A Brief History of American Austin and American Bantam
©Wm Spear 2007

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 I suggest you check out the sources section for all the detail and serious historical references.

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.

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 was bankrupt, having built just short of 20,000 vehicles. Production after the first year never had exceeded 5,000 units. This failure seems tragic even today and indeed almost impossible, given the widespread enthusiasm for the car, but American Austin had fallen into a classic marketing conundrum. 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 routines by W.C. Fields, Buster Keaton, Our Gang and a host of others. Indeed, the Austin, and later Bantam became the prototypical cartoon car one still sees today...the fat-tired, two seat roadster with upright windshield, and elbows 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 for being: economy, ease of handling and parking, service as a second car etc. never caught on. American simply was not ready for a small economy car (and maybe is really not yet to this day?). Distances were further apart in this country it is always observed in these discussions, but that cannot explain 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 engine.

However, the company was saved by an energetic entrepreneur named Roy Evans whose belief in the basic sense of the car and whose incredible resourcefulness, daring and improvisation kept the company going far longer than it "should" 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 had 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 reconnaissance 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 interest.

Although it used a Continental engine and only a very few actual Bantam parts, the 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 Virginia with only a half an hour to spare, had it pass all it's tests (well, except weight: an impossible 1200 pounds) with flying colors only to have the plans turned over to the larger Willy's and Ford companies who eventually "stole" 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 Ferrari 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