By Stuart Grant with
photos by Oliver Hirtenfelder
BMC attempted to secure the cheap go-anywhere military vehicle market for the British with the Mini Moke, but while it quickly became a cult hit, its lack of four-wheel drive and poor ground clearance limited its desirability with the armed forces. But there was another possibility that the firm looked at for this sector… the Ant.
Designed by the man who penned the Mini, Alec Issigonis, and codenamed ADO 19, the Ant looked the part and promised lots thanks to four-wheel drive, larger 12-inch wheels and increased ground clearance and, by borrowing from the BMC parts bin, a good bottom line. So promising it was that six experimental prototypes and another 24 fully functioning prototypes were manufactured. These were sent to various corners of the world for rigorous testing, including Cape Town’s Blackheath plant.
Hard testing resulted in the majority being scrapped but six are said to have survived in Australia, New Zealand, the UK and here. South Africa got a pair of test mules and surprisingly both survive. One in pick-up form and the other in station wagon body style. Both are in good working order, making for the largest density of operational Ants in the world.
Like so many British products of the time, the Ant employed revolutionary design that has now become the norm. Sadly, these weren’t capitalised on as the Ant died a premature death, thanks to typical British Automotive Industry politics and buyouts so prevalent at the time. Leyland came on board and, not wanting conflicting products in the same market, decided to ditch the Ant and go with Land Rover. The rest as they say is history but with the success of the diminutive Suzuki SJ/Jimny 4×4 in more recent times, one wonders: if the Ant focus had rather been civilian-based, could it have run alongside, and complemented, the Land Rover as the British off-road heroes?
Smaller but similar in aesthetics to Land Rover, the Ant is slab-sided with little front and rear overhangs for good approach and departure angle. However it upped the game somewhat with a monocoque construction using a galvanised steel body. Inside the cabin it is simple and functional without even the slightest concern for comfort. Seats are small, hard and offer no side support. A ‘deluxe’ version was looked at, which would have included grille bars, floor mats, interior door panels, wood-panelled rear load area and chrome bumpers, but this came to nought. The pictured Ant exemplifies this simplicity with a canvas roof section, sliding side windows and flat metal dashboard completed by a single speedometer and just two switches (for wipers and lights). The windscreen does fold forward and flat like a Jeep’s.
But the really smart stuff happened in the drive train department. The famed 1100/1300 A-Series engine found its way into the Ant. The A Series engine was mounted transversely atop the gearbox and tilted backwards. This tilt improved ground clearance and lowered bonnet line. Transverse positioning posed a problem when it came to traditional four-wheel drive though. The solution came by fitting a new housing onto the existing diff casing. Inside, the addition of a bevel gear driven by an idler from the standard diff solved the issue. This bevel drove a propshaft to the rear axle differential. This new housing also held another idler gear for selecting direction of rotation and two extra gears for high and low ratios. A dog clutch meant the rear diff could be engaged or disengaged from within the cabin. The result was that the Ant could make use of three different drive set-ups without having to climb out from behind the steering wheel – front-wheel drive, four-wheel drive and either high or low ratio. Testing on the dunes behind the Blackheath plant showed the outstanding abilities of this system. And lots of fun potential.
Having put the effort into developing a clever drive system, Issigonis tackled the suspension. Instead of the Mini Hydrolastic set-up, he went the way of a wishbone lower arm and single upper arm system at the front. In order to give the Ant the needed suspension travel, these arms pivoted as close to the monocoque’s centre-line as possible and each corner received a longitudinal torsion bar spring worked on by the single upper arms. The rear wheels kept traction thanks to trailing arms and again sprung by means of torsion bars. However this time the torsion bars ran transversely.
It goes without saying that the Ant isn’t the fastest machine off the line but its relatively small mass and usable torque in the right spot meant it did the required off-road duties admirably. Steering and gear selection took a bit of getting used to but for the most part the Ant proved a usable tool and a heap of fun. Although not the correct colour, this blue bakkie is in fact the pick-up seen in the attached Blackheath test session photos. With the project canned, the vehicle fell off the radar until Ralph Clarke (Blackheath Engineering Plant Manager at the time) tracked it down to a local golf course. Seemingly the vehicle had been used as course and maintenance runabout. Clarke acquired and rebuilt the vehicle to the condition seen today.
In theory, Issigonis and BMC’s Ant had all the requirements to fit the military bill and perhaps with a bit of fine-tuning, even the recreational off-roader market. In yet another false start or anticlimax the merger with Leyland killed what would more than likely have been a leading light in the small recreational workhorse vehicle sector. BMC got off to a flying start but followed with disillusionment again.