The Classic 1960s Wolseley Hornet

The Wolseley Hornet was featured on the British TV programme ‘Top Gear’ as one of the worst cars in history. Does it deserve that reputation?






Austin Morris bought out the Wolseley name in the late 1920s and continued to sell cars under the Wolseley brand. Later, when Morris became part of the British Motor Company, so did the Wolseley brand.

Following the fuel crisis after the 1956 Suez crisis, large car sales slumped so the BMC needed to get onto the bandwagon. And they did with the utilitarian small car they initially called the Austin Seven but renamed the Mini. Along with the Beatles, the Stones, Mini-skirts and Flower Power, the Mini is one of the real icons of the 60s – at least here in the UK it is, I don’t know about the rest of the world.

The Wolseley Hornet was effectively a rebagded Mini which used the same name as the 1930′s saloon and sports car range that had been produced shortly after the takeover. It was built as a more luxurious version and was elongated by just 8.5 inches to include a proper boot (with the customary 1950s tail fins and top-opening lid) rather than having the flush rear end of the Mini and drop-down boot lid. It featured also the traditional upright radiator grille with the customary illuminated Wolseley badge. This must have been a bit irritating to mechanics as the damn thing was attached to the bonnet making it look like some kind of mechanical rodent with the bonnet up (check out an image of a Hornet with a bonnet up and you will see what I mean). Two smaller grills were added horixontally just above the front bumper tapering to the indicators. There were other external trim additions to give it a more luxurious appearance plus a more ‘finished’ interior with central wood veneering to the dash. The British Motor Company figured that it needed to be a bit retro in order to appeal to buyers looking for something like a luxurious Mini.

Marketing blurb of the time reckoned “A superfine finish and a wealth of detail refinements”. It was a list that included, “Twin crushable sun visors, over-riders, courtesy roof lamp, door kick plates, ashtrays and a wide convenient fascia tray“. Great if you were a smoker driving in a sunny country, bumping into larger vehicles and who enjoyed kicking the door open and putting things on the top of the dasboard. Hats off to the marketing men of the 50s still im employment in the 60s!! But actually, it was aimed at the well-off middle managers who wanted to have a small runabout that looked expensive for wifey to trundle around in. Only 28,455 were made.

The first version appeared in 1961 and, although more luxurious in appearance than the Mini, still had a long way to go. For example, there were no bumper over-riders and the seats were only partially leather. The first models used the 850cc engine whereas the MkII use the 1000cc Mini Cooper engine with an improved carburettor and better front brakes (twin leading shoe drum brakes) to cope with the increased power. The better power to weight ratio also improved the fuel consumption to an average 35mpg from around 33mpg. The MkII and MkIII versions of the Wolseley Hornet had the same hydrolastic suspension as the Mini.

The gearbox was a 4 speed manual with partial synchromesh, an automatic version was available in the MkII and III versions. Full synchro gearboxes were intodused late in the production run, in 1968.

Unlike the Mini, the MkIII Wolseley Hornet was given wind up (and down!!) windows, better ventilation and concealed door hinges which were eventually used on the Mini a couple of years later.

In 1966, the food company Heinz, comissioned 57 Wolseley Hornets as prizes in a competition. Just incase you are reading this and are unfamiliar with Heinz, their slogan was ’57 Varieties of soup’ and everything was, at the time, branded as Heinz 57, hence the 57 prizes. The Hornets were turned into full convertibles by Crayford Engineering in Kent to make them a bit special. According to the wolseley owners club, ther were registered consecutively with the registration marke LLH 8–D and 41 are known to survive.

The last Wolseley Hornets rolled off the production line at Longbridge in 1969 when the BMC (now British Leyland) rationalised their ranges. Look-alikes were built in South Africa for a couple more years but were the local variant of the Mini. Examples of the Hornet are rare (fewer than 600 are known to exist in the UK) and you can expect to pay upwards of £4000 for a working vehicle, closer to £10,000 for a concourse standard one.

As a classic car, its most serious issue is with the subframe. That seldom lasted more than 5 years before it rotted and broke.

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