The cars : Austin A40 Sports

To complement the recent article about the Jensen Interceptor and FF, it’s worth looking at what came before – and, in particular, the pretty little Austin A40 Sports.

It’s the car that saved Jensen from possible demise in the period.


Austin A40 Sports: life before the Jensen FF

Austin 40 Sports

This is not an exhaustive history of Jensen – others, such as Richard Calver, have done that much better than I ever could. Like some other manufacturers of the period, Alan and Richard Jensen started by building a sports body on the clever little Austin Seven chassis – in their case it was a second-hand one and was built in 1928.

From 1929, following the Standard Motor company being impressed with their effort, the Jensen bothers were contracted to design bodywork for Avon of Warwick for bodies to be built on Standard chassis.

Joe Patrick joined the brothers in 1930 and they went into sales and servicing – plus some special bodywork projects. This was based in a garage on the outskirts of Birmingham – the Jensen brothers’ home town.

From small beginnings

Unfortunately, this ‘partnership’ didn’t last long and within a year the brothers had approached W. J. Smith and Son at West Bromwich; a company that had specialised in bodywork for some time.

Jensen Motors Limited was formed with the re-naming of the company following the unfortunate demise of William Smith in 1936. The ‘White Lady’ – a powerful 3.5-litre Ford V8 open tourer may be considered the first ‘proper’ Jensen in 1935.

The company had already built up a good trade in bodywork for vans, lorries and buses and, indeed, in 1939 produced a revolutionary light-weight, light-alloy lorry. This vehicle was very advanced and circumnavigated the weight and speed restrictions of the time.

War work and the future

Like many other manufactures, Jensen profited from war work which put them in a sound financial position when peace broke out.

The brothers lost no time in designing and releasing an up-market luxury saloon but again, as so many other manufacturers found, getting materials was not easy. Less than 20 of these beautifully appointed cars were made. The writer has been lucky enough to see one and the attention to detail was exquisite.

Designer par excellence

The real change in company fortunes came about when Eric Neale joined them as Chief Stylist and Designer. Here was a man with an enviable back-catalogue of well-respected cars – for Singer, Lanchester, Daimler, Austin and Wolseley – the latter both before and after the war.

Eric Neale designed all Jensens from 1946 up to the 1966 Interceptor. This latter car was, of course, designed by Carrozzeria Touring of Italy, but Eric stayed on to bring the car ready for home market acceptance. He did resign once this was accomplished.

The first Interceptor appeared in 1950 and utilised the then current Austin A70 chassis – slightly elongated. The engine came from the Austin Sheerline – a straight six of 4.0-litre capacity. Released initially as a convertible, the bodywork was essentially aluminium although some parts were steel. A very clever arrangement was that the Perspex wrap-around rear window dropped neatly into a well when the soft-top was lowered. A mostly wooden frame supported the panel work.

The car had Girling hydro-mechanical brakes and, towards the end of production, an over-drive was fitted as standard. The car was good for around 95mph with a 0-60mph time of just under 18 seconds. These figures have to be taken in context of the time of course.

Eighty eight cars were produced including the fabric-roofed saloon.

Famously, Briggs Cunningham of US race-car fame, got his Interceptor to do over 140mph by fitting a 331cu Chrysler V8. This might just have given the Jensen brothers an idea that would come to fruition much later!

The Austin A40 Sports arrives

Austin A40 Sports

Produced from 1950 until 1953, the A40 Sports was essentially a scaled-down Interceptor (below) in appearance – although, in reality, as the A40 was released before the Jensen, it was the other way around.

Usually though, when a stylist scales up or down, the result is not better than the original – witness the Triumph Mayflower which was never as happy aesthetically as its bigger brother, the Renown. However, in this case, the A40 Sports demonstrates a perfect line with proportions absolutely right. Today, most people appreciate the stunning simplicity and ‘correctness’ of every panel.

The four-speed gearbox – originally a floor and later a column change – was straight from the Devon and later Somerset saloons. These cars were infamous for their durability and reliability – they sold all over the world and earned more dollars for our cash-strapped Government than any car before or since. More than 450,000 Devons were built and over 170,000 Somersets.

Jensen Interceptor

Record-breaking exploits

Both cars were involved in various world record attempts and long distance events – often under the management of Alan Hess, the BMC public relations guru. Those cars, with their ‘cuddly’ good looks came from the pen of Dick Burzi – the ex-Lancia Designer of so many Austin and later BMC cars including the infamous A30 and A35.

The Sports was released at the 1949 Earls Court Motor Show and, like its big brother, was a mix of aluminium and steel – in this case having a steel bonnet and boot lid with wings, doors and front and rear panels in aluminium. The writer has been told that the front panel which goes from the corners of the screen to the very front lip behind the bumper – and thus incorporates the grille shape – is beaten from one piece of aluminium.

To complement the stunning shape, the interior was also given luxurious trim with deep-backed wide seats and a high level of trim, particularly the GD3 series which had a Jensen-built dashboard – an upgrade on the earlier Austin Devon steel version.

Sporty but not a sports car

The Devon (and later Somerset) engines were fitted with twin SU carburettors and developed 46bhp as opposed to the standard saloons that gave 42bhp. Fuel consumption was typical of the day – at around 29mpg.

Performance, as might be expected, was not exactly breathtaking with a realistic maximum of around 80mph and 0-60 time of around 20-24 seconds depending on which contemporary road test one reads. Obviously the car isn’t happy or capable of cruising down the motorway at ‘Audi’ speeds, but it can certainly keep up with modern traffic in normal rural conditions.

The bodies were built by Jensen and then taken (usually on a Jensen-built lorry) to Longbridge for final assembly. The car sold at £818 in the UK when a Vauxhall Velox saloon was £550 and the company’s own A40 was just over £500.

Around the world we go…

Austin A40 Sports - LOJ9 in competition

Famously, Alan Hess and his team drove an A40 Sports around the world in 21 days, in 1951. Obviously, the car took flight when necessary but nevertheless averaged 475 miles a day at 29mpg.

One particular car – registered LOJ9 (above) – was photographed a great deal because it was an odd choice to go racing with. The car also appeared in various trials across the country. I had a long conversation with Tom Fleetwood, the owner and driver of LOJ 9 sometime in 1970. He was at the point of fitting a Daimler two and quarter litre V8 because, as he’d said at the time, ‘the 1200 engine is really getting outclassed by TR3s at the moment’.

I don’t know if he ever did fit the V8. I rang him again and again for a year or so but he never answered and neither did he respond to letters. He just went completely off the radar and I never saw the car appear in print again. I’ve always wondered what happened to Tom and his car and I cherish the few pictures he sent me of the car racing alongside TR3s at various circuits – but, unfortunately, they are not good enough to reproduce here. If any ‘AROnliner’ knows more, I’d love to hear it.

Enter the world of fibreglass

Jensen 541

The biggest seismic shift for Jensen came with the change from traditional aluminium bodywork to fibreglass. This allowed Eric Neale to extend his thinking regarding double curvatures and super-smooth lines – such as integrated wing mouldings. However, the very first 541 shown at the 1953 Motor Show was, in fact, in aluminium – but production costs were enormous and manufacture was a challenge.

The new 541R was a grand tourer par excellence and was made from 1957 until 1960. Again, a two door four-seater, this model was available in hard-top form only. Contemporary test reports indicated that this car was outstanding with a top speed of 125 mph and was the fastest four seater that Autocar had ever tested at that time.

Jensen was, of course, involved in so many projects from Volvo’s P1800 to the big Healeys and from the Jensen Healey to the Sunbeam Tiger and a host of other grand designs.

For a more detailed account of this car, the Classics World website is excellent and, of course, Richard Calver’s superb history of Jensen – can be found on the web too. The Austin Counties Car Club also caters for the car admirably.

The A40 Sports today

As an A40 Sports owner today – some 53 years after buying our first one – it is heartening that the car is at last being appreciated by a wider audience. We take MXP 620 (above) to many shows and use her for ordinary trips and she arouses a lot of interest. She’s utterly practical to use as an everyday car and is a pleasure to drive.

The constant appreciation of that restrained but perfect styling always bring a smile. Here’s to you Eric Neale!

Austin A40 Sports

2 Comments

  1. Datsun were seemingly influenced by the Devon based A40 Sports when they developed the first generation 1959-1962 Datsun Sports 1000/1200, even though the latter made use of later licenced built A50 Cambridge mechanicals .

  2. Martyn may wish to correct a couple of obvious errors in this otherwise interesting article. The A40 Sports was launched at the 1950 Motor show – not the 1949. The first Sports to go in production were manufactured in January 1951 when 551 were made in that production year. The boot lid of the Sports is actually made from Aluminium, the only steel panel on the car being the bonnet. Also the bodies of the A40 Sports were made by Jensen at their Pensnett factory, not in West Bromwich. They were not transported on a JenTug Lorry – That is just a publicity shot. In reality three motorised chassis were driven to Jensen and the bodies dropped on – before being driven back to Longbridge to be trimmed and prepared for export. David Whyley ACCC A40 Sports Representative.

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