February 25, 2001
by Bill Vance
First of the modern post-war imports
The first wave of imported cars to reach our shores following World War II came from Britain. And the name that most people associated with these small English cars was Austin. Perhaps this is because it was not an unknown marque over here; the American Austin Car Co. of Butler, Pennsylvania, had begun building an Americanized version of the English Austin Seven in 1930. Also, the Austin Automobile Co. built cars in Grand Rapids, Michigan from 1901 to 1921.
The first few post-war Austins and other small British cars that began landing here were, like our own cars, slightly re-worked pre-war designs. This would soon change, however, and the Austin Motor Co. of Longbridge, Birmingham, was one of the earliest to offer an all-new post-war model: the Austin A40.
The 1948 A40 came as the 2-door Dorset and the 4-door Devon. It was a modern, if conventionally engineered design, apart from the hydro-mechanical (hydraulic front, mechanical rear) brakes. Suspension was independent in front using coil springs and A-arms, while at the rear there were leaf springs and a solid axle. The arm-type front shock absorbers did tend to weaken early, causing “porpoising” over road undulations.
Power came from an inline, overhead valve, four cylinder engine displacing 1.2 litres and developing a modest 40 horsepower. It drove the rear wheels through a floor-shift, 4-speed manual transmission.
By North American standards the A40 was really small. It had a wheelbase of only 2349 mm (92.5 in.), and an overall length of just 3886 mm (153 in.); weight was 975 kg (2150 lb). A ’48 Chevrolet, in comparison, rode on a 2946 mm (116.0 in.) wheelbase, was 5024 mm (197.8 in.) long, and weighed some 1452 kg (3200 lb).
The A40′s styling was pleasant, if somewhat stubby in appearance by North American standards. The horizontal bar grille was still upright, and the top half raised with the hood. The front fender line swept down and back to conceal the running boards, and the overall width of 1549 mm (61 in.) meant that the A40 was only a four passenger car.
The passengers were luxuriously accommodated, however, in an interior that was nicely finished with a wooden instrument panel and comfortable leather seats. And if the trunk wouldn’t hold all of their luggage, the swing-down lid provided an extra cargo carrying platform.
Performance was modest, as would be expected with the A40′s power-to-weight ratio. Road & Track magazine (8/51) recorded a leisurely zero to 96 km/h (60 mph) acceleration time of 29.4 seconds, although top speed was a surprisingly good 117 km/h (73 mph). The A40 was frugal on fuel, being capable of 36 mpg Imperial, or 30 U.S.
As with other small English cars of that era, the A40 was geared quite low, with the result that the poor little engine had to spin over at high rpm if the usual North American 96 – 105 km/h (60 – 65 mph) cruising speeds were maintained. The Austin was much more comfortable at 88 (55), which still required its little four to spin at 3700 rpm. The A40 did prove its stamina at the Montlhery, France, race track, however, when one covered 10,000 miles in as many minutes.
The A40 arrived at a propitious time because we were still suffering a shortage of new cars caused by the industry shut-down during the war. The result was that over 20,000 A40s were sold in North America in 1948.
This was so encouraging that late in the year the Austin Motor Co. announced that it would assemble cars in Canada. They established the Austin Motor Co. (Canada), obtained a plant in Hamilton, Ont., and began preparing for the production of A40 and sporty A90 models beginning in 1949.
The plant was to produce for the North American market, but alas it was not to be. With the gradual filling of the demand for cars, Austin sales fell off to 17,700 in ’49, in spite of the addition of the Countryman station wagon and the end of the two- door Dorset.
There was a reprieve in 1950 when a drastic devaluation of the pound sterling made them more price competitive and A40 sales temporarily jumped to almost 30,000 cars and wagons.
Their prosperity was short lived, however, and in 1951, even the addition of the smart little A40 sportster couldn’t keep North American sales from falling to 6200.
The original ’48 – ’51 A40 was replaced by the more bulbous Somerset for 1952. Then in 1953 Volkswagen Beetles began to arrive here in quantity, and would gradually take over leadership in the small car market.
While the Austin A40 wasn’t an outstanding car in any particular respect, its engine would turn out to have a heart of gold. It provided the basis for the British Motors Corp.’s B-Series four that would go on to power everything from Nash/Hudson/AMC Metropolitans to MGBs.
The Austin A40 was the first of the modern small cars to arrive here following WWII. It provided economical transportation for thousands of families, and is still fondly remembered by many former owners.