The title of Smallest Austin does not belong to the “Baby” Austin 7, as many would think, but to the Junior pedal cars built in a very special factory in the South of Wales.
While the idea of Austin building pedal cars for children may seem of minor importance, or even laughable, there was a very serious side to the enterprise. Not only were more than 30,000 built there, but the factory played an important role in the overall Austin and BMC empires, and revealed a side of Leonard Lord rarely seen.
In the dark days of the Second World War, when the coal industry was crucial to the War effort, serious concern was given to the number of miners succumbing to the insidious lung complaint Coalminers Pneumoconiosis – known to the miners simply as The Dust – a blocking of the lung tissue from inhaled coal dust.
The more advanced form of the disease is called Complicated Pneumoconiosis – or Progressive Massive Fibrosis.
To indicate the seriousness of the problem, by 1945 some 5,000 Welsh miners had been diagnosed. The British Government established a special department, called the Ministry of Labour Rehabilitation Unit, to find alternative work for miners no longer able to do manual labour.
Part of the scheme was for the Government to subsidise the building of factories in areas with the highest unemployment, and the lease of these at attractive rates to help encourage companies to introduce new industries into the area.
While this scheme was in its infancy, Leonard Lord, then Managing Director of Austin Motors, conceived the idea of making children’s pedal cars and for the work to be done by disabled Welsh miners.
Lord negotiated the lease of a factory built by the Welsh Estates Corporation in the Bargoed area of South Wales, about ten miles north of Cardiff, with a 50% reduction in the rates because it was planned to only employee disabled miners.
Although almost universally referred to as the Bargoed factory, the site was actually located at Pengam, a small village about a mile from Bargoed.
Meanwhile, Lord pushed forward at Longbridge to have a pedal car designed and ready for production once the factory had been secured. In April 1946, he seconded two workers from the Forward Planning Office (concerned with the development of the Longbridge factory after the War), Jim Blakie and Ron Phillips, to design the prototype pedal car.
According to David Whyley, in his book Austin Pedal Cars; “Jim and Ron were sent away for a think and were not sure how they were going to set about the project having never seen a body drawing in their lives before.”
To overcome this shortcoming Alf Ash, who had worked in Body Assembly and in the Body Assembly Planning Office, was appointed as the third member of the team. They worked in a disused workshop, in complete secrecy – not even being allowed to tell their families.
The brief from Lord was that the pedal car had to be in effect “Like dad’s car” but in miniature. It had to have opening boot and bonnet, a dummy engine, proper seat upholstery and working lights and horn.
After looking at some pedal cars already on the market, they decided to ignore anything from competitors and work from a clean sheet of paper.
The car was to be suited to children from the ages of five to nine and Alf Ash was the only member of the team with a child the right size. He measured his daughter Marcia and made a cardboard scale figure, with moveable joints, which was used to get the size of the car, the position of the pedals and clearance for the knees as they came up and down.
The pedal car had to be a reflection of a current model and the front was originally designed along the lines of the then Austin 8/10/12 family, with headlights mounted in separate pods and a fairly tall slatted grille.
The first prototype, built by Longbridge panel beaters Bill Avery and Jack Turton, used a bicycle-type chain drive and was completed in June 1946 – less than three months after work began. It was Lord himself who came up with the name for the car, which went onto the dummy number plate, calling it Joy 1, because it was “going to give joy to one or two kids”.
A second prototype, Joy II, followed soon afterwards, which was more suitable for production. A backwards-forwards treadle motion for the pedals replaced the cycle-type on Joy I, and the car was considerably lighter.
A third prototype, Joy III, was Jim Blaikie’s design, based on the pre-War twin-cam Austin 7 race cars but drawn completely from memory, and was completed in March 1947.
A very different car in appearance, it had the advantage for production of being easier to build, with the body pressed in two halves.
At this time the group started calling themselves The Joy Car Department – a name which stuck.
In order for the design of the pedal car to be contemporary, a fourth prototype, Joy IV, was built, with the front styled on the then still secret A40 Devon, which itself was still only in the prototype stage.
By this time the Pengam factory was coming together, with presses no longer required at Longbridge being transferred over and new tools made for the pedal cars.
Because the factory was to be staffed by disabled miners, other companies got behind the project. Jim Blakie approached Lucas and Dunlop to supply electric components and tyres at very reasonable rates. Champion donated faulty spark plugs, to give an element of realism to the dummy engines, while Clifford Coverings, which had the contract for the A40 Devon steering wheels, provided the steering wheels for the pedal cars.
The factory officially opened on 5 July 1949, with the Pathfinder Special – based on Joy III and named by George Harriman. Production of J40 pedal cars, derived from Joy IV, began later in the same year, with the first recorded sale in October. The 40 came from the A40, on which the pedal car was styled, but the J stood for Junior, not Joy as on the prototype.
In total, some 112 pressings were required for the J40 pedal car. Of these, 108 were pressed at Pengam, while the remaining four, all large body panels, were pressed at Longbridge.
The sign over the front of the factory proudly proclaimed it as the Austin Junior Car Factory.
The factory also boasted a full-time doctor and nursing sister, who monitored the health of the workforce and assigned the former miners to jobs within the factory according to their level of disability. Apart from a few in management and trainers from Longbridge, the factory was considered unique in the world at the time for having a workforce that was 100% disabled – 60% of whom suffered from Complicated Pneumoconiosis.
An important aspect of the factory was that, as much as possible, it was to operate like a full-size car factory. The same processes for stamping the panels, welding the bodies together, painting and final assembly were to be followed.
Carrier Engineers donated a scaled-down version of the patented Rotodip pre-treatment plant, which would serve as a test bed for the system prior to the full-size Rotodip being installed at Longbridge later that same year. Every Austin pedal car, at least up to 1962, went through the Rotodip, which has helped in preserving many over the years.
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