1950 Austin A-90 Atlantic. Click image to enlarge
Story and photo by Bill Vance
When imported cars began arriving in North America after the Second World War, Austin became the best known nameplate. It was already familiar on this side of the Atlantic, having been manufactured in Pennsylvania in the 1930s as an Americanized version of the tiny British Austin Seven. It was marketed first as the American Austin, and later as the American Bantam, but never gained much popularity because it was too small to be suitable for the North American market. There was also an unrelated large Austin built in Grand Rapids, Michigan from 1903 to 1920.
In 1947, the Austin Motor Co. of England introduced its new postwar A40 model as the Devon four-door, and Dorset two-door sedans. Britain was hungry for hard currency, and Austin quickly began to export them to North America. It was a wonderful time to be selling new cars, and fortunately for Austin it was able to cash in on the pent-up demand for cars that resulted from the wartime shut-down of the auto industry.
The A40 was a pleasant enough little car, but although admirably suitable for the shorter trips of its home country, it was less compatible with the vast distances of North America. But since new cars were scarce, Austins enjoyed reasonably good sales before Volkswagens started being imported in quantity in the 1950s and gradually took over small-car leadership.
Based on its early success selling little A40s here, Austin decided it could do even better by designing a larger car specifically for the North American market. This was at a time when British manufacturers were aping American styling. The Rover, for example, resembled the Studebaker, the Jowett was inspired by the Lincoln Zephyr, and English Fords looked like smaller versions of their American cousins.
The result was the creation of the Austin A90 Atlantic. Austin’s pitch to the North American market was offered first as a convertible with manual or power top, and later as a sport sedan. While not resembling any particular American car, it was clearly influenced by American design. It was attractively styled with its horizontal grille rather than the traditional Austin upright type, and its hood and deck lid were adorned with Pontiac-like chromed stripes.
There was a “cyclops eye” spotlight in the middle of the grille, a la the Tucker, and the headlamps were located inboard above the grille. A flying-A Austin emblem was mounted on each fender above the headlights. The front fenders were somewhat bulbous, and the fender line swept back and down to the rear bumper, incorporating full rear-wheel fender skirts. The steep drop-off of this line always gave the impression that the A90’s tail was riding a little higher than it should.
The interior was nicely finished in leather and the four-speed transmission’s column-mounted shift lever allowed three (friendly) people to ride in the front seats. The cosy rear seat was would accommodate two more.
Power came from a 2.6 litre (2,660 cc) overhead valve in-line four cylinder engine equipped with two SU carburetors. It developed 88 horsepower, and was capable of accelerating the 1,270 kg (2,800 lb) A90 to 80 km/h (50 mph) in about 11 seconds, and pushing it to a top speed in excess of 145 km/h (90 mph). While not tire-burning performance, it was quite adequate, comparing favourably with many contemporary North American cars.
The chassis was conventional with A-arms and coil springs in front, and leaf springs and a solid axle at the rear. It rode on a 2,438 mm (96 in.) wheelbase and was 4,496 mm (177 in.) long over- all. The brakes, initially a combination of hydraulic and mechanical, were soon changed to full hydraulic.
When the Atlantic arrived in North America, it made an auspicious entrance. An A90 was taken to the Indianapolis Speedway in April, 1949, where it broke 63 stock-car speed records. In spite of terrible weather, it covered 19,080 km (11,850 miles) in seven days, averaging 113 km/h (70.54 mph).
With attractive styling, good performance, and the prestige of its speed records, the Austin A90 Atlantic should have taken the North American market by storm. Unfortunately for Austin, it didn’t. One of the problems was an initial price in the $3,000 range. For this amount of money buyers had the choice of such cars as a Buick or Mercury convertible, which were much bigger cars that cut a much more impressive figure to North American buyers.
Although built to attract North American buyers, the A90 Atlantic never really caught on. It was continued until 1952, the year in which Austin and the Nuffield Group (Morris, et al.) merged to form the British Motor Corp. Total Atlantic production during its 1948 to ’52 run was approximately 10,000.
While the Atlantic failed to bring the hoped-for hard currency to Britain, its engine, transmission and suspension would go on to enjoy much more fame than the A90 ever did. They would form the basis for the popular Austin-Healey 100/4 sports car, which appeared in 1953.