Curbside Classic: 1959 Austin A95 Westminster – Keep It Simple; Make It Complicated But Ultimately Sinful

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.