Turkey Day Classic: 1968-1972 Austin America – Yankee Doodle Disaster

For a car that was derided in its day as slow, noisy and underpowered, the VW Beetle survived more assassination attempts than Fidel Castro. In its quarter century plus in the U.S., the humble Beetle saw off competitors from just about every major car producer,representing a panoply of concepts, formulas and gimmicks, all designed to steal market share from a car that was obsolete almost at its postwar launch. By the latter half of the 1960’s, the brass at British Motor Corporation decided that they too would have one more go at dethroning the king of the import market in the U.S. But the car that they dispatched to the former colonies to put a torpedo in the Bug was shown to be a feeble assassin, with far too many flaws in its own design to change the order of things in the U.S. That car was the Austin America.

If the management at BMC (later British Leyland) had a time machine, they almost certainly would have used it in 1978 to bring the Austin America into the market a decade after it first appeared on these shores. By then, BL could have fully developed the clever concepts that might have made the America a runaway success. But at its introduction in 1968, the technologies that were incorporated into the car were still too immature in their development to guarantee a dependable, high quality car at a reasonable price. As we will see, the little Austin was just about a half decade ahead of the state of refinement needed to make it a milestone car.

For all of the faults that it later revealed, the Austin America was not corrupted by birth. The car’s DNA was passed down from a legitimate automotive icon that had first appeared in the UK ten years prior. The 1960 Mini was designer Alec Issigonis’ masterpiece and had revolutionized the car industry in its home country and the rest of the world where it had been offered. The Mini had introduced a mass market to transverse engine,front wheel drive motoring and clever space utilization while keeping its price at an affordable, competitive $1300 or so.

But the Mini was a car that could never be more than a niche product in the states. The sub one litre powerplant at launch and 10 foot length meant that it was poorly adapted to long distance, high speed highway travels on our side of the Atlantic.

Later, BMC stretched and pulled the Mini like taffy to concoct the Morris (MG) 1100 and that car became a best seller in commonwealth markets around the world. It was sold in the U.S. as the MG 1100 (and in 1964/65 as the Vanden Plas Princess) and did unspectacular business. Clearly, the formula had legs in the empire, but how to grab a bigger piece of the pie in North America?

By 1967 BMC thought that they had the answer.The 1100 would get an image and mechanical makeover that might just put some wind in the aging model’s sails.The scheme involved combining two attributes that American buyers absolutely had to have in those days: Automatic shifting and a soft, boulevard ride. But it was by trying to satisfy those desires that BMC went a bridge too far for their engineering capabilities given the technology of the time.

To deal with the first issue, the automatic transmission that would drive the America was to be a different engineering approach that broke just enough new ground to become an early adopters regret. The four speed,torque converter autobox that was adopted sat directly beneath the engine and shared that units lubrication. This was a risky arrangement given Americans aversion to checking or maintaining engine oil while the car appears to be running smoothly. This would turn out to be the major factor in the destruction of this car’s reputation. The oil level was specified as critical in owners manuals and factory sales training, but for Yank drivers that rarely looked under the hood, the arrangement was a grenade rigged to explode when they neglected to be vigilant.

British Leyland (the company had changed its name officially in 1968 just after the America was in production)  also thought that their engineers had solved the suspension issue that turned many American car buyers away from the stiffer, more responsive European ride that was a staple of British cars.

Designer Alex Molton had dreamed up a system that used what was essentially water and alcohol passing through springs and bladders to cushion the ride of the 1100. It was dubbed the Hydrolastic suspension and while innovative and clever, it was subject to the same real world shortcomings as other infant technologies. The system required de-pressurization whenever suspension or chassis work was performed. This required a special tool that could only be found at BL dealers.Further, a car that lost pressure would settle on its haunches or list alarmingly to one side until the problem was addressed, thus rendering the unit undrivable. This caused lots of bad will between owners and dealers when the units began to give way after just a couple of years of hard use.

The engine installed in the America was probably the best part of the package. The 1275 CC OHV powerplant had been used in half a dozen models in Europe and had proven itself bulletproof with anything like minimal care. The cars light weight (just under 1900 pounds) meant that the 58 HP mill could provide decent acceleration while returning mid 20’s fuel mileage. Brakes were the up to date front disc/rear drum arrangement that was becoming de rigueur for all modern cars. The east-west engine orientation meant that the car was a marvel of space efficiency (just like its little brother) and auto journalists of the day gave the car a warm endorsement.

It was this package that BL brought to market as the 1100’s successor in March of 1968. The company priced the America at a competitive $1815 for the stripper model. That setup included a four speed manual transmission and not a lot else (even an AM radio was optional) while a much better equipped car with the automatic cost just $80 more. This made the car just a few dollars higher than the base Beetle’s $1799 MSRP. Buyers could choose from half a dozen attractive colors.

The marketing was another innovative BL feature. The Austin was pitched in North America not as a family flagship, but as a second car for growing numbers of two job, dual income, suburban wage slaves. This was a strategy that held much promise as postwar baby boomer women were taking jobs away from home, thus making a two car family more and more necessary.

But several factors combined to make the Austin America a short lived wonder in the U.S. Some were product related, while others were more of a problem of mass acceptance of a new idea.

The product flaws were centered on the engine bay of the America. The sharing of motor oil with the automatic transmission meant that keeping abreast of the lubricant level was critical to ensuring that both remained healthy. That many American drivers failed to do this only became apparent after a few thousand were in everyday use. Failure of any seal on either the tranny or in the engine could be fatal to both and many Austin owners found this out the hard way. A transmission rebuild could easily cost $800 dollars when the car itself was only worth a little more. To be sure, some buyers opted for the four speed manual, which proved to be very durable and dependable. But the cars pricing strategy made the autobox look like a bargain, thus very few Americas were sold with the stir -your -own shifter. Also conspiring against the car were the usual British electrical bugs that never seem to have been sorted out, along with a dealer network that had yet to learn that service was a critical part of the ownership equation.

The other factor that sank the America was a little harder to quantify, but basically, Americans had yet to adopt a front engine/ front drive car as their preferred mode of transportation. It would take the Beetle’s successor, (the Rabbit), to confirm our latent desires for the “three box” format that became the industry norm.

As it was, the Austin America did manage to sell just under 60,000 units in its five model years on the market. In September of 1971, BL decided that the game was no longer worth the candle and discontinued the America. The cars unreliable reputation by then meant that the last few units were hard to move and many were sold below cost just to get them off dealers lots. Thus the Beetle saw off another threat to its reign as king of the import hill (for the moment).

Today, a functioning Austin America is a rare sight indeed. Most went to the scrapyard when their automatic transmissions failed and the dejected owner found that it would cost more to fix the car than replace it. With only a standard 12 month warranty, this meant that lots of these wound up junked with less than 50,000 miles on the clock.

Also, when BL packed up in the states , the special tools needed to keep the suspension in working order disappeared and this claimed many a car. Corrosion was also the ruin of many an America when exposed to road salt or extended outdoors storage. Owners have told me that buying an automatic is a sure way to die in poverty- they strongly recommend holding out for a manual version. Also, suspension issues can be expensive to fix, so that “low rider”  America advertised for cheap might need costly repairs to be roadworthy.

Ironically, less than five years after the Austin America had been canceled in the U.S., most economy cars had taken its basic shape and mechanical layout. The Rabbit was followed quickly by Renault, Ford and even Chrysler in offering FWD hatchbacks that were inexpensive to drive. And just months after Austin decamped from the states, Honda would introduce its FWD Civic to near universal accolades.

If the America had come to market in the latter half of the 70’s, our story may have had a much happier ending for British Leyland. As it turned out, the America was just another speed bump on the road to irrelevancy.