On paper, everything about the 1959 Austin A95 Westminster was simple – a uncomplicated steel monocoque construction, an overhead valve straight six engine and four speed gearbox lacking synchromesh on first, an optional overdrive, wishbone front suspension, semi-elliptic rear springs and cam and peg steering box, in house styling from the Austin studios that was, being charitable, at least broadly contemporary if also a bit gaudy especially with the two tone options, and a simple, unfussy, almost spartan, interior that could have come out of the smaller Austin Cambridge. It didn’t look like a Morris Isis or a spartan version of the Wolseley 6/90, because in BMC’s world view there was still room for all three. And a more complex Riley large saloon, and Vanden Plas options. But that would be to overlook the ability of BMC to make the process of building a relatively low volume model complex, to no one’s actual benefit.
The A95 was BMC’s Austin badged competitor to the Ford Zephyr (4 cylinder) and Zodiac (6 cylinder), the Vauxhall Velox and Cresta, the upper reaches of the Standard Vanguard range and, perhaps, the larger Humbers from Rootes, though those were maybe better matched by the dressed up Wolseleys. And of course, the Morris Isis, from the other branch of BMC, probably its closest competitor, sharing its engine, transmission and rear axle. And that is not all that the Westminster shared with other BMC products.
The A95 was derivative of the 1954 Austin A90 Westminster, and shared clear styling themes with the smaller Austin Cambridge. In part this was the typical and deliberate practice we see from many manufacturers, and in part it was because the Westminster shared its doors with the Cambridge. Sharing doors (or other visible parts) is not a bad thing by definition but it does imply a commonality in appearance that is not always desirable. It is also something BMC, its ancestors and descendants made a habit of.
I give you, in chronological order, the 1952 Austin A40 Devon and 1950 Austin A70 Hereford, the A40/50/55 Cambridge and the A90/95/105 Westminster family, the 1964 Austin/Morris 1800, the 1968 Austin Maxi and 1969 Austin 3 Litre, and the Australian derivatives, and the 1983 Austin Maestro and 1984 Austin Montego. You may suggest the last pair is not unusual – after all, many hatchback and saloon pairs share doors, but not usually on a separate wheelbase and sold at different price points.
The doors were shared, and of course that largely dictates the roof and glasshouse profile. Inevitably, the Westminster ended looking like a bigger Cambridge and indeed from some angles you could easily mistake it for one. But despite this similarity, only the doors and some internal fittings were shared.
The car itself was a typical unadventurous mid 1950s British car. Overall, it was 182 inches long on a wheelbase of 104 inches, so not dissimilar in size to a 1960 Ford Falcon. Width was around 64 inches. This compared with 160 inches, 99 inches and 62 inches for the Cambridge. Weight was a fairly hefty 2900lb.
So far, then, not a very complex situation if you accept the doors. But this is BMC, so there were other things going on. In 1955, BMC offered the Westminster, the Morris Isis and the Wolseley 6/90. These were joined in 1957 by the Riley Two Point Six. All these cars were visually were different, and not badge engineered (yet), but were all powered by the same 2.6 litre straight six engine, from the BMC C series. This was also used in the Austin-Healey 100-6, and later in three litre form in the MG C and the 1968 Austin 3 litre, as well as the Austin-Healey 3000. We all know it as the BMC C series, but look carefully at its history and you’ll see that it was a development of a post war Morris engine. It was designed not as a sports car engine but a sturdy, reliable and durable engine, and in that way suited the Westminster well enough. It was six cylinders, so there some smoothness and it could match the Ford Zodiac and Vauxhall Cresta in that respect; on the other hand it was heavy and the specific power output was not that great. Nor was its potential for development, once BMC decided not to proceed with a proposed twin cam head conversion. Still, it probably served its chosen market well enough.
The engine wasn’t the only common factor. The Morris and Austin shared gearboxes and back axles as well, and the Austin was built in Australia where it was sold as the Morris Marshal. Morris had long been a stronger name in Australia, though the quantity involved was much lower than the UK sales, at around 1500 cars.
Overall, compared with the Ford, Vauxhall, Humber and Standard competitors, the Westminster was directly comparable and market competitive. It was not going to match a Mercedes -Benz 190, Citroen DS, Peugeot 403 or Rover 90 for style or comfort, or depth of engineering, but did offer a spacious car with reasonable value for money. There’ll always be market for those criteria, I suggest.
The first cars came in late 1954, replacing the A70 on the market and on the lines at Longbridge, badged as the A90 Westminster. 25,000 cars were built over two years, compared with 8,500 Morris Isis sold in a year from mid-1955. The Austin, clearly the more successful, started to get some development.
For 1956, there was an additional model – Austin A105, which was not officially badged as a Westminster. This had a twin carburettor conversion of the 2.6 litre C series, in the same level of tune as used in Austin-Healey 100-6, and overdrive on third and fourth gears as standard. This was all visible to the neighbours through the white wall tyres, lowered suspension and some special two tone colour schemes, some easier on the eye than others.
The bigger change came in late 1956 though. The A90 Westminster was significantly revised, with a longer tail and a larger wrap around rear window. The wheelbase was lengthened to 106 inches, by moving the rear axle rearwards on revised leaf springs, a more elegant rear profile with new taillights and boot lid that separated the car a little more from the smaller A50, and a new grille and other décor parts. Another 7bhp was squeezed out of the C series and a Borg Warner automatic was now an option as well. The name was changed to reflect all this, to A95 Westminster, or A95-Six, seemingly depending on whose turn it was to fit badges at Longbridge.
There was also an estate version, known as the Countryman.
The A105 was similarly updated, with some more colour schemes, often based on a contrasting full length side flash. In all, another 33,000 cars built by 1959.
Leonard Lord, BMC’s Chairman, had a A105 sent to the Vanden Plas coachworks in London to be trimmed out to a coachwork standard. In went a walnut fascia, door cappings, good leather seats, thick carpets and West of England cloth roof lining. Special paint finishes and badging topped off the 500 cars built, and the practice had been set.
BMC clearly felt the A90/A95/A105 had been a success, and that a replacement was justifiable. The Wolseley 6/90 was also considered to have done enough as well, although with a total sales of around 12,000 it had not matched the Austin, but I suspect that margins were higher at the higher price point it could command. The Morris Isis and the Riley Two Point Six were, however, allowed to die in 1958 and 1959 – the Nuffield dealers would have to survive on the Wolseley. I say Nuffield dealers as seven years after the BMC merger, there were still two competing and unmixed dealer chains. One was based around the old Austin company – so Austin, Austin-Healey and Vanden Plas – and one around the old Nuffield brands – Morris, MG, Riley and Wolseley.
In 1959, BMC brought us the Farina styled Austin A99 Westminster and the visually very similar Wolseley 6/99. Like the A90 looked like an oversized A50 Cambridge, these looked very like an oversized A55 Mk2, though toned down a little in features like fins. A sober, contemporary design, and clearly Farina not Longbridge.
BMC being BMC added their own puzzling twist – the Austin was built at Longbridge, the Wolseley at Cowley in Oxford, to the tune of 13,000 of each by 1961. These cars came with a 3 litre version of the C series, as used on the Austin-Healey 3000, with a three speed gearbox with overdrive on second and third, giving five in total or Borg-Warner automatic. There were no estates this time – sales of the A95 Countryman had clearly not been enough.
In 1961, the car was revised as a A110 and Wolseley 6/110 with various changes, including a longer wheelbase through relocating the rear axle (as happened to the A90!) and some power from the C series. In 1966 production was finally logically centred on Cowley, and they were both replaced in 1968 by the ill-fated Austin 3 Litre.
Leonard Lord’s hunch on the A105 Vanden Plas had clearly worked; right from 1959, the Farina cars were available with the full Vanden Plas coachwork style trim, and was usually referred to as the Vanden Plas Princess 3 Litre. Princess was a name used by Vanden Plas previously for traditional limousines. The cars sold well, and went to Mk2 when the A99 did in 1961.
And in 1964, we got the ultimate – the Vanden Plas Princess 4 Litre R. R for Royal, some say, other say Royce, as Rolls-Royce supplied the 3.9 litre six cylinder engine, based on a design used by Rolls-Royce and Bentley until 1959 and also used in various military vehicles. The bodyshell was modified to a sleeker style with a new roof and no fins and the interior had everything you would have expected.
Ambitiously, BMC planned to sell 5000 cars a year; in reality over four years, sales totalled 6500 and the car gained a reputation for having an engine that presented cheques the rest of car couldn’t cash. And value for money wise – well, £2000 went quite a long way in a Jaguar or Rover showroom in 1964.
And that brings us to the crux of the issue with all these – did they really succeed on commercial criteria, or would it be harsh to consider the whole Westminster exercise as one of BMC’s deadly sins? In total, over 14 years, something like 100,000 cars were built and sold, almost all in the UK. Production was spread, bizarrely, across two sites, three brands and three sites were involved in the detail finishing. Against the Ford Zephyr and Zodiac, there was a limited range and limited engine options, and no estate car for most the run. The Police liked the Wolseleys for some reason, but you have to ask if BMC’s issues with mass market products were helped by the investment and management time required to design and produce these cars, and if that effort might have been better invested in providing an estate version of the ADO16 (Morris 1100, Austin America) earlier or making the Austin Maxi half decent. And if the Austin 1800 (Landcrab) had been better executed, it could have fulfilled most of what these cars were trying to do. Under the definition of a Deadly Sin as being “Any car that didn’t specifically counter [its maker]’s downward spiral” even if it was not a bad car in all or every way – the challenge is more about the use and prioritisation of the manufacturer’s talents and resources, and the quality of the subsequent execution – these seem to qualify.
I would suggest the initial Westminster may be considered a valid but not essential product, but once we had the offer of a Rover or Triumph 2000, continued development towards the Princess and Princess R was unambiguously moving into DS territory. Almost that definition of madness – keep repeating the same mistake to see if something different happens. Rather than try to take on the Rover and Triumph directly, perhaps with the MG or Wolseley name, BMC kept pushing the traditional big car theme, right up to 1971, with the Austin/Morris 1800 (Landcrab) based Austin 3 litre – a stretched rear wheel drive Landcrab with the same 3 litre C Series as the Westminster and a full wood’n’leather British interior, a good quality ride and appalling ergonomics. And brought to you be the company that three years before had bought Jaguar. If only the investment on the 3 Litre and the Princess R had gone into making the Austin Maxi habitable.
Hence, what started as a simple, straight forward car in most respects, ended its career as a logistically complex and unnecessary product, diverting skills and resources from where they were clearly needed, unsuccessful and unnecessary and, in some ways, negatively to the business’s image and reputation. There was no need or market for these cars from 1966, the execution was poor, the more modern in house options (Jaguar and later Rover) were much better suited to the market, and still BMC and BLMC wanted to replace it, for no reason other than tradition. That has to be a Deadly Sin.
The shared door panels was also done with the Vauxhall FB Victor (launched in 1961) and Velox/Cresta PB series (1962 debut). The dealers cried foul and demanded a more differentiated PC from GM. However, like the Westminster, the concept of a large car at a relatively affordable price was already becoming passe by the time the PC made its debut in autumn 1965.
As for the Countryman moniker, this was what Austin called all their wagons an/estates and Morris used the Traveller name.
The Countryman tab was used by Austin on all their estate/wagon models. Morris used the Traveller moniker.
Sharing door panels was also practised on the Vauxhall Victor FB series launched in 1961 and the larger PB Velox/Cresta, which arrived a year later. The dealers cried foul and asked for a more differentiated product, resulting in the PC series that arrived in 1965 with no shared body panels.
However, by that time, the tide had turned against larger family cars as noted in the article and the PC sold poorly.
Actually the PC series did share the front doors with the FC series, though the chrome trim was applied in a different place which does much to disguise it. The outer skins of the rear doors though were different with the slight kick-up in the waistline.
Good tough cars those big BMC models I owned several a 1955 A90 six I fitted twin SUs and a straight thru exhaust it was fairly fast with the overdrive modified to on demand in all gears, it replaced a 55 Morris Isis which rusted away around me a previous life towing and launching boats had a lot to do with that and I later owned a A110 with DG automatic also a rust bucket, great engines and quite tunable, a better ride than the Zephyrs and Zodiacs and a hell of a lot faster, Ive seen two Morris Marshalls in OZ Aussie also had the Isis the Marshall was the first mistake BMC AU made but it set the tone for every Australian developed BMC and Leyland effort untill closure.
The Isis was never common, but the Marshall? I might have seen three to your two, but then I’ve always lived here. I can’t help thinking the Morris/MG/Wolseley/Riley dealers thought they needed a big car to sell against the Westminster, even if almost nobody actually bought it. Morris men like my dad wouldn’t have been seen dead in an Austin-derivative! 🙂
Deadly sin or not, that A105 with the Vanden Plas interior treatment is something I could get quite enthusiastic over.
These mid-’50s Austins always were rather dull having neither the cuddly, roly poly looks of their predecessors or their sharper, but slightly over-cooked, Farina successors.
For the sake of 2″ extra width you also can’t help feeling that perhaps they would have done better keeping these and the slightly smaller A40/A40A55 series the same width and just having a longer nose for the straight six. Sharing the whole centre/rear section rather than just the doors would have offered much bigger cost savings. Indeed maybe they should have made the 1.5 litre versions to the same wider width. 5′ 4″ is hardly excessive compared to their contemporary British competitors. It’s what Morris did with their Cowley/Oxford and Isis and it also served Ford of Britain well enough in the 1950s with their Consul, Zephyr and Zodiac.
On a more upbeat note, the big 3 litre Wolseley looks rather well; squint and there’s a bit of a Lancia look to the front. Doubt it handled corners as well though.
I think the sixes had to be wider, because the Morris Oxford series II/III had a wider body than the equivalent Austin Cambridge. As a kid I remember the extra width (and bigger windows) were quite noticeable. Then you have to consider the Ford/Vauxhall/Standard/Rootes competition. An extra two inches width might not sound much, but I think it was needed in that company. I’d imagine there was a fair bit of beefing up in the body structure to take that heavy six, so why not widen it while they were about it?
The featured car looks a bit like an early to mid 50s Dodge…as interpreted by a British stylist, tho the rear, like those same era Dodges and Plymouths looks a bit plain.
Like others here, I find the interiors of the ” up market ” versions to be quite attractive.
But have never seen any of the RWD Austins in the flesh.
I quite like the look of the rear, maybe because of it’s simplicity.
I had never thought of the late 50’s big Austins in context to their rivals before until this article. Compared to it’s competitors from Ford, Vauxhall, Humber and even Standard, the Austin looks positively ancient. The fact that BMC waited till 1959 to introduce contemporary styling to their big cars (thanks to Pininfarina), and that that styling was already looking dated by 1962/3 shows how complacent BMC was with their offerings in the market. I agree with the point made that if they weren’t going to do something outstanding in that market they should have spent the money developing the cars that truly needed and deserved it ie. Mini, 1100, Maxi etc. Imagine a world where those cars had been firstly replaced/updated in a shorter period, and secondly had better development.
Minor correction: Both the Zephyr and Zodiac had 6 cylinder engines, while the Consul had the 4.
I remember these from the Dinky Toys version, which somehow ended up in the Niedermeyer toy garage. They seemed pretty dull and old-fashioned to me at the time, and they still do now.
It’s pretty hard to relate to these cars unless you’re British (or from a Commonwealth country) as these made essentially zero impact on the continent, except for the occasional tourist in the Innsbruck area. And certainly none in the US, where BMC wisely decided not to try to sell them. They would have been unsalable given their inevitable Buick-level prices.
I love this car and would do it up in a two tome pastel, maybe seafoam green or periwinkle .
More interested to know why BMC tended to opt for easily dated versions of Pininfarina’s styling themes that had a significantly longer shelve-life on Peugeots, Fiats, Lancias and even a few Datsuns.
In retrospect they would have been better off aiming to buy Rover in around 1965, if not establish ties prior in the late-50s to early-60s to be able to allow Rover to acquire the rights to both the 215 Buick V8 as well as the Buick V6 (which GM also offered to Rover along with Kaiser-Jeep during negotiations for the 215 Buick V8).
I have an affection for these cars, probably because they were fairly common in the small New Brunswick town where I spent my early childhood. It was a ‘United Empire Loyalist’ area, settled just after the American revolution, and British connections in the post-war, mid-20th century were still somewhat strong.
My parents were English, but having spent a few years in the US before arriving in Canada they had already developed the opinion that British cars were not built for North American conditions. Whether that was really true, or whether they just suffered from poor servicing, I don’t know.
It’s hard to love the mid-50s Westminster in this post (contemporary, but ungainly), whereas the Riley (traditional, but elegant) was a good looking car IMO. Unfortunately I don’t think it, or the similar MG Magnette, made it to this side of the Atlantic.
The Farina Westminsters are still one of my favourite British car designs however, and the odd one can be seen on the road, or near it at least :-), here in the gentler climate of the West Coast.
A fascinating post, thank you Roger! We could have a nice fireside chat some time. I have several memories of these big Austins.
Great-auntie Bessie drove one. Her late husband had won it in a raffle, and she continued to drive it well into the seventies. By then it was an orphan. She’d offered it to the local garage, only to be told they’d give her $50 and she could keep it! Nobody wanted to work on it, but her sons serviced it and somehow managed to keep it on the road. Always immaculate, in white with a green side flash. I wonder what became of it?
Second memory, at my grandparents’ house when I heard the sound of a big powerful engine coming up the back lane. It was the firewood man coming to make a delivery. I stood back as he threw a trailer-load of firewood over the back fence, then climbed the fence again to hear the Austin start up and drive off, minus load. His wasn’t shiny like Great-auntie Bessie’s, and the exhaust was always louder than hers, but I’m not sure of the colour sixty years later. A red flash perhaps?
Occasionally you’d see one on the street, but Zephyrs, Veloxes, and Vanguards were much more common. And Holdens, of course, but these Austins were bigger cars.
I had a ’56 A90 in Victoria BC in the mid ’90s. It was rusty, paint rubbed down to primer, banged up here and there by the previous elderly owner, and the leather, which clearly was very high quality when new, was cracked. But it was delightful to own in a place where driving is slow and undemanding. Nowhere near as well engineered or built as the ’61 Humber that replaces it though.
Some awesome colors/ color combo’s in those pics!
With all due respect, I beg to differ on the argument that such a car was a dead end. Ford proved otherwise for quite a while with its Granada which – in my view – filled a the niche (large, conventional barge offering good value for money) vacated by BMC/BL (the Rover 3500 came on the scene very late and of course was badly built), Chrysler UK and Vauxhall. Had BMC gotten the 3L right with styling to differentiate it from the Landcrabs and a better tune of the C-Series engine things might have been very different. I do not consider the Landcrabs as the do all and be all, regardless of being properly developed or not – they could never be confused with anything but a middle-size (that is, UK middle-size) saloons.
I agree with what you say about the Ford Granada being an effective mainstream car.
The contemporary Triumph, and especially Rover were far too cramped.
The last effort of updating these was the Austin 3 litre an enlarged RWD landcrab with a 7 main bearing six it wasnt much of a success though there seem to be plenty of survivors in NZ similar with the big Farinas if rust didnt get them they did not wear out easily, the biggest threat to big Austins and their BMC kin is the Healey 3000 crowd harvesting mechanicals and scrapping the bodies,
an engine with gearbox attached weighs in at 7CWT(784lbs) they are heavy tank like cars 11 inch drum brakes all round that are remarkably effective the farina models had discs up front and needed them those cars will cruise at 100mph the owners manual instructs you to inflate the tyres to 31psi for sustained motoring at over 90mph they are everything something like a cheaper Velox or Zephyr wasnt the real competition the big Austins aspired to compete with are the Armstrong Siddeley Humber Supersnipe Daimler class of cars and they didnt really make it, so they competed with eachother for sales, something BMC and later BL specialised in.
Indeed, although the racing thing can work for the A90 too…
To me the strange thing about BMC serially using the same doors for different cars was that they only used the doors and not the complete centre section, the money saved can’t have been worth the sales not achieved because the expensive cars looked like the cheap ones. It wasn’t just a BMC thing, Peugeot also did this, but less obviously.
With regard to the competing Nuffield/Austin dealer networks, when the dealer network was eventually rationalised it was to the advantage of European and Japanese makers, but BL was already failing then anyway.
The Maxi and especially the Austin 3 litre were deliberately allowed to fail by the Stokes Leyland team. They wanted to show that BMC had not planned new models, did not want the cars to compete with ‘their’ Triumph products and so allowed the irrelevant 3 litre and under developed Maxi to go on sale. Result – loss of brand loyalty, and the Leyland developed cars – Marina and Allegro were cynical and uncompetitive, and failures internationally.
The Princess R was a nonsense vanity project from Harriman from the start, born out of the still born joint project with Rolls Royce to produce a Bentley and completely unecessary after the merger of BMC and Jaguar.
The C series engine was a fat pig, and another example of why you are so right Roger about the misuse of resources and lack of strategic planning. How can there be a rational explanation for the parallel existence of the Australian ‘Blue Streak’ 6 cylinder B series, the development of the E6 powered six cylinder front wheel drive cars at the same time as the 3 litre? These cars sold in small numbers and took resources which would have been better used to produce competitive mainstream cars.
When Austin and Nuffield merged to become BMC, the ideal would have been for BMC to utilise Austin engines and Morris/Nuffield platforms wrapped in Pininfarina styling that is capable of staying fresh over a longer period if required.
That would have butterflied away the C-Series in favour of a much lighter and compact 6-cylinder B-Series capable of displacing up to 3-litres, before being succeeded by a suitably developed version of the E6 with larger bore centres, crossflow head, etc with scope to directly replace the 6-cylinder B-Series with capacities up to 3-litres instead of being limited to 2.6-litres.
The Austin/Morris dealer networks should have definitely been integrated, with Riley and Wolseley integrated into Vanden Plas and MG further bolstered instead of being neglected.
While BMC were certainly capable of developing engines that were compliant with US emissions legislation with a bit of uprating (they just did not have the money… more so post-BL), it is worth mentioning that Harry Weslake in 1953 was said to have patented a combustion chamber design that was eventually produced in the Honda CVCC engine.
OTOH BMC by way of Austin’s historical ties with Nissan could have approached the latter to collaborate on the Nissan NAPS emissions control technology, as it was installed on the Nissan A engine that was distantly related to the BMC B-Series engine (via the Nissan C and first series Nissan E engines). Especially considering how emissions strangled the B-Series would end up being in the US spec MGB and Austin Marina.
Agree with you on the Princess R (the engine would have been more worthwhile on the Austin-Healey 4000 prototype before Rolls-Royce destroyed the tooling), yet reckon the merger of BMC and Jaguar and Leyland acquiring Rover were also pretty big mistakes when it should have been the other way around instead.
That would have given BMC the luxury marque they wanted along with the all-alloy Rover V8 and Hydragas-like anti-roll Hydraulic suspension system Rover were working on with Automotive Products for the P8. While the presence of Jaguar at Leyland would have resolved the overlap and conflict which existed between Rover and Triumph.