Herbert Austin

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Herbert Austin
Herbert Austin
Yet another Australian connection to the British car manufacturing industry comes courtesy of Herbert Austin.

Born in Buckinghamshire, England in 1866 the young Herbert travelled to Australia in his youth, eventually settling down in Melbourne where he managed to get work with several engineering firms.

As fate would have it, he ended up at Fredrick Wolseley's factory that manufactured sheep-shearing equipment - a move that would soon see him designing the first Wolseley automobiles.

Melbourne was to also prove fruitful to Austin in love matters, where while working for Wolseley he would meet and later marry a young Helen Dron.

Wolseley decided to transfer the manufacturing operation from Australia (back) to England in 1889, and while he returned to the UK and took up the role of Managing Director, he offered Austin the position of General Manager - a position too good to refuse.

Ever the entrepreneur, Fredrick Wolseley quickly recognised that the demand for the motor car was far exceeding supply, and engaged Austin to design the first Wolseley vehicles for him.

Following Wolseley's resignation in 1894 (due to ill health), Austin reported to a board of directors - and the relationship was rather tenuous. Inevitably, a conflict with the board was to ensue and, in 1905, Austin was to leave Wolseley and set up The Austin Motor Vehicle Company.

Setting up shop in Longbridge, seven miles south of Birmingham, he together with a small team of designers were to compile drawings of their intended new car in time for the November 1905 Motor Exhibition. The first model was to be a 25/30hp chain driven car featuring four forward gears. For the day, the design was modern and fashionable, and by the time of the 1906 Olympia exhibition Austin was able to display two models.

The Austin motor vehicle became extremely popular, and Herbert’s main problems centred around production levels. By 1907 there were some 270 Austin employees able to manufacture 120 vehicles – but the output level fell pitifully short of the customer demand. By 1910 the Austin workforce would swell to an amazing 1000 employees, and production continued throughout the night with the introduction of a night shift.

Aware that many of his employees were travelling up to 40 miles each day to attend work, Austin organised the manufacture of pre-fabricated homes to be set up close to the factory (where the village still stands to this day!).

Always ready to try something new, Austin also dabbled in the area of aeroplane manufacture, however unlike the motor car, the Austin Whippet plane never captured the imagination of pilot’s and the project would be quickly shelved.

As demand eventually receded, Austin turned his sights on the export market, and his familiarity with Australia would ensure this would be one of his first targets. From 1910 Austin would export the single cylinder “7” to Australia, and with the release of the immensely popular 4 cylinder “7” Austin’s son-in-law Arthur Waite would travel to Melbourne where he set up a dealer network.

In 1924 the new Austin 7 baby car was being proudly displayed in the showroom of Larke Hoskins, and Waite was to enter the supercharged Austin 7 in the inaugural Australian Grand Prix, an event he would win outright!

During the war, the Austin factory turned its production to the manufacture of ammunition, pressings for jerry cans and components for military vehicles. As the war office placed orders for both 8 and 10hp utility vehicles, some automobile manufacture would remain at the factory.

After the war, Austin would re-commit to its export drive, and locally they acquired the Ruskin motor body plant in Melbourne while assembling A40 sedans in the Pressed metal Corporation plant in Sydney. In 1952 a car manufacturing rationalisation would see Austin and Morris amalgamate to form the British Motor Corporation (BMC), although this seemed to have little impact on the number of models available and more to do with both manufacturers sharing their parts bins.

Many Austin’s would be part manufactured and assembled in Australia, including the;

  • A30 (1952 – 1956)
  • A50 (1954 – 1956)
  • A55 (1957 – 1959)
  • A40 Farina (1959 – 1962)
  • A60 (1959 – 1962)
  • A60 Countryman Wagon (1960 – 1962)
  • A90/95/99 6 cylinder (1955 – 1960)
  • A105 Westminster (1957 – 1959)
  • Lancer (also locally designed) (1958 – 1962)
  • Freeway sedan and wagon (1962 – 1965)
Perhaps the company’s most successful vehicle was the front-wheel-drive 1800 (1966 – 1969), but perhaps unwisely management decided to try and compete with the “big three” (Holden/Ford/Valiant) and introduced the family sized 6 cylinder Tasman and Kimberley.

By the early 1970’s industrial strife in the UK led to appallingly built vehicles hitting our shores, and while the Marina was to wear a Morris badge the damage to British built cars reputation was being quickly cemented by the emerging Japanese car manufacturers.

When BMC became Leyland, management would give it one more go, and introduced the revolutionary P76 – but that is another story in itself (details of which can be found on this site…)

Also see:

Austin Car Reviews
Herbert Austin's Land Speed Record Attack
Honour Roll - Founding Fathers Of The Automotive Industry
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