The British motor industry started its long descent into oblivion in the ‘50s. These things take time: Britain was an automotive powerhouse immediately after the Second World War, exporting to all four corners of the globe. By the early ‘50s, things plateaued and then nosedived by the end of the decade. This Austin A40 Somerset is a good example of how Britain lost its mojo, never to regain it (with a few notable exceptions of course).
The A40 Somerset was launched in 1952 as a refreshed version of the 1947 A40 Devon, Austin’s first all-new post-war car. Essentially, Austin took the Devon’s chassis and B-series 1.2 litre engine, updated it to have hydraulic brakes on all four wheels and a column shifter, and bodied it with a reduced version of the 1950 A70 Hampshire, even going as far as using the A70’s doors and rear wings as were.
It may have made a lot of sense from an industrial and financial point of view, but the reduced dimensions make the A40’s styling look awkward, as well as passé, by 1952. Austin still managed to shift over 170,000 of these (including about 7000 two-door convertible “Coupé” versions made by Carbodies) in less than three years. Interestingly, Austin never bothered updating the styling of the estate version, the A40 Countryman, which just carried on with the Devon’s front end for a few extra innings.
So the A40 Somerset sold rather well. Did it conquer any new markets? No. Was it, for some people, the last British car they would buy? It certainly seems to have been the case in some quarters. The Somerset’s outdated styling was not the result of using a technically advanced monocoque, like say the Traction Avant or the “Step-Down” Hudson, but reflected its maker’s conservatism and penny-pinching. The Austin’s lousy handling meant the engine’s relative willingness to provide adequate power could not be taken advantage of in full. Export markets started to look towards the likes of Fiat, Simca, Peugeot, Borgward, Opel and Volkswagen for more competent compacts, especially in North America and Asia. In Europe, Australia and at home, competition was fierce too, but Austin kept more of a following, though this would soon vanish on the Continent.
Still, even if Austin’s head stylist, Dick Burzi, did a rather lousy job in my personal opinion, the car’s roly-poly and jovial nature, helped by the two-tone paint job, cannot help but bring a smile to one’s face. Compared to a contemporary Hillman Minx or Ford Anglia 100E, the Austin looks a good decade out of step. But those sleeker-looking rivals still made do with side-valve engines and, in the Ford’s case, a 3-speed gearbox. Pedestrian as it was, the A40 still held its own vis-à-vis its domestic rivals.
This Austin must have been imported new to Burma back in the day – at the time, Japanese cars were not yet the market’s darling that they became but a decade later. Datsun even built these under license in Japan at the time. Not many British cars of this vintage are to be found in Yangon these days. The only ‘50s metal still seen on rare occasions are the “pontoon” Mercedes-Benzes. This car has obviously had a complete engine / transmission transplant of unknown origin, which entailed moving the gearstick to the floor, as well as questionable updates to it interior. One does what one can in these far-flung places, and this is not the first time I’ve spotted a car in Myanmar that had major surgery done to it.
Fit and finish was deemed acceptable by reviewers at the time, though it seems each one had some problem with the Austin they took for a spin. Never the same gremlin, either. With time, squeaks, rattles and misaligned trim were a common nuisance, as were issues with the column shifter. But in Britain at the time, this was hardly worthy of complaint. When Chrysler made their ’57-’58 lemons, folks noticed something wasn’t right in the kingdom of Highland Park, and said so. Austin A40s were probably just as shoddily built, but that was the norm. Except fewer and fewer clients were willing to put up with that by the mid-‘50s…
This was one of the last models Austin launched prior to the merger with the Nuffield Group, which created the twelve-headed hydra that was BMC and, after yet more mergers, British Leyland. Austin were masters at stretching a car’s obsolete body panels and mechanicals across their range, Morris were the badge-engineering geniuses that brought you five flavours of the same car. Together, they embodied the decline of Britain’s automotive industry. And this A40 Somerset is where it all began – on the Austin side of the story, anyway. Very few British cars were imported in Burma by the ‘60s – indeed, smaller cars like this generation of Austin were probably the last to come here in relatively significant numbers. For once, the Burmese were well ahead of the curve on this one.
Photos shot by my friend Luwi in Yangon, April 2017.
Related CC posts:
Curbside Classic: Austin A40 Somerset – Short, Chubby and Irresistible, by David Saunders