Bridging the Atlantic. Austin thought it knew what Americans wanted when it created the A90, but Leonard Lord’s convertible and sports saloon proved more popular back home Words Martin Buckley. Photography John Bradshaw.
Martin Buckley pays tribute to a car built for the US, that the UK took to its heart.
Austin Atlantics have always been in my blood. My dad would tell me bedtime stories about the two he owned as a young man in the early ’60s: the holidays in Scotland and Cornwall in the ropey convertible with no reverse gear; driving his squaddie body-builder pal through the foggy night back to camp in the (much better) saloon he found in a forgotten lock-up; impressing ‘the birds’ outside the pictures with the powered top of the convertible. He broke the gearbox on that one racing his mate in a MkVII Jag, but every cloud has a silver lining and when he replaced it with a ’box out of a Healey, he had his first true 100mph car. When the ragtop Atlantic finally died (probably failing the then new MoT test), the scrap man gave him £5 for the car because he wanted the radio.
This was all long before my time, of course, but the evidence was to be found in holiday snaps showing a lean, 20-something Ken Buckley, complete with Tony Curtis quiff and smouldering Senior Service, sitting proudly in a big car with three headlights, twin ‘flying As’, slashes of chrome up its bonnet and a two-tone paintjob that, even in the smudgy photo, appeared as if it was done by hand in Valspar.
It was a cuddly-looking vehicle that looked what it was: an English idea of what we thought the Americans wanted, its dodgem-car-like front end (no traditional grille, just a slot with Cyclops foglight in the middle) hardly doing justice to the rounded elegance of its rear view.
Already 10 or 12 years old in that picture, it seemed to speak of carefree times before MoTs, speed limits, overcrowded roads and irritating rules about things such as bald tyres. A time when even road tax was semi-optional and to own a car at all was a kind of privilege rather than the birthright it seems to be today. That Atlantic was already a rare sight on the road. It was bought for £25 – or possibly even swapped for a fridge, the actual fridge from the marital home: my mother would sometimes come back of an evening and find her perishables strewn across the kitchen table and a yawning space were the Electrolux used to be.
My dad would have been just 10 years old when the pre-production prototype Atlantic, finished in light blue, was sprung upon an astonished world at the 1948 Earls Court show. It was one of the undoubted stars of the event; if visitors half expected Jaguar to produce a car like the XK120, then a vehicle as glamorous as the A90 Atlantic was a shocking departure for the dependable but dour men of Longbridge.
This was not an apologetic grocer’s saloon painted regulation black, but a big, bold, two-door convertible offered in a variety of ritzy Jewelescent colours. The starting-handle slot in the chunky bumper gave away its British origins, but its American-style flashing indicators were not yet even legal in Britain (and wouldn’t be until 1956) – and what other car had a warning light on the dashboard to tell you that a brake-light bulb had blown?
That wasn’t all. The Atlantic had a rev counter, built-in hydraulic jacks and a heater as standard, and offered the near-unimaginable decadence of powered windows and roof as options. The electro-hydraulic Wilmot- Breeden pump took 22½ seconds to raise the top and lived under the rear seat, while the drive for the windows – an adapted Lucas starter motor – was attached to the front bulkhead. At £40 each. these extras boosted the price to a still far from unreasonable £824, which is probably why most cars seem to have had them fitted.
Not that you could actually buy an Atlantic in Britain at first. Once production started in January 1949 the focus of the car, like everything else at that first post-war motor show, was on earning the mighty American dollar so it was strictly for export only, the clue being in the name.
The ‘A90’ part referred to the rounded-up 88bhp output of its 2660cc overhead-valve four-cylinder engine, but could equally have been an indication of its top speed; in fact, on a 3.67:1 rear axle the high-geared Atlantic was good for an easy 95mph, making it one of the fastest British early post-war serial production cars. It had a 72mph third gear and would waft along at that speed for just 3000rpm in top.
For once, the brochure copywriter’s claims of ‘sports car performance with saloon car comfort’ rang fairly true. Given the Americans’ enthusiasm for British roadsters, it did not seem an unreasonable extrapolation on the part of Austin boss Leonard Lord that the Yanks would take the plusher, faster Atlantic to their hearts. The origins of the car lie in a Farina-bodied Alfa 2500 cabriolet shown by the coachbuilder at his ‘anti-salon’ at Geneva in 1946; with Italian exhibitors barred from the show that year, Farina displayed his wares unofficially outside.
Lord evidently took a fancy to the Alfa, acquired it through an intermediary and had it January 2019 Classic & Sports Car 161 shipped to Longbridge. Here it was to serve as inspiration for his chief stylist Dick Burzi, the Argentinian former Lancia man who had left Italy in a hurry 20 years earlier after upsetting Mussolini with his cartoons.
Lord had allegedly sketched the first draft of what he wanted for his new 16hp Sports Model on the back of a fag packet (or a brochure), but certainly the first handbuilt prototype Atlantic of March 1948 – and the production versions – owes something to that Alfa show car. For production, the foot-operated doorhandle and split windscreen were discarded in favour of conventional handles and a three-piece ’screen, with separate curved sections of glass on either side. Some likened the distortions these generated to a fairground hall of mirrors, but with the necessary glass-bending technology still out of reach there were few other options, prototype testing having revealed the limitations of a one-piece, scratch-prone Perspex panel.
Looking to his American buyers, Lord insisted on big, wide-opening doors; these accentuated terminal scuttle shake in the prototype until the structure under the dash was beefed up. His demands for a low bonnet line meant a new bullet-shaped air cleaner for the engine, a bored-out version of the A70 Hampshire unit running twin SUs.
The cross-braced box section chassis came from the A70, complete with hydro-mechanical Girling drum brakes (the rears were rod-operated), but the parts sharing saved time in getting the Atlantic into production.
Sales got under way in 1949 but the Americans, mistrustful of four-cylinder cars, took only 350 Atlantics. Even the famous seven-day assault on the American stock-car records by Austin’s publicist Alan Hess at Indianapolis (averaging 72.54mph) couldn’t capture buyers’ imaginations – or a $1000 price cut that, percentage wise, was one of the largest in motoring history.
Lord was quick to acknowledge his misjudgment and redirected the Atlantic at other markets with a certain amount of success: 800 went to Australia and New Zealand.
In fact, the car found its most enthusiastic audience in the UK, particularly once the sports saloon version appeared in 1949.
The rationale behind lowering the overall gearing of this closed model, with a 4.125:1 back axle, is difficult to understand, but it may have had something to do with the hillier British terrain and less need to change gear. Whatever the case, it robbed the Atlantic of some of its effortless, long-legged character and made it both slightly thirstier and slightly slower for a modest improvement in acceleration.
On the other hand, the fixed-head had fully hydraulic brakes, a more usable rear seat, did not suffer from the convertible’s huge rear blindspots with the hood up, and was generally reckoned to be a more sensible choice for the changeable British climate and its more reserved buying audience, who had a tendency to order their Atlantic saloons in black.
The saloons appear to have been adapted directly from unsaleable convertible bodies with a synthetic faux-leather finish that covered the join between the roof panel and the original convertible header rail. Its party trick was a rear window with centre section that could be pulled down for ventilation. Late saloons had a rather swish remote handle to wind the glass up and down from the driver’s seat. There was no power option for the doors’ glass, however, just a long handle shaped like a giant spoon, operating a high-geared linkage.
The Atlantic saloons did not replace the convertibles, but rather quietly edged them out of the picture until their official demise in January 1951. Fixed-heads carried on for a year and are thought to outnumber the convertibles in the 7981-unit total production.
Certainly the survival rate of the saloons is higher, although it was a shock to discover that Al While of the Austin Counties Car Club (and owner of the blue convertible pictured here) thinks that only 60 examples of all models survive in the UK, with maybe another hundred accounted for around the world.
“Of those,” he says, “many are off the road being restored or are not being used because the owners are getting on in years.”
He also points out that the increasing values of the cars means that they are now getting the proper restorations they deserve.
Still in his early 30s but already a veteran of several restorations (including an A40 Sports that went into the James Hull collection), While’s love of the Atlantic and ’50s British cars in general is great to see in someone so young. He also has an Atlantic saloon (no Atlantic owner ever seems to have just the one) and is treating his convertible, bought from a relative of its first 1949 owner, as a rolling project.
Although many Atlantics had their running gear removed by the Healey Brigade when they were worthless bangers, the upside of that once toxic relationship is that there are no problems today with related mechanical parts for the cars. Not so body and trim, although the Austin Counties Car Club is good at sourcing items and even occasionally gets parts remanufactured. While lives close to our photographic location at Birdlip, Gloucestershire, but Mark O’Kearney had no hesitation about jumping into his midgreen, largely original 1952 Atlantic saloon and driving all the way from Essex. Heavily steeped in all things Austin, O’Kearney owns three Atlantics plus a Sheerline.
These are cheerful cars that make pedestrians and other drivers smile. They motor along with a contented, rounded and warm burble, although both saloon and convertible struggle slightly from the fuel vaporisation and heat soak endemic in non-crossflow engines where the twin SU carbs sit above the exhaust manifolds. Inside, the high window sills make you feel like the pygmy passengers depicted in the brochure artwork for the cars, and the gold-faced instruments give the dash a toy-like appearance; ditto the creamy control knobs and buttons for starter, choke and lights. Two adults would be intimate in the back of the convertible but the fixed-head is a true four-seater.
The big, flat, split-bench front seat seemed to challenge the morals of the ’50s with its ‘courting’ possibilities, but suits the car’s relaxed character well. The pedals emerge from the floor and the Sheerline steering wheel with its pearl-finish rim is huge, inviting police-style wheel-feeding, even though the effort required is fairly light. Neither the best nor the worst of its kind, the column change asks only that you be fairly decisive in your actions. First is almost redundant for anything other than hill starts, and with 140lb ft of torque at 2500rpm the Austin gathers pace easily in second.
It doesn’t seem to matter that neither Atlantic does anything in a hurry, but in the context of 70 years ago they were fast, probably irritatingly so to the owners of certain vintage sports cars who were doubtless quick to decry the handling as ‘greased blancmange’ without ever driving one. In fact, they corner firmly, safely and capably.
I didn’t notice any ‘Austin nod’ or the wallow the Atlantic’s spivvy, decadent image suggests. To be honest, I wasn’t about to thrash these two old dears anyway; it was better to soak up their considerable ambience as cars that evoke the feel and flavour of the time they come from, and the times they lived through, so powerfully.
Although the likes of LJK Setright and Alan Clarke spoke of them in warm terms, the A90 also became a lazy metaphor for misplaced postwar optimism and bad market research. A sort of British Edsel. All I can tell you is that, 70 years on, the Atlantic has found its place at last, as a rare and valuable prize in the world of early post-war British classics.
‘These two old dears powerfully evoke the feel and flavour of the time they came from, and the times they lived through’
Left, from top: interior is extravagantly detailed; ‘spoon’-operated manual windows on late saloon. Opposite, from top: the A90 is surprisingly fun to hustle down B-roads; distinctive style went down well in home market. From top: convertible’s swoopy styling looks all the better with the roof lowered; gold-faced dials are accompanied by cream controls – column change takes some getting used to. Opposite: bullet air cleaner keeps bonnet low.
‘Even a seven-day assault on the American stock-car records at Indianapolis couldn’t capture the US buyers’ imaginations’
TECHNICAL DATA FILE SPECIFICATIONS Austin A90 Atlantic
Sold/no built 1949-’1952/7981
Construction steel chassis, steel body
Engine all-iron, ohv 2660cc ‘four’, twin SU carburettors
Max power 88bhp @ 4000rpm / DIN (net)
Max torque 140Ib ft @ 2500rpm / DIN (net)
Transmission four-speed manual, RWD
Suspension: front independent, by wishbones, coil springs rear live axle, semi-elliptic leaf springs; lever-arm dampers f/r
Steering Burman steering box
Brakes Girling hydro-mechanical drums
Length 14ft 9 1/8 in (4500mm)
Width 5ft 10in (1778mm)
Height 5ft (1524mm)
Wheelbase 8ft (2438mm)
Weight 2968Ib (1346kg)
0-60mph 18.4 secs
Top speed 95mph
Price new (1949 in UK) £824
Price now (2019 in UK) £10,000-35,000