Curbside Classic: 1951 Austin A40 Devon

Paul Niedermeyer
by Paul Niedermeyer
curbside classic 1951 austin a40 devon

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.

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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2 of 63 comments
  • Southworthdt5 Southworthdt5 on Aug 23, 2011

    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.

  • David A. Warr David A. Warr on Sep 23, 2015

    I just discovered this site. Love the A40 Devon. It is nostalgic for me since it is the first car that I can remember from when I was a boy. My father had a long line of Austins. Love the A40 pickup as well. I always thought that the Austins and MGs of that era had the A series engine. The larger engines, 1500 and 1800, were the B series. There is so much misinformation on this A40 thread and bias in regards to the war that the name of the site is a misnomer. Not much truth here. One cannot rely on what has been presented here. That being said, I have always thought that the MGB was a great car and certainly presents as a great value today. The cars up to 1974 had 95 h.p. from 1.8l. Compare that to my 6.6l Trans Am with only 185h.p. Which one is the wheezie one?

  • Jwee I think it is short sighted and detrimental to the brand. The company should be generous to its locked-in user base, treating them as a resource, not a revenue stream.This is what builds any good relationship, generosity to the other partner. Apple does with their products. My iPhone is 5 years old, but I keep getting the latest and greatest updates for free, which makes me feel valued as a customer and adds actual value. When it is time for a new phone, Apple past treatment towards me certainly plays into my decisions (as did BMW's - so long subscription extracting pigs, its been a great 20 years). Imagine how much good will and love (and good press) Polestar would get from their user base if they gave them all a "68 fresh horses" update overnight, for free. Brand loyalty would soar (provided their car is capable).
  • ToolGuy If I had some space I would offer $800 and let the vehicle sit at my place as is. Then when anyone ever asked me, "Have you ever considered owning a VW?" I would say "Yes."
  • ToolGuy In the example in the linked article an automated parking spot costs roughly 3% of the purchase price of the property. If I were buying such a property, I would likely purchase two parking spots to go with it, and I'm being completely serious.(Speaking of ownership vs. subscription, the $150 monthly maintenance fee would torque me off a lot more than the initial acquisition cost.)
  • ToolGuy "which will be returned as refunds to citizens of the state" - kind of like the Alaska Permanent Fund? Make the amount high enough and I will gladly move to California to take advantage (my family came close to moving there when I was a teen, and oodles of people have moved from CA to my state, so I'm happy to return the favor).Note to California: You probably do not want me as a citizen.
  • ToolGuy Nice torque figure.