Westminster Sketches 1: The Pre-Farina Cars

 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.

Source: The Austin Motor Company Ltd.

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.

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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.

Source: The Austin Motor Company Ltd.

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.

Source: The Austin Motor Company Ltd.

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.

Source: The Austin Motor Company Ltd.

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.

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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


Reference sources:

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

9 thoughts on “Westminster Sketches 1: The Pre-Farina Cars”

  1. Nice cars, although the 105’s front is totaly overdone.
    When Farina arrived, most BMC cars looked too similar for me to bother to identify what was what. Luckily, the low-selling (and presumably loss-making) Wolseley 1500 and Riley 1.5 were continued until they too got flat fronts and tail fins.

    Interesting to compare the Westminsters with what Humber did with the Chryslerisation of its Hawks and Super Snipes.

    1. Vic: I had a look at 1950s street scenes. There weren’t many cars about. So if an Austin such as one of these stood alone it might have appeared very distinctive. Compared to other cars from that year, yes, it’d have a similar style.

    2. Well, yes, almost any car would have been outlandish in a dirt-poor area.
      In This Sporting Life (1963), Richard Harris plays a successful rugby player who turns up at his on-off girlfriend’s in a Jag (Mk2). Filmed in Leeds back streets, where such a scene would indeed have been other-worldly.

  2. Robertas, you are taking me into new territory, covering cars of an era that have passed me buy until now. The thing that struck me most about your article and its subject was the short lifespan and yet incorporating significant changes to the bodywork, including dimensions and, most notably, the wheelbase. In today’s environment, such changes imply significant changes and therefore investment by manufacturers in retooling and production facilities. I wonder, therefore how companies such as Austin made money in the long term … but, of course, they didn’t!

    1. I think the clue to the short product lifespans in the 1950s Austin range was Len Lord’s belief that The American Way would prevail. It was a reasonable call, given that his strongest home market competitors were Ford and GM, who were also strong in the former British colonies and dominions where it was imagined that “Empire Preference” would lead to BMC products being favoured.

      The Nuffield side of the business didn’t have such a rapid refresh rate, as demonstrated by the 23 year lifespan (36 if the two rather disappointing facelifts are included) of Issigonis’ Minor. Perhaps Len thought it would wither and die, allowing a re-badged Austin to take its place.

      The evidence of history suggests that Len never quite adjusted to the idea that the Nuffield components of the business were no longer his competitors, and set out to “bugger” them with the same vigour as he applied against Rootes, Standard-Triumph, Ford, and Vauxhall.

  3. This is a car from a period I know little about. The impact of American styling serves to make many of these vehicles seem very alike. They have round canopies, very busy front ends and a huge arrow/dart decorations down the side. The French and Italians didn’t indulge such Detroit style to the same extent. Opel and Volvo did a bit more. These Austins could be put in a 1950s US street scene with ease. Did they not look outlandish when parked up on a grimey street in the Midlands?

    1. They didn’t look so outlandish because European cars were rare. Maybe the odd Simca, which was also US-influenced, as were, of course, Fords and Vauxhalls. The Austins are, if anything, a bit restrained!

  4. When these things were new and motoring about the streets of Portsmouth, I as the little boy all interested in cars thought them quite ugly indeed. They seem to be squeezed inwards towards the rear, and were nowhere near as good-looking as a decent Vauxhall Velox. Not even close. They were chunky, not smooth. Nor did they have anything like the Vauxhall trademark spears running down each side of the bonnet for an extra bit of class and heritage. Disjointed is how I’d sum them up – there were no deft touches anywhere. These pictures 60 years later give me no reason to change my mind, and the artists’ impressions are a bit misleading. I would level the same criticisms at the A55’s compared to the Morris Oxford which went on to power India – the Morris was a much better styling job on the same bones. A few changes by an inch or two here and there made all the difference in pleasantness; however the six cylinder Isis wasn’t so successful to me.

    This is obviously my personal take, with all due respect to Austin. Still, I was nine in 1956 and going to a school that required a half-hour bus trip each way morning and afternoon. Those daily trips through clogged roads and streets from the North End past the Lido, off the island through Cosham and up and over Portsdown Hill gave me ample opportunity to do a fair amount of car-spotting. Is there any other commenter here able to place these cars in context, or am I the most ancient?

    Having lived through that time, I am somewhat amazed that Richard has the view that traffic was light. I’ve seen those same pictures of Britain in the 1950s and empty roads, obviously taken about 10:30 in the morning when everyone was slaving away at work. Taken by Land-Windermere and his ilk just after popping out for elevenses and needing an exposure or two to justify the time away from the office, perhaps. Rush hour was different at least in Portsmouth. In Oxford, where I was sent every summer for several weeks to my grandparents’, the streets off Walton Street were crammed with parked cars, nose-to-tail, and Carfax at the city centre was filled with the aroma of unburnt petrocarbons belched by numerous cars. Not for nothing had my parents drilled into me the necessity of learning the procedure for safely crossing roads.

    I could probably bore the pants off everyone here by listing off virtually every car model on the roads along with my single-phrase styling appraisal, from prewar Morrises to groaners like the Mayflower, to interesting Ford Pilot V8s, awful bustle-backed Vanguards to long-bonneted Wolseley 6/80 police cars with intriguing bells, not sirens. I was smitten by the Riley of 1950 or so, and found the later Pathfinders ungainly from the rear three-quarter. In 1957, the garish Vauxhall Victor with its dogleg windscreen merely seemed vulgar, replacing the perfectly decent Wyvern, yet the new Cresta seemed like an alien spaceship. Even for kids, trying to get into an A30’s back seat was a contortionist’s exercise, so I dismissed those haughtily.

    Returning to six-cylinder cars with long bonnets, the 1957 Zephyr MkIIs made the dumpy Mk 1 with its small doors look ancient instantly. And then there was this strange big Austin with two-tone paint sides mimicking motor coaches to give the impression one presumed of separate wings like a 1930s luxury car. Not very pretty, an impession of an impression.

    The appearance of the new Farina Cambridge in early 1959 was a marked, marked improvement. In one fell swoop, BMC had leapfrogged intermediate late ’50s designs and joined the modern world, going from utilitarian and blunt to thoroughly presentable. The previous year’s new A40 had given a hint of things to come, including the 1100’s styling.

    On Richard’s point about these ’50s Austins perhaps looking at home in North America – no. When I arrived in Canada in late 1959, BMC still sold quite a few cars, and these older Austin models looked like a complete fish out of water. Barring certain Nashes and Ramblers, nothing else looked quite so cack-handed, frankly. I imagine US sales closely approximated zero. There wouldn’t have been a local who gazed on one and wouldn’t have said, “Import isn’t it? Must be British.” Codeword for weirdly strange, like the bustleback Standard Vanguard, some still gamely wheezing around teetering over wheels drawn back towards the car’s centreline, the rear wheels under the back seat.

    Perhaps the callowness of youth allowed me to so airily dismiss these mid ’50s Austin concoctions as good examples of “not getting it”, but dearie me, the new big Farina Westminter looked the part of BMC flagship. And it wasn’t a bad old bus either.

    I look forward to the next instalment.

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