Curbside Classics: 1951 and 1959 Austin A40 – European Progress

Car builders recycling names, or continuing naming policies, can confuse; about where a product fits in with existing or preceding models (Renault 14 to Renault 9, for exmple), why it’s still called a name that doesn’t make any logical sense (Mercedes-Benz E200, Fiat 500 for example), that does not do it justice as a new product (1980 European Ford Escort?) or risks thereby being overlooked as a new product (there are many but how about the 1966 Hillman Minx?). Austin A40 is perhaps one of those – between 1947 and 1968 there were four distinct designs to use that name, which between them cover a significant episode in the history of BMC. Here we’ll look at the first up and the last.

The first of these was the 1947-52 A40 Devon – Austin came out of the war with a policy of naming cars after English counties and, later, cities. Our feature example is a 1951 car, seen in use in southern England.

Immediately after the war, Austin, like most others, concentrated on building pre-wear designs but were also quicker than most, notably their competitors including Nuffield and Rootes, out of the blocks with new products. The A40 Devon (and its 2 door equivalent the Dorset) came in late 1947.

Some reports were underwhelmed by the conservatism of the designs, as it featured a bodyshell mounted on a frame, rather than the floor being welded to the frame as on the pre-war Austin 10. But it was on the market a year before new products from Nuffield, Rootes and Vauxhall.

The Dorset lasted only until 1951, the Devon until 1952 by which time over 270,000 saloons had been sold. Austin could count that as a major success.

One place where this was intended to be a major success was North America, and for a period it was the best selling import. But for reasons Austin and later BMC would, seemingly deliberately, not understand or learn from, as Editor Paul Niedermeyer summarises here, the ranking did not last and indeed some cars were in fact shipped back to Birmingham for rework and local sale.

Still, that exercise gave us one of the seminal photographs of the contextual history of the British motor industry, and which has been featured in many a book and history. A transporter load of A40 Devons leaving a camouflage painted Longbridge works, with the transporter clearly flagging the reason for the exports ahead of the domestic sales.

The feature car is a 1951 model, with the later column shift and (you can just make them out) the semaphore indicators. These have been supplemented by aftermarket flashing units front and rear.

Power came from a 1200cc in line four – not the actual famous and (too) long enduring B series but an antecedent related to the pre-war Austin 10 and 12. There was independent front suspension with soft lever arm dampers, which only got softer with time. The rear was semi-elliptic leaf springs and a beam axle. Still, you’d eventually get to 70mph. There were van and pickup variants too, as well as Countryman estates – in total close to 450,000 copies over five years to 1952.

This car was replaced in 1952 by the A40 Somerset, an example of which is currently in the care of fellow Curbivore David Saunders and subject to a fairly significant project of work. This model, closely based on the A 40 Devon, served for another 170,000 copies and two years, before retiring in favour of the next A40, the first Austin Cambridge.

The A40 Cambridge 1200, and the otherwise similar A50 Cambridge 1500, were the first to be designed and launched by BMC, rather than Austin, to use the B series engine and to be built around a monocoque construction. The 2 door and 4 door versions were both called Cambridge, although the 2 door was very quickly dropped. It was replaced by the similar but significantly revised A55 range in 1957, although the van version soldiered on to 1973. This car came from BMC – the mechanically similar visually separate Morris equivalent was the Oxford.

The next A40 was, however, more ground breaking. The story goes that the Duke of Edinburgh, never a man to just politely pat chaps on the back but who was unafraid to ask a challenging question, visited Longbridge and told Leonard Lord, Chairman of BMC, that his cars were not up the standards of foreign (that is, European) competition. Lord consequently, the story goes, had Battista and Sergio Pininfarina into Birmingham the next day, and did a deal to design the next generation of BMC cars, starting with a new A40.

The resulting A40 Farina was launched in 1958, with Battista and Sergio present with Leonard Lord (far left) and his no 2 George Harriman (second from the right, next to the car) at the Longbridge showroom. At the top of the steps, hand on knee, is Alec Issigonis, although he was not directly involved.

The styling looks familiar now, but this was an early sighting of the Pininfarina style that became familiar not just across a wide range of BMC products, but also the Peugeot 404, Lancia Flaminia, and some Fiat (and its associates’) saloons as well.

This example is a 1959 Mk1, which has evidently been re-imported into the UK in 2016 and registered here. Mechanically, this car was not exciting or innovative – it was closely related to the 1951 era Austin A30 and later A35 saloons (below), Austin’s competitor to the Morris Minor, though smaller and narrower than the Minor.

Compared with the A35, there was a longer wheelbase (by four inches) and wider track (by two inches), but the engine and gearbox were carried over, along with many visible interior pieces. Body wise, it was all new and all Pininfarina, with a two box profile that is usually considered innovative. The boot lid dropped downward to form a platform, and the rear seat folded, making it a sort of hatchback albeit with only half the aperture actually opening.

Power was, initially at least, from a 948cc A series engine offering 34 bhp, the same engine as the contemporary Morris Minor. In 1959, the Countryman variant appeared, with an opening hinged rear window meeting the drop down bootlid, Range Rover style. Perhaps this was the first hatchback?

The car went to a Mark 2 in 1961; the changes were significant. The wheelbase was increased by 3.5 inches, at the rear, giving more interior space, and the engine taken to 37 bhp. In 1962, the car was granted the 1098cc 48bhp engine from new (ADO16) Morris 1100 and also shared with the similarly updated Minor. A new interior came in 1964 and the car endured, alongside the Morris Minor and the burgeoning ADO16 range until 1967, selling over 360,000 copies in total. That was in addition to close to 575,000 A30 and A35s, so the total from the basic design is not to be overlooked.

The A40 was built essentially in the UK, and there was CKD assembly in Australia, Belgium, Holland, Ireland, Mexico, New Zealand, and South Africa, and there was an attempt to export it to North America, as the ‘The Gayest Economy Sedan Ever’ and a variant was also built by Innocenti in Italy.

At the time, car exports to Italy were not easy, due to tariff boundaries and a very strong and protected local competitor. BMC worked with Innocenti on local CKD assembly and gradually moved to locally pressed panels. This was Innocenti’s first car building project and they didn’t assume that BMC’s answer was the best or only one.

Italian built cars, sold only in Italy, had variations to the UK cars. Aside form  locally defined trims and finishes, Innocenti also devised the Combinata derivative, with a full length rather than two piece rear hatch. Perhaps, the modern hatchback had arrived, albeit in stages and with a convoluted ancestry.

The Combinata version of the A40S, as the Mk 2 was known in Italy, outsold the regular saloon to the extent that the latter was withdrawn. A40S sales continued until 1967, when it was retired at the same time as the UK production, with over 67,000 built in Milan.

“After 4 years, there can be few snags left in the A40 to worry even the hardest driver”. Well, that’s one way to sum up, after a fairly substantial set of revisions on a reskin of a 10 year old design, but then The Autocar knew where it’s bread was buttered.

One area where the A40 Farina had some surprising success was in circuit racing. From the end of the 1950s, as rules and handicaps evolved, the British Saloon Car Championship (now known as the British touring Car Championship or BTCC) was established with a range of classes all competing together, leading to the spectacle of Jaguar saloons being out paced round corners by Minis and them gobbling them up on the straights.

Both were competing for the race win but for different class wins of the championship. Add tot his the calibre of some of the competitors, and a fine day’s entertainment could easily be had. In the early 1960s, for example, competitors included Graham Hill, Roy Salvadori, Mike Parkes (later a Ferrari team driver and test engineer for the Hillman Imp), Colin Chapman, Jack Sears, Dan Gurney (in a Ford Galaxie) and the 1960 champion Gordon “Doc” Sheppard, driving an Austin A40 mk 2.

The car has recently been restored, and is now active in the historic racing community, though not in this clip.

All in, a car with a convoluted heritage, a definite style, and some style, and a stronger heritage than may always be appreciated, and as the last pure Austin in that part of the market, a greater significance than it is frequently given. May be Prince Philip was onto something?