IF HERBERT AUSTIN
had followed his father's wishes, he would have become either an indifferent architect or a competent railway engineer. As it was, he followed his own inclination and became one of the major forces in the establishment of the British motor industry.
He was born on 8 November 1866, the son of a poor Buckinghamshire farmer. Shortly after Herbert's birth the family fortunes took a turn for the better, for his father, Giles, was appointed farm bailiff on Earl Fitzwilliam's Wentworth Estate in Yorkshire, where Giles's brother was architect.
Because of a natural talent for drawing, young Herbert was indentured to his architect uncle after he had completed his education at Rotherham Grammar School and Brampton Commercial College, but he had little liking for this career and his articles of apprenticeship were cancelled.
After this, and because Herbert liked the thought of becoming an engineer, his name was entered for an apprenticeship with the Great Northern Railway. However, while he was waiting for a vacancy, his mother's brother, Waiter Simpson, arrived in England from Australia, and held young Austin spellbound with his descriptions of the new country and the opportunities it offered.
When Waiter Simpson returned to Australia Herbert Austin sailed with him, the Great Northern apprenticeship cast aside. For the next few years Austin devoted himself to becoming an engineer, taking on a wide variety of projects from gold mining equipment to gas engines.
Wolseley and Austin Develop The Mechanical Sheep Shearer
Then he met Frederick York Wolseley
(brother of the famous general Sir Garnet Wolseley), who had developed a mechanical sheep shearer and was then engaged in the uphill task of trying to persuade Australian squatters to sheer their sheep by machinery. Like Austin, Wolseley had a natural aptitude for engineering: together the two men perfected the design of the sheep shearer until it was robust and reliable enough to become a practical proposition.
Mass-producing it was another problem, for Australia just wasn't advanced enough, technologically, to carry out this type of work. So a new company was set up in London, and in 1893 Austin, his Australian wife and young daughter sailed to England where he was to be manager of the new Wolseley factory, based in Birmingham.
He found the affairs of the new company in total confusion. The machines were assembled from bought-in components, and the suppliers were working to a uniformly low standard. Things were so bad that Wolseley resigned in 1894, but Austin eventually forced the company into buying a new factory large enough to manufacture all their own requirements. After this the sheep shearing business began to make headway, and eventually Austin was employing a sizeable workforce.
The business was extremely seasonal, so Austin decided that, rather than layoff men during the winter months, he would use them to build machine tools as a prelude to a much grander design. In 1894 (or 1895)
Austin visited France on business, taking the opportunity to inspect the primitive motor cars that were stuttering about the streets of Paris at that period. Here, he thought, was an even more fruitful field for those under-employed workmen, for there was a strong chance that the legal restrictions on motoring in Britain would soon be eased, creating a demand from wealthy sportsmen for horseless carriages.
St John C. Nixon and Topper Brown aboard the Wolseley Voiturette of 1899.
The 11.9 Litre 'Beetles' were introduced in 1904 with low, streamlined bodies. The radiator cowling was left off this car when it was driven by the Hon. C. S. Rolls in the 1905 Gordon Bennett race, which we think must mean there were cooling problems.
The rear part of the 1908 Austin Landaulette was convertible, so that passengers could enjoy the sun if they wished.
The Austin Chummy was one of the many versions produced between 1922 and 1938 at Longbridge. It was first produced in 1923.
The photo above is from Brooklands, taken on August 8th, 1931. The driver is Leon Cushman, sitting inside his supercharged Seven Special, which took the 750cc class records for both the kilometre and mile.
The above illustrations start with the Austin Eight, which replaced the ubiquitous Seven in 1939, and was an immediate favourite. Next is the A70 Hampshire that was produced from 1948 until 1951, the Austin Atlantic Sports, and finally the Austin A30.
The Austin Cambridge models ranged from the 1954 A40 to the A55 Mark 1 of 1958.
Pictured is a Vanden Plas bodies Austin A135 circa 1955.
The frontal styling of the 1961 Austin A55 Cambridge was typical of the work of Italian stylist Pininfarina.
front wheel drive Mini" width="400" height="230" border="0" class="img100">
The First Alec Issigonis' Masterpiece, the front wheel drive Mini, was announced in 1959.
The Second Alec Issigonis' Masterpiece was the Austin 1100, announced in 1963.
The Austin 3 Litre was announced in 1967, being a stretched version of the 1800. History would judge it as a failure.
Austin's First Experimental Three Wheelers
In 1896 Austin built two experimental three-wheelers - the first, with a rear-mounted, flat-twin engine driving the single rear wheel, bore a superficial resemblance to the French Leon Bollee voiturette.
It was one of the first cars to have a gate gearchange, in this case shaped like an 'E' rather than the Mercedes 'H' of 1900. Austin's second car, which was exhibited at the 1896 National Cycle Show at the Crystal Palace, was a single-front-wheeler, again a twin-cylinder model. This car was catalogued for sale-two-seater £110, four-seater £150 - but there is no evidence that any customers came forward at that time.
The Thousand Miles Trial of 1900
Even so, experience with this model paved the way for the first Wolseley four-wheeler, built in 1899. This had a single-cylinder horizontal engine, tiller steering, and belt-and-chain drive: it came through the Thousand Miles Trial of 1900 with success and formed the basis of a limited production run. After a while demand far exceeded the Sheep Shearing Company's spare capacity-and the willingness of its directors to become involved in this wild project of Austin's - so he had to search for new backers.
Vickers, Sons & Maxim
Eventually the huge Vickers, Sons & Maxim concern became interested - Austin knew Sir Hiram Maxim and had, it is believed, watched the trials of Maxim's steam aeroplane in 1894. Full-scale production of Wolseley cars began in Vickers' Adderley Park, Birmingham, factory in 1901. The cars were quite advanced for their day, with channel steel chassis and worm and wheel steering. Between the formation of the new Wolseley Tool & Motor Car Company on 18 February 1901 and the end of that year, turnover amounted to £22,368.
By 1903, the annual turnover had risen to £171,136. 'In the early days of motoring,' recalled Austin when interviewed by The Autocar
in 1929, 'racing was of the greatest possible value .... The speed limitation was severe, and therefore in ordinary use faults in car design only came home to roost after a somewhat lengthy period.' So a racing programme formed an important part of Wolseley's development programme.
The 11.9 Litre Wolseley 'Beetles'
In 1902, two 30 hp, four-cylinder models and one 45 hp, three-cylinder were built - the two 30s ran in the Paris-Vienna race, but were eliminated by engine faults. Perhaps the most famous of the Wolseley racers were the 11.9-litre, four-cylinder 'Beetles' built for the Gordon Bennett race series. These had low, streamlined bodies with, when they were introduced in 1904, a viciously pointed cowling over the radiator
like the vizored casque of some medieval helmet.
was left uncovered in the 1905 Gordon Bennett, however, pointing to cooling troubles. At this point in time only Napier and Wolseley were upholding Britain's honour in international racing, but while the Napier touring cars were expensive machines built for the luxury market, the Wolseleys were moderately priced vehicles, easily affordable by the middle class motorist who enjoyed basking in the company's reflected racing glory.
Sales of the Wolseley 10 hp and 20 hp models were brisk - by 1903 the Adderley Park works was turning out nine cars a week - and the opening of a new factory at Crayford, Kent, in 1904 gave the company additional capacity for a weekly output of twenty of their new 6 hp models. Public opinion was beginning to go against Austin's horizontal-engined cars: vertical engines were the thing, even if the transmission layout had to be more complex than the direct chain drive of the transverse Wolseley engines.
Austin Severes Ties With Wolseley
The Wolseley directors wanted Austin to design a vertical engine, but he refused, so they took on John D. Siddeley as General Manager - they were already manufacturing his cars under licence at Crayford. The horizontal-vertical engine argument had only been an excuse: Austin had all along wanted to be his own master. He was already looking for a suitable factory and by November 1905 the secret was out. 'Mr Herbert Austin, whose name is a familiar word in the motor world ... has severed his connection with the Wolseley Tool & Motor Company and will, in future, produce cars under his own name. At first two sizes of pleasure cars, viz a 15/20 hp and a 25/30 hp, will be built; both will employ the most approved principles in design and will be made out of the highest grade of materials it is possible to obtain'
, ran a statement issued by Austin's new company.
With money provided by Captain Frank Kayser of the Kayser Ellison Steel Company and Harvey du Cros Jr, of the Dunlop Tyre Company, Austin bought a disused factory at Longbridge, Birmingham. The prototype
Austin car was scheduled to be running by the end of 1905, but the best the company could manage was a set of blueprints in a corner of the stand taken by Ariel cars - another of Du Cros's companies - at the 1905 Olympia motor show. The prototype, a chain-driven 25/30 hp model, did not make its maiden run until the spring of 1906.
From 147 to 1500 Cars Per Year
Despite its lateness, it was well received. 'The 25/30 hp All British Austin Car has been fortunate in its inception and promises to have a future brimful of success for those responsible for its commercial success
,' eulogised Motor Trader,
a specialist British magazine. In 1907 the Austin Motor Company built 147 cars, and employed 400 men; by 1913 output had risen to 1500, employees to 2000. This rapid growth had not been without its problems: once a cheque that had been earmarked for the staff wages failed to arrive and Austin had to go on a 'cycling tour' until it came.
The Light Car Masterpiece, The Popular Touring Car and The Fast Touring Model and the Mountaineer
Less than three years after its foundation, the company had extended its range to include three four-cylinder models - 15 hp ('The Light Car Masterpiece'), 18/24 hp ('The Popular Touring Car') and 40 hp ('The Fast Touring Model') plus a 60 hp six ('For Mountaineering and Heavy Touring'). In addition, they had become embroiled, albeit peripherally, in the complex world of Adolphe Clement, whose empire spread throughout the French and English motor industries.
The Austin 18/24, 40 and 60 hp Gladiators
Austin's involvement was the manufacture, in 1908-9, of 18/24, 40 and 60 hp Gladiators (alias en Clement-Gladiator) for the English market; these were Austins in all respects save for the radiator
and minor alterations to the engine dimensions. Then, in 1909-1910, Austin marketed a low-cost 1100 cc single-cylinder car, which was no more than a re-radiatored Swift.
For 1910 Austin announced that a 10 hp, four-cylinder model would be produced for export only; but the following year this was catalogued for the home market too. Austin believed in self-sufficiency, and the company made nearly all their own coachwork, a keynote of which was their advanced design. This was mainly due to Austin's continuing involvement in motor sport. In 1908 he had entered a team of racers, based on bored-out 60 hp chassis, in the French Grand Prix; these were reliable, but not fast enough to be competitive with the French and German entries, and finished 18th and 19th.
These cars were subsequently converted to fast touring cars, starting a line of sporting Austins which led to the 40 hp Vitesse of 1910 and the Defiance of 1912-13, built on both 30 and 40 hp chassis. These two models carried flush-sided torpedo coachwork that was as handsome as many of its contemporaries were ugly. By this time, too, the Austin Company was firmly established in the commercial vehicle field. As well as vans based on their private car chassis, they built a 3-ton truck with the unusual feature of a separate propellor shaft to each rear wheel.
Manufacturing For The Great War
It was this vehicle which formed a staple part of their output during World War 1. They built 2000 of these lorries, as well as 480 armoured cars based on the same chassis. In fact, Austin manufactured all types of munitions from guns to Lewis gun carts; the company's other major contributions to the war effort were shells (over 8 million of them, ranging from 18lb to 210 mm monsters), aero-engines (2500 of all types) and aircraft.
Austins Son Killed By A Sniper At La Bassee
They built over 350 RE scouts and 1500 SE 5a fighters, plus some experimental aeroplanes of their own design. Even though Herbert Austin emerged from the war with a munitions knighthood, it was small consolation for him, as his son Vernon had been killed by a sniper at La Bassee. After that, Austin, who was elected Unionist MP for Kings Heath, Birmingham, in 1919, submerged himself in work, developing his postwar model.
Post War Sales Boom, Then Bust
During the war he had used a Hudson
16 and felt that there was a definite market for a British equivalent of this big American car. However, he made the mistake of following a one-model policy and, good car though the new Austin 20 was, it was not good enough to sustain the company during the slump which so quickly followed the post-war boom in car sales. Though the price at which it was announced - £48s for the tourer - was inducement enough for the conservative British customers to overlook its 'Americanisms' like central gearchange and wooden wheels, it proved totally unrealistic.
You Buy A Car - But You Invest In An Austin
During the first year of production an increase of £200 became necessary and sales slumped so badly that an Official Receiver had to be called in. To increase sales, Austin produced what was virtually a scaled-down 20 - the 1.7-litre Heavy Twelve
. It was an immediate success and remained in production as a car until 1936, surviving in taxicab form right into the 1940s, epitomising the company's famous slogan: 'You buy a car - but you invest in an Austin'.
That phrase summed up Herbert Austin's philosophy of engineering: he was always willing to adopt new ideas, but change for its own sake was definitely out. The Twelve restored the company's flagging fortunes, but now Austin was ready to pinpoint a whole new market area-and dominate it. His inspiration was the growing number of motor cycle and sidecar combinations on the roads. While these were a cheap method of family motoring, they were hardly ideal, particularly in wet weather, as well as being far from comfortable at any time.
Converting The Billiard Room, And Designing The Austin Seven
The crude cyclecars then available were normally only two seaters, badly engineered and lethal to drive. What was needed, thought Austin, was a real car in miniature, a full four-seater no bigger than a motor-cycle combination. His friends and colleagues for the most part treated his proposals with ridicule. So he converted the billiard room at his house into a drawing office and, helped by a young draughtsman, designed a tiny four-seater- the Austin Seven
Faith, Hope and Gravity Lubrication
Originally, he planned to power it with a flat-twin engine, but the prototype
was so rough that Austin changed his mind, deciding on a tiny four- cylinder engine of 696 cc. Tests showed that more power was needed, so production Sevens had a 747 cc engine, which was a lively, if crude, power unit featuring a two-bearing crank and 'faith, hope and gravity' lubrication. The Seven, which made its debut in summer 1922, was a remarkable little machine, based on a skimpy A-shaped chassis with a transverse front spring and rear 4 quarter-elliptics; well ahead of its contemporaries, the new Austin had four-wheel brakes
- even though the handbrake only acted on the front wheels, the footbrake on the back.
'Pa' Austin was delighted with his new baby-but others were still dubious, calling it a toy. 'The whole staff thought the old man was going soft in the head,' recalled aviation pioneer E.C. Gordon England, who was attempting to get Austin to provide a racing Seven for 750 cc class record attempts at Brooklands
. Gordon England and Austin's son-in-law, Arthur Waite, led a band of drivers, professional and amateur, who competed in a wide range of speed events with the little side-valve Seven.
The Seven's first competition appearance was at the Shelsley Walsh hill-climb in August 1922, when Waite's car, driven by L. Kings, took only 20 seconds longer for the ascent than the Austin 20, again driven by Kings, which carried off the open award for the meeting. When the car was first announced, in July 1922, its price was £225, but by December the figure had dropped to £165, effectively killing the cheap and nasty cyclecars at one stroke.
Killing Off The Cyclecar
Orders began to pour in, and soon the Seven was Austin's principal product. By mid 1928, 60,000 Sevens had been built and a wide variety of special versions, ranging from sports two-seaters to stylish saloons, were being offered by various coachbuilders. Austin, in the mood for further expansion, had proposed amalgamation with Morris, and even with Ford, whose British sales had suffered badly from the rise of the Seven, but nothing came of his approaches.
Meanwhile, development of the racing Sevens kept the little cars firmly in the public eye: in late 1924, Gordon England almost succeeded in beating the crack Salmson team in the 1100 cc class of the 200-mile race at Brooklands
, then he topped this by winning the 1925 French Light Car Grand Prix. In 1925 Waite began development of a supercharged Seven, with the aim of breaking the 100 mph barrier: but he could not better 92 mph with this model. It was not until 1931 that a racing Seven known as the 'Flying Canary' became the first 750CC car to exceed roo mph in Britain, using a blown Ulster Sports engine, developed from the power unit of the team cars that almost stole the 1929 Ulster Grand Prix
from Carraciola's Mercedes and Campari's Alfa Romeo.
The Flying Canary
Ultimately, the 'Flying Canary' took records up to 10 miles at Montlhery at a speed of over 109 mph, still with a two-bearing crank! By this time MG were posing a challenge, so Austin commissioned a young designer named Murray Jamieson to produce a new racer. At first, Jamieson tried to squeeze more power out of the sidevalve Seven engine. Running on methanol at 30 psi supercharge, the power unit would develop 80 bhp - eight times the output of the 1922 prototype
- but cracked its block after 20 seconds at full throttle. So Jamieson began work on a twin overhead camshaft racer. Originally he planned a mid-engined, 160 bhp, 12,000 rpm car, but Austin rejected this 165 mph project as too radical.
Eventually, a more orthodox vehicle was developed, with an engine developing 120 bhp, enough to give one of the three built a lap speed of 121. 14 mph on the outer circuit at Brooklands. During its first racing season, the ohc model did not fulfil its initial promise, but as eventually developed, it was 'the finest in the world in its class'. Meanwhile, the Seven had spread all over the world. It was being built under licence in France as the Rosengart, in Germany as the Dixi, in America as the Bantam and in Japan as the Datsun. Over 29,000 were built at Longbridge before production ceased in 1938, and after that Reliant acquired manufacturing rights to the engine, which they fitted to their three-wheelers until 1962.
Although his light car project had succeeded far beyond his expectations, Austin did not neglect the larger vehicles. A new 20, this time a six, appeared in 1927, followed by the 16/6 in 1928. The 12/6 of 1931 was, however, an unworthy companion to the 12/4, but the 1932 Ten was an excellent little car. In sharp contrast to Austin's postwar one-model policy, the company now offered an almost bewildering variety of cars, from 747 to 3400 cc - the 1935 range consisted of the Seven, the 10/4, the Light 12/4, the Heavy 12/4, two 12/6s (1500cc and 1700cc), the 16/6, the 18/6 and the 20/6, all available with several body styles.
For the first time the traditional Austin radiator
was replaced by a pressed, slatted shell. Austin, who became Lord Austin of Longbridge in 1936, had little time for fashionable styling trends, and he was doubtless less and less pleased as subsequent facelifts in 1937 and 1939 increased the streamlined look, even though, like himself, the cars were still middle class at heart. Austin still retained his old mannerisms: his workers used to gauge his temper by the angle of his bowler hat. If it was well forward, he was in a good mood; if it was pushed back towards his neck, then there was trouble brewing.
Another 'fair weather' sign was his habit of rubbing the top of his head with 'a peculiar to-and- fro motion' with one hand while fiddling with his watch chain with the other. Right into the 1930s he would spend hours in the factory, and was quite likely to take over a machining operation to show the operative how it should be done - his quirk of working left-handed with tools helped him with awkward jobs. He had even been known to mend an hydraulic lift while wearing his best suit. When World War 2 broke out, Lord Austin continued to oversee the factory, which had to switch from an annual output approaching 100,000 vehicles to munitions production of an even more varied character than in 1914 - 1918. He was still in harness when he died of a heart attack, in May 1941.
The Austin Sheerline and Princess 4-litre
After the war, the new Austin Sheerline and Princess 4-litre luxury models were the marque's first production cars to feature independent front suspension, in 1948 came the bulbous Devon and Dorset saloons, again with Overhead valves, which had first featured in the 1945 16, were also a feature of these models. In 1952, Leonard Lord, the new head of Austin, pulled off the merger with Morris that Herbert Austin had dreamed of back in 1925. The deal also brought Wolseley back into the fold - Lord Nuffield had outbid Austin at that company's bankruptcy sale in 1927.
The Austin-Morris combination became the British Motor Corporation: the first fruit of the union was the Austin A30
. This little car was really a modern day 'Seven' - the fourth in the line - designed to appeal to the masses. Although, in engineering terms, the A30
was far from being spectacular, it was a success right from its introduction in 1951. Mechanically it was remarkable only for its, then rare, monocoque body. It was powered by an overhead-valve engine of 803 cc, which also did sterling service in its stablemate the Morris Minor.
A modern descendant of the engine was to be used in the Allegro
many years later. In fact the engine's potential for modification was realised from the start: at the age of 80-plus, the former racing driver Vernon Balls fitted his A30 with a Marshall supercharger to unleash a roadgoing performance in the tradition of Herbert Austin's racing Sevens.
Although the company had been absorbed into the giant corporation, the Austin identity was retained. The A30 made way for the larger engined A35 in 1956 and from then on all Austins, except the 4-litre model, featured unitary construction
. From 1955 until 1961 Austin also produced the tiny Metropolitan
for Nash, using Austin engines.
After a series of Farina-styled designs, shared by Morris, MG, Wolseley and Riley with minor differences, the wheel turned full circle: in 1959 Alec Issigonis produced the fifth in the line of Austin Sevens, soon to be renamed and universally acclaimed as the Mini
. Like many of Herbert Austin's cars it was quickly pounced on by the tuning specialists and turned into one of the most successful competition cars ever, with victories in almost every kind of motor sport.
Becoming Part of British Leyland
By 1970, Austin was part of the British Leyland combine which produced some of the most maligned cars ever to roll off British production lines. Austin's most notorious model of this era was the 1973 Allegro, successor to the 1100/1300 ranges, which was criticised for its bulbous styling, doubtful build quality, indifferent reliability and rust-proneness. It was still a strong seller in Britain, though not quite as successful as its predecessor. The wedge-shaped 18/22 series was launched as an Austin, a Morris and a more upmarket Wolseley in 1975. But within six months, it was rechristened the Princess and wore none of the previous marque badges, becoming a kind of brand in its own right, under the Austin Morris division of British Leyland which had been virtually nationalised in 1975.
The Princess wasn't quite as notorious as the Allegro, and in fact earned some praise thanks to its practical wedge shape, spacious interior and decent ride and handling, but build quality was suspect and the curious lack of a hatchback (which would have ideally suited its body shape) cost it valuable sales. It was upgraded at the end of 1981 to become the Ambassador (and gaining a hatchback) but by this time there was little that could be done to disguise the age of the design, and it was too late to make much of an impact on sales. By the end of the 1970s, the future of Austin and the rest of British Leyland (now known as BL) was looking bleak.
The Austin Metro - Heralded As The Saviour
The Austin Metro - launched in October 1980 - was heralded as the saviour of Austin Motor Company and the whole BL combine. 21 years after the launch of the Mini, it gave BL a much-needed modern supermini to compete with the recently-launched likes of the Ford Fiesta, Vauxhall Chevette and Renault 5. It was an instant hit with buyers and was one of the most popular British cars of the 1980s. It was intended as a replacement for the Austin Mini but, in fact, the Mini outlived the Metro by two years.
In 1982, most of the car division of the by now somewhat shrunken British Leyland (BL) company was rebranded as the Austin Rover Group, with Austin acting as the "budget" and mainstream brand to Rover's more luxurious models. The MG badge was revived for sporty versions of the Austin models, with the MG Metro 1300 being the first of these. Austin revitalised its entry into the small family car market in March 1983 on the launch of its all-new Maestro, a spacious five-door hatchback which replaced both the elderly Allegro and Maxi and was popular in the early years of its production life, though sales had started to dip dramatically by the end of the decade.
April 1984 saw the introduction of the Maestro-derived Montego saloon, successor to the Morris Ital. The new car received praise for its interior space and comfort, but early build quality problems took time to overcome. The spacious estate version - launched in early 1985 - was one of the most popular load carriers of its era.
In 1986 Austin Rover's holding company BL plc became Rover Group plc and was privatised by selling it to British Aerospace (BAe). Plans to replace the Metro with a radical new model, based on the ECV3 research vehicle and aiming for 100mpg, led to the Austin AR6 of 1984-1986, with several prototypes tested. The desire to lose the Austin name and take Rover 'upmarket' led to this project's demise in early 1987. In 1987, the Austin badge was discontinued and Austin Rover became simply the Rover Group. The Austin cars continued to be manufactured, although they ceased to be Austins.
They became "marque-less" in their home market with bonnet badges the same shape as the Rover longship badge but without "Rover" written on them. Instead any badging just showed the model of the car- a Montego of this era, for instance, would have a grille badge simply saying 'Montego', whilst the rear badges just said 'Montego' and the engine size/trim level. The Metro was facelifted in 1990 and got the new K-series engine. It then became the "Rover Metro", while the Maestro and Montego continued in production until 1994 and never wore a Rover badge on their bonnets in Britain. They were, however, sometimes referred to as "Rovers" in the press and elsewhere.