1938 American Bantam Roadster
1938 American Bantam Roadster. Click image to enlarge

Story and photo by Bill Vance

Before the Europeans and American Powel Crosley of radio fame began marketing small cars in North America, there was an attempt to sell diminutive, economical vehicles by the American Austin Car Company, later American Bantam Car Company. It was incorporated in Delaware in 1929, and headquartered in Butler, Pennsylvania.

American Austin/Bantam’s roots really began in 1922 when the Austin Motor Company of Birmingham, England, introduced its tiny Austin Seven. It proved so successful that there were French, German and Japanese versions. It was decided that there could also be a market for an Americanized model.

The American Austin was introduced at a private trade showing in New York in January, 1930. With the 1929 stock market crash bringing on the Depression, it should have been the perfect time for a small, economical car. Sir Herbert Austin was present to launch the new car’s promotional campaign, and it was so effective that within a week some 4,000 dealers had signed up.

The Austin was really small. With a 1,905 mm (75 in.) wheelbase, a 1,016 mm (40 in.) track, and an over-all length of only 2,667 mm (105 in.), it resembled an oversized pram. It weighed a mere 513 kg (1,130 lb).

The inline side-valve four-cylinder engine displaced 747 cc (45.6 cu. in.) and developed 13 horsepower at 3,300 rpm. American Austin claimed 40 miles per gallon, and promoted it as a second car. It arrived first as a coupe, followed by a two-passenger roadster and quarter-ton van.

Alas, during the Depression the American Austin didn’t come close to the expected 60,000 first year’s sales. By the end of 1930 only 8,558 American Austins had been built and company books showed a loss of about $1 million. Inventory was carried over into 1931 when production fell to only 1,279. Prospects did not look promising.

Fortunately for Austin its sales took an upturn in 1932, and the 3,846 vehicles produced allowed an upgrade of its 1933 models. Bodies were made more stylish, and engine improvements brought quieter operation, better performance, and even higher fuel economy. A new coupe suburban, with two tiny child “seats” in the rear, was added. The company produced 4,726 Austins in 1933, but was again losing money.

During 1934 it was apparent that the company was failing, and in June it filed for bankruptcy. Sales in 1934 were just 1,551. It seemed like the end of the road for American Austin, but there was to be another chapter. When the assets were put up for bids in 1935, they were bought by Roy S. Evans of Atlanta, Georgia. Evans owned a seven-state distributorship for Hudson, Lincoln and Willys, as well as American Austin, and had been the last chairman of American Austin’s board. Still optimistic about the future of small economical cars, he registered the business under the new name of American Bantam Car Company in June 1935.

To upgrade the American Bantam from its Austin heritage, Evans engaged the best engineering talent he could afford, including the famous Indianapolis race car and engine builder Harry Miller. They kept the same displacement, but replaced the engine’s two roller-and ball-bearing crankshaft bearings with the industry standard plain babbitt type. The compression ratio was raised from 5.0:1 to 7.0:1, and horsepower was increased to 20. New, modern bodies were also designed.

Top speed was said to be improved to 105 km/h (65 mph) compared with the previous 80 to 88 (50 to 55 mph), with economy reaching as high as 52 mpg. The much improved American Bantam was introduced at the New York Auto Show in the Fall of 1937.

Although the company optimistically scheduled assembly of 18,000 cars for 1938, only an estimated 2,000 were built. In spite of the addition of several new models for 1939, including the four-passenger Speedster convertible and a station wagon, production slipped even further to 1,227.

For 1940, in a desperate attempt to salvage the operation, new exotic names such as the Hollywood convertible coupe and Riviera four-passenger convertible were added. There was also a 0.8 litre (50 cu in.) “Hillmaster” engine with three main bearings and 22 horsepower. Unfortunately the trend could not be reversed and just 800 1940s were built. The end of car production came in late 1940 with the assembly of just 138 1941 models.

American Austin/Bantam had failed to sell North Americans on small cars. The public never really took them seriously, often making them the butt of jokes and pranks. Particularly popular was seeing how many college students could cram into one. Owners sometimes suffered the ignominy of finding their cars on sidewalks or verandas.

Although their cars didn’t catch on over here, American Bantam has a place in history for another reason. In 1940 when the U.S. military issued tenders for the versatile, four-wheel drive, 1/4-ton utility vehicle that became the Jeep, American Bantam, and only American Bantam, produced a prototype within the killing 49-day deadline. Unfortunately its production capacity was too limited, and the big Jeep orders went to Willys-Overland and Ford.

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