Blog : The 1940s – the years of war and the cars that followed

Carole Nash Classic Insurance Specialists

Following on from his popular The 1930s – a decade of extremes blog, AROnline‘s very own Wolseley Man, Martyn Kelham, moves forward a decade to tell us all about motoring in the 1940s.

Vauxhall 10HP

There have been endless arguments in bars for over 50 years about who announced the first new car after peace broke out in 1945. Referring to historical print does not help, simply because the author of ‘The History of the XYZ Car‘ will usually find compelling evidence to suggest ‘his manufacturer’ was indeed the first. This piece is a very short and broad-brush approach to that period.

Leonard Lord, of course, had continued to produce the ‘10’ throughout hostilities and it has been recorded that Humber continued with ‘staff cars’ as well. In general, the mid-1940s British car was the 1939 model ‘warmed over’ but there were, of course, exceptions.

Let’s have a look at what type of car was around first and then look at some individual makers – that way we can get a picture of what was on offer to the car buying public in 1945-1949. Very broadly, the family car fell into two distinct types. The price-conscious lower end and the middle-to-upper sector. There was also the Rolls and its few contemporaries but I’m more interested in the bread and butter stuff here.

Austin, Hillman, Ford, Morris and Standard featured largely in the ‘affordable category’ whilst Alvis, Armstrong Siddeley, Humber, Lea-Francis, Jaguar and Rover epitomized the higher echelons of manufacturers.

Vauxhall 10HP: Available in the last two years of its life as a 12
Vauxhall 10HP – available in the last two years of its life as a 12

When I was 11 years old, my dad bought me a 1939 Vauxhall 12. It had a rotten body but a beautifully quiet and powerful little motor. At that time, he drove a 1946 Vauxhall 10HP four-door saloon. These two cars were almost identical in body but did have minor styling differences. They were both ‘fourlights’ whilst the earlier 12 and bigger 14 were ‘sixlights’.

We weren’t farmers (Dad was the Final Inspector on the BARBTriumph 2000 – at Pressed Steel in Swindon) but we did live on a farm so I had the privilege of careering around the fields in my own car. Of course, I got to know that car very, very well! As a fanatically keen youngster I reckon I got to know Dad’s car pretty well, too.

What would the 2013 driver make of those Vauxhalls today?

Stylistically, the Vauxhall was pleasant and inoffensive without being ‘cutting edge’. It was a pre-war design but heavily US-influenced and, as such, it was certainly up there with the best. It did have the accolade of being one of the first post-war truly monocoque construction cars – bringing that GM technology from its German sister, Opel. The spare wheel was housed within a cover on the bootlid on the ’46 models but mine had a flat rear boot panel.

Both cars had brown leather upholstery with lots of brown vinyl trim. I remember the seats being supremely soft and comfortable. Carpets were beige and quite deep pile with detailed piping around the edges. The 1946 model had a roller blind on the back window operated by a ‘finger pull’ and cord from the driver’s seat.

GM’s Dubonnet suspension

Compared with modern machines, one tended to sit a lot lower in older designs and the Vauxhall was no exception. The steering wheel had three spokes of a hard composite material and had a fixed arm protruding beneath it to the left – carrying the indicator switch. Instrumentation was quite comprehensive with speedo, fuel, water temperature and ammeter. Dad fitted an oil pressure gauge – as did many enthusiasts of the day,

The ‘10’ engine was not so quiet as my 12, or even as quiet as it should have been. However, the ride and progress were always extremely smooth. There was some tyre noise as the car was of monocoque construction – a lot more audible than, for instance, in a ‘chassis-ed’ Austin. To counter this though, the Vauxhall did have the superb ‘Dubonnet’ independent front suspension (above) giving a far superior ride to some leaf sprung competition.

Performance was quite lively for the period and, even into the 1960s, the 10 would keep up with current models – Anglias, 1100s, Beetles etc. A very commendable three-speed gearbox was operated from a long wand – but felt sure and ‘mechanical’. Performance-wise we are talking about 60-65 mph and around 35 to 40 mpg.

Around 1960 we took the 10 down to meet up with family in the New Forest. Leaving the restaurant at Picket Post very late on a dark and very wet night we headed off for home. We had not gone more than a hundred feet when there was an almighty bang and as our relative’s lights disappeared in the mirror – we ground to a halt.

A rod had come through the side of the block and we had to be towed by an AA van to a railway station. At this point Dad discovered something about the Vauxhall 10 that even he had not thought of. The windscreen wiper was driven off the engine – it was a filthy rainy dark night and the engine was not running! My dear father was still recalling the nightmare of that journey years later!

I can’t remember quite why, but we spent the night in the station car park, parked about 20ft from two massive Diesel engines that were being alternately revved to death all night. In the morning a friend came and towed us all the way home on a 10ft rope. It has to be said that was probably 2ft longer than the AA man’s.

You’re ahead of me now aren’t you? Yes, of course, my beautiful 12 engine (which was not an original fitting in that Four-Light body until later) had to be donated to Dad’s car but, (bless his cotton socks) he did get me another albeit very tired engine – and my fun continued. Of course, in those days we had no garage – all these engine swaps and rebuilds were undertaken outside in the dark (mostly) – and by torchlight. Those were the days!

Hillman Minx
Hillman Minx

Getting back to the 1940s: victory in 1945 was followed by a lot of disappointment for a lot of people – and a lot of new ideas and exciting projects for many others. Colonel Paul Tibbets Junior dropped the equivalent of 20,000 tons of TNT in the first A bomb on Hiroshima. Japan surrendered to the allied forces; many prisoners of war found their way home; Bogart and Bacall starred in The Big Sleep and the Black Market continued to thrive as rationing and shortages of food lingered on. Rock ‘n’ Roll was yet to arrive and most homes did not have a TV, refrigerator or a washing machine.

Standard Nine
Standard Nine

The world’s first electronic computer device was invented, although no one quite knew what it could be used for. Radar, ballistic missiles and jet aircraft were all developed while the Jeep had arrived; commercial television and the idea for the Microwave oven. Velcro, Tupperware and the Frisbee were in development but not yet available.

For the literary set, For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway appeared at the beginning of the decade and George Orwell’s classic 1984 at the end. So what was our Vauxhall competing with in those days?

ford-ten-02
Ford Ten

Austin, of course, was a real rival with its very successful range of 7s, 8s, 10s, 12s and 16s. All good sound designs though many would argue not quite as cutting edge in terms of chassis, suspension or engine design as the GM car. Ford was there too with the upright Pops – amazing to think they soldiered on in some form until the mid-1950s, alongside the manufacturer’s own ‘flat’ models.

Hillman produced a good car too with the Minx – arguably more stylish than some opposition and bearing some resemblance to big brothers ‘stateside’ while Morris had the ‘E’ in various forms. For those with a few pounds more Jowett, MG, Rover, Triumph and Wolseley were there to tempt. Engine type was not as stable as today and the side valve versus overhead valve war raged on.

Years later, of course, the scrapyards that abounded our countryside and the back streets of our towns were full of these cars. Like many reading this, I was a young lad in the 1950s and into the 1960s. Sunday afternoons were often spent at the local scrapyard looking for anything from a headlamp to a gearbox and from a speedo to a back seat. Money was tight and, up until the introduction of the MoT, many owners kept their cars on the road with 90 per cent enthusiasm, a little knowledge and a lot of secondhand bits. We certainly all knew more about the workings of our cars than we do today.

Austin 16
Austin 16

Those around at the time will remember that very upright cars with separate headlamps, running boards and easy-clean wheels were still very popular in the early-1960s, but sadly disappeared very quickly following the arrival of the MoT test.

We had several other 1940s cars, including a very competent Austin 16, with a plethora of beautiful Bakelite within the dash and door cappings. For its time, this car was quite a flyer and was simply a joy to drive – everything in the right place and feeling just so right.

Its successor in our family was a Jaguar One and a Half Litre, a car that lacked many of the Austin’s attributes, including braking efficiency, pedal arrangement, speed and acceleration and steering accuracy. Mind you, the Jaguar redeemed itself with its beautiful wooden dash and trim, superbly trimmed leather – and that wonderful view out of the windscreen – the big flat radiator cap clearly in view.

Pre-war, of course, the Jaguar was called an SS (Swallow Sidecars) but the term ‘SS’ had certain connotations best avoided post-1945.

Jaguar 1.5
Jaguar 1.5 litre – (Taken on a family holiday, my mother and I – about 1968)

The individuality of the 1930s was continued into the 1940s and cars – despite their mass-produced ‘tin-box’ image – still had significant character traits. Admittedly, though, they were probably not as striking as those of the 1960s – the years of really individual styling!

The 1940s, though, bred cars with cable brakes; mechanical brakes; hydro-mechanical brakes; hydraulic brakes; and… no brakes. Cars had three- or four-speed boxes, leaf springs or independent suspension, chassis or no-chassis designs, side valve or overhead valve engines, bench seats or individual seats – all fundamental to the cars’ design that in most cases had a significant effect on the car’s character and performance.

In essence, of course, the cars of the 1940s only covered five years of that decade, so huge technological or styling changes were not to be expected. The following decade saw considerable changes in styling and body construction, with the monocoque design becoming the ‘norm’. Engine design would remain less exciting for bread and butter cars and hugely exciting for sports and luxury cars – but that’s another story!

Alvis TA14
Alvis TA14
Keith Adams

Keith Adams

Editor and creator AROnline at AROnline
Created www.austin-rover.co.uk in 2001 and built it up to become the world's foremost reference source for all things BMC, Leyland and Rover Group, before renaming it AROnline in 2007.

Is the Editor of the Parkers website and price guide, formerly editor of Classic Car Weekly, and launch editor/creator of Modern Classics magazine. Has contributed to various motoring titles including Octane, Practical Classics, Evo, Honest John, CAR magazine, Autocar, Pistonheads, Diesel Car, Practical Performance Car, Performance French Car, Car Mechanics, Jaguar World Monthly, MG Enthusiast, Modern MINI, Practical Classics, Fifth Gear Website, Radio 4, and the the Motoring Independent...

Likes 'conditionally challenged' motors and taking them on unfeasible adventures all across Europe.
Keith Adams

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29 Comments

  1. A very interesting essay . I am a little surprised that you thought the 1.5 litre Jaguar was inferior in performance to the Austin 16 ( unless it was a 1936/37 side valve car ) because the ohv ones were pretty much a match for the 16 despite giving away about 400cc -( 2199 for the Austin and 1776 for the Jaguar) . Similarly , the suspension was virtually identical as was the mechanical braking system . Mind you, by 1968 the Jaguar – even more so if it was an SS – must have been getting a bit tired

  2. I am currently working on a Vauxhall 25 “big six” Hearse, one of three ever built and this is the only one in existence. To say its therapeutic working on a 1937 car is an understatement, anyone got a Zenith downdraught carb for one of these?

  3. A minor correction… the Hiroshima bomb (Little Boy) was only 16 kilotons, not 20. You may be confusing it with the Trinity Gadget that was detonated at Alamogordo New Mexico, or the Fat Man bomb that was detonated over Nagasaki, which did have a 20kt yield. They were different bomb designs, with Little Boy being the only gun type device ever deployed and all subsequent nuclear weapons using a variation on the theme of the Gadget (and Fat Man, the Nagasaki bomb), which was an implosion device.

  4. @1 – Christopher – It was an overhead valve and it may not have been in such good nick (mechanically) as the Austin – which we did have in fine fettle. The Jag was immaculate otherwise.
    @3 – Jim Bob – Thank you for the correction – not my particular area of expertise and my research was clearly flawed.
    @4 – Darren – I did briefly mention Jowett and as a life long fan and ex-member of the oldest one make owners club in the world, I was tempted to write loads about the Javelin and Jupiter. They were extraordinary cars that I personally rate alongside the great 40’s designs of Lancia and Citroen. My cunning plan is to do a blog on the Javelin and Jupiter in the future.

  5. @1 – Christopher
    The 16 was indeed in fine fettle whilst the Jag was immaculate inside and out but certainly not at its best mechanically. I remember we had to fabricate some leaf spring ‘slippers’ from Ebony because we could not locate any – even within the Jaguar Owners Club.
    @3 – Jim Bob
    Thanks for the correction – not my field of expertise and clearly my research was flawed. Apologies.
    @ 4 – Darren
    I know I mentioned Jowett only once and as a life long fan and one time Jowett Owners Club member I do think the Javelin and Jupiter were so unique as to be rated alongside the very best of 40’s designs from Lancia and Citroen. My cunning plan is to do a blog on ‘really advanced cars’ soon – and Jowett will feature strongly.

  6. The Jowett Club had a very interesting stand at the NEC with a very original Javelin and a nicely restored Jupiter. I remember my Mother wanting to buy a Javelin but finding its offset pedals too much to cope with . I had a long chat with a man with ( IIRC ) 3 Jupiters on the road and 2 or 3 more in his shed ! The weakness of the Javelin seems to have been bearing failure when it was given the hammer and of course the company was finished by the purchase of its body supplier by Ford. Sad end to it all

  7. The Javelin and Minor interest me greatly, both conceived independently by guys who formerly worked together.
    I wonder how Issy felt on seeing the Javelin? – sporting a flat four engine that he would have liked for the minor, but wasn’t allowed to use?
    Did the ‘wide-track’ Javelin influence him in widening the Minor at the eleventh hour?

    If the Javelin been built by a large manufacturer would it have been a better seller than the minor?
    I think it could.

  8. @7&8 Christopher and Darren
    Men after my own heart! Jowett were a fascinating company.
    My Dad, Mum and I went to buy a Javelin – I think I was about 10. We went for a test drive with a car from Coronation Car Sales in Swindon and during the drive the darned thing caught fire. The battery was under the back seat and it was shorting out on the steel springs in the seat cushion – and set fire to coire fibre in the cushion. I was the one sat in the back but it was Mother who put her foot down – we did not buy the car.
    With regard to the bearings, you are absolutely right but of course their real weakness was the crankshaft itself – which usually broke somewhere between 30,000 and 100,000 miles. The hardening process was thought to partly responsible but in some cases bearing failure pre-empted this and crank shaft failure was the result. Machinist had introduced a stress raiser on the crank web (inadvertently) and once this was eliminated – this area was about 20% less stressed. Jupiters were breaking their crankshafts somewhere between 10,000 and 25,000 miles.
    With regard to Darren’s point about the Javelin being a potential big seller if produced by a bigger company – in my view – very possibly.
    I don’t think Jowett were alone in lacking development time and money – despite having shed loads of expertise. Even manufacturers who may not have designed their own engine suffered from this – Jensen, Paramount, Allard, Invictor, to name but four. The problem is magnified a hundred fold when start to design your own engine and gearbox from scratch.
    They did do so much right too. German equipment was brought in to ensure the crank shafts were finished to 3 – micro-inch and assembly was undertaken in ‘clean room’ conditions for the Jupiter.
    If ever there was a car that should have changed the family saloon for ever – the Javelin was it. As you say – sad that it didn’t.

  9. I also believe the Javelin’s chassis was advanced enough that (had the funds been available) it could have been successfully re-bodied to suit 50’s fashions, and kept the car competitive into the 60’s.

    ‘The problem is magnified a hundred fold when start to design your own engine and gearbox from scratch’
    You are spot on Martyn, even large manufacturers can falter when faced with that scenario- Rootes found that out with the IMP – new engine, new gearbox, but also new factory, new paint-shop and new workforce too!

  10. @ 11.
    It was, but I understand it was substantially modified (different head etc) ?
    and was new to Rootes and car application.
    Sorry for confusion.

  11. I’m really pleased we are acknowledging early postwar industry on Aronline now- keep it up Martyn!

    The Javelin might have been a wonderful design, but it woefully failed in its intended market (colonial/ export).

    Come to think of it, whenever we tried to design cars for the crucial export market, we usually made a hash of it. Austin A90… Triumph Mayflower… Standard Vanguard I, Austin A70, etc etc. Small, delicate, rusty, gutless…

    What I don’t understand is why UK GM/Ford didn’t start pumping out big (Ford) V8/ or (GM) 6-cyl US-spec cars immediate postwar solely to generate some export income by selling a product the commonwealth actually wanted. Why did anyone think a rancher in Rhodesia would want a 4-cyl undersquare engine. Both companies were churning these American designs out during the war (Ford particularly built light trucks from American parts before the Canadian ‘CMP’ trucks started to come online). Presumably Ford GM headquaters weren’t prepared to rob Peter to pay Paul.

    Interestingly, Dodge UK (Kew Dodge) managed to start from CKD beginnings in the 20s to postwar production of a US/Canadian/British blend which was a very robust truck- and had consequently had some success in the Commonwealth market in the 40s.

    Keep up the good work- look forward to your next installment!

    • The Jewett flat 4 might have Ben a wonderfully design, but wasn’t the engine a bit of a pig to overhaul. I was informed by a specialist that a vacuum pump was used to ensure oil and coolant ‘tightness’ during the engine rebuild.
      And the person who was put off by the offset pedals, should keep well clear of Saab ‘s I used to work on them and quite often pressed down on the brake pedal with my left foot, thinking I was pressing down the clutch, with loud crunches from the car and laughter from my fellow mechanics.

  12. The Ford V8s were hopelessly outdated before the second world war and like all the other Ford side valve engines were even more out of their depth by 1945 . Hopelessly lacking in power, and even more hopelessly inefficient . There was nothing small , delicate, or undersquare about the Vanguard and of course the engine sold in its hundreds of thousands in numerous application of which the most important was probably the Ferguson tractor . Incidentally, those who decry long stroke engines miss the point that they were almost all very torquey for obvious reasons of leverage

  13. @13 Bill
    I think we did make some mistakes as you indicate – I would site the A90 Atlantic, Austin A40 Sports (beautiful though it was – I owned one for 30 years), the Mayflower and the Vanguard. However, let’s not forget our successes – the A40 Devon was our biggest car export and revenue earner for some years – a record it held for many more. The Somerset went all over the world and excelled in the roughest terrains – once those Armstrong front shocks were shot, you just kept on bouncing – and kept on going for ever. I do think of Alfa’s and Lancia’s as delicate but in the main I think our British cars of the forties and (the subject of my next article) the 50’s, were pretty tough old birds. I helped ‘break’ an accident damaged Vanguard Phase 1 when I was a kid – ‘chuffin thing was built like the proverbial tank!
    It has been written elsewhere in many books covering the period that our engines and gearing were not suited to the US highways. I never really understood that until I drove across the Nevada desert! Our poor little in line fours must have been so out of breath! But as Christopher says at 14 – a lot of the yank tanks were big side valve units of questionable efficiency so may be the difference was not as much after all?

  14. The Standard nine is a lovely and elegant little car. I often wonder were Standard would of ended up if they hadn’t purchased Triumph. Would we of ended up with a flying Stag?

  15. Very interesting post, particularly with regard with the need to earn foreign currency in the aftermath of the war by exporting cars.

    I was a car mad youngster of twelve when we emigrated to Canada in 1959, familiar with the old wheezers on the roads of Portsmouth at the time. Of course, I thought British was best.

    In Canada by the time we arrived, I was shocked to discover that A40s, Mayflowers and what have you were regarded as a bit of a joke. They had sold because they were cheap, but usually one was enough for the beknighted owner. Everyone laughed at the engines, let alone the rust, completely inadequate heaters and the inability to start in cold weather. Apparently it hadn’t occurred to the manufacturers that conditions might be different overseas. The main exception was the Morris Minor, a decent reliable vehicle.

    From the middle ’50s, there were a fair numbers of Austin A50/55/60 and Morris Oxfords. They were fairly sturdy as were the Standard Vanguards and the occasional six cylinder Austins.

    But the main UK imports were the far more professionally engineered Ford Consul and Zepyhr Mk IIs and the Vauxhall Victor Mk 1. The Vauxhalls were to prove rustbuckets, unlike the Consuls. Ford stopped importing the Consuls when the Falcon came out – a mistake, they weren’t anywhere near as tough. Then we got Cortinas, the less said about them, the better.

    The Minis/1100s and the Landcrabs really ended BMC in Canada. What a complete load of old rubbish they were. My father’s 1800 was a shining examplar of how not to do it. It never started when the temperature dropped below 10 degrees (22 degrees of frost, old system) Scratch January. The Consul it replaced always started, and had 89,000 miles on it.

    Late ’40s early ’50s Chevs, Fords and Dodges were still soldiering on. Sure, their fuel consumption was poorer, but they met the basic criteria of being relatively reliable in all weathers, having heaters that actually worked in winter, and they were smooth on the road, many of which were still not metalled.

    From 1964 to 1967, I spent much time ferrying back and forth to university (90 miles each way) many weekends in a 1951 Pontiac owned by a friend. Never ever hiccupped and cruised at less than 4000 rpm at 60 mph, far less, thus journeys were a far less frenzied affair than buzzing down the road in an Austin.

    So, when the Japanese actually started building cars better suited to our conditions that also actually worked most of the time (Toyota Corona in 1966), the sale of Vauxhalls gradually declined.

    Generally, the non Ford and GM British cars tended to fail the basic test: for a car to be acceptable, it must first actually work. And not need a decoke every couple of years – unheard of for domestic cars.

    An opportunity missed for the UK car industry. I’ll never understand why they did not better adapt their cars to be more suitable to the markets they were attempting to serve.

  16. I’ve heard that a lot of British cars built for export had oversized radiators as a lot were going to hotter countries.

    Sometimes these were fitted to home market cars, to save switching them on the production line, so owners had to do the old trick of putting card or foil over the grille to help starting in the winter!

  17. That’s the very first time I have ever heard it suggested that a Ford Consul was an example of superior engineering !

  18. Given the level of technology in the 50s, under-stressed American engines were probably the only way to go in large sparsely populated countries, the continued use of separate chassis by Detroit must have been a big help once rust set in.

    In ’59 the performance gap between a 315hp Chevy Impala and an 86hp Ford Zodiac was huge. In anywhere that didn’t have extremely high fuel taxes you would be mad to not go for the yank. It was also a very well sorted design that was built in the hundreds of thousands with a pretty advanced engine and the option of the very smooth if complicated fluid-coupling four speed Hydra-Matic.

  19. I agree with Bangernomic Gav, in large countries with long distances between the cities, where petrol was cheap like America, Australia and Canada, and living standards were mostly high, large engined cars made more sense. This explains why most cars in Australia in the sixties and seventies were Americanised products with large engines that made long journeys stress free. Also since most cars in these countries were kitted out with options like radios, air conditioning and automatic transmissions, driving was pleasurable, far more than basic European cars that mostly lacked these options.

  20. I also wondered why Morris made a side valve version of the engine in the Morris, but the Wolsley version had OHC.

    The 918cc similarly had an OHV version for the Wolsley versions of the Morris 8, & this was considered for the Minor before the Austin merger.

  21. Apart from bore spacing ( and hence engine size ) – which was probably done for commonality of machine tool reasons – there was really nothing in common between the Wolseley 4/50 and the Oxford engines . The OHC engine was quite a radical design with its rear camshaft drive, not emulated as far as I know until very recent BMW engines

    • What ultimately did the Wolseley OHC engine in?

      Was the fact it used the same machine tooling as the Oxford MO Side-Valve engine what made it inherently unreliable or was the OHC design itself the limiting factor in that it produced not much more power then the Side-Valve unit?

      • The 4 cylinder was used only in the Wolseley 4/50 ( which looked like a 6/80 with a shorter bonnet ) and the 6 cylinder was used in single carb form in the Morris Six, and in twin carb form in the 6/80 . I think it was the cylinder head and camshaft drive which caused most problems – there was nothing wrong with the reliability of the side valve unit

  22. With regard to Wolseley engines – the greatest sadness was when the original Wolseley OHC engine was abandoned – the engine that is fitted to my 1934 Nine but also produced in other sizes pre Morris and badge engineering!

  23. Interestingly concerning old long stroke engines we seem to be returning to this era, for good reason, in that my Jaguar XF diesel is so equipped.

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