing, and the whole powerpack/suspension/steering assembly bolted to the 45˚-sloping toeboard. At the front it hung off a simple round-section crosstube. “It was a piece of tube, with rubber around the tube, and you clamped the powerpack to that,” Daniels remembered. “It was a rigid mounting.” At the rear, a single transverse torsion bar was used, clamped across the differential housing and actuated by long trailing (or radius) arms via a short intermediary arm, damping being by forward-inclined telescopics.
“I used torsion bars so I could get everything in within the space,” explained Daniels. “At the front there were long wishbone levers, so I could get a large-diameter but extremely short torsion bar off them. At the rear I had radius arms about 14in long, so I could use a single torsion bar which I could make sufficiently short and which I could hold with a grab in the centre, so you’d twist each end individually.”
Space was indeed at a premium, the Ant showing the usual Issigonis obsession with packaging of the mechanicals and compact overall dimensions. The Ant was only 10ft 3in long, or a bare 3in longer than a Mini. As a consequence, the front torsion bars entered the cockpit and located on a saddle across the transmission tunnel – through which the gear linkage emerged. This clever bit of lateral thinking ensured that the torsion bars could be a suitable length and allowed them to be mounted sufficiently high to allow good ground clearance.
This didn’t make life easy when it came to designing the body, recalls Sheppard: “What gave me hell was taking the loads into the tunnel – the anchor point for the rear end of the front torsion bars. There was a bracket straddling the tunnel, made of heavy-gauge steel.” In the end, says Sheppard, the result was more than satisfactory: “It was a very strong body.” The style of the monocoque – as well as its construction (in galvanised steel) – was down to Sheppard, who had previously drawn up the structure of the Mini body and that of 9X. It wasn’t a complex job: “That was one of the things Issigonis said to us – ‘make it easy’. And we did. There were few curved surfaces. There was little panelwork where stretch and form was needed – where deep-drawing presswork was required.”
Ingenious though it was, the Ant’s fate was sealed the moment the creation of BL made BMC and Rover bedfellows. “I used to go to Rover for monthly meetings,” recalled Daniels. “They asked if they could have one of the Ants to check over at their own proving grounds. We sent one there, and Rover later wrote a note to Issigonis, which was passed to me. They said that the only really justifiable complaint was noise, but at the bottom of the letter they said ‘we would rather that you did not make it’. The vehicle was very rough – but quite promising. Rover made no comment that I would have objected to – what they said was right.”
This verdict is confirmed, rather more bluntly, by Rover personnel. “I used to take vehicles home,” says Rover development engineer Bill Morris. “I’d go out in the evening in them, and let my wife drive them. I enjoy assessing vehicles, but the Ant was the only one I have refused to drive home in – it was the most appalling thing. It felt like the engine was bolted straight in, with no mounts. There was no rubber anywhere. I can’t remember anyone saying anything nice about it.” Chief Land-Rover engineer Tom Barton has no more favourable recollections, but admits that the ‘Not Invented Here’ syndrome may have entered into the question: “I wasn’t impressed – although I couldn’t really tell you why. I was prejudiced – I didn’t seriously consider it.” Sheppard has no doubt why the project was cancelled: “It died because Stokes said it was too competitive with the Land-Rover. He was probably right – the Land-Rover was very cheap.”
But was the Ant really that much off the pace, by the standards of the time? BMC export technical engineer Peter Junor recalls two Ants being dispatched to Angola in 1967 for tropical testing by BMC distributors: “In general terms the Ant behaved well and didn’t present us with any nasty mechanical problems. The independent torsion-bar suspension gave a smooth ride off-road. It was much better than the cart-sprung Land-Rover, and the 4wd all-independent torsion-bar configuration was considered ideal for use in Africa. There were problems, however, in particular poor traction in sandy conditions and lack of ground clearance. Both these design faults could have been rectified by the fitment of larger wheels and tyres, but this would have caused major re-engineering problems.”
By that stage the Ant was poised for the production green light. Even so, consideration of such modifications soon became academic, with the arrival of Rover within the newly expanded corporate fold. Indeed, financially straitened BMC’s enthusiasm for the project seemed to go off the boil relatively early. “During our tropical testing phase in Angola there appeared to be a distinct lack of interest in the Ant by both the management and engineering departments,” recalls Junor. “Proper and regular testing reports were not insisted upon, and in 1968 the distributors sold the Ants to local customers.”
At least five Ants have survived. Of the two known in Britain, one is in the Heritage Motor Centre and the other – featured here – is owned by Austin enthusiast Chris Tallents. Prepared to Army specification, and seemingly at one stage tested by the Australian armed forces, the car belonged to a BMC director for many years.
It is not a thing of beauty, but an examination of the Ant soon reveals its many clever touches. In particular, the monocoque body is designed to be totally functional and impressively rigid. The sills – on one side sheltering the exhaust – are remarkably deep, and an equally deep transmission tunnel also adds to the shell’s strength, while pressings in the panels give rigidity to the body sides and the doors.
Inside, a bolt-in triangular brace from the steering column reinforces the scuttle – and hides another intriguing detail: the column goes off diagonally to a central take-off on the rack, allowing the same rack to be used for left- and right-hand-drive cars. Equally smartly, the high sills and resultant seating position allow a standard-size jerrycan to be stowed under each seat.
Practical simplicity is the keynote. The folding windscreen, the doors and the tailgate have external hinges, those on the tailgate being sufficiently long to help brace the double-skinned panel. “It’s really solid,” says Tallents. “It’s just like a Land-Rover’s – something you can stand on.” Side protection is looked after by neat rubber strips along the bottom of the body, tying into the moulding on the base of the front wing.
With the exhaust and the suspension tucked away, ground clearance, aided by a nice flat underside, seems impressive, Junor’s comments notwithstanding. BL figures gave a minimum two-up plus a 600lb load as 7in at the rear wheels. Just in case, skidplates protect the entire transmission, the differential and the fuel tank.
There are a few potential failings on the practical side, all the same. Canted backwards and still with a side radiator, the engine has a reasonable amount of space around it but would nonetheless have to be removed for a clutch job, while accident repairs would inevitably be hampered by neither the front wings nor the front panel unbolting. Chances are, also, that the integral steering rack would have caused in-service problems.
On the road the first impression is that the Ant is pretty raucous, with lots of transmission and exhaust noise – the exhaust exits forward of the rear wheel, which doesn’t help. But you can’t help feeling that in this respect it is no worse than a 1968 Land-Rover. Steep inclines can slow the car, yet on the level it is zippy enough, the 58bhp 1275cc A-series not having to work hard to cope with the Austin’s modest 14.1cwt (716kg) kerb weight: about half that of an early Land-Rover.
Helping progress, too, is a surprisingly co-operative gearchange: once you’ve found first, it has a direct, dry, notchy action, allied to effective synchromesh and a sweet hydraulic clutch. The brakes, discs at the front, are completely unremarkable, slowing the Ant without any trauma, although apparently the rear drums can lock under provocation when the vehicle is unladen.
Sitting quite high and with the steering very direct, at 2.9 turns lock-to-lock, the Ant feels that it is very much on the point of oversteering, but this is probably something of an illusion, brought on by the seating position and the very fluid and thus slightly dumb steering responses. Where the Ant really scores over its leaf-sprung beam-axle rivals, however, is in the relatively soft and genuinely quite comfortable ride. Nor does the car roll to any real degree – Daniels was an old hand at devising torsion-bar suspension that had no need of anti-roll bars, and the result is an impressively well-controlled set-up. Off-road, and shifted into 4wd – the lack of a centre differential precluding all-drive on-roading – the Ant proves itself more than able, while retaining that refreshing level of comfort experienced on asphalt. “It’s very light, so it will climb over things easily, ” confirms Tallents.
So is the Ant a classic missed opportunity or another instance of a decadent BMC fiddling while Rome burned? Sure, there were design failings to be ironed out, but at least Issigonis and his tight-knit team were doing something concrete, in stark comparison with the countless ‘paper’ projects of the later BL years. And if BMC were to stay in the off-road sector, after the failure of the Champ, the Gipsy and the Moke, then a fresh and intelligent approach was needed. With the Ant, the corporation was on the threshold of creating a new class of vehicle – a small, affordable, comfortable off-roader. The idea wasn’t daft – as messrs Suzuki, Toyota et al were to demonstrate more than two decades later.
This article was originally published in the March 2007 issue of Classic & Sports Car magazine, which retains the copyright to all words and images.
Words: Jon Pressnell; pictures: Tony Baker