In 1959, Innocenti signed an agreement with BMC that would see it become a car manufacturer for the first time – a deal that would also see the company building the Austin A40 for local consumption.
By 1963, more than 40,000 A40s had rolled off the line in Milan and, as Keith Adams explains, this one had something of a secret…
The first of the hatchback generation
When BMC joined forces with Innocenti in the late 1950s, the first fruit of this appealing union was the Innocenti-built version of the Austin A40. This car was almost a shoe-in for production in Italy: after all, it had been in the vanguard of BMC’s new wave of stylish, Farina-penned models, while also being of the compact two-box design so beloved of Italians.
Production got underway in 1960 and as in the UK, the car would remain in production for the next seven years. However, during that time, the Italian version would see an innovative, even prescient, development which was never offered in the home market.
Austins overseas: Innocenti was one of many
Italy was by no means the first overseas country in which the A40 was built, or rather, assembled. Between the time of its UK launch in October 1958 and the beginning of Italian production towards the end of 1960, it had established itself as something of a world car.
The A40 was exported for assembly in CKD-kit form (Completely Knocked Down) to Australia, Belgium, Holland, Ireland, Mexico, New Zealand, and South Africa.
- Also read: Around the world – Australia
- Also read: Around the world – Belgium
- Also read: Around the world – Holland
- Also read: Around the world – Ireland
- Also read: Around the world – New Zealand
Of course, the car was also widely exported, to countries such as Norway and Sweden, where it was known as the A40 Futura, and even to the USA, where it was quaintly marketed as ‘The Gayest Economy Sedan Ever’.
European strategy centred on Italy
However, Italy was an important market for BMC to crack, and one from which it had thus far been largely excluded due to a protectionist import policy that saw a high sales tax imposed on cars built abroad.
To start with, Innocenti also built its A40s from CKD kits. Bearing in mind that the company’s primary business was in the production of industrial machine tools, it was inevitable that before long Innocenti would pressing its own panels and building the cars from scratch.
From the outset, Innocenti had taken great interest in what would be its first car-building project. The company had insisted on making some changes for the Italian market, such as the wind-up windows, that would later find their way on the UK-built cars.
Differences between Innocenti and Austin A40s
Innocenti also took a fastidious approach to build quality, and it is often remarked that the cars they turned out in Milan could teach their Longbridge counterparts a thing or two. Indeed, in a neat coals-to-Newcastle manoeuvre, Innocenti were actually supplying A40 rear axles to Longbridge for a while…
The Italian versions were known as the Berlina (saloon) and Combinata (estate), the latter being the equivalent of the split-tailgate A40 Countryman, as sold in the UK and across the rest of Europe.
In February 1962, the Austin A40 Series 2 version was introduced, gaining the extended wheelbase and handling refinements which had been introduced on the UK’s Mk2 version the previous year.
Other changes included a variety of other minor styling revisions, such as rectangular indicators and side repeaters. However, the Innocenti A40’s most forward-thinking feature would not arrive until the end of the year…
The best innovation of them all
In December 1962, Innocenti’s A40 gained the 1098cc A-Series engine (replacing the original 948cc unit), and become the A40S – as before, it came in Berlina and Combinata varieties, but the latter version had a new trick up its sleeve.
Rather than retaining the split-tailgate of the previous version, the A40S Combinata had a single-piece, top-hinged tailgate – in fact, what we might call a hatchback today. Taken together with the original car’s general dimensions and two-box design, the A40S Combinata arguably set the blueprint for the superminis that would follow around a decade later.
Admittedly, though, under the skin the A40S was still rear-wheel drive with relatively primitive, A35-sourced underpinnings, and its A-Series engine was installed in a north-south configuration.
Was this the first true supermini?
- Also read: Blog – why the Italians beat us to the supermini
- Also read: Blog – Hatchbacks – the forgotten generation
However, bear in mind that it took GM another 13 years to launch the similarly-arranged Vauxhall Chevette, and you get some idea of how ground-breaking the new Combinata’s concept really was.
Ever since the launch of the Series 2 version, the split-tailgate Combinata had been outselling the two-door Berlina, but the introduction of the A40S saw Combinata sales streak ahead.
In 1965, the Berlina was withdrawn from sale, but the Combinata remained in production until 1967 (as did the A40 in the UK), selling steadily alongside the four-door BMC 1100 varieties that also rolled out of the Milan plant. In all, over 67,000 A40s were built there.
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