1952 Austin A40 Sports. Click image to enlarge
Story and photo by Bill Vance
Following the Second World War, when imported cars began trickling into the North American market, Austin of England quickly became one of the most popular. The name was not totally unknown over here. The Austin Automobile Co. of Grand Rapids, Michigan had made large American cars from 1901 to 1921, and the American Austin Car Co. (later the American Bantam Car Co.) had built Americanized English Austin Sevens in Butler, Pennsylvania during the 1930s. But it took the post-war English Austin to really popularize the name in the Unites States and Canada.
The car that did it was the Austin A40, which came as the Devon (four door) and Dorset (two door) sedan. Introduced in 1947 as a 1948 model, the A40 was modern in design, except for the hydromechanical brakes in which the front brakes were hydraulic and the rears were mechanical.
It had a 1.2-litre, 40-horsepower, four-cylinder, overhead valve engine driving the rear wheels through a four-speed manual transmission. Performance was modest, and with an overall length of just 3,886 mm (153 in.) the “Baby Austin” looked decidedly small to North American eyes.
Even with its diminutive size, the A40 enjoyed fair sales success in North America, especially from 1948 to 1950. But when the post-war, pent-up demand for new cars had been satisfied and sales began tapering off, Austin felt that it needed to inject a little glamour into the A40 line.
Although the Austin A90 Atlantic sports sedan and convertible, which had arrived in 1949 designed specifically for the North American market was enjoying only limited sales success, Austin bravely decided to try again.
The Austin A40 Sports was the result, and it came about through Austin’s collaboration with Jensen Motors of West Bromwich, Staffordshire. Before the Second World War, coachbuilder Jensen had produced cars based on American chassis and engines from Ford, Nash and Lincoln.
After the war, these components were no longer available, so Jensen made a deal with Austin for the purchase of the 4.0-litre, overhead valve six that Austin used to power its large Sheerline sedan. Jensen called its Austin powered car the Four-Litre model.
This liaison lead Jensen to another joint venture in which Austin would supply Jensen with their A70 sedan chassis and engines for use in the new Jensen Interceptor model. In return, Austin wanted Jensen to build its new Austin A40 Sports, to which Jensen happily agreed.
The A40 Sports that evolved was a two-door, four-passenger, body-on-frame convertible based on A40 sedan components. The mostly aluminum body was designed by Jensen and mounted on the A40 chassis. When it made its debut in prototype form at the 1949 London Motor Show it was no surprise that it bore a remarkable family resemblance to the first generation Jensen Interceptor.
Like the Interceptor, the A40 Sports had a horizontal bar grille and full envelope body with lines that were clean, conservative and quite attractive. It was meant to be a sporty touring car, not a sports car.
Under the hood, the A40 engine had been modified by increasing the compression ratio and replacing the single Zenith carburetor with twin SUs, which raised horsepower from 40 to 46. Like the sedan, its suspension was independent coil-spring-and-A-arm in front, and leaf springs with a solid axle at the rear. It had a column-shifted, four-speed manual transmission, and thankfully, full hydraulic brakes.
Production didn’t get under way until early in 1951, and the A40 Sports began landing in North America later that year.
With only 46 horsepower pushing more than 953 kg (2,100 lb) it’s not surprising that the performance of the A40 Sports was modest. Contemporary English tests reported a zero to 96 km/h (60 mph) time of 26 seconds, compared with the 29.4 that Road & Track (8/51) got with the A40 sedan. Top speed was close to 130 km/h (80 mph), compared with the sedan’s 118 (73). But with their low axle ratios both cars had to strain to maintain the 96 to 105 km/h (60 to 65 mph) cruising speeds that were common in North America.
Alas, in spite of its smart lines, four-passenger accommodation, and passable performance, the A40 Sports found limited market acceptance. By the time production ceased in 1953, only some 4,000 had been built, most of which were exported.
Austin had laid another egg in the sporty car market; the A40 Sports, like the A90 Atlantic, just didn’t catch on. It was probably due to a combination of factors: modest performance, a fairly high price that was in the $2,200 range, and the fact that it wasn’t a sports car.
It wasn’t until the 1954 arrival of the Donald Healey Motor Co.-designed Austin-Healey 100 roadster, also built by Jensen, that the Austin name would grace a really successful sports car. By that time Austin had become, through a 1952 amalgamation with Morris, part of the British Motor Corporation.