A Brief History of American Austin and American Bantam
©Wm Spear 2007
Herbert Austin (b. England1866, emigre to Australia at 18) built his
first car in 1895 and he, and the car, became more or less the British version
of Ford. In 1922 he developed and produced the Austin
Seven (seven horsepower: after a bureaucratically imposed tax schedule).
These tiny cars were a huge success in countries where resources were scarce,
distances small and roads narrow. They were intended to be a step up from
the "cyclecars" and sidecars of the rising middle classes in those
countries, just as one will see today where whole families can be seen riding
on motorscooters in economically emerging Asian countries.
Just a brief personal view of the history of the Austin/Bantam enterprise.
I suggest you check out the sources section for
all the detail and serious historical references.
The Austin Seven was central to British automotive history, and almost all
of the British golden era racing names of the 50's, 60's and even 70's
cut their teeth in one Austin Special or another. The Austin also is the
direct anticedent of other car companies. BMW's first automobile for instance
was a licenced version of the Austin called the Dixi. And Sir William Lyons,
the founder and guiding spirit of Jaguar began his automotive career doing
rebodied Austins called the "Swallow". Datsun produced an Austin
7 knock-off and the Aussies
had a very sporty version.
Even the first Lotus might be said to have been an Austin since it was
an Austin Special. There are said to be over 350 versions or variations
of Austin Sevens (including the American cars) and they are all
included in the charter of the Austin Bantam Society, if based on pre-war cars. Sir Herbert Austin was determined to see his car produced all over the world,
including the United States.
Organization of the American Austin Company began in the inauspicious year
of 1929, and production began in Butler Pennsylvania (just North of Pittsburg) the
following year. The American Austin of this time used the same chassis and
engine of the English car, but the styling was considered too conservative
for Americans and so Alexis de Sakhnoffsky, one
of the leading deigners of the day (Auburn, Cord, Packard) and working for
Hayes succeeded in getting the job.
As you can see (images) the car looks great and
it's not by accident. Designers out there will note the little tricks he
used to make a small car look big. Sahknoffsky also did the redesign of
the car when it re-emerged from recievership as the Bantam (see below).
His whole fee for this major and very skillfully done work was $300! Thus
you will note that the Bantam Roadster uses the same body tub as the Austin
Roadster. Grille,wheel, interior and fender changes created a whole new
look. The body still included the dramatic "Duesenberg (or is it Le
Barron?) Sweep" which strictly speaking did not fit the new Deco style
of the Bantam very well and was under-played by the factory which discouraged
the classic two tone paint. However, restorers, and even contemporary buyers
often ignored the factory and determined they would have two toned cars.
Despite high hopes, and a great deal of publicity and noteriety, things
didn't go as well as expected and by 1934 the American Austin company
bankrupt, having built just short of 20,000 vehicles. Production after
first year never had exceeded 5,000 units. This failure seems tragic
today and indeed almost impossible, given the widespread enthusiasm for
the car, but American Austin had fallen into a classic marketing
Everyone loved the car. It's looks, it's tiny 75 inch wheelbase etc. It
was the subject of good humored jokes and an essential prop for comedy
by W.C. Fields, Buster Keaton, Our Gang and a host of others. Indeed,
Austin, and later Bantam became the prototypical cartoon car one still
today...the fat-tired, two seat roadster with upright windshield, and
hanging out the sides. Ernest Hemmingway owned one as did Preston
Sturges and several main stream
actors. But it was no go. The serious intent of the car, it's reason
being: economy, ease of handling and parking, service as a second car
never caught on. American simply was not ready for a small economy car
maybe is really not yet to this day?). Distances were further apart in
country it is always observed in these discussions, but that cannot
the cars complete failure. Maybe in American bigger really is better?
My own opinion for the failure of both Austin and Bantam is that
Americans did not so much mind small cars, but they couldn't much put
up with slow cars. However stylish, he American versions were 50%
heavier than the A7's which didn't help matters for a 750cc. side valve
However, the company was saved by an energetic entrepreneur named Roy
whose belief in the basic sense of the car and whose incredible
daring and improvisation kept the company going far longer than it
have, given all the economic circumstances. Evans was something of a
sales genius and was always a believer in small cars. He was one
of the first importers of A7's as well as Fiat Topolinos for instance.
In 1935 he singlehandedly saved Willys Overland, a move he may have
later come to regret, given the jeep circumstances.
He reorganized the company and revitalized the car. Evans knew he
to update the basic design of the car. He hired Harry Miller, perhaps
the most celebrated American Automotive engineer ever, and Thomas
Hibbard (founder of LeBaron, the designing parter in Hibbard and
Darrin, and later chief stylist at Ford) as vice Presidents. He also
now changed the
name from Austin to Bantam. Miller had proposed a 1300cc OVC engine
with a supercharged option for the new car. If only! Hibbard had a
somewhat stodgy "1936" design, very similar to the English cars of the
time. Unfortunately at this time Evans got cheated out of 2 Million
dollars raised for the new enterprise by the promotors, and so the
ambitious plans of Miller and Hibbard had to be scrapped. The engine
was updated (see technical)
enough so that licence fees were no longer required to be paid to
Austin, but it really only changed ball and roller bearings to plain
bearings. (Parts of Austins and Bantams are not interchangeable for the
most part). Sakhnoffsky was called in to freshen the car in the
"streamline" way so current then and did a brilliant job for the
princely sum of 300 dollars. It is probaly this styling which makes the
Bantam so memorable and valuable today.
Though it retained the original size and sense of the Austin, the Bantam
emerged as a throughly modern (looking) car. As can be seen in the images
section, Evans developed a great many variations of the car in an attempt
to appeal to as broad a base as possible. It is also interesting to note
that fully 30% of the Bantam production went to export markets.
So, collectors looking for restoration projects might follow this route
and search in Austrailia, Belgium, South America and even England where
it was intended to compete against its progenitor, the Austin! Evans also
retained Alex Tremulis, another legendary American
designer, to design supplementary models. The Hollywood and Riviara are
the result of these efforts.
In spite of the fact that the Bantam was, by 1940 one of the most
refined and comfortable small cars in the world, not to mention the best
looking, it just couldn't make it. In all only 6,700 civilian vehicles were
made. Only 800 units sold in 1940. Apparently a few cars were put together out of spares in '41 and possibly even later.
The company was out of working capital and the Second World War was the
coup de grace for the passenger cars.
However there was one other card left to be played in the Austin/Bantam
story. Evans, searching every where for new markets had loaned a couple
of Roadsters to the local National Guard for evaluation as
cars. This reflected his long standing conviction that the Army would
sooner or later see the light and have him develop some version of the
Bantam for the military. Indeed, the Guard anyway, was quite impressed.
However the interwar Army simply had no money and neither did Evans to
build a prototype on his own dime. (However there is a substantial bit
of evidence that Harry Miller had some sort of 4x4 buckboard of a
Military type running around the factory floor in 1937). In 1940, now
on the ropes, Evans hired Harry Payne to lobby the Army in this cause.
Payne, described by many in Washington as "Father of the Jeep" was a
real character (an obnoxious pest to some). But, he got the job done,
and on June 19 the Army sent a delegation to Butler where work on the
jeep began with Frank Fenn the President and Harold Crist the factory
manager working with Bob Brown, a civilian engineer assigned to the
Quartermasters Corps at Camp Holibird. Karl
Probst was recruited and hired by
Bantam to draw up the design for the competitive bid that the Army
decided to conduct and deserves credit with Crist, Payne, Brown and
Fenn in its subsequent successful development. Besides these men and
their direct assistants, be very chary of claims to fatherhood. . Jeep
history is highly disputed in some details, but there is no question
that Bantam built it and was principle in the conception and design
too. See the section on the BRC if this part of this history is of
it used a Continental engine and only a very few actual Bantam parts,
resulting BRC was brilliant. What followed was almost a movie cliche of
pop culture "injustice", the end result of which was that Bantam
developed the product
and got it to the testing grounds by driving all night from Butler to
with only a half an hour to spare, had it pass all it's tests (well,
weight: an impossible 1200 pounds) with flying colors only to have the
turned over to the larger Willy's and Ford companies who eventually
the contracts and credit from the smaller company. The fact is, Bantam
was just too far outside the political arena to compete successfully
with the QMC, Willys Overland and Ford. And, as it turned out, there is
much to be said that the company was too small and worn down to meet
ALL the military demands for their wonderful weapon. However it is a
shame they couldn't have been given a partial contract. The Jeep
may be the most famous vehicle of any kind in history
and no less a light than Enzo
called the jeep the "only American sportscar". Becasue Bantam never
again made motor cars, no one was really around to defend its
contributions against the claims of others, claims which persist today.
Roy Evans went on to other things after the war, and the company, which
in a semi-humiliating (but profitable) turn of events made trailers for
the Jeep it had invented.
For more on the Austin/Bantam check out The
Austin in America