Austin 1800 Mk I ADO17

Lightning bolts. Chevrons. Diamonds, circles, stars, wings and curious squiggles. The world of automotive badges is an intriguing one, littered with incomprehensible symbols. The idea, of course, is to convey the personality of the manufacturer by tying its image to some story deep in its past, or to imbue each vehicle with some intended personality. A creature is often chosen, be it the leaping cat of Jaguar or the mythical griffin of Vauxhall. The intent is invariably to promote strength and nobility, with the most popular beast being the horse which adorns the bonnets of both Porsche and Ferrari. The idea that the virile horse might be substituting for a quality lacking in owner is, of course, wholly unfounded, and the owners of red sports cars are not compensating for anything. Nope. Not at all.

If the badge has been removed, the culprits are usually kids, building up a collection of exotic nametags from the world of motoring, a bit like scalp hunting. Psychologists may write hundreds of papers a year postulating the root causes of both kleptomania and collecting, while little research is done into the victim's problems. A denuded bonnet can easily lead to an identity crisis, or worse, and this British classic suffers from one of the worst illnesses of all; Multiple Personality Disorder.

As introductions go, ADO17 isn't the greatest of titles to have on your business card, but considerings its confusingly long list of pseudonyms there's little else the car can be referred to as. You see, the ADO17 (along with its little sisters the ADO16 and ADO15) was the ultimate in a business concept called Badge Engineering, and it lies at the very heart of why you don't see British cars around that much today.

Jump back in time to 1958 and take the business card of one Alec Issigonis, designer of the iconic Morris Minor and head of design at BMC, the British Motor Corporation. BMC itself was a monstrous sprawling agglomeration of British marques, most notably Austin and Morris but also MG, Wolseley, Riley and Vanden-Plas. Morris had bought these last four, and had then been bought out by Austin, leaving the corporation with manifold factories, models and designs, all competing with each other yet encompassing 39% of the British motor industry.

Alec Issigonis was drafted in to change all that. Employed by BMC in 1955, he was charged with producing a standard fleet of three cars; small, medium and large, that could be made by all of BMC's factories as a family. The only differences would be cosmetic changes to appeal to each marque's specific market. Issigonis went to the task with gusto and penned the three cars at the Austin Design Office for construction by the late Fifties.

Each of the cars he designed is exceptional its its own right, although ADO15 is by far the most famous of the three. Not necessarily known by that that name, since it wore a number of badges over the years, it was even launched with two monikors; Austin Seven, and Morris Mini Minor, or as the Poles irritatingly call it, Mini Morris.

ADO16 followed a few years later, and went on to become Britain's best-selling saloon for 12 of its 13 production years. While not enjoying the same international fame or cult status as its little-yet-older sister, the ADO16 still lies in the hearts of many of the older generation of British drivers as the car their grandfather had, whether it was an Austin or Morris, 1100 or 1300 engine.

Despite being planned first, the ADO17 was the last of the trio to roll out of its respective factories, but it bore underneath its exceptionally long frame the key points of the Issigonis family; a transverse mounted engine powering the front wheels. It seems like a tiny point to make, but it had a dramatic impact on every single sector of the car market, even today.

An engine, especially your basic four-cylinder job found in millions of Volkswagens, Skodas and Seats today, is shaped a bit like a domino tile; longer than it is wide. But all of the power comes out of the short sides, at a massive rotating disc called a flywheel, and there's nothing you can do to make the power come out of the long sides. Because of this, cars before the three ADOs generally had great long noses to house the engine in with a big gearbox bolted to the other side of the flywheel, and all the power going to the wheels at the back. It was efficient but cumbersome, and it took a hell of a lot of space.

Using some exceptionally clever ideas, the Austin team were able to strap the gearbox to the bottom of the engine, turn the whole thing sideways, and squeeze it all into a dramatically reduced nose. This is what allowed Issigonis's creative penmanship to design the Mini, with its distinctive piggish snout and miniscule length; there was no gearbox to smuggle along the length of the car. By upscaling the concept, BMC were able to make other cars with relatively small exterior dimensions, but massive amounts of usable space inside. Oddly, it was this space that was to be its downfall.

ADO17 was always planned as a sizeable car, pegged to enter the Medium sector where 1800cc engines were the norm. But even in that market it was a hefty beast, being six inches longer than its predecessors, and it looked it. Its bulky length rolled out of a factory in 1964 badged as the Austin 1800, although it almost immediately earned the nickname Landcrab for its thickset and stolid deportment. It's one of those original Mark I Austins that we see here; fortunately those thieving kids haven't been able to prise the name off the tastefully chrome-barred grill.

The Landcrab was intended as the flagship model of the BMC empire, and it was later rolled out under other names such as Morris and Wolseley to satiate the demand that BMC anticipated. But the demand simply wasn't there. The British buying public of the Sixties saw no need for such a large car, and this was clearly demonstrated in the sales figures; despite having over a quarter of all car sales in Britain, ADO17 mustered a mere 3% of it. In so many ways, it was simply too big.

BMC had on its platter a number of semi-luxurious marques; both Riley and Vanden-Plas were recognised as exemplifying a class of sorts, and the Landcrab's little brothers had been released under those brands. But with disappointing sales, the ADO17 was released under the far more mundane Austin and Morris brands; obviously to cater to the larger market, but robbing it of the elegance it so desperately needed. And there was no more room for the car to grow into either; it was already eating into the Big Car market occupied by its stablemate, the 3-litre Austin Princess, which it rivalled on both size and price.

Unsurprisingly, the car was a flop. BMC's sloppy management of its various brands led to it being absorbed into the much larger Leyland Group in 1968, just four years after the ADO17's launch, and all plans to Brand Engineer the car further, with Riley and Vanden-Plas releases, were shelved. The new management had much more important things on their mind, like trying to make the Mini and the ADO16 profitable, for once. It wasn't until 1972 when attention returned to the Landcrab so that, eight years after its launch, it got an upgrade in the form of a 2.2 litre engine.

But the damage was done. Despite its siblings selling in massive numbers, the ADO17 sold less than 400,000 in eleven years. Its confusing identity and equally radical personality pushed it far beyond what the public were prepared to accept, and in 1975 it conceded defeat to the might of Ford's offerings, the Cortina and Granada, and bowed out of the ring.

The British Leyland Motor Corporation didn't last longer either; it's disastrous approach to model and marque management had brought it to its knees and in 1975 it was nationalised as British Leyland, a government-owned entity making up 40% of Britain's motor industry. With it, large swathes of automotive history was wiped away; no more Wolseleys or Rileys would be made, and both Austin and Morris are long since gone and unlikely to return.

For that reason, the badge removed from this car could be any from the BMC group. They are all equally important, and the lack of of them on the bonnet of any car, either classic or modern, is something we all should miss.