There are certain cars that only seem to belong to a fixed moment in time; surviving Ford Sierras still convey the era when the 1970s were uneasily giving way to the new decade of slightly less horrible clothes and rather more horrible politics. Similarly, Austin's A125 Sheerline encapsulates early-1950s Britain when Birmingham foundry owners who aspired to becoming gentlemen could own a car that combined mass production with coach-built appeal. The Sheerline was all of this and more, for here was a car that boasted the same solid and reliable appeal of Jack Hawkins in a 1950s war movie.
Of all of the great car marques that were to die in the service of BMC/BL/Rover, the Austin badge is one of the most overlooked. When the Longbridge badge finally disappeared from bonnets of Minis, Metros, Maestros and Montegos some 20 years ago it was little mourned.
All this was a far cry from the late 1940s when Austin was one of Britain's automotive giants and, as such, reasoned the company's famously autocratic chief, Leonard Lord, deserved only the finest of cars at the top of the range. During the Second World War, Lord's own Bentley gave him the idea that the new post-war top-of-the-range Austin should be "a poor man's Bentley".
To that end, when Project A120 commenced in 1942 Lord insisted that the new car should have a vertical radiator grille combined with extremely vast P100 headlights (Austin engineers soon discovered that the A120's top speed could be increased by 4mph simply by turning the lamps sideways). The A120 also featured very distinctive and rather elegant knife-edge styling with separate but flowing wings that anticipated Bentley's post-war Mk VI. Even the winged "A" bonnet mascot was Bentley-inspired.
When peacetime Austin production resumed in 1946, Lord had decided that there would be two range-topping models. In addition to the Sheerline, Austin would also offer the slightly more expensive Princess, which was based on the same chassis but was coachbuilt by the recently acquired firm of Vanden Plas. The basic idea was that "the distinctive appearance and finish of the Sheerline and the Princess would bestow them with a social appeal that could command a premium above the highest-price American models" – that is to say, no spivs need apply.
At a time when Longbridge, together with most of the West Midlands, was suffering the ravages of the Blitz, it was also seen as psychologically important that a British firm could produce such a luxurious vehicle. The Sheerline was one of the most elaborate Austins ever built. The interior was lavishly but tastefully plastered in the finest hide and Wilton carpet; one of the few giveaways of the Sheerline's plebeian roots was the quantity of rectangular instruments sourced from lesser-priced Austins.
After only 12 examples of the A120 were produced, Austin fitted the Sheerline with a 4-litre engine from its commercial vehicle division – resulting in a slightly higher top speed and a fuel consumption of 15 mpg.
However, some 8,000 customers around the world believed that the Sheerline was worth it; for once one stopped comparing it with Bentley, Lea-Francis et al, its genuine virtues were soon made very apparent. The accommodation allowed for five passengers to wear a hat and, although the engine note did put some motorists more in mind of a haulage yard in Deptford rather than the refinement of Pall Mall, it was still subdued enough to hear Mr Richard Dimbleby on the in-car wireless.
The Sheerline's rate of acceleration may best be described as "sedate", but the A125 was never intended to be a sports saloon. In any case, for speed-crazed Austin fans, there was always the rather amazing Sheerline Gas Turbine. Developed over a five-year period, "TUR 1" saw the light of day in 1954. Its engine employed compressors from the Spitfire's Merlin engine to pass air through the heat exchanger; combined with sprayed diesel and ignited with a Lucas ignition system, this produced the hot gases to drive the power turbine. This magnificent car so terrified Lord that he would never ride in it, quite possibly because it caught fire on a few occasions.
Sadly, TUR 1 was scrapped in 1958 but, for Austin customers of a more sedate mindset, there was always the 1949 LWB Sheerline Limousine, the ideal vehicle for middle-ranking high commissioners and governor-generals, plus several affluent mayors.
But it was the standard saloon that was the most popular. Its customer base ranged from civic dignitaries to bookies seeking a certain amount of dignity, the latter role becoming immortalised with the cult 1960 horror film The Man in the Back Seat, the plot of which centred on an A125 stolen by a pair of teddy boys and their desperate attempts to lose a possibly deceased bookie sprawled on the rear bench.
The other superb A125 Sheerline contribution to British cinema was the very early press fleet model used by Robert Newton's homicidal doctor in Obsession – one does wonder what precisely was in the mind of Austin's PR department at this time.
A125 production stopped in 1954 and, although the newly formed BMC briefly considered a second generation model based on the Wolseley 6/90, it was decided to concentrate on the A135 as the company's flagship. But the Sheerline's many enthusiasts would rather it had ceased production with dignity rather than dip into the duo-toned, tail-finned world of the last half of the decade.
In the 1950s a few automotive snobs liked to dismiss the big Austin as "the world's best trimmed truck", but the A125 was powered by the very same engine as the Jensen 541. Even today, a few select Sheerline owners like to refer to the Jensen as "the Austin A125 GT".
It is a statement that may significantly decrease their life expectancy in some classic car circles, but true Sheerline enthusiasts are always Jack Hawkins-like in their resolution. Long may they remain so.Reuse content