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The Austin Comes to America – Part I of the American Austin Bantam Story

The 1922 Austin Seven prototype

By Robert D. Cunningham

Between 1908 and 1926, Henry Ford’s simple and affordable Model T had attracted nearly 15 million buyers. But Americans began tossing their Ts like old tin cans, lured by the color and chrome of Chevrolet, Essex and Whippet. So on May 26, 1927, Ford closed up shop in order to invent and prepare for the all-new 1928 Model A.

Meanwhile, The New York Times predicted the next great fortune would be made by the man who would produce the best new type of small car. The Austin Motor Company, of Longbridge, England, seemed the most likely contender. Since its introduction in 1922, the Austin Seven baby car had been embraced in Europe where its builder, Herbert Austin, was considered equal to Henry Ford.

1925 GM Mosquito prototype

Austin entered negotiations with General Motors for licensed manufacture of his Seven in the United States. In 1925, GM had developed a stillborn competitor, dubbed the “Mosquito,” but decided against production. Instead, GM planned to acquire controlling interest in the English firm. However, when the news reached Austin stockholders, they revolted and the American colossus quickly withdrew.

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Nevertheless, Herbert Austin remained convinced that he could expand into America, and he displayed four Sevens at the 1929 New York Auto Show. The public was enthralled by his well-built little cars, and financiers stepped forward from the hills of Butler, Pennsylvania.

                

Left to right (above); 1929 American Austin Proposal by Murray, 1930 American Austin chassis inspection and the 1929 American Austin Proposal by Hayes 

The American Austin Car Company was incorporated on February 28, 1929. By September, American Austin had commissioned design proposals from two leading firms – Murray Body Company, of Detroit, and Hayes Body Corporation, of Grand Rapids, Michigan. Both design proposals featured solid disc wheels, horizontal hood louvers, notched doors to allow room for the rear fenders, and a rear-mounted spare tire. But there were notable differences, too.

Murray’s designer, Amos Northup, presented a rendering with lines that brought a classic town car to mind. The belt line arched below the door windows, over the cowl and across the hood to join behind the radiator cap—a treatment borrowed from large Auburn cars. Luggage was accommodated by a detachable steel trunk at the rear. Although the trunk offered obvious benefits, it also caused the body to be lopped off immediately behind the seat, thereby creating a car that looked even shorter and boxier than necessary. The trunk also would have increased manufacturing costs, which were projected to be higher than the new Ford Model A.

1930 American Austin coupe from unknown Hollywood movie

The Hayes proposal was developed by art director Count Alexis de Sakhnoffsky, the son of Count Wladimir de Sakhnoffsky, counselor to Russian Czar Nicholas II. The de Sakhnoffsky illustrations featured Austin cars of fuller outlines when compared to Northup’s versions. His cabin coupe looked like a miniature sedan, since the cabin was long enough to enclose a luggage area behind the seat. He also proposed a roadster with unexpected details for the country’s lowest priced automobiles, including a Duesenberg-style painted cove across the doors. The Hayes designs captured the hearts and emotions of people who loved puppies, kittens and babies. They also captured American Austin’s board of directors.

1930 American Austin roadster complete with top and side curtains

Hayes was instructed to tool up. But just nineteen days after the American Austin Car Company issued its stock prospectus, the market collapsed. “Black Tuesday”—October 29, 1929—marked the official start of the Great Depression.

It was the worst possible time to launch a new car company.

The Old Motor is pleased to announce this first part in a monthly series on the small car by author Robert D. Cunningham. He has “studied automotive history since my childhood in the 1960s with a keen interest in America’s pioneer “orphan babies”, a term I coined to describe the very small cars built by independent domestic manufacturers who are no longer in business”.

Cunningham has written two books; Too Little Too Soon: America’s Early Economy Cars and Orphan Babies – America’s Forgotten Economy Cars. He also writes the American Austin Bantam Club news magazine and runs the clubs website.

You can also see many other interesting American Austin Bantam photos here on The Old Motor (scroll down).

7 responses to “The Austin Comes to America – Part I of the American Austin Bantam Story

  1. It has always been a puzzle to me that the Bantam didn’t make it into the “credible transportation” category. The engine was very reliable and proven many times over in British motoring history. The little engine was the basis for some of the most successful of trials specials.

    In the United States, we oldsters think of the Bantam as a prop for W.C. Fields sight gags . They were also irresistible as the object of practical jokes. I also remember of the immediate post war, that if you had one of the popular MGs on the market you had to be careful to avoid vandalism. So do you suppose that the Bantam hit the rocks of innate xenophobia?

  2. Donald, that’s an interesting thought. However, in 1920s America, quite the opposite of xenophobia (fear of foreign things) was in play. Americans were fascinated with foreign cars, but only the wealthy could afford them. Only a few dozen Austin Sevens were in the States by 1929, and most were owned by socialites and movie stars. American Austin was launched with great enthusiasm (more than 85,000 orders taken during the 1930 New York Auto Show), but the Great Depression hit, and only 8500 were sold by year end. The car basically had three strikes against it: 1) comparatively high price (more than the lowest-priced Ford); 2) small size (Austin carried two while Ford carried four); and small horsepower (13 h.p.) in a country 3,000 miles wide.

    • Robert, perhaps you’re correct! I owned a 1933 American Austin for a few years and sold it on before I could restore it. One of the major stumbling blocks to restoration was the fact that someone before I got it had welded the fenders to the body. Searching for fenders I found that this was a common problem and I wonder if the bodies and fenders were more fragile than on other cars.

  3. Donald, I agree, I’ve seen a number of American Austins (and Bantams) with fenders welded to the bodies. The cars were light weight and prone to bounce about a lot on rough roads. As a result, the fenders tended to wobble and crack, particularly with the earliest cars (1930-32). For the 1933 model year, an additional brace bolted to the frame and wrapped up under the crown of the front fender. But since the fenders are roughly the same height as the seat of a chair, folks were always tempted to sit on them … and they’re just not built to support that kind of weight! Incidentally, right-hand fenders can be found more readily than left-hand fenders (although both are scarce).

  4. I have American Austin #7618 Coupe
    Built by the Hayes Body Corp
    What year is ? Since only 8500 were built in 1930 it looks like it a 1930??
    It once was in a museum ,I bought at an Auction

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