In the aftermath of the Second World War, the “Export or die” era of the British motoring industry, when steel was only allocated to carmakers who sold ¾ths of their products overseas, was a cut-throat world. British carmakers were especially attracted to the North American market, whose appetite for their products seemed insatiable. From MG to Rolls-Royce, everyone got piles of greenbacks in exchange for their wares. So did Austin, by the way. But it wasn’t thanks to the A90 Atlantic.
I encountered this rotund drop-head gorgeous A90 on the street, quite randomly. I couldn’t quite believe my eyes, but I knew immediately what it was. These are rare cars, but they’re certainly very distinctive.
As luck would have it, I bumped into it again at the Nihonbashi car meet I wrote up recently. This Atlantic definitely wanted to have its fifteen minutes of CC fame. And although it’s not quite a Deadly Sin or anything (the Austin marque lived on for several decades afterwards), the A90 Atlantic was certainly a major dud. That always makes for a fun Schadenfreude-filled story.
Austin’s postwar range was primarily focused around compact and family-sized saloons, though they also had a line of prestige limos. But all in all, there wasn’t much to catch the eye of the discerning American buyer. To add a much-needed dose of pizzazz, Austin’s first all-new post-war car, premiered at the 1948 London Motor Show, would be a large convertible, with as many bells and whistles as could be crammed in.
This included a column gearchange, an optional radio, 12-volt electrics, full leather upholstery, room for five passengers and (drum roll please) electro-hydraulic windows and convertible top. For a 1948 car – let alone an Austin – this was a veritable gingerbread house.
But they didn’t stuff this car with all those goodies just to clothe it in a warmed-over 1939 body. Austin designers went all-out on the bathtub styling, lathered in chrome for good measure. They even took the Pontiac silver streaks to keep the hood and bootlid nice and shiny. This was also the first Austin to eschew the traditional vertical grille, also providing it (in a nod to Tucker and Tatra, perhaps?) with a third headlight.
The chassis was a bit less daring, consisting in a coil-sprung independent suspension and hydraulic brakes up front, and a leaf-sprung live axle with cable brakes in the back. The engine was based on the 2.2 litre OHV 4-cyl. seen in the 1945-49 Austin 16, albeit bored out to 2660cc and providing 88hp and mated to a 4-speed manual. In early 1950, a metal roof version joined the range, which ended up being the sole model once convertible production was halted at the end of that year.
Austin could have gone further in the body variants – indeed, they did build this stunner of a woodie, but perhaps by this time the writing was already on the wall, so it remained one-of-a-kind.
The problem was that Austin of England didn’t wow anyone in Austin of Texas. Folks who wanted to buy British actually liked the dated styling, and those who wanted a big drop-top with power everything could buy something American-made, where they would also be able to get double the engine (and an automatic transmission), all for the same price as the Atlantic. In addition, Jaguar launched the XK120 and showed everyone how it’s done, after which the higher end of the market only had eyes for them.
Production wound down in 1952, by which time just under 8000 units had been made, half convertibles and half saloons. Only 4% of this total actually made it to the States, demonstrating that Austin had badly missed the mark. On the other hand, 10% of production went to Australia. They should have called it the Austin Antipodean.
Ultimately, the exercise was not a complete waste: British carmakers saw this misadventure as a sign that they should stick to their tried and true formulas (and that aping the Americans was pointless). Austin, for their part, recycled the big 4-cyl. into a much more successful package thanks to their cooperation with Donald Healey. The A90 Atlantic hit an iceberg on its way over to the place it was supposed to conquer, just like a ship whose name escapes me.