(Home > Features > Post War Austin)

The Post-War Austin Company

After World War One, the Austin Motor Company encountered great difficulties in moving from war-time to peace-time production. A receiver was even appointed and it took the genius of Herbert Austin to see them through the difficulties.

During the Second World War Leonard Lord had determined that the Company would not face the same problems a second time round at the end of hostilities. Lord had been called in by Nuffield in 1933 and had set to work to improve production at Morris. He left Nuffield after a quarrel in 1938 and joined Austin. Bob Wyatt, in his work entitled 'The Austin 1905-1952', suggests that: 'Austin had chosen Lord partly for his undoubted organising and engineering ability, but also because he knew that Lord would do everything in his power to beat Nuffield as a car maker’. There had always been rivalry between Austin and Morris but apparently Lord now declared his intention of taking Cowley apart 'brick by bloody brick’. Graham Turner in 'The Leyland Papers' tells us: 'At the end of the war, Lord gave Austin & Longbridge a rapid start by what seemed sharp practice to some of the Morris men. Morris produced no vehicles throughout the war but Austin continued to turn out ambulances and in later years even managed to manufacture some cars by offering Austin 10s to Government Ministries. Certainly Lord was planning for the change over to peace-time production long before the war ended and may even have managed to collect some tooling for new models. The first, a 6 cylinder 16hp model was announced by VE day.

By the time of the launch of the A30 the Austin Motor Company was enjoying a very buoyant and expansive period in its history. The Autocar of November 17th 1950 tells us that 'Demand from all over the world has led to a record year for the Austin Motor Co.Ltd., which showed a profit of £4.5 million’. Commonwealth countries were eager to accept our cars. Austin were shipping 2000 cars a month to Canada in 1949. The Autocar of February 10th 1950 states 'In 1949, figures for the registration of cars in British Columbia show that 1/3 more Austins were registered than any other make’. In the aftermath of war it was important that our large industrial concerns should make an all-out effort to earn dollars, but could British cars be sold in sufficient quantities on the American market to make operations over there viable?

Leonard Lord was at least determined to find out. Early in 1947 he had paid a visit to the States to assess the possibilities and in August returned accompanied by George Harriman his Works Director. They took with them two examples of the newly released A40 Devon. By November 1950 over a quarter of a million A40s had earned $70,000,000 for Britain.

Outside Longbridge

New models appeared in profusion. The Sheerline and Princess were launched at the Geneva Show in the 1947 Motor Show (attended by no less a person than your editor!). The A90 Atlantic convertible and A9G Hampshire were announced. 1950, '51 and '52 saw the consecutive launches of the A70 Hereford, the A30 Seven and the A40 Somerset. At the same time as this intensive programme of developing new models was being carried through Lord had also seen the need for considerable capital involved in order to ensure that Longbridge was competitive in world markets. A new car assembly building, the most modern of its kind anywhere in the world opened 3 July 1951. A prestige seeking administration block was built at the same time (soon to become known as the Kremlin by those at Longbridge).

The beautiful plate glass doors proudly bore the Austin of England script and the flying A. The car assembly building (CAB 1) was adorned by a fine Austin of England sign high up on it’s frontage.

The fastenings of the original can still be seen on the wall. The pride that such emblems must have helped engender in the Austin men must surely have been dented when they saw them removed in the purges by Stokes.

In the early post-war years the Austin Motor Co. had been very aware of the need to keep their vehicles in the public eye and to this end we saw Austin cars taking part in several record breaking attempts and other exploits.

In 1949 an A90 Atlantic averaged 70.54 mph for 11,850 miles at Indianapolis and set 108 new records.

In 1950 an A40 travelled 10,000 miles in 10,000 minutes at Montlhery in France.

In 1953 an A40 Somerset travelled from the Equator to the Arctic Circle in ll.5 days.

In the days of BMC our own cars were in the news.

In 1956 an A30 won the Tulip Rally and in 1957 an A35 broke seven international record including covering 10,000 miles in 8014 minutes which is an average speed of 74.79mph.

Early post-war events then had gone very much Austin's way. They had coped admirably with the considerable problems which had confronted them. From now on, however, life became increasingly more complicated in the Motor Trade. It was becoming more and more obvious that as a nation we had too many motor firms producing too many models in direct competition for markets at home and abroad. Mergers seemed to be called for. However, the mergers that it seemed impossible to do without never seemed to quite produce the desired results once they had taken place.

A merger with Nuffield had been considered in the early history of the two companies but agreement was never reached. In 1949 the matter was again under discussion but it was no easy matter as Nuffield and Lord were not even on speaking terms!

Privately it appears that Nuffield regarded Lord as the finest executive in the Motor Industry and a most dangerous competitor. Lord's determination to emerge the winner in the Austin/Morris rivalry stakes ensured that at least part of this judgement was correct. We read in 'The Leyland Papers' that J.R.Edwands (who later became M.D. of BMC) is reputed to have said 'We always had our cars within £10 of Nuffield. Len would ask "What's the A30 going to cost?'' "Ex works £300, selling price £525," somebody would say. "What's Nuffield's bloody figure then?" Len would ask. "£515. " 'Right, make ours £510.'

In 1950 Nuffield and Lord eventually got together and agreed to a merger, but this was later called off after disagreement on the Nuffield board. It was at this stage that Lord decided to go ahead with the A30 which was to compete directly with the Morris Minor. In 1951, however, Nuffield made a positive decision to sell his company to Austin in spite of any disagreement it might cause among his board and in July 1952 the merger finally took place and thus began the era of the British Motor Corporation just as the A30 had come into full production.

This meant, however, that Lord would gain full control of Cowley and J.R.Edwards suggested (see the Leyland Papers) that Lord's sense of triumph and his pleasure at the discomfort of several Morris directors who had opposed the merger made for extremely bad relations and made the full integration of the two companies very difficult.

Soon after the merger an attempt was made to effect a fairly thorough rationalisation of major mechanical components. It was at this time, for example, that the Minor was destined to receive the A30 engine and gearbox to replace the side valve engine that had originally been used in the Series-E Morris Eight.

However, to rationalise the various factories now owned by the new company and to sort out the network of distributors was a much more daunting task fraught with all sorts of difficulties and was far from accomplished many years later.

Other mergers were still to take place. In 1953 Fisher & Ludlow were bought by BMC and in 1965 BMC took over Pressed Steel. In 1966 Jaguar joined the BMC - PSF combined to form British Motor Holdings (BMH) and two years later the BMH-Leyland merger produced the British Leyland Motor Corporation.

Much criticism (commonly known as Leyland Bashing) has been levelled at British Leyland in recent years but I would thoroughly recommend members to read 'The Leyland Papers' by Graham Turner in order that they might better understand the human and financial problems that have been the lot of this giant combine. I am personally indebted to this work for providing me with much of the above information and would farther quote from the preface:

'Ever since it was formed in 1968 by the union of Leyland and BMH, the British Leyland Motor Corporation has been a focus of public interest. There is nothing surprising in that. British Leyland is the last British-owned motor manufacturer of any size and, for much of its life, it has been in difficulty of one sort or another. The problems of welding together two large and loosely organised empires - both as they did, presiding over a number of companies which were virtually autonomous - proved to be immense. Nor was the job made any easier by the fact that the Leyland-BMH union was the culmination of a series of motor mergers during the 1960s: both parties were suffering from indigestion and overstrain when they came to the altar.’

Jeff Daniels, in his recent book, 'British Leyland - The Truth About the Cars', which looks at the BL problems of the seventies says: 'There was no shortage of possible reasons for these problems. Was it weak management? Was it Government misdirection? Was trade-union bloody-mindedness? Or was it indeed a series of product planning blunders? The book makes interesting reading and proceeds to look at the cars produced as well as those not produced in order to try and identify where things may have gone wrong.

The writer's own view, for what it is worth, is that there appear to have been so many problems presenting themselves in an endless procession over the last 25 years that there was never any such thing as a solution unless the company could simply have started afresh. Certainly several of BL's competitors in the post-war period were not saddled with such complicated histories and were much nearer to a 'green field' situation. It is very easy from the outside to suggest what should have been done or not done but it is not always possible to appreciate the various pressures on those who had to make the decisions or their agonies they must have suffered in knowing that they could not always take the course of action that they believed would be right in the long run because of the short-term difficulties, disruptions and hardships it would have caused to those involved.

I am delighted to be able to add a form of postscript to this necessarily sketchy look at post-war events in relation to the company that produced our cars. The postscript is part of a letter received from Mr Harold Musgrove, Chairman of BL's Light/Medium Cars Group -incorporating Austin Morris, Rover Triumph and Pressed Steel Fisher and it runs as follow:

'The continual process of reorganisation and merger that created British Leyland had, apart from anything else, severely detracted from one of its most valuable potential assets - the unique and distinctive inheritance of each of its individual manufacturing companies’.

It became therefore, a major part of the Edwards restructuring plan that the historical traditions of such companies as Austin and Morris should be encouraged to emerge again.

To those of us closely associated with Austin and Longbridge - where I started work as an apprentice in 1945 - this gave an important impetus. We were confident that there was scope to re-establish the Austin name, because we knew that the Austin skills of product design and manufacturing remained a powerful force.

It was symbolic that Metro was launched in the 75th year of car making at Longbridge. Metro represents everything that is world-renowned about Austin engineering - unparalleled use of interior space, coupled with astonishing economy and refinement. It brings the Company into a new era, following the pioneering work of Herbert Austin and the era dominated by the genius of Issigonis.

This new era is one of new technology and greater productivity, supporting advanced product design. The Longbridge factory now houses some of the finest manufacturing technology anywhere in the world. It is our job to use it to international standards of efficiency. It has often been said - and rightly - that the recovery of HL Cars must be product-led. I am confident that over the next few years, with Metro as the start, w product range will be absolutely right. But Longbridge in particular, has to act as a pointer for the whole of British industry. It must be living proof that we can compete in every respect; on product, on quality, on operating efficiency.

In doing so, Austin men will be writing a new chapter - perhaps even the finest chapter in the Company's long history. It is a matter of great pride for any Company that bodies such as the Austin A30/A35 Owners' Club, help maintain Austin's magnificent traditions.

I have no doubt that the present Company is worthy of that commitment.

I know that members will be pleased to have received this message from Harold Musgrove I have already thanked him on your behalf for the interest he has shown in our club.

© Reproduced by kind permission of the author, Barney Sharratt