Austin’s Ford Zephyr and Vauxhall Velox rival of the mid-1950s is scarcely remembered now, but it turns out to be a something of a forgotten hero.
The Austin Westminster story began with the launch of the A90 series in October 1954, nearly four years before the start of the momentous eleven month period in which Farina’s new styling ‘language’ for BMC was unveiled, layer by layer.
Austin’s chief stylist, Buenos Aires-born Ricardo Burzi, was responsible for shaping the thoroughly up-to-date, unitary bodied saloons and estates. His hands were somewhat tied by the requirement to share doors with the mid-sized A40/50/55/60 Cambridge; although the Westminster bodyshells were larger all round and certainly more imposing in appearance, they were only marginally more spacious than the smaller car.
Burzi, who began his career at Lancia in Turin, and joined Austin in 1929 has never been regarded as one of the styling ‘greats’, but his work on the mid ‘50s Cambridges and Westminsters is more than competent, with pleasing proportions, and a clear understanding of the opportunities and restrictions which came with unitary body construction.
Detractors of the cars’ styling point to their excess of embellishment, but over-ornamentation was the fashion of the period. Arguably the original ‘cow-hipped’ pre-1956 versions were the best of the series, looking ‘cleaner’, better balanced, and more distinctive than their long-tailed successors.
Despite the efforts of Burzi and his team, Austin suffered from a somewhat staid reputation; perhaps if the designs had been Alfa Romeos or Lancias they would have been held in higher regard.
Unlike the preceding 2.2 litre four cylinder Somerset-based A70 Hereford, a car whose chief virtue was sharing its name with a cow, the Westminsters had six cylinder power. This was provided by the completely new Morris-designed C series, an all-iron 2639cc ohv unit of conventional design which was one component in BMC chief Len Lord’s rapid and successful rationalisation of the conglomerate’s engine portfolio.
With this new engine, Austin were able to produce their own interpretation of a peculiarly British type of car, first exemplified by the 1948 Vauxhall Velox, with a smooth and torquey six cylinder engine in a relatively light and compact body. The Velox had 2.3 litres and weighed just over a ton. The Westminster had 2.7 litres and weighed 1¼ tons, thereby conforming closely to the class norms of its time.
The car’s suspension was wholly conventional; coil springs and double wishbones at the front, and a live axle and longitudinal leaf springs with the refinement of an anti-roll bar at the rear. The all-powerful Len Lord, was not averse to adopting technological advances in pursuit of his ambition to “bugger his competitors”, but he greatly preferred the sort of innovation of which several million had been produced without problems, preferably by GM or Ford.
For a car with a production life of less than five years, the litany of revisions to the Westminster family can appear bewildering. The 1954 A90 had a single carburettor 85bhp engine, and was offered only as a four door saloon, in standard and de-luxe trim levels.
In May 1956, the high-performance A105 arrived, with twin SU carburettors, high compression pistons and a re-worked exhaust system giving a power output of 102bhp. Bill Lyons was unlikely to have felt much anxiety about arrival of the road-going car, but in the months before, Westminsters with Weslake-modified cylinder heads and triple twin-choke Weber carburettors had been giving his Jaguar Mk. VIIs some serious bother in the Production Touring Car racing class. The A105 (which did not carry the ‘Westminster’ designation) established the big Austins as cars with a performance edge over their more direct competitors.
In October 1956, substantial body changes increased the Westminster’s wheelbase by two inches (51mm), and the overall length by ten inches (254mm). The lower power model was re-designated as the A95 Westminster, with a single carburettor 92bhp engine incorporating some of the improvements developed for the A105. An estate car – “Countryman” in Austin parlance – was offered for the first time.
The final significant variation was the Austin A105 Vanden Plas, the first of which was commissioned in 1958 by Sir Leonard Lord for his own use. Lord’s personal car was delivered to Vanden Plas’s Kingsbury works to be re-painted and re-trimmed in the customary wood, leather and Wilton style. So pleased was its owner with Vanden Plas’s work that he instructed a small series of production models, around 500 in total. Externally, only badging and special black, maroon, and grey colour schemes distinguished the Vanden Plas cars, but they sold readily despite a hefty £1474 list price.
In terms of mere numbers, the Vanden Plas sales were as nothing compared with the total of almost 61,000 A90/95/A105s and (1425 Australian Morris Marshals – A95 Westminsters in all but name) produced between 1954 and 1959.
However, whether by fortuitous accident or Lordian stealth, a new marque was emerging which would play a variety of roles for decades after Len Lord retired from the Chairmanship of BMC in 1961
Men and Motors of The Austin: Barney Sharratt
Brick by Brick: The Biography of the man who really made the Mini – Leonard Lord: Martyn Nutland
The Cambridge-Oxford Owners’ Club http://www.co-oc.org