Guilty pleasures: Austin Maxi

| 11 Aug 2023
Classic & Sports Car – Guilty pleasures: Austin Maxi

John Lennon’s most famous car-related incident happened in 1969, when he crashed on holiday in Scotland. John, his wife Yoko and Yoko’s daughter Kyoko all needed stitches.

What were they in? An Austin Maxi, of all things.

Unlike John Lennon, I’ve had almost nothing to do with Austin Maxis.

To have owned something so geeky as a young driver would have been to commit social suicide, although there were still plenty about in the early ’80s: in fact, BL had then only recently finished production of the short-lived ‘Maxi 2’, by which time it had evolved into a reasonable car.

Classic & Sports Car – Guilty pleasures: Austin Maxi

The capacious Austin Maxi was ahead of its time

As the first misstep in the Leyland tragedy, the shortcomings of the Maxi are well documented.

In original, 1968 1500cc form it got an early bad name for its terrible cable gearchange (this despite claims it was the most extensively tested new car ever), while its bleakly austere styling was deeply compromised by the decision to use the Austin/Morris 1800's doors.

This was one of several supposedly money-saving decisions that ruined what was basically a good and reasonably advanced concept: a roomy, wheel-at-each-corner, front-wheel-drive, five-door hatchback that its creator, Sir Alec Issigonis, hoped would do for the family-car class what his Mini had achieved in the world of baby cars 10 years earlier.

Classic & Sports Car – Guilty pleasures: Austin Maxi

The Austin Maxi 1750 is powered by an 84bhp sohc 1748cc ‘four’, with a single carburettor

It didn’t, of course, and an opportunity was squandered. Although a 12-year, 450,000-car run suggests it at least had a solid fanbase.

I have never understood why, while looking to save cash by sharing doors with the Landcrab, the Leyland suits wasted money on producing a rubbish new engine in the wheezy, long-stroke, non-crossflow E-series, when the perfectly adequate B-series would have done the job better.

Plenty of people owned Maxis in period because there was much more loyalty to British cars in those days, and few cared about the looks – which were at least distinctive, at a time when mainstream cars in the Cortina/Avenger idiom were heavily influenced by American ‘coke-bottle’ styling.

Classic & Sports Car – Guilty pleasures: Austin Maxi

Classic & Sports Car – Guilty pleasures: Austin Maxi
Classic & Sports Car – Guilty pleasures: Austin Maxi

British Leyland launched the Austin Maxi in Portugal in May 1968

When I look at a Maxi, I fantasise about how BL could have given it a sexier look, maybe with twin headlights, RoStyle wheels and a bonnet line tweaked to give it more of a ‘frown’.

In 1972, The Daily Telegraph launched a competition for the design of a concept based on the Maxi.

The winning Aquilla would certainly have been an improvement on the production version, but there was no money in the pot to tool up for new bodywork.

Classic & Sports Car – Guilty pleasures: Austin Maxi

When launched, its maker declared that with the front seats fully reclined, the Maxi provided a 6ft 5in sleeping area

I thought they were awful-looking things at the time, not helped by the colours that seemed to mostly be variations on a theme of diarrhoea brown – which, pleasingly, the example pictured here avoids.

Neither was I swayed by the idea that it was possible to sleep in a Maxi: why would you ever need or want to?

My dad would never have dreamed of owning one (partly because there were so many more attractive alternatives, mostly foreign), yet in many ways its hatchback versatility would have suited him well, had his ego allowed him to drive something so manifestly ‘Captain Sensible’ in image.

Classic & Sports Car – Guilty pleasures: Austin Maxi

This low-mileage example of the Austin Maxi, with Allegro-style Hydragas rather than Hydrolastic suspension, is from 1978

So why have I nominated this model as a ‘guilty pleasure’?

Because, 50 years later, the Austin Maxi doesn’t look anything like as bad as it did in the 1970s and early ’80s.

In a world of SUV-inspired blobs, its pugnacious shape verges on elegance and, having driven the 1750 version pictured here, I liked the willing feel of the engine, the all-round vision and the general lack of pretentiousness that is the absolute antithesis of the Maxi’s nearest living relative, the absurdly bloated Mini Countryman. 

I think the Austin Maxi is more desirable now than it has ever been.

Images: Max Edleston

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