Sometimes I like to take my ‘aviation hat’ off, and change gear – literally. A few days ago, I found myself headed towards the beautiful Codman Estate, in Lincoln, Massachusetts, to attend a rally of antique automobiles (what we in the Old Country would call a ‘vintage car rally’!) There were flocks of Fords, bevies of Buicks, lashings of Lincolns…and an Austin? Parked close by a tree was a bright red example of the delightful Austin 8 four-seat tourer. Now, I deal in rare, and when I was in charge of the Science Museum’s Wroughton annex, we had NOT got one of this version of the 8. As far as I am aware, there are approximately 200 of all variants of the Austin 8 still extant, and that includes a world population of around 20 tourers, with just TWO in the USA, this one, and according to the owner, one in California!
Launched on 25th February, 1939, the Austin Motor Company Ltd of Longbridge, Birmingham, had needed a car to replace its very dated Austin 7. Leonard Lord had just taken over the day-to-day running of Austin, and he wanted something ‘modern’. Powered by a 900cc, 4 cylinder, side-valve engine of only 24 hp (8hp was the ‘official’ Royal Automobile Club rating, for tax purposes – which was so incorrect that manufacturers almost laughed at it). The Austin 8′s top speed was a sedate 58 mph. A single down-draught carburretor by Zenith, semi-elliptical springs, and an ‘off the shelf’ prop shaft by Hardy Spicer rounded out the main mechanical components.
The ‘Practical Motorist’, gave it the equivalent of ‘two thumbs up’, saying that the Austin 8 ‘had a roomy comfortable body, excellent road-holding, and smart performance’. The company advertisements were – of course – even more effusive. ‘The new Austin 8 – an outstanding investment’; ‘ A smart looking car that will make an instant appeal to a large section of motorists’. There were touches of modernity, though; the integral, pressed steel floor pan had a monocoque body shell bolted to it, and there was synchromesh on the top three gears of the four-speed box. However, the brakes were still mechanical ones by Girling, although there was a cunning touch; an ‘equalizer spring’ ensured that front brakes came on first, followed by the rear brakes. There was, of course, the inevitable fly in the ointment. The 6 volt electrical system came by way of Lucas Electrics, known to this day amongst car enthusiasts as ‘Lucas, Prince of Darkness’!
Here we can see one of the rare, four-seat tourers (there was also a two-seater, which instead of rear seats, had a full-width shelf). The hood design had detachable side curtains, and you can see the snap-fasteners along the top of the doors. When not needed these were stowed behind the rear seats in a special compartment. The windscreen (windshield for my American reader) folded flat, in a rather pretentious, sports car fashion. A Riley or Bentley, this was not! The cut-outs on the door were there to allow ‘sporting types’ to vault in. The price of the model shown was £135, when the average house price in the U.K. in 1939 was £545.
Suddenly, in September 1939, everything changed. With the outbreak of the Second World War, civilian car production was severely curtailed, and what was produced was exported to generate hard currency for the arms that Britain so badly needed. Civilian production stopped in 1942, and a stream of Austin 8 two-seat tourers and four seat sedans (what my British reader would call a ‘saloon car’) were turned out in khaki green for the armed forces. Certain changes were made, such as plain steel wheels, and very basic trim. When production restarted for the civilian market in 1946, the design had become rather dated, and it was hardly surprising when the Austin 8 line closed down in 1947; over 56,000 had been produced (of all versions), including more that 20,000 for the military during World War Two. Production, using some British parts, was also undertaken post-war in Australia, where it was known as the Austin 8 ‘Wasp’ for reasons which are unknown.
The example you can see here was one of the very last exported from England in 1941, and remained in the ownership of the same American family until 2004. The current owner acquired it at that point, and has spent a great deal of time and effort in undertaking the splendid restoration you can see here. To emphasize the camaraderie of car collectors, when the owner of the other existing tourer in California approached him for help over the very distressed fabric of his car, the owner in Massachusetts carefully removed his newly manufactured top and took it to California! (It was too precious to risk transport by any other means). The Californian tourer now sports a ‘spiffing’ new ‘ragtop’, carefully copied from the original.
Oh, and I really like the ‘repairman’ – a pair of jeans with sneakers attached – shown under the Austin 8, and so did many children who passed by! One more thing, I feel a special affinity to this particular Austin product. Why? Because we share a birthday!
The Austin 8 tourer, charming, rare, and if it wasn’t for ‘Lucas, Prince of Darkness’, utterly reliable.