The Austin Maxi was unveiled in Portugal 50 years ago today, and despite its commercial failures enjoys a cosseted reception in 2019
When the Austin Maxi was unveiled it became one of British Leyland's biggest commercial flops. Despite having all the ingredients there to effectively change the game industry wide, in typical Leyland fashion they missed the landing strip, and by quite some margin.
Born in 1969 it was the last car designed by Sir Alec Issigonis, although its design raised a few eyebrows. It carried several design cues from the Mini Clubman around the front of the car, with the wheelbase filled by rear doors stolen from a Landcrab.
Although ridiculed for an underpowered engine, along with a cable gear change that was simply awful until later refinements, the Maxi was a pioneer in many ways. Whilst the Mini takes the crown of the first supermini that has become the most popular segment in Europe today, the Maxi could perhaps take the crown for one of the first mid-sized hatchbacks. Would we have the Golfs and Focuses of this world today without the Maxi?
The rear deck was supported by two gas struts, a novel concept back in the sixties. Look inside and it had class leading space that no other manufacturer could attempt to rival. It even had folding rear seats that could double as a camp bed. A true piece of innovation that works remarkably well.
Powered by the E-Series engine it had a rather odd setup for a front wheel drive transverse fixture. Like the Mini, the radiator is mounted on the right hand side of the block, showing some rather hilarious lack of foresight given the space available for a more conventional, and more reliable front mounted setup. The gearbox is housed underneath the engine, too, much like the Mini’s A-Series. Unlike the Mini, however, the ground clearance is rather poor and shows many metallic items that you would rather not make contact with the asphalt.
In addition to these odd, if not vaguely genius, innovations, the Maxi also utilised the Hydrolastic Suspension setup penned by Issigonis with the Mini. Perhaps the biggest selling point, however, was the five speed manual transmission. Something that didn’t make it into mainstream hatchbacks for another two decades.
Today its reputation has changed, Maxi’s now enjoy a cult following for a quirky little car that never found its feet with the population despite a 12 year production run. Today it acts as one of those cars your mum had in the seventies that brings back fond memories of years passed. Add in the practicality and ease of DIY maintenance, you are greeted with a true British classic that may not have the panache of others, but provides charismatic ownership of something different.