1905–1918: Formation and development
Herbert Austin (1866–1941), former manager of the Wolseley Tool and Motor Car Company, and later to be made first Baron Austin of Longbridge, founded The Austin Motor Company in 1905, at Longbridge, which was then in Worcestershire. (Longbridge became part of Birmingham in 1911 when its boundaries were expanded.) The first car was a conventional 5-litre four-cylinder model with chain drive, of which about 200 were made in the first five years. Austin grew enormously during the First World War, fulfilling government contracts for everything from artillery to aircraft, and the workforce expanded from around 2,500 to 22,000.
1919–1939: Interwar success
After the war Herbert Austin decided on a one-model policy based on the 3620 cc 20 hp engine. Versions included cars, commercials and even a tractor, but sales volumes were never enough to fill the vast factory built during wartime. The company went into receivership in 1921 but rose again after financial restructuring.
Critical to the recovery was the appointment in 1922 of a new finance director, Ernest Payton with the backing of the Midland Bank, and a new works director in charge of car production, Carl Engelbach, at the insistence of the creditors' committee. This triumvirate of Austin, Payton and Engelbach steered the company's fortunes through the inter-war years.
In a quest to expand market share, smaller cars were introduced, the 1661 cc Twelve in 1922 and, later the same year, the Seven, an inexpensive, simple small car and one of the earliest to be directed at a mass market. One of the reasons for a market demand for a cars like the Austin 7 was the British tax code. In 1930 every personal car was taxed by the engine size, which in American dollars was $2.55 per square inch of piston displacement. As an example the owner of an Austin 7 in England which sold for approximately $455.00 would had to pay a yearly engine tax of $39.00. In comparison the owner in England of a Ford Model-A would have to pay $120.00 per year in an engine tax. And this system of engine displacement tax was common in other European nations as well in the 1930s. At one point, the "Baby Austin" was built under licence by the fledgling BMW of Germany (as the Dixi); by the Japanese manufacturer Datsun; as the Bantam in the United States; and as the Rosengart in France. And in England the Austin was the most produced car in 1930 (the American Austin Car Company operated as a largely independent subsidiary from 1929 to 1934, and was revived under the name "American Bantam" from 1937 to 1941).
With the help of the Seven, Austin weathered the worst of the depression and remained profitable through the 1930s, producing a wider range of cars which was steadily updated by the introduction of all-steel bodies, Girling brakes, and synchromesh gearboxes. However, all the engines retained the same side-valve conformation. Deputy chairman Ernest Payton became chairman in 1941 on the death of Lord Herbert Austin. In 1938 Leonard Lord joined the company board and became chairman in 1946 on the death of Ernest Payton.
1939–1958: War years and post-war years
During the Second World War Austin continued building cars but also made trucks and aircraft, including the Lancaster bombers of 617 squadron, better known as the Dambusters.
The post-war car range was announced in 1944, and production started in 1945. The immediate post-war range was mainly similar to that of the late 1930s but did include the 16 hp, significant for having the company's first overhead valve engine.
In 1952 Austin merged with the Nuffield Organisation (parent company of Morris) to form the British Motor Corporation with Leonard Lord in charge. Austin was the dominant partner and its engines were adopted for most of the cars; various models amongst the marques soon became badge-engineered versions of each other.
Also in 1952, Austin did a deal with Donald Healey, the renowned automotive engineer. It led to a new marque, Austin-Healey, and a range of sports cars.
Legal agreement with Nissan
In 1952 Austin entered into a legal agreement with the Nissan Motor Company of Japan, for that company to assemble 2000 imported Austins from partially assembled sets and to sell them in Japan under the Austin trademark. The agreement called for Nissan to make all Austin parts locally within three years, a goal Nissan met. Nissan produced and marketed Austins for seven years. The agreement also gave Nissan rights to use Austin patents, which Nissan used in developing its own engines for its Datsun line of cars. In 1953 British-built Austins were assembled and sold, but by 1955, the Austin A50 – completely built by Nissan and featuring a slightly larger body with 1489 cc engine – was on the market in Japan. Nissan produced 20,855 Austins between 1953 and 1959.
1959–1969: Era of revolution
With the threat to fuel supplies resulting from the 1956 Suez Crisis Lord asked Alec Issigonis to design a small car; the result was the revolutionary Mini, launched in 1959. The Austin version was initially called the Austin Seven, but Morris' Mini Minor name caught the public imagination and the Morris version outsold its Austin twin, so the Austin's name was changed to Mini to follow suit. In 1970, British Leyland dropped the separate Austin and Morris branding of the Mini, and it was subsequently simply "Mini", under the Austin Morris division of BLMC.
The principle of a transverse engine with gearbox in the sump and driving the front wheels was applied to larger cars, beginning with the 1100 of 1963, (although the Morris-badged version was launched 13 months earlier than the Austin, in August 1962), the 1800 of 1964 and the Maxi of 1969. This meant that BMC had spent 10 years developing a new range of front-drive, transverse-engined models, while most competitors had only just started to make such changes.
The big exception to this was the Austin 3-litre. Launched in 1968, it was a rear-wheel drive large car, but it shared the central section of the 1800. It was a sales disaster, with fewer than 10,000 examples being made.
BMC was the first British manufacturer to move into front-wheel drive so comprehensively. Ford did not launch its first front-drive model until 1976 (in Britain), Ford-Germany in 1962 with the Taunus 12M(P4)), while Vauxhall's first front-drive model was launched in 1979 and Chrysler UK's first such car was launched in 1975. Front-wheel drive was popular elsewhere in Europe, however, with Renault, Citroën and Simca all using the system at the same time or before BMC. East Germany's Trabant used the system from 1958.
In 1966, BMC and Pressed Steel merged with Jaguar and became British Motor Holdings. In 1968, BMH merged with Leyland Motors and Austin became a part of the large British Leyland Motor Corporation (BLMC) combine.
1970–1979: Era of turbulence
By 1970 Austin was part of the British Leyland combine, which produced some of the most maligned cars ever to roll off British production lines. Austin's most notorious model of this era was the 1973 Allegro, successor to the 1100/1300 ranges, which was criticised for its bulbous styling, doubtful build quality, indifferent reliability, and rust-proneness. It was still a strong seller in Britain, although not quite as successful as its predecessor.
The wedge-shaped 18/22 series was launched as an Austin, a Morris and a more upmarket Wolseley in 1975. But within six months, it was rechristened the Princess and wore none of the previous marque badges, becoming a marque in its own right, under the Austin Morris division of British Leyland that had been virtually nationalised in 1975.
The Princess was not quite as notorious as the Allegro, and earned some praise for its practical wedge shape, spacious interior, and decent ride and handling, but build quality was suspect and the curious lack of a hatchback (which would have ideally suited its body shape) cost valuable sales. It was upgraded at the end of 1981 to become the Austin Ambassador (and gaining a hatchback) but by then time there was little that could be done to disguise the age of the design, and it was too late to make much of an impact on sales.
By the end of the 1970s, the future of Austin and the rest of British Leyland (now known as BL) was looking bleak.
1980–1989: Austin Rover era
The Austin Metro, launched in October 1980, was heralded as the saviour of Austin Motor Company and the whole BL combine. Twenty-one years after the launch of the Mini, it gave BL a much-needed modern supermini to compete with the recently launched likes of the Ford Fiesta, Vauxhall Chevette and Renault 5. It was an instant hit with buyers and was one of the most popular British cars of the 1980s. It was intended as a replacement for the Mini but, in fact, the Mini outlived the Metro by two years.
In 1982, most of the car division of the by now somewhat shrunken British Leyland (BL) company was rebranded as the Austin Rover Group, with Austin acting as the "budget" and mainstream brand to Rover's more luxurious models. The MG badge was revived for sporty versions of the Austin models, of which the MG Metro 1300 was the first.
Austin revitalised its entry into the small family-car market in March 1983 with the launch of its all-new Maestro, a spacious five-door hatchback that replaced the elderly Allegro and Maxi and was popular in the early years of its production life, although sales had started to dip dramatically by the end of the decade.
April 1984 saw the introduction of the Maestro-derived Montego saloon, successor to the Morris Ital. The new car received praise for its interior space and comfort, but early build-quality problems took time to overcome. The spacious estate version, launched in early 1985, was one of the most popular load carriers of its era.
In 1986 Austin Rover's holding company BL plc became Rover Group plc and was privatised by selling it to British Aerospace (BAe).
Plans to replace the Metro with a radical new model, based on the ECV3 research vehicle and aiming for 100 mpg, led to the Austin AR6 of 1984–1986, with several prototypes tested. The desire to lose the Austin name and take Rover "upmarket" led to this project's demise in early 1987.
In 1987, the Austin badge was discontinued and Austin Rover became simply the Rover Group. The Austin cars continued to be manufactured, although they ceased to be Austins. They became "marque-less" in their home market with bonnet badges the same shape as the Rover longship badge but without "Rover" written on them. Instead any badging just showed the model of the car: a Montego of this era, for instance, would have a grille badge simply saying "Montego", whilst the rear badges just said "Montego" and the engine size/trim level. The Metro was facelifted in 1990 and got the new K-series engine. It then became the "Rover Metro", while the Maestro and Montego continued in production until 1994 and never wore a Rover badge on their bonnets in Britain. They were, however, sometimes referred to as "Rovers" in the press and elsewhere.
The rights to the Austin name passed to British Aerospace and then to BMW when each bought the Rover Group. The rights were subsequently sold to MG Rover, created when BMW sold the business. Following MG Rover's collapse and sale, Nanjing Automobile Group owns the Austin name and Austin's historic assembly plant in Longbridge. At the Nanjing International Exhibition in May 2006, Nanjing announced it might use the Austin name on some of the revived MG Rover models, at least in the Chinese market. However, Nanjing is for the moment concentrating on reviving the MG brand. The MG brand is traditionally used for sports cars and Nanjing has no rights to the Rover name, so a revival of the Austin name would seem a logical brand for selling more standard cars. It might also be argued that a British name would be more respected in the European market than a Chinese name.
Cars Manufactured by Austin:
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