By on April 21, 2010

Ooo, what a cute little car. Yes it is, if the pygmy look is your thing, but this A40 carries the weight of some serious world financial history on its skinny little tires. Like as in our trillion dollar deficits. Seriously. This Austin was the first import car bought in significant numbers right after WWII, which at the time was a godsend to Great Britain, helping to bail them out of their horrible debt load, the price of winning the war. But in the process, the Austin was the forerunner of an overwhelming import boom that hasn’t ended yet, and which has significantly affected our own economy and its crushing debt load. Was the cute little Austin A40 an economic Trojan Horse?

That’s not exactly what crossed my mind when I stumbled on this charming little sedan sitting on the curb. It’s difficult to put it in proper scale, from a picture, because it tends to look much larger than it really is. The Austin designers were clever in making it look more like a big Plymouth from the late thirties than a VW Beetle, which it approximates in size.

It sits tall, partly because it follows the old preferred Anglo-American tradition of having body-on-frame (BOF) construction. And its tallness makes it possible for a quartet of adults to find a reasonable degree of sitting comfort, despite the space-wasting RWD/BOF design.

"The Wind In The Willows" for your reading pleasure

With few exceptions, English cars followed a conservative path of development similar to Detroit, until the radical Mini appeared in 1959. While continental designers spent the twenties and thirties exploring radical new approaches, including rear engines, unibodies and and aerodynamics, the British preferred to generally plod along with their 3/4 scale Fords and Plymouths.

This A40, called a Devon in four door form, and Dorset in its two door guise (TuDorset?) appeared in 1947, the first new post-war saloons to be built by Austin. They proudly featured a “fully independent front suspension”, but with their short wheelbase and semi-elliptic sprung solid rear axle, they had anything but a superb ride, BOF and all. This is where the VW Beetle really shone: its rigid unibody and long-travel four-wheel independent suspension was light years ahead of the these little bucking British cars of the era with their flexible frames and hard suspensions.

But the A40 did sport a fairly modern engine under that cute little hood, if you could find it down in there somewhere. It marked the beginning of an illustrious long career for the B-block engine, one that would power millions of Austins and other BMC/BL cars as well as most of the post war MG, from the TC through the MGB. Will a British history buff please tell us when the last B-block car was built?

In the Devon/Dorset twins, the 1200cc pushrod OHV four generated 40hp, not bad for the day. Austin claimed it would hit seventy. And get up to 28 mpg, at a much lower rate of speed, of course. According to Motor magazine, it would trundle from zero to sixty in exactly 37.2 seconds, if that is important to know.

So let’s get back to the A40′s role in global economics. Great Britain may have won the war, but it was practically bankrupt for it. And no, the Marshall Plan wasn’t for the winners. There was, and always is, only one honest way to get out from under a mountain of crushing debt: export, export, and export. So Austin sent the A40 to the US, at prices that were guaranteed to generate some buyer interest and earn it hard dollars.

And they did, all the way in Halsey, Oregon. That’s where this Austin found a home in 1951 with a thrifty mill worker, who sent his savings to help bail out the British Treasury, and then drove it for almost twenty years. It eventually got restored some years back, sat as a static display in front of a car shop for decades, and now is the proud possession of a lucky guy who has a pristine MG TD in the garage that he bought new as a young man.

This Austin is just lucky to have survived, since most of them ended up as highly modified dragsters in the sixties, thanks to their super short wheelbase and light weight. That applied especially to the two door Dorset, which constituted only a small fraction of the A40′s total production of some 450k until it was replaced in 1952 by the A40 Somerset.

Austin was undoubtedly the best selling import in the early fifties, and maintained a prominent place during the rest of the decade, despite eventually losing the crown to VW. The sixties saw its passenger cars suffer strong declines; only the MGs and Austin Healey continued to generate cash. And by the early seventies it was over, with the final two desperate duds being the Austin America (1100) and the Marina. The Marina was still using the B-block engine, and its crude suspension wasn’t much of an improvement over the A40′s either. A rep for horrendous reliability had long overtaken Austin by then.

But by that time, Americans were sending their cash in a different direction anyway. Ironically, it was in part for Datsuns, which had licensed Austin engine designs. And now economists tell us a key part of solving our own trade and debt imbalance is to export more. And what should that be? I bet this Devon would fetch a handsome price in London.

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62 Comments on “Curbside Classic: 1951 Austin A40 Devon...”


  • avatar
    Juniper

    Oops, I will take back my clue comment. I don’t like it, way too frumpy for me. and no nostalgia effect.
    Just how many did they import to the US?

  • avatar
    educatordan

    More than you probably ever wanted to know about the B-Series engine:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/BMC_B-Series_engine

  • avatar
    Dynamic88

    It’s nice to see this. I’ve always like all of the Austin “counties” cars.

  • avatar
    brandloyalty

    When I saw the clue photo, I immediately thought of the Austin we had when I was a kid. But, I thought probably there were many British cars of the era with similar wire spoked steering wheels.

    In 1956, a speeding Cadillac ambulance t-boned and destroyed our new Pontiac. While the ensuing lawsuits etc. were settled, my dad bought a used Austin A40, just like this one and the same color.

    I recall it being a miserable little thing compared to the Pontiac, and I especially recall my dad working on the engine. He’d buy sheets of what I think was brass, and make shims or gaskets to install in the engine. I have no idea why this had to be done almost every weekend.

    • 0 avatar
      panzerfaust

      If it was brass, he was probably working on the valve clearance. If it was gasket material, it was the intake manifold/carburettor. Pretty much most of the problems with British engines of this vintage boil down to issues with vacuum, carburetion and valve timing. It is often said that the reason Britons have historically been such great auto mechanics is because of how bloody awful British cars were.

  • avatar
    porschespeed

    Neat find Paul.

    There was a Triumph sedan of approximately the same vintage. I can’t remember the name for the life of me, but if you squinted hard, it looked like a baby Rolls Royce.

    • 0 avatar

      Triumph Mayflower

    • 0 avatar
      porschespeed

      Thank you David!

      I was confident someone here would remember for me.

    • 0 avatar
      Vic Brumby

      Triumph built two razor-edged bodied cars from the late fos to the early 50s. The little one was the Mayflower, which used the sidevalve engine of the Standard 8 (Standard was Triumph’s owner by then) and the bigger was the Renown, which used the Standard Vanguard 2-litre engine. The Renown was offered in lwb version with a glass division between driver and rear saloon, but I don’t know if they ever sold any. But I have seen two Mayflower convertibles, which I believe were only made for export and must have been pretty grim…

  • avatar

    Very nice. And to think the original owner drove this thing for 20 years!

    I don’t believe the point-2 in the 37.2 seconds to 60. But the fact that the thing gets to 60 somewhere between 35 and 40 seconds is very interesting. Oh, how times have changed.

    I see what looks like an opening in the front bumper for a crank to start the thing. Our ’65 Peugeot 404 had one of those. We never used it.

    BOF?

  • avatar

    thanks

  • avatar
    DougD

    Nice, there were proportionally more of these sold in Canada, having closer ties to GB. I remember my Great Uncle exclusively drove British cars until his mechanic recommended a Honda CVCC in the early 70′s. He was thereafter a Honda guy.
    Isn’t that drag car a Ford Anglia? That’s not an Austin…
    The nifty Triumph was the Mayflower. Brilliantly Ugly.

  • avatar
    Ingvar

    Incredibly enough, in the fifties, the British had more than 50% of global world exports, more than half of all the cars exported all over the world were from the British isles. And why´s that? Because most other car makers were bizzy making cars for their own domestic markets, like the french or the italians. When the British car making empire saw its decline, it was a lost opportunity of gargantuan proportions. Imagine that, 50% world domination…

    • 0 avatar
      skor

      I don’t doubt it, they were exporting to captive markets, their colonial possessions, in many cases those people had no choice. Once the empire had been dismantled, bye-bye markets.

    • 0 avatar
      Ingvar

      Yes, but not only. The English had an explicit “export or die” policy in foreign trade. Product development was focused on making products that would be attractive for export markets. Resources wasn’t freed if goals weren’t met. The Land Rover was developed in that way, the Jaguar XK120 was made with the American market in mind, and so on and so forth. Because of steel shortage, production was initally focused on alloy construction, both the Land Rover and the first two years batch of XK:s were made in aluminium. So, it wasn’t merely a question of ditching home trade in the colonies, but of course that was a part.

  • avatar
    rcdickey

    Needs a small block Chevy. ;-)

  • avatar
    panzerfaust

    Picture of a Dorset dragster: http://www.motortopia.com/vehicles/view/p/cars/v/9226/i/hotrod

    Pic of a nicely restored Dorset;
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/31477850@N00/1496870870

  • avatar
    Uncle Mellow

    Please please please , how can you call this a classic , and how can you call it cute ? I grew up around these things and I hated them.The Somerset model that replaced it had less grotesque styling.The rear wheel arches in particular still upset me.
    That “B” series engine,which I only ever drove and spannered in 1.8 litre form , never appeared in an MG until the MGA in the mid-fifties.

  • avatar
    ExPatBrit

    Actually the mini wasn’t the first british high volume unibody. The 1951 Austin A30 was the first “stressed monocoque”.

    They also had a floor mounted four speed and an OHV engine at a time when the Fords had three speeds and a flathead (side valve in British speak).

  • avatar
    bobkarafin

    I understand part of the reason they didn’t sell was price. You could buy a full size Ford or Chevy for what these pieces cost at the time. (Yes, they were the stripped models but I’m sure the Austin wasn’t any more luxurious than they were).

    Also, I understand they were ferocious rusters; the leftover models were already showing rust on the dealer lots.

    (Paul — now if you can get some pictures of an A90 with the Silver Streaks on the hood — THAT would be an interesting C/C!! )

  • avatar
    skor

    “Great Britain may have won the war, but……” BLAHAHAHAHAHAHA! Where did you hear that? From Clarkson on an episode of Top Gear? Let’s be serious, shall we. The only reason Hitler allowed the British Army to swim back to Dover across Channel is because he was an Anglophile. Why, I haven’t a clue. 85% of all German military casualties during WWII were inflicted by the Red Army; the other 15% BY EVERYONE ELSE PUT TOGETHER. The everyone else consisted of the UK, USA, and the former Yugoslavia. The rest of the crap about the French resistance this, Dutch resistance that, is just that: CRAP. Postwar myths invented to make these people feel good about themselves. Nazi Germany was defeated by a combination of US industrial output, and Soviet manpower. Hasn’t enough time passed so that we can finally admit that?

    • 0 avatar
      Paul Niedermeyer

      You’re right. Great Britain lost the war. Sorry for forgetting my history.

    • 0 avatar
      skor

      Sorry, the USA, USSR won the war, the UK rode their coattails.

    • 0 avatar
      Cammy Corrigan

      Two words “Bletchley Park”. A mixture of UK and US cryptographers worked on breaking the Enigma code, which was kicked started by the Poles. This project called “ULTRA” was considered to be “decisive” to the Allied victory in World War II, by none other than Dwight D Eisenhower.

      Or did the UK and Polish people ride on the coattails of the US cryptographers?

    • 0 avatar
      Robert.Walter

      Perhaps I am mistaken, but hadn’t the US broken the Japanese code by the time of the Battle of Midway?

      Britain’s major contributons:
      - hanging tough until the Yanks entered;
      - the Chain Home Range Direction and Ranging system;
      - Whittle’s technology (played no significant part, but would have had the war continued for another year);
      - Licensing Packard to build the Merlin;
      - Funding the tooling of the Mustang fighter;
      - the Royal Navy helping fight the Atlantic War, so the US Navy could deploy resources to the Pacific;
      - Barnes Wallace and his Tall Boy and Grand Slam (and as an interesting footnote, his Bouncing Dam Busting) bombs (and aircraft with the bomb-bay dimensions to carry these);
      and, the living embodiment of the tenacious-spirit of the island-nation itself, Winston Churchill…

    • 0 avatar
      ddulmage

      Fact is Britain along with its commonwealth allies defended itself in the Battle of Britain. US foreign policy did not permit its involvement, but FDR did through the lend-lease program at least see that Great Britain had access to war materiel. Most of my family served in the armed forces during the war, most of my uncles were overseas and my aunts served at home in things like the Commonwealth air training plan. My mother was a Flight Sergeant in the RCAF. It was only when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor more than two years after hostilities with Nazi Germany began, that the US started active fighting and declared war on the Japanese and the Axis powers.

  • avatar
    msquare

    I’d hate to change this discussion over to a history lesson about World War II, but since it’s relevant to the story of this particular car, here goes.

    Great Britain won the war because it was on the winning side. Whether the Soviets or the Americans contributed more or less to the effort is irrelevant to the simple fact that if you’re on the same victorious side together, you all won the war.

    And for the first two years, the Brits held off the Germans pretty much alone until Hitler attacked the Soviet Union and Japan attacked Pearl Harbor.

    To discount the efforts of the various Allied countries in the victory over Germany and Japan is unfair and an affront to the sacrifices the people of those countries made.

    • 0 avatar
      Paul Niedermeyer

      +1. Each did the best they could, according to their resources.

    • 0 avatar
      skor

      @msquare “And for the first two years, the Brits held off the Germans pretty much alone until Hitler attacked the Soviet Union and Japan attacked Pearl Harbor.” The “the Brits” held off nothing. England was not overrun by the Wehrmacht because Hitler refused to green-light an invasion. Hitler liked the English, you see, and thought he could bring them over to the German side. Ever hear of Rudolf Hess’s flight to England?

      ETA: Britain’s main contribution to defeating Germany in WWII was as an American aircraft carrier.

    • 0 avatar
      msquare

      Believe what you want to believe, but the Germans’ failure to secure air superiority over England thanks to the Battle of Britain had something to do with them not invading. And Britannia still ruled the waves, at least compared to a vastly inferior German surface fleet. Sending an amphibious force across in those conditions would have been suicidal. Don’t believe me? Look at how D-Day was done.

      You also forget that the RAF bombed Germany at night, while we did it by day.

      With all the resources available these days, there’s no reason not to know the history if one is truly interested in it.

    • 0 avatar
      skor

      Nick Clegg, Liberal Democrat MP, say the following in a Guardian newspaper interview in 2002 about Britain’s wartime contribution, ‘A misplaced sense of superiority, sustained by delusions of grandeur and a tenacious obsession with the last war, is much harder to shake off. We need to be put back in our place.’

      So you see, even honest Britons disagree with you. The only people who still believe the BS about how the UK defeated Nazi Germany are nitwit Americans who “learned” their history from watching the History Channel.

    • 0 avatar
      DougD

      Well, personally I can’t discount the fact that my family was liberated by Brits, as well as the UK functioning as the world’s largest aircraft carrier. Well done Great Britain, ask someone who was actually there.
      I think someone misspelled T-R-O-L-L in their user name.

    • 0 avatar
      Sinistermisterman

      I wouldn’t usually get involved in something like this but writing off the deaths and injuries of millions of people as ‘insignificant’ is far beyond insensitive, it’s offensive.
      I agree that the USSR was the major force in defeating the Nazi’s, whilst the USA was the major force in defeating the Japanese Imperial Empire, but belittling everyone else is just rude.
      And one point you seem to have overlooked Skor. Hitler did not simply ‘turn down’ the opportunity of invading Britain in 1940, he was forced to by the fact that the Royal Air Force had denied the Luftwaffe air superiority.
      And if Britain hadn’t survived, and the JOINT invasion on June 6th 1944 hadn’t happened, Europe would have been painted Communist Red.

      Back to the topic at hand though, I am shocked that my grandfathers 1979 MGB was powered by such a wheezing feeble engine… but there you go.

    • 0 avatar
      skor

      @Sinistermisterman, Total WII military (not including civilian) deaths by selected allied countries:

      UK — 382,700
      USA — 416,800
      Yugoslavia — 446,000
      USSR — 8.8 Million

      The “Battle of Britain” was a pathetic little sideshow. Even then, you came very close to being crushed into oblivion by an obese morphine addict. Had it not been for Soviet manpower, and American factories/farms, London would be known as Bratwurstburg today. BTW, you still owe us money. How about paying up?

    • 0 avatar
      Sinistermisterman

      Well you’re obviously right Skor, all your numbers add up and your fantastic knowledge of history all point towards your amazing grasp of world events. The millions of deaths I was refering to was the millions of other poor souls around the world who were brutally killed but who – as you pointed out – made absolutely no significant contribution to the outcome of the conflict.
      By the way, this is a car blog, and this article is about an Austin
      A40… calm down.

  • avatar
    A is A

    “Ironically, it was in part for Datsuns, which had licensed Austin engine designs”

    Yup, that happened in 1952.

    3 decades later, in 1981 Honda had to come to the rescue of the remnants of the British Motor Industry.

    http://www.google.es/search?hl=es&source=hp&q=Triumph+Acclaim+Honda+Ballade&meta=&aq=f&aqi=&aql=&oq=&gs_rfai=

    I sometimes lament not being Japanese.

    • 0 avatar
      A is A

      To make the irony slightly more complex my Toyota has been manufactured by British workers in the heart of England

      http://www.google.es/search?hl=es&q=Derbyshire+Toyota+factory&meta=&aq=f&aqi=&aql=&oq=&gs_rfai=

      Last time a British manufactured car serviced anyone my family it was in the 1950s (grandpa´s Vauxhall).

  • avatar
    KrisT

    Strictly speaking the B-series didn’t die at all. It just evolved (a bit)

    The last car in Britin to house this argur in OHV form was the truly dismal MGB. A car that only stayed in production to satisfy an unfathomable American demand for the thing, and which was mercifully put down in 1980.

    The B-series itself morphed into the O-series OHC conversion launched in 1978 in the Princess 2 which then morphed into the DOHC T-series and the L-series diesel by the end of the 80s.

    The B-series OHV got a literal indian summer overseas by continuing to serve in the Hindustan Ambassador till the 90s.

    • 0 avatar
      msquare

      That engine was such a lump that the lighter aluminum Buick/Rover V8 improved the handling balance of the few MGB’s and MGB-GT’s that received them in that short production run in the early 1970′s. None of those made it stateside, but conversion kits were available. And there was always the TR8.

      As bad as British cars’ reputations were by the late 1970′s (and deservedly so), the sports cars sold consistently well. Same for Fiat and Alfa. Shame none of them tried to nurture that, leaving the market wide open for the Mazda Miata.

    • 0 avatar
      porschespeed

      @msquare,

      If you want a factory MGB V8, in the States, I can get you a dozen tomorrow. Just make the ACH transfer.

      While I was rather young in the late 60s, I do know for a fact that there’s plenty of them floating around.

      How many would you like?

  • avatar

    My late father, a noted Sovietologist, thought that the Studebakers we shipped to the USSR under the lend lease program made a distinct contribution to the war effort, along with their Soviet handlers, and in fact, he advocated absolving the Soviets of their lend lease debt on this basis.

  • avatar

    Scroll down the page,look on the left and you can see where my brother in law’s Austin Somerset ended up back in 1968 (this was taken last September 2009)-we had them as second cars from the late 50s into the early 70s.As you can see this Austin is definitely going back to nature…
    http://www.mystarcollectorcar.com/3-the-stars/fallen-stars/347–december-2009-fallen-stars-more-car-guy-pain.html

  • avatar
    ern35

    Back in the late ’40′s my buddy’s older sister’s boyfriend had one of these—had the moniker of ‘Baby Austin’. Among various outings, and while in the back seat—I can vividly remember watching a drive-in movie while the two up front were engaged in smooching-sessions—Ah yes—the other highlight was the quirky left turn ‘wig-wag’ signal indicator that came out of the A-pillar!

  • avatar
    Nicodemus

    “With few exceptions, English cars followed a conservative path of development similar to Detroit, until the radical Mini appeared in 1959.”

    Poppycock, Brits were the world leaders in unibody construction both before and after the war. The car preceeding this one the Austin 10, the one following it the A40 Somerset it’s smaller brothers the A30/35 (which were actually some of the worlds first true monocoques)were all unibody vehicles. As were the entire range of the opposition Morris vehicles. In fact BMC came into being partly because Nuffield (Morris) owned Pressed Steel Fisher, who basically held a monopoly on unibody construction technology. By 1952 when BMC came into being, there were very few BOF cars made by them.

    “This is where the VW Beetle really shone: its rigid unibody and long-travel four-wheel independent suspension was light years ahead of the these little bucking British cars of the era with their flexible frames and hard suspensions.”

    Again there weren’t many (BMC at least) BOF of that era. And re the VW suspension, you’re joking right? It’s swing axle rear is from the textbook of how not to design an IRS! It is the Beetle’s achilles heel.

    “It marked the beginning of an illustrious long career for the B-block engine, one that would power millions of Austins and other BMC/BL cars as well as most of the post war MG, from the TC through the MGB.”

    The T-Series MGs used the completely unrelated XPAG/XPEG family of engine. In fact the statement is like saying the Corvette was powered by the Ford Windsor! The B-series is an Austin motor, the MG TC was a Morris product – At the time of the TC Morris and Austin were fierce competitors.

    “And by the early seventies it was over, with the final two desperate duds being the Austin America (1100) and the Marina.”

    The ADO16 (Austin America, Morris 1100 et al) was actually the best car BMC ever made, certainly with over 3million units sold it was the quickest selling, Issigonis at his finest. I agree that the Marina was an utter dud, possibly the worst car ever made in the UK both in concept and execution. However, they have proven to be remarkably resilient, with quite a few still to be seen on UK roads.

  • avatar
    mathui

    “This is where the VW Beetle really shone: its rigid unibody and long-travel four-wheel independent suspension was light years ahead of the these little bucking British cars of the era with their flexible frames and hard suspensions.”

    AFAIK the VW Beetle wasn’t a unibody either.

    Mat

    • 0 avatar
      Bryce

      Any one stupid enough to think the VW beetle had good suspension has never driven one fast on a twisty road torsion bar fight will flip a beetle on its roof without being in a corner awful cars poorly made and terrible to drive put the rose tinted glasses down

      • 0 avatar
        Robert.Walter

        This is one reason the New Beetle was a sales-flop in Germany. It reminded the germans of when they were poor, quite the opposite of the relationship the americans had to the same car (for it reminded the boomers of when they had been hip!)

  • avatar

    Well I have the best of both worlds…

    An Export model 1947 A40 Devon LHD with a 350 chevy from a 1970 C20 truck ,TH350 auto trans and Volvo rear axle. It was previously registered in Washington DC and is now in the heart of East Anglia UK near all the WWII bomber bases.

    The 0-60 time is slightly better and the rear axle has hydraulic disk brakes.

    It has lasted 63 years, which I guess is more than the average Datsun.

    Phil

  • avatar
    ddulmage

    My dad bought a low mileage A40 Devon and he gave it me when I was a teenager. Its biggest shortcoming was its propensity to burn valves and blow head gaskets, probably form being run too hard on Ontario highways. I still have the car, although it’s been in storage for close to 20 years.

    Dave D

  • avatar
    ddulmage

    Still one of my favourites.

    Dave D

  • avatar
    ddulmage

    The drag car is an Austin Dorset.

    Dave D

  • avatar
    southworthdt5

    I agree with ddulmage 16May 2011 about the cylinder head gasket problem. It was indeed the “Achilles Heel” of this model.
    In the 1960′s I had two of them followed by a Somerset and all three had a habit of burning away the gasket between the two middle cylinders.
    Otherwise, we had many happy miles in these models.
    For the benefit of all you Stateside oldtimers, when I was a child, our local farmer used a beautiful “Graham Paige” ( late 1920′s model I would think) for pulling a horse drawn grass mowing machine and delivering milk with a towed trailer.
    Tragically,this beauty ended its days derilect in the corner of the farmyard where we children delighted in playing in its oppulent interior. Also in the 1960′s my late father was driving a 1939 “Chrysler” Plymouth model with a straight six side-valve engine and a three speed gearbox. Again,a delightful machine.
    In the late war years and for a short time after, we enjoyed the sight and sound of very many American cars which came over “The Pond” with servicemen at the U.S Airforce base at “Burtonwood” which was roughly between the cities of Manchester and Liverpool.
    The Base was used for repairs and maintainance of aircraft and not for operating bombing missions.


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