Saturday, 15 September 2018

Morris Minor, Hindustan Ambassador, Rover P5, Citroën Visa, Fiat Strada (1948-1978)

What do the Morris Minor, Rover P5, Hindustan Ambassador, Citroën Visa and Fiat Strada have in common? Well, they were all launched in September 1948, 1958 or 1978… but let’s see if we can make a tenuous connection between them all.

Morris Minor (1948)

Late model Morris Minor Traveller
Perhaps – after the classic Mini – the post-war Morris Minor is the most quintessential British car. Manufactured between 1948 and 1971, over 1.3 million of these cars were produced. This made it the first British car to ship over a million vehicles.

Much of the inspiration behind the Morris Minor can be attributed to legendary car designer Alec Issigonis. Work on the Minor began under the codename “Morris Mosquito” during the Second World War, work that had to be carried out in secret because Morris Motors was meant to be concentrating on war production.

The Mosquito was technically a radical design for its time…  a bit TOO radical it turned out. But most of the ideas behind it found themselves productionised into the new car. The Minor came with rack and pinion steering, independent torsion bar front suspension that allowed the engine to be placed nearer the front and lower down giving better handling characteristics and optimised internal space by having small wheels near each corner. Taking inspiration from American cars of the time, the original Minor had low-set headlights, although these were moved to the more familiar position on top of the wings later.

Work was already being finalised on the Minor when a last-minute decision was made to widen the car by four inches. Although this made for a bigger cabin and better handling, many of the panel pressings had already been finalised. As a result, the bonnet had to be widened by adding a strip in the middle, which actually looked rather pleasing. However, on the original models the bumpers also had an unsightly gap as a result.

There were three main versions of the car over 23 years of production, including two and four-door saloons, an attractive convertible, a popular estate version called the Traveller with exposes wooden beams plus vans and pickups. Many engines were shoe-horned into the Minor over the years, and there was a process of continuous improvement… although by 1971 it was looking extremely dated.

The Morris Minor remains a popular classic car today, with over 13,000 still on the road in the UK. Issigonis went on to design several other cars for Morris and its successor British Leyland, one of which was the Morris Oxford...

Hindustan Ambassador (1958)

Rare example of an Ambassador exported to the UK
The next part of our story takes us to the Issigonis-designed Morris Oxford Series III, which was introduced in 1956 and was a fairly traditional saloon. Morris had a long history of cooperation with Hindustan Motors of India, and in 1958 they made their own version of the Oxford – the Hindustan Ambassador.

Although the Oxford Series III was in production for just three years, the Ambassador was in production for a remarkable 56 years. Although there were technically several generations of Ambassador, they all retained the basic body shape of the 1950s Morris and most of the changes were to the engine with some creature comforts added in over the years.

A huge success among the growing middle class in India, the Ambassador also fulfilled roles as a car for government officials and was a popular taxi too.

The Ambassador soldiered on in production until 2014, but it was always an oddity compared to the modern cars that the rest of the Indian automotive industry made. There are countless Ambassadors still on the road of India though, and there are rumours that the Ambassador may yet be reborn in partnership with PSA of France.

Rover P5 (1958)

Rover P5
Meanwhile, back in England the Rover Car Company released its new saloon, much more upmarket than anything in the Morris catalogue. The Rover P5 was designed to be impressive to look at and well-built, and it succeeded decisively over the 15 years it was in production.

The P5 was a favourite of senior management, politicians and the police… and even royalty. The plush interior with the stylish exterior made this an attractive car, and it was certainly screwed together with an air of quality. The main problem was the power plant.

Weighing approximately 1.6 tonnes, the P5 was a heavy car for its time. The original straight-six 3 litre engine produced 115 horse power which was good for the time, but it made the P5 a bit of a slouch. Tweaks to the engine for the 1962 Mark II upped to power to 129 HP, the 1965 Mark III squeezed 134 HP out of the same unit. This was better, but it hardly made the P5 fast.

In 1967 the final version of the P5 was introduced – the P5B. “B” in this case stood for “Buick” and referred to the American-designed V8 engine that Rover had acquired the rights to. This 3.5 litre engine produced 158 HP which was finally enough to make the Rover impressively fast with a top speed of 110 mph and a 0-60 time of 11.7 seconds.

Later P5s were available in a standard and rather stately saloon version, or a rather more rakish four-door coupé. The British government liked the P5B so much that it stockpiled a decade’s worth of cars for Prime Ministers and other important officials.

Most of the design of the P5 was done by David Bache, along with Spen King and Gordon Bashford. Between them, this trio also produced the Rover P6, Rover SD1 and the original Range Rover.

Although Rover and Morris were competing companies in 1958, in 1968 Rover was merged into British Leyland… where Bache, King and Bashford were employed alongside Alec Issigonis.

Citroën Visa (1978)

Issigonis had recognised the practicalities of the small hatchback car back in 1967 with the 9X prototype, which to our eyes is a recognisably modern layout, but his employers didn’t pick up on the idea. A decade-and-a-bit later, the small hatchback was all the rage and it was clear that Austin-Morris had missed the boat.

Citroën had been looking for something new to at least partly replace its extremely ancient range, including the then-30-year-old 2CV. The company had been struggling financially, and the oil crises of the 1970s had hit sales of their bigger cars hard. In 1976, Peugeot had taken over Citroën to form the PSA Group. Under this new ownership, Citroën had produced a small hatchback called the LN which was basically a frumpy-looking version of the Peugeot 104 with a 2CV engine. Hardly inspiring stuff.

A whole bunch of Visas in hatchback, van and even pickup configurations
Starting with the same 104 underpinnings, another renowned designer Robert Opron was working on something rather better and more in keeping with Citroën’s design philosophy which concentrated on sleek aerodynamics and comfort - the Citroën Visa. Up until then, hatchbacks (such as the Fiesta) had been rather boxy.

Over the years the original 625cc engine was upgraded, leading eventually to a 1.6L 115 HP unit in the Visa GTi – a car weighing just 870 kg, which was seriously fun to drive as a result. Production of the Visa ended in 1988, but it set new standards for design and also showed that platform sharing between cars wasn’t simply a case of badge engineering.

Fiat Ritmo / Strada (1978)

Fiat Strada
Launched in the spring but coming to market in September, Fiat launched a somewhat larger hatchback called the Fiat Ritmo (or the Fiat Strada in the UK). Fiat had pioneered the hatchback market with the 127, but the Ritmo was a replacement for the larger Fiat 128 instead.

Two things made the Ritmo stand out – firstly there was Sergio Sartorelli’s smart and contemporary styling, but secondly the body was assembled and painted by robots, which led to a memorable advertisement screened in the UK.

The advertisement was so well-known that it spawned a parody, filmed on the production lines of the British Leyland Ambassador (not the Hindustan Ambassador!). THAT car – to carry on our tenuous link – was designed by Harris Mann, who can be considered Issigonis’s successor in the Morris / BMC / BL story.

The Ritmo / Strada carried on in production until 1988, with a “facelifted” version that actually toned down Sartorelli’s original design. The 1983 Abarth model introduced the obligatory 80’s hot hatch with a 130 HP two litre version.

Today the robotic automation used in assembling the Ritmo is commonplace in the car industry, but back in 1978 it made the Rtimo / Strada stand out from other rival hatchbacks and helped to cement Fiat as a successful Europe-wide automaker.

From a pair of quintessential British and Indian cars of the 1940s and 1950s to a pair of quintessential French and Italian cars of the 1970s, all of these vehicles managed to do something significant. And curiously enough, out of all those cars – on British roads at least – the oldest one is the most common, with thousands of Morris Minors still roadworthy compared to only a few dozen Visas and Stradas from 30 years later..

Image credits:
Loco Steve via Flickr
Ron Fisher via Flickr
pyntofmyld via Flickr
Klaus Nahr via Flickr
CarbonCaribou via Wikimedia Commons



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