Austin A90 & Riley RMC Leading the export drive. 1949 Austin’s A90 Atlantic and 1948 Riley’s RMC 2 ½ -litre Roadster were aimed specifically at the US market. Both failed to sell, and their makers retired with a black eye, relates Jon Pressnell… Photography Tony Baker.
Working for the Yankee Dollar Austin A90 & Riley RMC Brit stalwarts try to sew up the US market and drop a stitch big-time
Somehow it’s difficult to take either of these cars seriously. The Austin Atlantic is a high-camp parody of 1940s Americana, from its fake-Pontiac bonnet and boot strakes plus its central spotlight to the twin ‘Flying A’ wing-top badges and frenched tail-lights. Not a detail is underegged, whether it’s the gold-painted leather-clad cabin or the odd three-piece ’screen. The Riley roadster, meanwhile, is a granny-takes-a-trip drugged-out remake of the traditional British tourer – a sort of Morris Eight two-seater on acid, with its drawn-out tail, cow-catcher bumpers with their four horn-topped overriders, and those chrome-plated ‘pork pie’ rear lamps seemingly snatched from a passing Model A Ford.
But the purpose behind such splashiness was anything but frivolous. With the world’s biggest market crying out for cars and a pressing need for Britain to bring in foreign exchange, it was no surprise that our motor makers rushed to export their products to the United States in the early post-war years. Cars conservatively designed for home consumption were rarely suited to American conditions, however, which prompted both Austin and Riley to create models more in tune with what were perceived as US tastes.
The Atlantic is the more extravagant, and a breathtaking swerve off the straight and narrow for staid Austin. The key to its flamboyance is most likely the hands-on role of boss Leonard Lord, who had both an interest in styling and a pragmatic lack of shame in appropriating other people’s ideas – as witnessed by his cloning of the Ford Model Y when he was in charge at Cowley.
To suggest that Lord was responsible for the lines of the Atlantic is to do a disservice to Austin head of styling Dick Burzi. Yet drawings by Lord do survive, and it is known that he arranged the purchase of a Farina-bodied Alfa Romeo drophead that had been displayed at the 1946 Geneva Salon, with the Alfa subsequently being cited as an influence on the Atlantic. Lord was also a constant presence in the Longbridge studios and the Experimental Department during the gestation of the car, to the point that a special stool was made for him by the latter’s bodyshop.
Whether or not the Atlantic has its origins in a ‘back-of-a-fag-pack’ sketch by Lord, a similar legend has been passed down when it comes to the Riley, coded RMC by the factory. “One of the sales chaps went to America, and came back with a drawing on the back of a dirty envelope, saying this was what the Americans wanted,” former Riley service manager Arnold Farrar told me in ’1987. “Later it was discovered that he had only been around a third of the US dealers.”
The result was less obviously Americanised in its lines than the chrome-bedecked Atlantic, but with its long-tailed open body and exposed spare the Riley clearly sought to evoke Detroit’s mid- 1930s roadsters. Maybe the salesman in question had been spending too long in California, hanging out among the ’1932 Fords so beloved by the nascent US rodding fraternity?
Under the skin, naturally enough, both cars borrow from more mainstream models. Initially sold only as a drophead, the Atlantic is built on a modified – but not shortened – A70 Hampshire chassis. Developed from a cut-and-shut A40 frame, it proved to have lamentable rigidity for a long-doored open car; as a result an aircraft-style torsion-box had to be built into the bulkhead to tame the prototype’s violent scuttle-shake.
The rest of the running gear is A70, meaning lever-arm dampers serving as upper spars for the coil-sprung front end and a live rear axle on semi-elliptics, restrained by staggered lever-arms and an anti-roll bar. Steering is by Burman cam-and-peg and the brakes are Girling hydro-mechanicals on pre-’1951 cars. Pushing along the 2828lb Atlantic is a higher-compression 2660cc version of the Hampshire’s 2199cc pushrod ‘four’. Fed by twin SUs rather than the A70’s single Zenith, output jumps from 64bhp to 88bhp, allowing a higher rear-axle ratio to be used. As with the A70, there’s a column change for the four-speed ’box.
The Riley is again a new and loosely sporting body on saloon mechanicals, also using a regular chassis. But whereas the A70 and A90 have a stumpy 8ft between their axles, the wheelbase of the Riley is an appreciably more generous 9ft 11in – 6½in longer than the 1½-litre model’s.
The underpinnings are a classy cut above the mass-produced componentry of the Austin, not least the power unit, which is Riley’s venerable long-stroke twin-high-cam ‘big four’. Mated to a corporate Nuffield four-speed gearbox, it drives a live rear axle located not just by its leaf springs but also by both a torque tube and an anti-roll bar. At the front, meanwhile, is a proper twin-wishbone set-up with longitudinal torsion bars and angled telescopic dampers, and with steering by rack and pinion – the entire arrangement being inspired by that of the Citroën Traction Avant. As with the Austin, brakes are Girling hydro-mechanicals. It was only in 1952 that hydraulic rear brakes came in on the RMs – at which stage the torque tube was deleted – but by then the roadster was long gone.
Short life was indeed a common feature of the two cars. The Atlantic was launched in September 1948, alongside the A70 Hampshire saloon.
Hydraulic operation of the hood and windows was standard; notoriously unreliable, the system soon became an extra-cost option. Production as a convertible began in February ’1949 and finished in January 1951. Latterly only a leather-cloth-roofed ‘sports saloon’ was available. Announced in September ’1949, it entered production in January ’1950 and was deleted in September ’1952. From the ’1951 model year onwards the closed Atlantic had fully hydraulic braking, as did the very last convertibles; it also had lower overall gearing, to compensate for its extra 168lb of weight. Total A90 output was a mere 7981 cars, split roughly 50:50 between open and closed coachwork. In contrast 35,261 Hampshires were made, over a much briefer period that ended with the October 1950 announcement of the A70 Hereford.
The Riley roadster lasted an even shorter time, being announced in March 1948, entering production in autumn that year, and being deleted in January 1951. Doubtless the accountants breathed a sigh of relief, because relatively little was shared with the 2½-litre saloon: the wings and bonnet were wider, the radiator and its shell chopped down, plus the bulkhead moved back and all controls altered to match.
Research by the Riley RM Club indicates that a mere 474 were made, 88 at the Coventry works and the rest after production had been moved to MG at Abingdon. The first 250 or so roadsters had a column change, making them a nominal three-seater. But the mechanism was apparently so vile that virtually all cars had a floor change retro-fitted either by the factory or by dealers, while retaining the original offset steering column – which necessitated a secondary transfer gearbox for the steering and a smaller wheel. The remaining 224 cars had the regular stubby floor lever and were labelled as two-seaters; they retained a bench front seat, but lost the offset column, transfer gearbox and smaller wheel.
Both models bombed in their intended arena. The US took a mere 350 Atlantics, to which can be added 250 sent to Canada. Indeed, more cars were exported to Sweden – 420 – than to the States, with the best market being Empire loyalist Australia, which absorbed a healthy 821 units. Turning to the supposedly export-only Riley, just 50 or so cars went to North America. Again, Australia took the lion’s share, with c134 right-hand- drive models being shipped Down Under, against 194 sold in the home market.
Despite their makers’ good intentions, it’s not hard to see why the Austin and the Riley failed to bring home those much-needed dollars. The Austin may have plugged into US styling trends, but of the previous generation: for the ’1949 season, America’s new ranges had more slab-sided lines that ditched the motif of ‘suggested’ front wings. This need not have been a fatal flaw had the Atlantic not been ludicrously over-priced. It cost $3975 against $2206 for a ’1949 Pontiac Chieftain convertible in eight-cylinder form, or just $1948 for a sleek new Ford drophead, packing a V8.
Austin had fallen straight into the most obvious of traps. If you were going to charge serious money for a British car, it had to have old-school leather-and-wood appeal – or else be a charismatic sports model such as the MG TC or the Jaguar XK120. An ersatz American drophead or coupé powered by a small (by Stateside standards) four-cylinder engine was never going to set the tills alight at Austin dealers. A $1000 price cut did little to change matters, any more than the much-ballyhooed breaking of 63 production- car speed records at Indianapolis.
The Riley, meanwhile, was just an aberration in the Stateside market, evoking a body style that had disappeared from the ranges of US makers at the tail end of the 1930s. Again, though, the fundamental problem was price. For a car that was neither an obvious rival to a mainstream US ragtop nor an out-and-out sports car, the American buyer was expected to pay a sum not far off that for an XK120. In return he had to content himself with a rugged four-pot engine, oddball looks and rustic interior appointments.
Now the story is different. Both cars appeal for their quirkiness as much as their rarity – although with 392 known to exist out of the fewer than 500 made, the Riley must have one of the best survival rates of any classic. The Austin does rather less well, with perhaps 100 UK survivors and about 215 in the rest of the world – but probably no more than 50 on the road here.
Mark Yeomans’ 1950 Atlantic is unusual in that in ’1962 it had the rear modified in the style of the XK120, with deeper spats. The regular items were a bugbear, being too shallow to allow easy removal of the rear wheels. Another mod has been a reversion to manual windows and top. Thanks to one-shot window levers and a delightfully easy integral hood – folding neatly into a well –this is hardly a retrograde move.
The cockpit is suitably plush –after all, the Atlantic cost £825 in 1950, or 25% more than the £659 asked for a sliding-head Hampshire. It may not be trad, but the leather-covered dash has a full set of gold dials with stylised black lettering, and gold detailing extends to the adjustable steering column and the handle of the umbrella handbrake. There’s also a matching top-of-the-range Ecko CR61 radio. Details include the Austin ‘A’ embossed into the leather door trims, and twin pockets set into the thick doors. The deep sills and the triangular brace at the rear of the door aperture hint at a need to reinforce the structure, as does the extra peg to help lock the door in place. But the car is not spacious, mainly thanks to the folding roof: in the rear even short passengers have to splay their legs.
Perched high on the split front bench, driving the Atlantic is a relaxing experience, thanks to the easy torque (144lb ft at 2500rpm) of the long-stroke ‘four’ – later, of course, to be used in the Austin-Healey 100. Indeed, you can dispense with first, which was blocked off on the Healey. “No one uses first gear,” says Yeomans. “You have to be ever so gentle or you’ll damage the lay gear or break a halfshaft. There are only one or two occasions when I’ve used first gear – it has to be a hell of a hill.” Pulling away in second, you find you can trickle round corners in third and then accelerate away strongly. Progress is aided by a clunky but clean column change. With a top speed of over 90mph, cruising in fourth at 60-70mph is unflustered, the gearing being equivalent to 22mph per 1000rpm. From the robust engine note you know all the same that there aren’t six cylinders under that ornamented bonnet, although the unit never becomes harsh.
The Atlantic holds course well, the steering having only minimal lost motion at the straight-ahead, for which one automatically compensates.
Cornered exuberantly, the Austin does lean and squeal its crossplies, but roll is checked a little by the uprated dampers Yeomans has fitted. There’s an underlying softness to the suspension, as you might imagine, and the Austin becomes turbulent on rough surfaces, with a bit of bobbing from the front – albeit nothing that would alarm the driver of a late-’40s American convertible. The brakes need a shove, but work adequately.
Pete Harrison’s Riley might be more conventional, though it is no less striking, thanks to that long trailing tail. It looks as if it should accommodate a dicky seat, but in fact the boot holds nothing but a generous amount of luggage and a huge twin-filler 20-gallon tank – up from the 12½-gallon item of a regular 2½-litre. Unsurprisingly, it seems that the factory converted a handful of cars to four-seat tourer configuration.
The driving compartment is poles apart from the flashiness of the Austin, with a simple plain-grain wood dash housing three round dials. The Riley feels like a sports car: in its open cockpit, sitting close to the wheel and quite high, you are more exposed to the elements. You find there’s a firm action to the pedals – matched tobeefily effective braking – and a loose, long throw to the Riley’s floor gearchange, which is a latter-day conversion from the factory column shift. With a decisive action plus a declutch and pause in neutral, every change goes through smoothly, up or down. You need to concentrate, but it’s fine. With an output of 100bhp and 134lb ft of torque at 3000rpm, the Riley is crisper and less lazy than the Austin but also less refined, an impression underlined by the flatulent exhaust.
It pulls strongly in third, cruises at similar speeds to the Austin in top, yet scores with greater poise. There’s none of the Atlantic’s roll, and the steering, hefty on lock, is deliciously accurate on the move, despite the lower gearing imparted by the transfer box. The Riley can ride abruptly, but this is more as a consequence of the suspension’s well-controlled firmness. Refreshingly, the timber-framed structure is nicely rigid, a testimony to the care with which Harrison glued and screwed everything when he rebuilt the body. In essence, the Riley feels more old-fashioned than the Atlantic – a bit home-made, even. A perfectly enjoyable car, it is rougher, rortier, and demands more application to drive. The Austin, in contrast, is a big old softie – blunt in its engineering but strangely endearing.
It only takes five minutes to see that both cars were no-hopers in their time, but today either one is likely to put a smile on your face; it just depends how you like your motoring.
Thanks to the Riley RMC (www.rileyrmclub.org.uk) and Austin Counties CC (www.psimmonds.org.uk)
From top: beige plastic sets off gold-detailed leather-clad dash; big chrome bumpers, of course (spats were altered in period); Ecko CR61 radio was a factory option; beautiful ornate badging. Clockwise: elegant Riley looks a generation older; SUs enable lower bonnet line; Flying A on door card; saloon was roomier, centre of rear glass winds down. Right, from top: hubcaps are all-chrome rather than part-painted – overriders are stock RM saloon items, but inverted; subtle Blue Diamond; RMD 2 ½ -litre drophead arguably a better idea, but only 500 made.
Bonnet and bootlid of both cars are alloy; Riley has flat ’screen, centre pane of Austin’s has gentle curve – prototype had two-piece split item. Atlantic has wind-down windows– hydraulically assisted originally, like the hood – as opposed to side screens of its bigger rival. Riley looks to have a dicky (dating its design) but it’s just a large boot. Left, from top: seats are further back than saloon’s; dashboard basic; ‘pork pie’ lamps mostly chrome; all but first cars have 100bhp version of 2443cc ‘four’.
‘THE AMERICAN BUYER WAS EXPECTED TO PAY A SUM NOT FAR OFF THAT FOR A JAGUAR XK120’
‘DESPITE THEIR MAKERS’ GOOD INTENTIONS, BOTH CARS BOMBED IN THEIR INTENDED ARENA’