Keith Adams tells the story of the Austin A30 and A35.
Here we had a surprising technological leader and one of Britain’s most popular baby cars before the Mini’s arrival in 1959…
Austin A30 and A35: Unsung heroes
Immediately post-war, Government policy meant that Austin’s inability to replace the Seven left Longbridge producing bigger cars tailored for the American market – great for profit and loss, not so good for those people desperately seeking mobility.
It wasn’t until the failure of the first attempt to merge Austin and Morris in 1949 that led Leonard Lord to give the green light to a new small car project that would eventually see the A30 hit the drawing boards that same year. The reason for tooling up for a new ‘baby’ car was simple – now Austin couldn’t join Morris, it would have to beat its Cowley-based rival, and that meant producing a competitor for the Morris Minor.
In engineering terms, the new car would represent a major step forwards for Austin. It was a truly ‘chassis-less’ car – not only a first for the Longbridge company but for the British car industry as a whole. Overseas, the Lancia Lambda and Saab 92 beat Austin to the prize for the world’s first…
Undoubtedly, this production technique had caused plenty of debate during the car’s development – while Leonard Lord himself (an accomplished Engineer) was convinced the system worked, some of his more senior Engineers considered the prospect with some dread – especially considering the fact that Lord was well known for scalping senior members of staff if things went wrong…
Although there were plenty of unitary-construction cars built before the Austin A30 made its first appearance in 1951, the baby Austin’s truly chassis-less set-up meant that there was absolutely no trace of a platform in the conventional sense, whatsoever. All other cars that came before employed a chassis frame of some description, welded to the underside of a separate body – what the A30 did was do away with this production process completely.
Ken Garrett and Ian Duncan were the Engineers tasked with getting the concept into production – and, with extensive experience in the aircraft industry, they were perfectly placed to do the job with their stress engineering.
Had Ian and Ken been given more freedom, the A30 could well have been a whole lot more radical. Initial concepts featured front-wheel drive and rubber suspension (they had worked with Alex Moulton on a previous special, known as the Duncan Dragonfly) and were rapidly rejected, but the body engineering came through unscathed.
This was undoubtedly innovation enough for Austin – a company, which in the Fifties was already earning a reputation for being a little on the conservative side, an image not helped by the innovative products that were being produced by the Nuffield Group at the time.
Over at Nuffield, the great Jack Daniels – the Engineer who alongside Alec Issigonis developed the Morris Minor into a production reality – was suitably impressed. According to Barney Sharratt’s book, ‘The Men and Motors of Austin’ Daniels said, ‘We had built up a full history of the torsional stiffness of all sorts of cars. We were staggered to find that the A30 had a torsional stiffness of about 13,000lb ft per degree of deflection. The Morris Minor gave a figure of only 4500lb ft, and we considered that more than adequate.”
Advanced body, heroic engine
The A30’s construction techniques were a technical leap forward for Austin and there’s no denying that its engine was just as advanced – who would have imagined that it would remain in production into the 21st century…
When the A30 was being developed, the industry norm was for side-valve units – and, indeed, that’s how the Morris Minor was powered, even though Issigonis wanted something far more interesting.
However, Austin’s Engine Designer, Eric Bareham decided that the most logical solution for the A30’s power unit question was to produce what was a scaled-down version of the 1200cc engine found in the Austin A40 (and which would later go on to become the eponymous BMC B-Series). It was a scheme that worked, and much of the engine’s innate efficiency was down to the combustion chamber and valve port designs that were penned by Harry Weslake.
Although it had its faults, the A30 engine in 803cc form ended up being one of the greatest power units of all time. Once it became known as the A-Series engine – following the merger of Austin and Morris to become the British Motor Corporation (BMC) in 1952 there was no stopping it. Produced in transverse and in-line form, and finding itself under the bonnets of cars as diverse as the Austin-Healey Sprite and the Montego 1.3-litre, between 1951 and 2000, over 14-million were built. Alongside the Rover V8, it’s fair to say, that the A-Series was an engine that helped build Britain.
For its Designers, the sweetest irony of all must have been when it became the motive power for the A30’s bitterest rival, the Morris Minor.
Today, the A30 is considered a cute classic, which you’d love to take home and meet your parents. However, styling it was a serious affair – and it was Bob Koto, a Designer from the Raymond Loewy styling studios who produced the first clay models of the A30.
From the outset, it was a very attractive car – but Austin management decided to make changes at every opportunity, and in a bout of cost-cutting, it was reduced in length by 4½ inches – then ended up being restyled by Austin’s Head of Styling, Dick Burzi, to give it more of a family look.
In the end, the final style was extremely pleasing – and is core to the A30’s enduring appeal as a classic car. Children love it, mothers get all maternal about it, and fathers enjoy the fact that tinkering under the bonnet is a rather easy pastime.
When the new four-door Austin A30 ‘Seven’ made its first public appearance after a refreshingly short development programme at the Earls Court Motor Show in October 1951, it made quite an impression with showgoers, hungry for their next new car. Although it shared a deliberately close family resemblance to the larger and rather successful A70 Hereford and (subsequent) A40 Somerset ranges, the important new baby car soon established an individual image all of its own, even before any members of the press or public had driven it.
Powered by a 28bhp version of the new 803cc engine, the A30 was considered powerful enough in relation to the opposition, and the rear-wheel drive transmission package was the norm for the era. The front suspension was independent, by coil springs and wishbones, and at the rear, more conventional semi-elliptical leaf springs kept the back axle in line.
The all-drum hydro-mechanical braking system featured an under-floor master cylinder, controlling the four wheel cylinders on the front backplates, plus a single slave cylinder sited under the rear bodywork. This actuated rods and a cable, linked to mechanical expanders fitted to the rear backplates. It wasn’t a system noted for either its efficiency or power.
Although most potential customers didn’t identify it at the time, the chassis-less construction method remained the major innovation – even if the final style failed to hint at this hidden innovation – perhaps because it was launched at a bargain basement price of £507. That’s £100 cheaper than the Minor was at the time…
These early AS3 models stood out on the road – they were short, but also the narrowest cars you could buy in the UK at the time. This didn’t stop the A30 being adequately commodious for four adults – and, in addition to this, it was quick enough to reach almost 65mph, and sip fuel at the rate of 40-45mpg. Truly, it was a major step forwards in the small car class…
It wasn’t until May 1952 that quantity production of the AS3 model commenced, and there were plenty of detail modifications made to these earlier cars to keep the most ardent Austin spotter amused for years to come.
What the testers thought…
On the road, there were pros and cons in comparison with the Morris Minor. In terms of handling, the car from Cowley emerged a clear winner, and Bill Boddy, writing in Motor Sport magazine in 1953 (following the formation of BMC), commented, ‘In a car which goes along so willingly, handling qualities are of considerable importance. It must be said that the Austin A30 does not possess such good controllability as its near-relation, the Morris Minor.
‘It has a narrower track and is higher, so that steering it on a wet road and in a strong cross wind, or at its terminal velocity downhill, is rather like what we imagine tightrope walking to be – all right if you keep going straight.’
He continued, ‘The suspension is soft, giving a comfortable, pitch-free if somewhat lively ride, but this induces considerable roll oversteer which spoils the cornering properties. Very pleasant high geared steering largely offsets this, and perhaps the fairest way to express the matter is to say that the A30 is controllable, but not enjoyably so.’
So, it wasn’t the dynamic tour de force that the Morris Minor was, but there was certainly a lot to recommend the A30 – and buyers agreed, with sales picking up strongly from almost the day it was launched. Obviously, the advantage of rack and pinion steering was yet to be seen as a major factor influencing the purchasing decision.
In 1953, the A30 was given a few other styling and engineering tweaks, becoming the AS4 in the process. This also included the introduction of the highly popular two-door saloon version (known as the A2S4) before the 1954 introduction of the van and Countryman models.
Upgunning the classic…
In September 1956, the A30 became the A35. The new model was much improved – the most significant upgrade being the engine capacity increase from 803 to 948cc, which gave the car a useful fillip in the performance stakes. The uprated A-Series produced more power, but was also capable of taking the higher octane fuel that was rapidly becoming popular in the post-war boom years.
Cruising ability was also vastly improved, and that meant that the A35 remained a useable baby family saloon. In fact, and surprising for any anyone who considers the A35 a bit on the pedestrian side, it was the most potent car in its class – and by a considerable margin.
At the same time, the Morris Minor also received the upgraded engine, and thanks to its more surefooted handling, made much better use of it. However, despite its known weaknesses in the handling department, the A30 and A35 were raced very successfully in saloon car categories – and that remains the case to this day.
From 1956, the A35 remained in production for quite some time – it was a tough act to follow. The saloons were rendered obsolete by the Mini (or Austin Se7en and Morris Mini-Minor) at that car’s launch in 1959; the Countryman hung around until 1962, and the van all the way to 1968, and the formation of British Leyland. In total, around half a million were made…
The A30 and A35 are classics that retain a very strong following – and, despite the fact that the Mini and Minor overshadowed the cute car commercially, there are enough fans out there to ensure that it will remain in the classic limelight for some time to come.
Legendary drivers such as Jackie Stewart, Graham Hill and, latterly, James Hunt, have all been found enjoying themselves behind the wheel of the Austin A30 and A35 – with certainly the former two enjoying exploring the car’s handling without going near the brake pedal, whatever the speed a bend is attacked at.
James Hunt, famously the owner of a faithful A35 van enjoyed his, although he was well aware of the car’s dynamic – shall we say – foibles. He said: ‘I can put everything I learnt in motor racing into driving it round the Wandsworth one-way system on a wet Saturday night, blow off all the Ferraris and nobody takes a blind bit of notice.’
If there’s a better testament to how much fun you can have in a baby car – and that power isn’t everything in your daily drive on the road – we’ve yet to hear it.