Australian Morris 850

Morris 850 and Volkswagen

Wheels - July, 1961

Wheels - July, 1961

Special Comparison Report

These two hot-selling buckets of mechanical ingenuity have caused an uproar on Australia's automobile scene. Here is a special report on the VW and 850.

By Ian Fraser


No two cars could be more different to look at than the VW and 850. Those two are side by side, but look at the comparison in overall height.

No two cars ever to come on to the Australian scene have caused more interest and speculation than the Volkswagen and the Morris 850. They were introduced years apart and while the former was a comparatively slow starter on a market conditioned to other things, the 850 was a spontaneous success.

They are two cars of tremendous technical interest. They were designed almost a quarter of a century apart by men in two countries of the Northern Hemisphere. The only thing the two men had in common (they never met) was engineering brilliance.

The VW was a massive, although probably accidental, deception of the German people by the Nazi government under Adolf Hitler. The 850 was designed to help make money for the ponderous British Motor Corporation in England.

Australia was never in the minds of Ferdinand Porsche and Alec Issigonis when they put pencils to drawing boards and commenced their designs.

When the VW first appeared locally it was regarded with suspicion by even those whose job it was to sell the vehicle. Quickly its virtues became obvious and the road ahead was assured. Those first VWs were fully imported jobs, but import restriction eventually made it necessary to assemble the German cars here with a relatively high locally-found content.

The Morris 850 probably would never have come to Australia if it had not been for the comparative lack of success of most of the other BMC products. When it became obvious to the directors of BMC that the £18 million invested in Australia needed a stimulant, they decided to bring the littlest Morris to Australia and assemble it in the NSW plant.

Top brass estimates of how many could be sold here ranged from 1200 to 5000 a year. Fingers had been burnt in the past, so everyone played it cool. The first month or so of selling proved that an estimate of 10,000 cars per annum would not have been excessive.

The interesting thing about these two cars is that they represent two totally different schools of thought on the one subject. Porsche saw the VW as a rear-engined car with air cooling to minimise difficulties in cold countries. The rear engine puts all the running gear in one unit in the tail of the car, simplifying servicing problems and providing good traction on poor roads.

The revolutionary English design does pretty much the same thing, except that all the mechanicals go in the front. To keep casts to a minimum the engine is actually a slightly revamped version of the one litre BMC A-series motor which powers the Morris Minor 1000. Issigonis probably would have liked to have designed an engine specially for the car. However…

Before going ahead with this comparison test it is essential to remember that there is a large price difference between the two cars. The Volkswagen is £970 and the Morris is £775.

On this basis perhaps the comparison could be unfair in many respects, but in its advertisements BMC makes it quite obvious it is selling against VW.

Looking at the Mini and the VW side by side they have at least one thing in common-a lack of good looks. But studied eye appeal never came into the calculations of the designers. They are purely engineers' cars.

An external examination of the VW revealed several things. First the standard of finish, paint work and hardware were all of the highest order. Pushbutton door handles were strong in contrast to the pull-down type of the Mini. Progressive development has given the VW a kind of after-thought appearance in some ways - the winker lights, for instance.

Both the bonnet and luggage compartment of the VW can be locked, while the Morris' bonnet can be undone from the outside.

The external seams which so greatly simplify construction of the Morris strike a jarring note when you realise that they are not really rain gutters after all. Likewise, the hinges protrude, but so do the VW's, to a lesser extent.

Whilst the VW's wheels look large, those of the Morris look small compared with the body.

However enthusiastic owners are about the cars, I think everyone must face up to the fact that these two are just about the ugliest new vehicles to sit on the showroom floor. Practical, yes, but ugly, too.

Appearance is a superficial thing. Far more important are the comfort, handling, performance and economy.

Let's look how these other aspects - the most important aspects - shape up.

Interior and driving comforts


We must not fool ourselves with this. The VW is much better. The bulkheads are covered with good quality carpet and the rubber floor matting fits well. The paintwork, to match the interior, is good and everything fits neatly. Seat coverings fit well and don't look jazzy.

The 850 lacks the refinement of the VW and we just have to face up to this. The rubber flooring has been ill-fitting in every model I have seen, but it may come good as production progresses. Seat coverings were of a rough-finish vinyl material with a flecky color scheme.


Getting in behind the wheel of the VW is a simple task. The car is high, the doors open wide. By no means a bucket type, the front seats have contoured backrests and the bench part comes far enough forward to give support for the legs. The seats themselves are firm to sit on, but neither comfortable nor uncomfortable over a long distance. A heater, with its control on the floor and drawing warm air from the engine compartment, provides some measure of comfort during winter. However, it is by no means a perfect system, since the warmth of the air depends on how fast the car is being driven. In conditions of extreme wet the heater is more inclined to blow steam than anything else. Headroom for large back seat passengers is limited, although the leg and knee room is satisfactory provided those people in the front do not push their seats too far back.

For the driver there is an armrest on his door and the front ashtray is easy to reach. Air entering the car can be regulated by the ventilation panes on the door windows even if the main windows are wound up. Without being sensational in any way the VW is comfortable enough to ride in so far as human requirements are concerned.

The Morris 850 is a low car, but access to the interior is simple enough provided you sit in first, then bring your legs around. My immediate impression was of soft rubbery, comfortable seats. In the cause of simplicity of manufacture they are virtually lumps of foam rubber moulded into shape. Personally, I think they are more comfortable to ride in than that of the VW, although the support for the driver and front passenger do not match that of the German car.

Headroom is greater in the back of be 850, but you sit lower, with good leg and knee room.

There is no heater, nor armrests, but the rear windows hinge outwards and it is possible to get a very pleasant breeze through the car on a hot day. The door windows slide, not wind, and although they are much more efficient than we have come to expect from this system, they still do not match the wind-up type.

Like the VW, the 850 has only one dial, but it is in the middle of the dashboard. It corporates a fuel gauge (which the VW sadly lacks) and the switch gear is directly underneath, making it necessary for the driver to lean forward to get at things.

I don't consider that there is any valid criticism I can level at the steering wheel angle. Strange at first, you very quickly get used to it.


Comparison tester Fraser with the controversial two. The different concept of the cars is clearly visible in this picture.


Because these two cars employ extremely different methods of locating their power plants – the greatest weight in the car – not unexpectedly they handle in totally different ways.

The VW oversteers. That is, the tail of the car swings out first when going through a corner fast. To the novice driver this can be fairly alarming because it feels very much worse than it actually is. Correction is simply a matter of turning the wheel into the direction of the skid. A certain amount of finesse is needed to go places in the VW when you are in a hurry. You can run out of road quite easily.

The Mini is an infinitely easier car to drive than the VW—or, should I say, easier to drive in a hurry? It can be thrown about with tremendous enthusiasm from almost the first moment you get behind the wheel. In actual fact, it can do the most alarming things, but because it understeers it does not feel at all bad.

If you go too fast into a corner in a VW the tail will swing out and unless you catch it the car will ultimately spin.

Doing the same thing in an 850 causes understeer to the point where the car will leave the road in a front end slide. The tail will stay faithful and the car will not spin just as long as the driver keeps his foot hard down on the accelerator. Close off the power half way through a marginal corner and the car becomes skittish, tends to oversteer until the gas is reapplied.

Neither car is conventional to drive, but for ease of handling in all conditions I would choose the 850, although I must admit that on certain types of dirt surfaces the VW is excellent. On wet or greasy roads the Morris is unbeatable.

The rack and pinion of the 850 is superb to use and provides road feel with little shock. The turning circle of 30 feet is by no means good for a car so small (10 ft long) but that is the penalty of fwd. The steering is light and the car easy to handle in tight spots, making it ideal for town motoring particularly.

In this regard the VW is vintage in outlook. The turning circle is 36 ft and the overall length 13 ft 4 in. These two factors combined with a rear window that is hard to see out of do not make for ease of parking.

It is in these circumstances that you can forgive the Mini almost anything since it does exactly the same job as the VW but does it with far more ease.

Overall the Mini is a better handling car. There can be no doubt of it.


Different ways of overcoming the same problem has given the 850 fwd and front engine, but the VW has a rear engine and rear wheel drive.


VW's current 40 bhp car is faster than the Mini. During our comparison test of the two cars I found that I had the greatest difficulty keeping the VW in sight in give-and-take conditions. The VW’s high close gearing gave it a distinct advantage in hilly country where the Mini was easy to catch fresh out of a suitable ratio (usually between second and third). The performance chart shows where the difference occur, although I will say that the Mini will cruise at its 67 to 70mph indicated on the open road without apparent signs of stress. The good handling makes it easy and untiring to average quite high speeds. Even on the open road, its size is an advantage for sneaking in and out of traffic.

The gearbox, which is an integral part of performance, is worth mention. Years of development have given the VW a four-speed gearbox with synchromesh bowing to none on all its cogs.

The change mechanism is light and simple to use. The movements between the gears are short.

Because of the transmission arrangement in the Mini the gear stick pokes straight out of the box. The synchromesh is poor and is only fitted on the upper three ratios. The lever is long and cranked slightly, but with the seat fully back the driver has to lean forward to reach it.

Neither the VW nor the Mini has good brakes when they are fully loaded. They fade quite easily, indicating lack of cooling and insufficient lining area.

Both cars have the handbrakes between the seats.

Fuel consumption of the Mini is lower by about 25 percent in normal conditions.



Both cars are mechanically noisy and you don’t have to strain your ears to hear road rumble either.


Although much has been done to improve the size of the VW's windscreen you still cannot see as well out of it as you can from the Mini.

Luggage space

A huge amount of luggage can be packed into the 850 — in the large pockets along both sides of the passenger compartment, in the boot (which has a bottom hinged lid so it can be used as platform of bulky goods) and under the front and rear seats.

Space in the VW is confined to the compartment behind the back seat and in the front. Quite big bags can be placed behind the seat, but it is a real test to get them in and out. A couple of small soft bags are best in the front.

Yes, the Mini is better.

Running costs

Petrol and tyres for the Mini will cost you less than for the VW, but the latter has a superb service set-up and repair costs are low.

BMC and the Mini are yet to prove themselves in this respect, since servicing is left to dealers who sometimes have their shortcomings.

Summing up

Frankly, I think that the VW and Morris 850 are classes apart. For the extra money you pay for the VW you get more performance, better finish, more human comforts.

The Mini will either eventually open up a new class all of its own or offer almost unbeatable competition for the swarm of baby cars currently being sold here.

It does not, in my opinion, offer a serious sales threat to the VW, although no doubt a few buyers will swing away from the beetle in favor of the new beetlette.

Make no mistake though. Both these cars are excellent machines but not in the same class!


Although neither car handles to extremes one way or the other, the VW (above) shows definite oversteer, whilst the 850 understeers on the same bend.


Technical Details of the Morris 850 and Volkswagen


Top speed

850 VW
Fastest run 71.5 mph 76.8 mph
Average of all runs 74.3 mph 75.5 mph

Maximum speed in gears

First 26 mph
Second 41 mph
Third 64 mph
Top 75.1 mph


Standing Quarter Mile:
Fastest run 22.9 sec 22.1 sec
Average of all runs 23.2 sec 22.8 sec
0 to 30 mph 6.6 sec 6.1 sec
0 to 40 mph 10.3 sec 9.5 sec
0 to 50 mph 16.8 sec 15.2 sec
0 to 60 mph 26.4 sec 24.8 sec
20 to 40 mph 14 sec 14 sec
40 to 60 mph 21.4 sec 19.5 sec


0-60-0 mph 29.1 sec 27.2 sec

Speedo error

Indicated: Actual:
30 mph 28 mph 27.4 mph
40 mph 38 mph 37 mph
50 mph 47 mph 47 mph
60 mph 56 mph 56 mph

Fuel consumption

Overall for test 39.7 28.5



850 VW
Cylinders Four transverse Four, opposed
Bore and stroke 62.94 by 68.26 mm 77 by 64 mm
Cubic capacity 848 cc 1192 cc
Compression ratio 8.3 to 1 7 to 1
Valves Pushrod o/head Pushrod o/head
Carburettor SU Solex
Power at rpm 37 at 5500 (gross) 40 at 3600 (gross)
Maximum torque 44 lb/ft at 2940 61 lb/ft at 2000


Type Four speed, floor change Four speed, floor change
First 13.176 16.6
Second 8.176 9.01
Third 5.317 5.76
Top 3.765 3.89
Rear axle 3.765 3.89


Front Independent rubber cone Independent torsion bar
Rear Independent rubber cone Independent torsion bar
Shockers telescopic telescopic


Type Rack and pinion Worm gear
Turns, l to l 2 1/3
Circle 30 ft 36 ft


Type Drum Drum


Wheelbase 6 ft 8 in 7 ft 10 in
Track, front 3 ft 11 in 4 ft 3½ in
Track, rear 3 ft 11 in 4 ft 2¾ in
Length 10 ft 13 ft 4 in
Width 4 ft 7½ in 5 ft 0½ in
Height 4 ft 5 in 4 ft 11 in


Size 5.20 by 10 5.60 by 15


Dry 11½ cwt 14¼ cwt
Wheels - July 1961 - Morris 850 and Volkswagen - thumb


JULY 1961

This article was originally published in the July, 1961 edition of Wheels magazine.

Last updated 18 August 2021