(first posted 2/9/2015) Austin Somersets keep calling to me. I’ve heeded their beckonings and found and shot them in various conditions, from this obviously restored version on the street near a car show, to rotting hulks sitting in the weeds. Follow along as we find various examples and I attempt to rationalize my fondness for these chubby-looking little Brits.
The Somerset is one of Austin’s “county” cars, along with the Devon, Dorset, Hampshire, and Hereford, all named after English counties. The Somerset was the successor to the successful A40 Devon while borrowing its styling from its bigger A70 Hereford sibling, which had launched two years previously. It was built from 1952 to 1954.
While the previous A40 had a variety of body styles including the two-door Dorset, four-door Devon and Jensen-bodied Sports, as well as commercial truck and van models, the Somerset trimmed the range down to the four-door saloon and a two-door convertible. Australia had previously produced a few convertible Tourer variants of the Devon/Dorset style A40 that were not seen anywhere else.
The open air Somerset model was rather bizarrely christened Coupé. The body on the drop top model was produced by Carbodies of Coventry but assembled at Longbridge, alongside the saloons. Only 7,243 were ever produced, making it a rarity.
Here is a Somerset found in its traditional North American environment and condition. They are usually not too far gone, and stored in a long non-operational state in either a backyard or field.
This particular car bounced around a few locations in town before finally disappearing one day. I do hope it has found a caring home as it appeared to be weathered but quite solid. The chrome was even nice and straight.
The fate of most North American Somersets suffers from the fact that they are not worth a lot in stock condition, making a proper restoration rarely financially worthwhile, and that they have two too many doors for the hot rod crowd. The earlier, two-door A40 Dorset is rarely seen in stock condition and is almost always sporting a large American V8 engine. To my eyes, the rear door on a Somerset could be welded shut and still retain the factory body line flow.
Mechanically, the Somerset sat on a separate pressed steel chassis inherited from the Devon. In fact, the Somerset was the last body-on-frame, Austin-designed model released before their merger with rival Morris. Running gear was mostly carried over from the Devon as well. The early Devons could be had with a floor-shifted transmission and mechanical rear brakes. For the Somerset’s introduction in 1952, only a column-shifted four-speed manual was available, and the brake system had transitioned to hydraulic fluid from a fluid/mechanical hybrid.
The A40, especially the Somerset, has traditionally been knocked for its poor, wallowing handling. Perhaps a tall center of gravity and narrow track are to blame, as suspensionwise the A40 is very similar to the later MG B sports car. Front suspension is independent, with double wishbones and coils. At the rear, a live rear axle is suspended by traditional leaf springs. The positioning of the steering box right behind the front bumper as well as the solid steering column looks rather scary to modern safety sensibilities.
The MG B connection goes a bit further, as the A40 is powered by the direct ancestor of the MG B’s engine. When Austin was developing the first A40 it needed a more modern four-cylinder power plant. An older flathead four was used as a starting point from which a 40hp 1.2L OHV four-cylinder engine was developed. Around 1952 the requirement for larger displacements was recognized; unfortunately, the A40 unit was not designed with enough “stretch” to allow further growth.
A new and longer design, based heavily based off and very similar-looking to the A40 unit, was designed and designated the B-series. While initially only displacing the same 1.2 liters, it would see increases to 1.5, 1.6 and 1.8 liters. Australia even built a 2.4 liter unit with an extra two cylinders tacked on. Other notable variations are the optional DOHC MG A engine as well as a diesel conversion. Common and well known applications of the B-series engine include many Austin, Morris, MG, Riley and Wolseley saloons, as well as MG A and B sports cars. It was also utilized in an amazing variety of other vehicles, including TVR and Elva Courier sports cars, as well as Leyland Sherpa vans, Mercedes-Benz L206 vans, Nash Metropolitan, Tempo Matador trucks and even International Harvester Metro-Mite delivery vehicles.
The Somerset 1.2 liter engine brought a slight boost in power over the Devon, to 42 hp @ 4500 rpm and 58 lb-ft of torque @ 2400 rpm. Performance was about normal for the era, with 0-60 times in the high twenty to middle thirty second range and a top speed of 74 mph. Low compression (to cope with often poor quality postwar fuel supplies) as well as a stump-pulling first gear and overall low gearing likely hindered performance. There were 500 specials produced with two-tone paint and slightly higher performance.
A friend of mine owned this example for a short while several years ago. At the time he also owned many other British saloons and various other classic orphans, so not much ever happened to this one.
The stand-up flying A ornament surely has to be one of the best factory motifs ever produced.
One of my favorite components of classic cars is definitely the interior. The Somerset has one of the better ones, in my opinion. The dual gloveboxes and central gauge pod made it easy for the factory to produce both right- and left-hand drive versions. It also gives the dashboard a pleasing symmetry, although probably not ideal ergonomics. The massive ‘banjo’ steering wheel is another big draw for me. While this one has lost all its rim padding, I can still visualize myself sawing away at it on a back road. I also have a strange desire to drive a vehicle with a column-shift manual transmission. Unusually for North American tastes, this Austin features a four forward and one reverse ratio on the column.
Old and cracked Firestone winter tires give an indication of how long this Somerset has been off the road. Still, some new rubber, a lick of paint on the rims and a polish of the partial hubcaps would have the wheels looking quite fine again. The rest of the car might require a bit more work to revive.
The body shell was amazingly solid, with no rust-through and few dents. Remarkably, the glass was all intact even if the weather stripping had long passed its best. The paint was well weathered from the sun, with plenty of primer showing through– patina that would be the envy of many a hot rodder. I did briefly consider buying it off my friend and updating the engine and gearbox to a more modern four-cylinder engine, perhaps from a mini pickup truck. But then, of course, I would have lost the alluring column shift.
Nissan must have found positive attributes in the Somerset as well, as they built a licensed copy of it for the Japanese market. The agreement with Austin allowed Nissan to slowly substitute Japanese parts in place of British ones. While the Japanese Somersets were largely British, the later Austin become more and more Nissan-like. A Nissan-improved variant of the B-series engine went on to power many Datsun/Nissan vehicles.
A total of 173,000 Somersets were produced over a two-year span. This compares to 456,544 Devon-style A40s, which enjoyed a longer five-year run. While the Somerset seems to enjoy a presence in the home market, they are rarely seen in North America and often then only in dilapidated condition.
The local annual swap meet is coming up in a mere matter of days, and I’m always drawn to this photo posted at a vendor’s booth. No price is given, but maybe this year I will finally inquire. I do have a classic car-sized space in the garage and if the price were right, I might just be tempted to finally take a visit to Somerset.