Austin A40 Devon Saloon

In 1950 the Jensen Motor Co clothed the Austin A40 Devon saloon with a sleek aluminium sports body – breaking the mould of Austin’s conservative post-war image.

This curious little car’s design first saw the light of day in 1949 after Richard Jensen of the Jensen Motor Company, while searching for an engine to power his original Interceptor range, met with Austin Motors’ Chairman Leonard Lord. He showed Lord the design of an open-top sporting car, from the pen of Jensen’s designer Eric Neale, that he was keen to power with Austin’s 3993cc Sheerline engine.

Jensen not only scored the engine deal, but Lord was so taken with the Interceptor’s styling he asked Jensen to design a similar body that Austin could use incorporating A40 Devon mechanical components.

So, Neale set about fashioning the lines of the new A40 Sports, sculpturing it on the Interceptor’s styling, but smaller and with enough subtle differences in order to tell the two cars apart. After several tweaks to the design, the A40 Sports was unveiled at the British Motor Show in October 1950.

Launched as a sports car, it was actually a four-seater (two adults and two small children) roadster. Power from the Devon’s 1200cc engine had been increased by around 15% – from 40hp @ 4,300rpm to 46hp @ 5,000rpm and with a very marginal 1 or 2 lb/ft increase in torque.

A pair of 1¼” HS2 SU carburettors and associated cylinder head modifications replaced the saloon’s single Zenith carby.

The rear axle ratio was changed and the braking area increased by some 50% – and an anti-roll bar was also fitted.

However the car was no firecracker in the acceleration stakes. Even though the new Sports’ body was aluminium and the roof had been eliminated, reducing the weight by almost 200lbs, its 0 - 60mph (100km/h) was around 26sec. The Devon saloon’s 0 - 60mph elapsed time was around 36secs. Top speed was boosted by 10mph to 80mph, partly with the aid of the more svelte body.

The bodies were built by Jensen in the British Midlands at West Bromwich and transferred to Austin’s assembly plant at Longbridge in Warwickshire for the mechanical fit-out, which included plating the centre section of the chassis, both top and bottom, in order to give it more structural rigidity.

The scuttle area and ‘A’ pillars were also strengthened, as the car was now a soft-top convertible and no longer had a roof as the structural component.

The 1950 model was mechanically the same as the A40 Devon saloon, having a long gangly floor-mounted gearstick, but in the autumn of 1951 both vehicles were upgraded with the gearshift mechanism relegated to the steering column – in colloquial terms the Sports now had four-on-the-tree: giving it an even less sporty specification.

Lord’s target market was North America, particularly the US. He new if the A40 Sports took off in this volume market not only would it earn lucrative export credits from the British government, but would also greatly increase profits for his company.

The car’s major competitor, the MG TC had been very successful in the US market, and the new TD model was already quenching the American car buyers’ thirst for a quirky British sports car.

In the four years of the TD’s production (1950–53) 23,488 of the total 29,664 were sold to the North American market. However, only 650 A40 Sports crossed the Atlantic during roughly the same period.

The introduction of the A40 Sports was a gamble for Austin when it was launched in 1950, as the small convertible wasn’t a sports car per se, and was reasonably expensive for its specification.

When early sales weren’t up to expectations, Leonard Lord thought of a publicity stunt – he made a wager with Austin’s PR manager, Alan Hess, that he couldn’t drive an A40 Sports around the world in 30 days.

Hess willingly accepted the challenge and in 1951 set off on the journey in a Dutch airlines KLM cargo plane that would freight the car from continent to continent, where there was rugged terrain and of course over water.

Hess won the bet; circumnavigating the Globe in only 21 days, covering 9,263 miles on terra firma at close to 29mpg.

However, this stunt wasn’t able to save the A40 Sports. Neither was a significant price reduction in its final year.

Austin discontinued it in 1953 after only producing 4,011 (production numbers vary slightly depending on the source) of these quaint little convertibles.

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