Monday, February 12, 2007

Post-war Motoring : Austin A40 Devon

This remarkable economy car first appeared in 1947 and formed part of Austin's new post-war range. It was an approximate replacement for the dependable pre-war Austin 10. A modern design, with only its upright grille as resonance of past styles, the A40 had an all-steel body on a separate, rigid chassis. With this model, Austin finally dispensed with rear-hinged 'suicide' doors and running-boards. Though hardly a light car, its in-line 4-cylinder ohv engine of 1200cc could exceed 70mph and would cruise reasonably happily at 50-55mph. In fact this reliable and sturdy power unit was the true heart of the car and would survive many years beyond the life of this model, serving as the basis for the B-Series engine used right into the '60s.
Although a small car, it was seen as a perfectly respectable family saloon and would accommodate four adults comfortably. Though Austin was a manufacturer of cars for 'everyman', it was seen as a 'cut above' other mass-market makes and the interior appointments of the Devon underlined its claim to superiority over its immediate rivals.
The leather seating was well-finished and comfortable, while the dashboard was well-equipped for a car of this class. The main dials were placed immediately in front of the driver, while other controls for lighting, wipers and the like were set in the centre of the dash between driver and passenger, though well within arm's reach, and of the pull-out 'dried-milk' type.
With its low gearing, the Devon coped easily with steep gradients and winding roads, but was less happy on long, straight runs, where the engine was required to turn over very rapidly at near top speed. It boasted innovative hydraulically-operated front brakes and had a four-speed gearbox with remote lever.
Over 400,000 examples were built, many destined for overseas markets, where it left a favourable impression of Austin cars, a reputation sadly eroded as the years passed.
This model lasted 5 years and was replaced by the rather portly A40 Somerset in 1952.

Our family Austin A40 was my mother's first car. Dad sold his P3 75 Rover to help finance the purchase of an Alvis TA14 in 1951 and decided that as mum wouldn't feel at home with the Alvis (a poor excuse for hogging the car), she should have a car of her own. She drove it almost exclusively for the next five years, at which point it was bequeathed as a 21st birthday present to my eldest sister. Mum went on to buy an MG YB.
The true measure of the quality of this car was that, ten years later, it became mine to drive, although by that time it was something of a restoration project. Over the years it provided dependable and very comfortable transport, with only two recurrent problems - overheating and front shock absorbers. When the latter were due for renewal (again!), the car would heave and surge like a tramp steamer in the South Atlantic. We never really got to the bottom of the overheating problem and when rust started to hack away at the bottom of the doors - as well as the chassis - it was consigned to the barn for retirement. I don't know what we really expected to do with the Devon and it became something of an objet d'art that doubled as a Wren's nesting site.
I loved the solid feel and comfortable ride of the Devon, the way it pulled in lower gears, the complete reliability of the instruments and the sumptuousness of the seats. Once you managed the knack of changing gear smoothly, the Devon responded well, but hurry any action and you were punished by much grinding and hesitation.
In its prime, it looked a treat after a good polish, with its flying 'A' on the bonnet top and the famous scripted "Austin of England" on the bonnet sides. The Devon was, above all, the archetypal post-war car for the average family.

Apropos of "Austin of England"
Although I regard the motor cars of the immediate post-war period with great admiration, it should be remembered that contemporary attitudes to some of the marques of the day were less than favourable. The Austin Devon was, perhaps, a good case in point. Having immediate experience of the model, I learned its strengths and weaknesses in detail. There's no doubt that it was a solid and well-built car and in many respects the attention to detail was superior to the cars of today, which one must remember are now very well-constructed and infinitely more dependable than cars of the '70s and '80s. However, as my mother would remind you if she were alive today, the Devon's door handles became rather floppy after a year's use and the odd rattle and persistent squeak were common ailments.
By around 1951 the increasingly vociferous debate about the quality of British cars seemed to reach its peak. Motorists used to pre-war values were staggered to find knobs "comin' off in me 'and", rain water pooling in the footwells, loose fittings and engines poorly finished in many cars of previously respectable manufacturers.
Unlike the dreadfully shoddy cars of the late sixties and throughout the seventies, the post-war cars were absolute paragons, but for all that they had their faults.
Much of this can be explained by the peculiar situation that faced the industry just after the war - shortage of materials, poor quality steel, a lack of skilled workers (still waiting to be demobbed) - yet the noticeable decline in overall quality continued even when the materials, skills and quality steel returned.
This is a vast subject and worthy of proper research and academic rigour, but suffice to say that when "Austin of England" finally disappeared, so did much of the heart and spirit of the domestic motor industry.

1 comment:

Kenneth said...

This is a reminder of my youth! Years since I saw one and even longer since I enjoyed a trip to the seaside in one. Ours was green and it wallowed about a lot too. Lovely car and utterly reliable.