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Austin A30 A35 illustration

Austin A30: Longbridge’s ‘Steel Teddy Bear’

Long before the Mini was a twinkle in Sir Alec Issigonis’s eye, Austin had already produced a small family car that captured the hearts of the nation.

The A30, and its almost identical successor the A35, was dubbed the Steel Teddy Bear thanks to its rounded, cuddly appearance.

But it was also a significant milestone in construction, Austin’s first monocoque chassis-less car.

We look at its development and life on the road.

Austin already had a storied history in the production of small cars, the legendary 7 (or Seven) doing for motoring in this country what the Ford Model T had done in the US.

But after the second world war, Longbridge was primarily manufacturing larger saloons tailored to the American market.

Rivals Morris had stolen a march in getting post-war British families moving with the Minor, launched in 1948 and, with a proposed merger between the two companies scuppered, Austin boss Leonard Lord needed a car to compete.

Austin A30

That car was the A30, with development work starting in 1949 on what would prove to be a major step forward for not only Austin, but the British car industry – the first truly chassis-less home-built car.

Only Lancia, with the Lambada, and the Saab 92 prevented Austin claiming a world first.

Lord, an accomplished engineer, was convinced it would work, and tasked Ken Garrett and Ian Duncan with getting the concept into production.

Aircraft engineering and the Dragonfly

Duncan and Garrett both had extensive experience in the aircraft industry, and were perfectly placed to do the stress engineering work required on the monocoque construction.

Indeed, it was a prototype created by Duncan, the Dragonfly, which had piqued Lord’s interest in the concept the previous year.

Duncan Dragonfly
The Duncan Dragonfly

Lord had shelled out £10,000 for the rights to the car, on the condition that Duncan work a three-year contract at Longbridge.

It may never have been Lord’s intention to put the Dragonfly into production, but the deal kept the car – and its creator – out of the hands of the opposition and proved instrumental in the construction of the A30.

Nevertheless, Duncan and Garrett spent considerable time on an Austin prototype version of the chassis-less Dragonfly, with a painstaking study of lay-out drawings and full stress analysis of anything that would create a load on the body structure.

Other Duncan / Garrett innovations, such as rubber suspension and front wheel drive, never made it into the A30, but the body engineering survived.

Like our illustration of the Austin A30: Longbridge’s ‘Steel Teddy Bear’ at the beginning of the article?

Download a free high-quality poster version here.

Styling the A30

With the monocoque construction settled, attention turned to how the car should look, and American Bob Koto was drafted in from the Raymond Loewy styling studios to come up with the first clay models.

The result was a rakish, stylish saloon, but Austin management continuously meddled in the process, ultimately lopping 4 and a half inches off the length to cut costs and putting the final design in the hands of chief stylist Dick Burzi.

Early Austin A30 design
An early design

Neither Koto nor Duncan were happy, the former saying he barely recognised the car he had designed, and Duncan feeling the increased height required to site the rear seats above the rear axle instead of in front of it had spoiled the original design.

The motoring press and buying public, however, were impressed with the new car, which was launched at the 1951 Earls Court Motor Show as the ‘New Austin Seven’. Early sales literature also called the car the Austin A30 Seven.

It cost £507, a snip at £62 less than the Minor.

At launch, the A30 was only available as a four-door saloon, though two-door variants were offered from 1953, followed by a van and van-based “Countryman” a year later.

Austin A30 Countryman
Austin A30 Countryman

Its economy, low-cost credentials were evident from its single windscreen wiper, driver-only sun visor and no heater. An extra wiper, visor and a heater were all optional extras.

A30 interior

The interior was functional but pleasant, featuring a central instrument panel and open, full-length parcel shelf similar to that which would later appear in the Mini.

Under the bonnet

If the body construction was revolutionary, the car’s engine was advanced for its time. In fact, the brand new straight-four was still in use in the Mini at the turn of the millenium.

A scaled-down, 803cc version of the 1200cc overhead valve unit seen in the A40 Devon, the engine would go on to be one of the greatest engines of all time, called the A-series following the merger that created BMC.

Austin A30 A-series engine
A30 A-series engine

Throughout its lifetime it would find itself, in various guises, under the bonnet of cars from the Austin-Healey Sprite to the Allegro and the MG Metro, in turbo-charged form.

Between 1951 and 2000, more than 14 million units were manufactured.

In the A30, the 28bhp unit was a spritely and economical performer, returning 42mpg and achieving a top speed of 70mph according to the factory, appreciably quicker than the Minor.

The car’s braking system was less advanced, a hybrid of hydraulic drums at the front with a body-mounted single cylinder operating rods to the rear wheels.

Early models, called AS3, were short and narrow, indeed the narrowest car you could buy in the UK at the time, but still with adequate room for four adults.

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The press reception

Road testers clearly looked to compare the A30 to the Minor, and the Austin lost out on handling – its narrow track and height were a distinct disadvantage to taking corners fast.

Writing in Motor Sport, Bill Boddy summed up: “Perhaps the fairest way to express the matter is to say that the A30 is controllable, but not enjoyably so.”

Boddy did have plenty of nice things to say about the baby Austin though, praising the excellent road-performance from its very game 800cc o.h.v. engine, accomplished with a high degree of smoothness and lack of fuss, outstandingly good brakes, and very pleasant steering”.

Austin A30

Summing up, he said the A30 was “the best model in the existing Austin range, offering as it does particularly good performance with a high degree of refinement at a fuel consumption of better than 40 mpg. To all except tall or outsize persons it represents very good transport at a moderate purchase price”.

Motor tested an A30 in 1952 and could only manage a top speed of 62mph, nowhere near the manufacturer’s own data. It reached 50mph in 29 seconds.

But it’s worth noting that “branded fuel” had disappeared in the UK during the second world war, and for years afterwards the octane rating of nationally available fuel was just 70.

This enforced relatively low compression ratios, which affected the performance of all cars, but especially small ones.

Motorists quickly took to the little cars, with sales picking up from the word go, and 223,264 were built when the car was replaced by the A35 in 1956.

More power for the A35

After five years in production, the A30 morphed into the A35, the name change reflecting the increase in power to 34bhp, aiding top speed and acceleration.

It resulted from a significant increase in engine capacity from 803cc to 948cc, which also made cruising a more comfortable experience.

Austin A35
Austin A35

Although the uninitiated might struggle to tell them apart, there were a smattering of subtle changes made to the car’s appearance on its upgrade.

The A35 received a larger rear window aperture and a painted front grille with a chrome horseshoe surround, while the semaphore turn indicators were replaced with more modern flashing lights.

The car was again offered with two or four doors, a two-door Countryman estate, a van and a rare pick-up, of which only 477 were sold.

Motor recorded a top speed of nearly 72mph, and the A35 proved successful in saloon car racing in the 1950s and remains active in historic events today.

While the car was rendered obsolete by the emergence of the Mini in 1959, the Countryman continued for another three years and the van soldiered on until 1968, and found fame decades later in Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit.

Wallace & Gromit Austin A35

As well as the hapless Wallace and his dog, Formula One drivers also lined up to drive the little car, including Jackie Stewart, Graham Hill and, most famously, James Hunt.

Hunt had a ball at the wheel of his A35 van, blowing off Ferraris round the Wandsworth one-way system on a wet Saturday night.

He once said: “I suppose some may find it strange that an ex Formula One driver should choose a ‘humble’ A35 van to potter around in as his local runaround.

“However, I am a big believer in horses for courses and was attracted both by the nature of the thing and the price.”

He pondered swapping the car’s crossplies for a new set of radials, but said that “old habits die hard and sliding about on crossplies is rather fun”.

If it was good enough for the great man, it’s good enough for the rest of us.

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