The story of Austin of England begins in Longbridge, South Birmingham, just as it continued until 2019, as the only remaining factory in British hands in what was once, a huge and sprawling empire. Herbert Austin had started out in the motor industry, working at Wolseley cars, where he quickly became the general manager.
In 1905, he resigned from the company, so he could set-up on his own. Production of his first car, the chain-driven 25/30HP, started a year later – this particular car being noteworthy for being well-made, employing a side valve T-head engine and separately cast cylinders.
Production was expanded so that within three years, Austin offered a full range of 15, 18/24 and 40HP four cylinder models and a 60HP Six. Four of the six cylinder models were entered in the 1908 French Grand Prix, but two of these were crash damaged in practice. Out of the two damaged cars, one good one was salvaged, but it fared badly in the race, suffering from a seizure. The two that were left did go on to finish, crossed the line in 18th and 19th position.
The first mini-Austin breaks cover
In 1909, a mini car, the single cylinder 7HP model appeared. It was effectively a re-badged Swift, but it was in no doubt the inspiration for the later Austin Seven of 1922. Austin was growing as a car producer, offering this full range of cars, starting at the 7HP, through the odd 15HP model with its cab-over-engine configuration, culminating with the 60HP model, which boasted an engine of almost 6.0 litres.
Production was punctuated by WW1 in 1914, as was life itself. 1919 saw the next change in the Austin manufacturing philosophy where instead of previously, there had been a wide range of cars, catering for a wide range of tastes, he offered just one car – the 3.6-litre Austin 20. Unfortunately, this large, American inspired car failed to sell in any great numbers and along with mounting losses caused by the government decreed West Works Shell factory, led to Austin being placed under receivership in 1920.
In double-quick time, Austin produced a smaller, more UK-friendly design, the 1.6-litre Austin Twelve, effectively a scaled down version of the Austin 20. This car did manage to sell and remained in production until 1936, seemingly beginning the love affair that UK Manufacturers seem to have with long production runs.
Seven revolutionises Austin
The car that saved Austin’s bacon, though, was the legendary Seven, launched a year after the Twelve, in 1922. Conceived as a response to the motorcycle/side-car combinations that Herbert Austin despised so much, but which were proliferating on our roads. He and draftsman Stanley Edge planned the car using the billiard table he possessed at home in order to give it scale. The resulting car was a 696cc (later enlarged to 747cc) open topped four-seater which could most aptly be described as a scaled down replica of a full-sized car.
The Seven proved to be a huge success, helping put the working class on wheels, and it went on to sell 290,000 in a production that continued through to 1939. The companies that would become BMW in Bavaria began car production building the Austin Seven under licence. Nissan’s version of the Austin Seven, however, was a clone of the car – not an agreed venture – and when Herbert Austin inspected one of Nissan’s cars, it was considered just different enough to avoid litigation…
Because of the success of the Seven, Austin re-embarked on his bid to build larger cars, developing and launching a replacement for the ill-fated Austin 20, this time using a 3.4 litre six-cylinder engine, as opposed to the four of its predecessor.
Austin’s growth pre- and post-war
In the run-up to WW2, as well as the larger cars, Austin’s range comprised of the 2.3-litre Austin Sixteen, launched in 1928, the 1125cc Austin Ten, the 1525cc Austin Light 12/4 and the replacement for the Austin Seven, the unoriginally named 900cc Austin Eight.
After WW2, Austin initially built its pre-war models, but quickly produced, its first post-war model, the Austin Sixteen. This was not an entirely new car, comprising of a new-to-Austin overhead valve engine displacing 2199cc, which was fitted to the 1940-vintage Austin Twelve body and chassis.
The genuinely new cars soon began to arrive, though. In 1948, the Princess, the A125 Sheerline, the A70 Hampshire and the 1.2-litre A40 all appeared in quick succession. The Austin A40 Devon, which boasted independent front suspension and a 1.2-lire engine which was considered to be the direct predecessor to the visually similar and long-lived B-Series engine.
Building for America
The year of 1948 also saw the introduction of the Austin A90 Atlantic, a car pitched unashamedly at the US car market. ‘Export or Die’ was the slogan of late-’40s Britain and the A90 was built with just this in mind. It possessed what could be described as Transatlantic styling intended to appeal to the Americans. Needless to say, it did not – and of course, the British did not find it a whole lot appealing either, if only they could buy it anyway. The 2660cc did, however, outlive the car – ending up in the Austin Healey sports car as well as a few in the civilian version of the Austin Champ.
The last cars to be developed Austin, while still an independent company were the Metropolitan, Cambridge and the Westminster.
Austin and Morris join to form BMC
Old rivalries were slaked in 1952 when Austin and Morris merged to form the British Motor Corporation; that year saw the appearance of Longbridge’s first unitary construction car, the A30, with an 803cc A-Series overhead-valve engine. The curiously styled Metropolitan (above), another Longbridge bid to break into the American market, and made initially for Nash (later part of American Motors) appeared in 1954. It was powered by a 948cc A40 engine.
New in 1955 were the Cambridge, with A40 or A50 engines, and the 2.6-litre six-cylinder C-Series-powered Westminster. The 1959 range was styled by Farina, whose Austin Cambridge theme was repeated on badge-engineered versions of the MG, Morris, Wolseley and Riley. That year, too, the revolutionary Mini appeared, and was initially sold as the Austin Se7en.
Designed by Alec Issigonis, it featured a transversely-mounted 848 cc A-series power unit with a four-speed gearbox in the sump. Unconventional features of the design were Moulton rubber suspension, 10-inch wheels and a distinctive boxy shape.
Front-wheel drive revolution
The Mini was followed in 1964 by the Austin 1100, with Hydrolastic
suspension also sold as a Morris earlier from 1962), with the less successful 1800 following two years later.
BMC was swallowed by Leyland in 1968 to form British Leyland; the following year the Maxi appeared, with a 1485cc overhead-cam engine.
Rear-Wheel drive was phased out for good out in 1971 when the short-lived
3-litre ceased production.
The Maxi was followed by the Allegro and 18-22 Series (briefly), and the Metro in 1980. That should have been the beginning of the rebirth of Austin, but the Maestro and Montego failed to sell in enough numbers to make a profit – leaving the Austin name to quietly die out in 1987, overshadowed as it was by the newly-emergent Rover…