Curbside Classic: 1951 Austin A40 Devon – The Best-Selling Import Of Its Time

(first posted 11/5/2012)     Oooh, what a cute little car. Indeed it is, if the pygmy look is your thing; however, on its skinny little tires this A40 carries the weight of some pretty serious financial world history, as in our recurring balance-of-trade deficits. Seriously. This Austin was the first imported car to be bought in significant numbers immediately following WWII; as such, it was a godsend to postwar Great Britain, helping bail that nation out of the horrible debt load that was the cost of winning the war–and in the process, pioneering an overwhelming import boom that continues today. Was the cute little A40 an economic Trojan Horse?

That’s not exactly what crossed my mind when I happened upon this charming little sedan sitting on the curb. Even this photo makes it difficult to put this car’s diminutive size into perspective; the camera makes it look much larger than it really is, the same way it does with models and actresses. The Austin designers cleverly made it look more like a late-30s big Plymouth than a similarly-sized VW Beetle.

It sits tall, partly because it follows the traditional and venerable Anglo-American preference for body-on-frame (BOF) construction. Actually, that very tallness allows a quartet of adults to sit in reasonable comfort despite the car’s old-school architecture.

With few exceptions, English cars followed the same conservative development path as those from Detroit, at least until the radical Mini appeared in 1959. While many continental designers spent the ’20s and ’30s exploring such radically new approaches as rear engines, unibodies and sleek aerodynamics, the British generally preferred plodding along with three-quarter-scale Fords and Plymouths.

The A40, known as a Devon in four-door form and a Dorset in two-door guise (TuDorset?), appeared in 1947 as Austin’s first new post-war saloons. They proudly featured a “fully independent front suspension”, but the combination of a short wheelbase and semi-elliptic sprung solid rear axle resulted in a ride that was anything but superb, BOF and everything else aside. This is where the VW Beetle really shone: Its rigid unibody and long-travel four-wheel independent suspension were light years ahead of the flexible frames and hard suspensions found in the bucking little British cars of the day. But of course the British industry passed on the VW when it was offered to them after the war. Wouldn’t that have changed history if they hadn’t?

But the A40 did sport at least an OHV engine under its cute little hood, provided you could find it down in there, unlike most American cars of the time. Its 1200cc four was an OHV evolution of the pre-war flathead four. And it looks quite a bit like the B-series four that replaced it. That’s because its block was too short to be bore out any further, so the bore centers were increased to create the B-series. That marked the beginning of a long and illustrious run for the B-block engine, which would power not only millions of Austins and other BMC/BL cars, but also most postwar MG models, from the TC through the MGB. Will a British history buff please tell us when the last B-block car was built?

In the Devon/Dorset twins, the 1,200-cc pushrod OHV four generated 40 hp–not a bad figure at the time–and Austin claimed it would hit 70 mph and get up to 28 mpg (of course, at a much lower speed). According to Motor magazine, it trundled from zero-to -60 in exactly 37.2 seconds, if one must know.

So let’s get back to the A40′s role in global economics. Great Britain may have won the war, but it was practically bankrupt afterward–and no, the Marshall Plan wasn’t created for the winners. There was, as always, only one honest way to get out from under a mountain of crushing debt: Export, export, and export. So Austin sent the A40 to the U.S. at prices guaranteed to generate buyer interest and bring in hard dollars; and to help it along, did all it could to make it look as big as an American car in the ads. That is not truth in advertising.

Apparently the approach worked all the way to Halsey, Oregon. In 1951, this Austin found a home there with a thrifty mill worker, who spent his savings to help bail out the British Treasury and then drove his purchase for almost twenty years. It eventually was restored some years back, then sat as a static display in front of a car shop for decades. It’s now the proud possession of a lucky guy whose garage also contains a pristine MG TD that he bought new when he was a young man. And since I shot this, it’s moved on into new hands.

This Austin is lucky just to have survived. Due to their super-short wheelbase and light weight, most of these ended up as highly-modified dragsters in the ’60s–especially the two-door Dorset, which constituted only a small fraction of the roughly 450,000 A40s produced until 1952, when they were succeeded by the A40 Somerset.

Austin was undoubtedly the best-selling import of the early ’50s, and it maintained a prominent place throughout the remainder of that decade despite eventually losing the sales crown to VW, whose sales in the US exploded starting in 1955. In the ’60s, Austin’s passenger cars suffered strong sales declines, as only MGs and Austin-Healeys continued to generate cash. By the early ’70s it was over; the marque’s two final and desperate duds were the Austin America (1100) and the Marina. Incredibly, the Marina was still using the B-block engine, and its crude suspension wasn’t much of an improvement over the A40′s, but it didn’t matter; long before, Austin had acquired a rep for horrendous reliability that still stuck.

By that time, Americans were sending their dollars in a different direction anyway. Ironically, some were spent on Datsuns, whose engine designs had been licensed from Austin.


Today, economists tell us a key to solving our own trade and debt imbalance is to export more goods. And what should they be? I’ll bet this Devon would fetch a handsome price in London. (Update: maybe not so much so since the vote on Brexit)