1911 Austin. Click image to enlarge
Article and photo by Bill Vance
Austin was a well known and respected British carmaker for many years. It was best known for small cars, one of its most famous being the Austin Seven built from 1922 to 1939. It was such a sturdy little car that it was not only revered at home, but was built in several countries including the United States as an Americanized version called the American Austin/Bantam. North Americans came to know the Austin name again after the Second World War through such popular English models as the Austin A40 and the Austin-Healey sports car.
There was another Austin built in the U. S. besides the American Austin/Bantam. It was totally unrelated to the small English Austins and is barely remembered now. This Austin, designed and built in Grand Rapids, Michigan, early in the Twentieth Century was at the other end of the automotive spectrum from the American Austin/Bantam.
While the Austin Seven and derivative Austin/Bantam were tiny economy cars with 747-cc four cylinder engines, the Grand Rapids Austin was large and luxurious. At a time when most cars had no more than four cylinders the U.S. Austin was known for engines of six and 12 cylinders, although it started out with two and four cylinders for its first four years.
The Austin Automobile Company idea emerged when James E. Austin, a Grand Rapids lumber dealer invested in the Michigan Iron Works in 1900. His mechanically talented son Walter took over the operation with the intention of developing a motor car and had his first running prototype by the end of 1902.
It had a 25 horsepower, two cylinder engine and was of sound enough design that Austin built and sold 13 of them in 1903. Encouraged by this success they decided to get serious about the automobile business, and for 1904 added 35 and 50 horsepower fours. This would be the last year for the two cylinder.
Since most people who were buying cars at that time were well-to-do, Austin concentrated on the upscale market. They increased the size of their cars from a wheelbase of 2,286 mm (90 in.) in 1903 to 2,743 mm (108 in.) in ’05, and would ultimately go to 3,607 mm (142 in.)
As well as increasing the size of its cars Austin added a 90-horsepower six-cylinder engine in 1907, moving it ahead of such respected marques as Cadillac, Packard, Pierce-Arrow and Peerless who still had only fours. Ironically, Henry Ford, the champion of light, basic cars had brought out the luxurious six-cylinder Ford Model K a year earlier. It was not Henry’s choice, but built at the insistence of his financier, Detroit coal merchant Alexander Malcomson.
Austin added electric lights in 1911 and moved the steering wheel to the left side. In 1913 Austin fitted an exclusive two- speed rear axle for easier highway cruising, just beating out Cadillac with this feature.
With its wheelbase now up to 3,581 mm (141 in.) for between-the-axles seating, and an overdrive and big six cylinder engine, Austin confidently adopted the motto “The Highway King.”
During the First World War (1914-1918) Austin began offering a lighter, less expensive model, but believed its future still lay in big luxury cars. Thus in 1917 it went exclusively to a 12-cylinder engine a year after Packard had introduced its famous V12 “Twin Six.” It thus jumped ahead of Cadillac and Peerless who both had V8s, and Pierce-Arrow who had a six.
The big luxurious twelve attracted some celebrity customers such as newspaper publisher William Randolf Hearst and boxer Jack Johnson, a black man who defeated white Jim Jeffries in 1910 for the world’s heavyweight championship, causing race riots and murders.
The end of the First World War bought an economic recession that caused hardship and cutbacks in the automobile industry. Even General Motors again fell into the hands of the bankers.
With its line of luxury cars and no lower priced models to fall back on, Austin went out of business in 1920. Production had never been high, probably no more than 1,000 cars over an 18-year span. Another American luxury car had passed into history.
As a small footnote to the story, in 1930 when Austin of England was planning for its American production it settled on Butler, Pennsylvania as a plant location. When Grand Rapids heard this it immediate set out to have the British Austins manufacturer in their town, based on its historic ties to the Austin name.
Although the Grand Rapids Austin had no connection with the English Austin, Grand Rapids attempted to entice the new company. But the Butler people would have nothing to do with this, and pledged some $450,000 to keep American Austin in Butler. Unable or unwilling to say in the game, Grand Rapids quietly faded out of the picture.