Show Stopper

The 1948 Earls Court Motor Show (27 October to 6 November) saw a veritable smorgasbord of new models announced from British manufacturers; some of which would go on to be design icons – Morris Minor, Jaguar XK120 and Land Rover – and some that wouldn’t, like the Austin A90 Atlantic.

The XK120 and the A90 Atlantic were poles apart in technical design, styling and performance, and were equally poles apart in terms of success.

In the XK120, William Lyons gave the Americans, and the rest of the world, a sports car with looks to die for and the performance to compete with the most exotic machinery on the planet, at a reasonably affordable price – £1,263 (around $3,600 in the US).

With the A90, Leonard Lord offered an ungainly looking car with polarizing styling and less than sparkling performance at £952 (plus £32 for a radio) in the UK, but even dearer than the Jaguar in the US; from $3,634 to $3,795 (depending on the press report or dealer location).

Record Breaker

From the initial reaction in Canada, Austin’s PR Manager Alan Hess realised that to impress American buyers the A90 had to establish its sports car credentials.

At Toronto he mentioned to Lord that he wanted to take an A90 to Indianapolis to brake some long-standing speed and endurance records, many of which had been held by Studebaker since 1928, to which Lord agreed.

The team consisted of “Sammy” Davis as team manager and motoring cartoonist Russell Brockbank as pit crew and entertainer, with drivers Dennis Buckley, Charles Goodacre and Hess himself taking three-hour stints at the wheel.

There was an aborted attempt a few days earlier, at an average speed of 77mph, which destroyed the tyres on the rough brick surface of the Indianapolis Speedway – requiring 20 tyres in 2,300 miles – and caused sever engine overheating. A second attempt over 12-19 April 1949 was successful.

Driving for seven days and seven nights the car averaged 70.54mph over 11,875 miles and broke or set 53 records in the three-litre class and a further ten in the Unlimited class.

…According to a report on the record run in Motor Sport magazine in June; “shortcomings included breakage of a front hub spindle…sticking of the carburettor pistons, fumes from the carburetters [sic] which affected the drivers, a hot front hub, replacement of the offending hub after 7,600 miles…a hole in one piston…necessitating running-in a new piston and rod, replacement of another (worn and too hot) front hub…and a broken timing chain, the latter happening 55 minutes from the end of the proposed seven-day run, slightly lowering the potential average.”

These problems were all overcome quickly, and amounted to a total of 4h 5m 51s pit time. Scheduled pit stops for four tyres and all fluids topped up averaged out to under two minutes each.

“The Stock-Car Records established by an Austin A90 at Indianapolis rather take one’s breath away”, wrote Motor Sport. “The successful attack has shaken American motoring circles into enthusiastic acclamation of a car which American citizens can now purchase for as little as 3,795 dollars”.

Poor Sales

Lord thought he had given the Americans exactly what they wanted – a modern open-top touring car with loads of gadgets, and automated roof and windows.

What the Americans really wanted, it appeared, was either all of that plus more space and a big six- or eight-cylinder engine, or a small English sports car that went like the wind and/or handled like it was on rails. If they wanted a sports car and had the money to spend on an A90, it seemed, they spent it on the Jaguar. If they didn’t, they bought an MG.

Despite a massive advertising campaign, focusing on the record run, the A90 just wasn’t selling in the US.

To try and combat poor reviews, a hard-top coupe version, with a natty wind-down rear windscreen, was hastily designed and released at the 1949 Earls Court show, but it too failed in the market. Even a price reduction of $1,000 in the US couldn’t invigorate sales.

First and Second in Australia

The first A90 Atlantic arrived in Australia at Larke Hoskins in Sydney in time for the 1949 Royal Easter Show. In those days a motor exhibition was an integral part of the Show, with most manufacturers displaying in or around the Hordern Pavilion and Royal Hall of Industries.

The story told is that the salesman was excited to have sold the first A90 in Australia, only to be reprimanded by his boss, as there was now no demonstrator car available for the Melbourne International Motor Show, arguably the most important motor show in the country, in only a month’s time. The purchaser was apparently asked if he would mind waiting for another car to arrive from England – a delay probably of many weeks at least – but insisted on taking the car at the end of the Show.

A telex was sent to Austin in the UK, asking if they could provide another car urgently for the Melbourne Show. It would seem that, with production having only got under way a few months previously and the bulk of production being targeted for the US, and thus left-hand-drive, there were reportedly no right-hand-drive cars immediately available.

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The BMC Experience Issue 20. Jan-Mar 2017 Magazine

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