It might be overlooked when compared to Midland automotive icons like the E-Type and Mini but the Austin 1100 has an equally devoted following. As enthusiasts gathered to celebrate its 50th anniversary 50 Enda Mullen looks back on its legacy.
It may have been the bane of Basil Fawlty’s ‘Gourmet Night’, but the little Austin 1100 was the supermini of its day – the first of its kind, claim those who still devote copious hours to polishing that classic chrome bumper.
And to any child of the sixties and seventies it was a familiar sight.
It was actually called the BMC (British Motor Corporation) 1100, and was available in both Austin and Morris guises – but to most it will forever be known as the Austin 1100.
Built at both Longbridge and Cowley in Oxfordshire, more than two million were made, with the majority produced here in Birmingham.
1100 Club historian Chris Morris said the car had a special place in automotive history and continues to attract a loyal following.
A self-confessed life-long fan, he said: “I grew up with them, learned to drive in one, passed my test in one and it was the first car I bought.
“There is just something special about them. They are compact but roomy, smooth, economical and have an advanced hydrolastic suspension system.
“They’re also roomy for passengers, have space for luggage and have a lovely engine and transmission. They also grip the road well and have great handling. It was such a delightful car to drive and still is and was the first supermini, as we know them today.”
The car came in a variety of guises. Although generally referred to as the 1100, there was also a larger-engined 1300. In addition there were two and four-door versions, as well as estates built at Longbridge – the Austin 1100 Countryman (Basil Fawlty’s nemesis) and the Morris 1100 Traveller.
There were also Riley, Wolseley and Vanden Plas Princess-badged versions – the Vanden Plas being the luxury model.
In addition there were mark 1,2 and 3 model lines and even a sporty 1275 GT, considered by many to be the forerunner of today’s hot hatches and described as “the bee’s knees of the range”.
The Morris model was launched in August 1963, with the first Austin models rolling off the Longbridge production line in September that year.
It was designed by famed Mini designer Alec Issigonis in partnership with chief engineer Charles Griffin and both were based at Longbridge.
Fifty years on it still has a devoted following around the world and to mark the anniversary the 1100 Club held its National Rally at the Motor Heritage Centre in Gaydon in Warwickshire.
Mr Morris said echoes of its design can still be seen in cars being produced now like the Ford Fiesta.
The 1100 struck a chord with the car-buying masses, the Longbridge factory alone churning out more than 4,000 of them each week at one point.
“The 1100 was an instant hit and continued to be popular for many years,” added Mr Morris.
“It became the best-selling car and continued to be for eight years.
“It took 13 per cent of UK market share at its height – compare that to a big company like Ford which these days has around 14 per cent.
“Nearly every other car on the road was an 1100 or 1300 and at one point BMC were building over 7,000 a week.”
Despite the huge numbers produced, Mr Morris estimates only around 3,000 remain in the world today, with owners and 1100 Club members spread as far afield as Australia and New Zealand, the US, Switzerland and South Africa.
Part of its success, according to Mr Morris, was its universal appeal, accessibility and affordability, not unlike the legendary Volkswagen Beetle.
“Rarely do you meet anyone who says it is horrible or I don’t like it,” he said.
“It really was the British people’s car, just like the Volkswagen Beetle was referred to as the people’s car. The 1100 was that good.”
The 1100 Club’s rally proved to be its best yet, according to Mr Morris, with designers, engineers and production line staff who worked on the car in attendance, culminating with a gathering of 51 vehicles on a second day of celebrations. The 1100 Club’s president Allan G Webb is himself a former Cowley engineer who worked on the design of the car’s chassis.
The rally was also the culmination of an epic voyage by some members and 1100 owners, who drove their cars from Land’s End to John o’ Groats. The 1,600-mile journey took place over six days and also visited sites where the car was manufactured
The club has also published a book on the history of the car to mark its 50th anniversary – The Story of the BMC 1100 – which can be obtained via its website.
The fact it was and still is referred to simply as ‘the 1100’ also speaks volumes about its appeal and its success, as Mr Morris explained.
“One thing that really makes the car special is the fact it is always referred to by the 1100 name.
“If you speak to someone in a pub and say what car have you got, they will say a Fiat 500 or a Jaguar XF – they will specify the full name.
“But with this people would just say ‘an 1100’. You didn’t need to use Austin or Morris in front of it and a person would instantly know what car you were talking about.
“That’s quite unique. Even though there were plenty of other 1100 cars as such, as soon as you said it they knew it was the Austin, Morris, BMC 1100.
“There aren’t many cars these days you could say that about.
“That to me means the car was very affectionately recognised by the general public of Britain.”
A new generation continues to be drawn to the little Austin and one of its more recent fans is 19-year-old Ellie Morrice, from Solihull, who got her 1972 Princess Vanden Plas 1300 immediately after passing her driving test.
She said: “The thing I love most about my car is how charming she is. She never fails to make her passengers, or the people around her smile, though she isn’t always reliable.
“My dad was showing me the car he used to have and we stumbled across it on eBay.
“We thought it was fate so put a bid on and we won. It took a lot of love to get her up and running, and a lot of love to keep her going but I love her
“I have been driving it for over a year now and she has taken me to Devon, Derby and to London and I love nothing more than driving her through the sunny countryside.”
Club historian Chris Morris said: “One of our newest recruits is a 16-year-old who went out and bought one before he had even got a provisional licence as he was so keen. We have a few young people in the club who will keep it going.”
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