The prince of pedal cars

Coveted by boys everywhere, the J40's success was a symbol of post-war prosperity, says Andrew Roberts
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Indy Lifestyle Online

British fairgrounds of the Seventies and Eighties could be pretty dismal, but among the dubious "home-made" fudge and the equally lethal rocket rides there was usually a bright spot - a roundabout featuring at least one pedal car that bore a strong resemblance to the Austin A40 Devon. Today, the Austin J40 Pedal Car can change hands for £1,500 - a higher price, sometimes, than for the full-sized Austin that inspired it.

In 1946, Sir Leonard Lord, chairman of the Austin Motor Works, embarked on a radical programme of post-war redevelopment to launch a range of cars for the vital US market. Naturally, aspirational American motorists who just happened to be under the age of eight were also part of his plan, hence the new Austin pedal car in the line-up.

So, after extensive research and development at Longbridge, Austin established a factory in the mining community of Bargoed in South Wales based around the idea that the production line would be entirely staffed by disabled ex-miners.

As the publicity department said: "Austin J40 cars are made in a specially constructed factory at Bargoed in South Wales. Here, in good conditions, with the guidance of an experienced rehabilitation officer and under the supervision of a doctor, disabled Welsh miners are able to find a new interest in life and do a job of work that is both useful and congenial. There are employment facilities at this factory for 250 men."

The Austin Junior Car Factory may have been small but its aims were utterly professional. The tooling was supplied by Carbodies of Coventry, a long-term Austin supplier, and the enterprise's aims were ambitious. Some 55 former miners were employed when the factory opened in July 1949, and although the government funding was indicative of social idealism, the factory still had to produce a viable vehicle for the North American market.

The first design was the Pathfinder, with stylish coachwork inspired by the pre-war Austin Seven Jamieson racing car, but poor sales lead to it being dropped after only one year to be replaced by the J40.

This was originally designed along the lines of the 1938 Austin 10, but it was soon decreed that the new car needed the up-to-the-minute styling of the A40 Devon saloon - complete with integral headlamps and the iconic "fencer mask" radiator grille - to compete in the cut-throat pedal-car market.

The parallels with the Longbridge product did not cease there as the J40 was constructed from off-cuts from full-sized Devons, which were sent to Wales for welding and painting to the same standard as any Austin saloon.

The result was a heavy (95lb) but well-built pressed- steel pedal car that was, indeed, "Just Like Father's Car" (so long as he drove a new Austin). Such quality inevitably came at a price - £33 - which represented almost a month's wages for a blue-collar worker c1950, but few pedal cars boasted the J40's high specification and, naturally, the sheer pride of ownership: "What a thrill for Junior to drive a car just like father's, to polish it even better than he does, to take the wheels off or pump up the tyres, to lift up the bonnet and examine the 'engine', and, best of all, show it off to admiring friends and relatives."

Throughout its 21-year production run, the J40 was available in any Austin (and subsequently BMC) colour, and had a leather-cloth upholstered seat, an Art Deco-style instrument panel, and an opening boot and bonnet, the latter concealing a dummy engine with authentic spark plugs. Both headlamps and horn were powered by batteries, the pedals and handbrake were adjustable to suit the driver's height, and the wheels came with with Dunlop pneumatic tyres.

Most impressively, the grille, bumpers, handles and hubcaps were chromium- plated, and early examples came with the "Flying A" mascot, soon deleted for safety reasons. A few were powered by electric motor, and one version of the J40 had heavier pedals to strengthen the limbs of children recovering from polio.

As for the standard J40, it became an icon of affluent post-war British childhood. Despite the fact that J40s were exported around the globe, the abiding image of Britain's finest pedal car derives from its many appearances in 1950s road- safety films. Such epics often featured the dulcet tones of either Derek McCulloch or Eammon Andrews as they warned of the dangers of failing to master the kerb drill. Further publicity came in the 1955 film One Good Turn, starring Norman Wisdom. The sight of the popular comic actor driving an electric-powered J40 was good for thousands of pounds worth of business.

But perhaps the J40's shining moment was its appearance at the Austin 50th-birthday gala in 1955, with miniature Devons racing through Longbridge, with commentary by the radio star Kenneth Horne.

Indeed, although the period between 1950 and 1971 saw seismic changes in the British motor industry, the J40 was as much a symbol of stability as the Morris Minor. As Austin mutated into BMC, BMH and, latterly, the British Leyland Motor Corporation, the J40 remained virtually unchanged - unkind observers said that the J40 was probably BMC's best-built car.

As late as 1965, the Junior Works employed 500 workers to cope with demand. When production finally ceased in 1971, after 32,098 J40s had been built, there were many who regretted the lack of a successor.

Today, there are factories devoted to J40 replicas, but for a true J40 enthusiast, only an original will do.

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