Vintage Video: BMC Tests Cars On German Autobahns

Sometimes, you come across something that disrupts preconceptions. If you were to say something about the British motor industry in the 1950s, terms like complacency, insularity and under developed may come up. You could add unreliable, internationally uncompetitive and technically conservative (until the Mini) as well, for the most part.

So, a promotional video informational film created by BMC in 1954 to promote the new A series and B series engines in the Austin A35 and A50, and Morris Minor and Oxford saloons makes for interesting viewing. And not just for the empty autobahns.

20,000 miles without anything other scheduled maintenance. Doesn’t sound a lot now, but in 1954 Britain didn’t have autobahns or motorways, and the German network (above) was looked at in awe. Two (or more) lanes each way! You can always overtake trucks and buses! No speed limits! Not much traffic! Let’s overtake Beetles!

But what were these BMC cars that could do 25,000 miles without breaking down?

Most familiar is perhaps the Morris Minor. Introduced in 1948, as perhaps the most significant compact car (as opposed to small) car Britain ever built, production for the first five years used the pre-war Morris (rather than BMC) side valve engine, in 918cc form, used on the 1932 Morris Minor and later Morris Eight. After the BMC merger in 1952, the Austin designed, Longbridge built A series OHV 803cc engine was slotted. Power was up from 27bhp to 30 bhp, torque from 39lbft to 40lbft and all done at 62 mph. Ideal for autobahns. In 1956, it went to 948cc, for the Minor 1000.

Alongside the Minor, BMC also offered the Austin A35, also seen in the film, with the same A series engine. This was more compact, being some 10 inches shorter than the Morris and consequently smaller inside. This was seen as Austin’s response, in 1951 as the 803cc A30, to the Minor, and was the first monocoque Austin. In the context of the times, not unappealing if you were OK on the size, but not really a Minor competitor in many ways, and outsold by it significantly.

Going large, we have the Morris Oxford Series II, so named because it replaced the MO series, and its close relative the Austin A50 Cambridge.  The naming may have been a bit corny but it did make a bit of sense – Oxford (for a car built in Oxford) was the long established Morris name for the mid-market family car, and Austin had a strong if recent habit of naming cars after English towns and counties (Devon, Hereford, Westminster etc). And it subtly linked the Cambridge to the Oxford, for they shared many their mechanical elements, including engine, transmission and rear axle. Alec Issigonis’s influence can be seen on the use of torsion bar front suspension on the Morris, whereas the Austin had coils and wishbones. And is there a bit of Mini in the styling?

Power for both came from a 1489cc B series OHV engine, with 50bhp and around 75mph. Even better suited for overtaking Beetles. From 1954 to 56, you could also choose a 1200cc Morris Cowley or Austin A40 Cambridge. Same recipes, just not as autobahn capable.

What should be noted when watching this film are two things. It was less than ten years after the horrors of WW2, and Germany was still rebuilding her reputation in the UK, to say the least (it is quite possible the last time these guys went to Germany it was dark and they didn’t stop), and that the autobahn was not only a novelty but something Britain just did not have. Also, the prospect of travelling to Germany, or indeed continental Europe, in your own car, was completely off the radar for practically every British family. So, whilst 25,000 miles without failure may not sound a lot now, in 1954, 25,000 miles on a German autobahn at speed, overtaking Beetles, without failures would have been seen as a significant adventure.

Though as one of the comments on the YouTube film suggests, the tea in the Rastatte might not have been exactly the same as that in Birmingham.