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Feature Story


by Bob Hagin

October 04, 1996

Recently I made my annual pilgrimage to an all-British car event. For me, its a return to my roots, having started my career in 1950 working as a grease monkey in a shop that imported English cars.

I had been wandered up and down the rows of immaculate Rolls-Royces, Rovers, Morgans and Minis at the show for an hour or so when I found a familiar grille at the end of a line of immaculately restored MG sports cars. It was a 1950 Austin A40 sedan, a Devon four-door in less than pristine condition, but to me, it was like finding an old friend in a crowd. In my younger days I had owned at least a dozen of these small cars, having bought and sold them as a sideline to working as a mechanic.

The Volkswagen Beetle is generally credited with starting the imported car movement in this country, 300 of them having been "officially" imported here and sold in 1950. But by the time the Bug made its entry into the American automotive picture, there was already a thriving (albeit tiny) market for small British sedans in general and Austins in particular.

At the end of World War II, England was broke and desperate for export trade, and its primary target was American dollars. The US was equally desperate for new cars as none had been produced here since 1942. Almost anything that was new and rolled on four wheels would sell. The economy was still flush with wartime profits and there was money around to be spent.

But the first cars to roll off of British production lines in 1946 were pre-war designs; angular, antiquated and unacceptable to Americans. We wanted cars that were up-to-date, even if they were small.

The 1947 Austin A40 fit that mold perfectly. It was modern in that it had a full-width body with front and rear fenders that were integrated into the front doors and the rear quarter-panels. The chassis was fully boxed and the front suspension was independent by unequal length A-arms, although the top arms did double-duty as shock absorbers. These "modern" developments were old stuff to Americans and had been used on our cars before the war, but British passenger cars designs hadn't changed since the early '30s.

The engine of the new Austin was interesting in that was an overhead valve design that had been developed by Harry Westlake, a leader in British race car engineering. Although it was fairly modern, it had several flaws and for a long time, doing valve jobs on Austin A40s was my primary source of income. This design carried on for years and was used in almost all MGs until the demise of that marque in 1975.

The brakes on those first "Americanized" Austins were mechanically interesting, too. Austin engineers must have has an deep-rooted distrust of hydraulics and the ability of British-made seals to hold fluid because they "split" the A40 brake system. The front brakes were hydraulically operated but the rears were vintage mechanicals. In order get them to work in unison, the engineers had designed a complex device that operated both systems at once and it worked fine, as long as the "splitter" was adjusted correctly. Not many of them were, and I was able to buy many otherwise excellent Austins simply because their owners had too many heart-stopping situations while trying to slow down.

Actually, the term "Americanized" should be qualified here. While the lines of the A40 did indeed have American styling lines, the car was very tall, narrow and short compared to its American counterparts. Unlike inexpensive domestic cars, the upholstery in the A40 was leather, dyed several optional colors and very nicely done. What American buyers weren't prepared for was the fact that in order to stay soft and pliable, British leather required constant maintenance and rub-downs with castile soap or it dried out, turned brittle and cracked. This produced sharp edges that were uncomfortable to sit on, to say the least.

By the time the Volkswagen hit its stride, the British sedan market was drying up. The cars (including the A40) were "quirky," unreliable and prone to break down at the most inconvenient times. American buyers of English sports cars like the Austin Healey, MG, Sunbeam, Jaguar and the rest were willing to put up with these idiosyncrasies in order to be part of "The Sport," but sedan buyers needed reliability in order to get through commuter traffic and arrive at work on time. Owners of English sedans were never quite sure of making it.

The Austin A40 I found at that British car meet was owned by a family man who had brought his wife and kids to the meet from some distance. When I asked him how he avoided the pitfalls of British car ownership, he had an easy answer. "I replaced the engine with a Buick V6, the front suspension and brakes with Mazda parts and installed a narrowed Ford rear end." he said. Obviously he wanted to make sure he arrived at his destinations with nerves intact.