Austin A90 Atlantic: Gold-plated catastrophe

The British motor industry has seen some spectacular failures, but few as heroic as this, claims Andrew Roberts
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Indy Lifestyle Online

There are several American phenomena that translate very badly into British idioms, from would-be teenage rap stars singing the praises of New York ghetto life in a Hampshire accent, to the culinary delight that is the Wimpy burger.

In terms of cars, the clear lesson is that the US has rarely been prepared to buy a pastiche of its own designs, but of all the British models that were deliberately targeted at the US market, the Austin A90 Atlantic has to be one of the bravest attempts.

The origins of the A90 date back to 1945 when it was the first all-new car to be engineered by Austin. Leonard Lord, the firm's dynamic chairman, had already authorised £1m of investment for post-war tooling, and in May of that year he sailed to the US to investigate the possibilities of this new market. After a second visit in August, Austin established a chain of dealerships for the soon-to-be announced Austin A40 Devon saloon, a four-cylinder, 1.2 litre engine British interpretation of a 1938 Chevrolet.

However, Lord needed a car that was specifically designed for US tastes and, by wider implication, buyers across the world. (In the 1930s the main supplier of cars to the world was the US. Even loyal servants of the British Empire found that a Chevrolet or Dodge was usually a far more powerful and robust form of transport.)

By 1948 the Atlantic Convertible was ready for launch, with Austin modestly claiming that, "modern in every detail and designed for a brilliant performance, the A90 Atlantic ... is a car of distinction that will bring an added zest to business or pleasure-motoring." It certainly caused a minor sensation at the Earls Court Motor Show. The engine was straightforward enough - a 2.6 litre 4-cylinder with twin SU carburettors derived from the lumbering A70 Hampshire saloon - but the styling shocked loyal aficionados of the marque.

Austin motor cars did not usually boast lines apparently fashioned from a 1946 Pontiac, nor did they commonly delight in coachwork featuring no fewer than five separate chromium stripes, rear wheel spats and two separate bonnet mascots. The only legacies that suggested it was a local design were the starting handle bracket on the front bumper and the semaphore trafficators.

Of course, such decadence was not suited to a country where obtaining a new car was seen as an unutterable luxury and where, unless you could prove to HM Government that you actually warranted the use of a brand new car, the waiting list would stretch for literally years.

However, in Britain's thriving unofficial business sector, all aspiring spivs and wide boys immediately saw great potential in the new Austin as the definitive transport for the patriotic bombsite trader. The A90's front bench seat was wide enough to allow extra passengers to make some very speedy getaways, and its gold-faced instruments and power-operated hoods and side windows gave an essential touch of US glamour.

Meanwhile, the Atlantic's top speed of 72mph was more than a match for a police Wolseley 18/85 or Humber Super-Snipe, and the boot had sufficient capacity to accommodate three gross of nylons, 50 tins of salmon - and the occasional awkward "business rival", should need arise.

Unfortunately, in the key US export territory the Atlantic immediately ran into a problem that would bedevil British exports for years to come - an inherent unsuitability for its intended market. In the case of the A90 Atlantic, US import duties raised its price to that of a contemporary six-cylinder Pontiac. Any ideas of the Atlantic appealing to affluent young Americans who wished to trade up from their privately imported MGs were quickly stifled by the A90's soggy suspension and hydro-mech brakes that required notice in writing before the A90 would actually deign to stop.

Not to be easily defeated, Austin launched the even more flamboyant A90 Saloon in 1949. Brochures for this fine vehicle featured an airbrushed picture of a cherry-red Atlantic parked in front of the Rock of Gibraltar being regarded by a manly type in navy uniform; any car that could offer a wind-down rear windscreen as standard had to be an eye-catcher.

But still the Americans remained loyal to six-cylinder power, and the convertible ceased production in 1950 and the saloon in 1952. Around 8,000 A90 Atlantics were built in the four years it was in production, most being exported to Australia and New Zealand and a mere 350 being sold in the US.

The Austin Atlantic may seem as faintly comical as Diana Dors' attempts to convince Hollywood that she was the British Marilyn Monroe, but in many respects automotive history has treated it rather unkindly. After all, few cars can boast a starring role alongside the Bristol Brabazon and the Bluebird II in the 1950 The Wonder Book of Speed, and the Atlantic cannot be faulted on the grounds of ambition. It is good to be reminded of a time when a heater and gold-plated speedometers were the height of decadence in a British car.

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