Car Restoration Projects
The Sporty Forty
The Jensen Motor Company in 1950 clothed the Austin A40 Devon saloon with an aluminium sports body; breaking the mould of Austin’s conservative post-war image.
Jim Gibson caught up with one of these rare beasts in the nation’s capital.
This curious little car’s design first saw the light of day in 1949, after Richard Jensen of the Jensen Motor Company, while searching for an engine to power his Interceptor range, met with Austin Motors’ Chairman Leonard Lord. He showed Lord the design of an open-top sporting car from the pen of Jensen’s designer Eric Neale that he was keen to power with Austin’s 3993cc D-series Sheerline engine.
Jensen not only scored the engine deal, but Lord was so taken with the Interceptor’s styling that he asked Jensen to design a similar body that Austin could use, incorporating A40 Devon mechanical components. So, Neale set about fashioning the lines of the new A40 Sports, sculpturing it on the Interceptor’s styling, but a smaller rendition and with enough subtle differences to tell the two cars apart.
Our feature car was the result of several tweaks to the original design. The A40 Sports was featured at the 1950 British Motor Show.
Launched as a sports car it was actually a four-seater – two adults and two small children – roadster. Power from the 1200cc engine was increased by around 15 percent from 40hp (hence ‘A40’) at 4300rpm to 46hp at 5000rpm, so the power increase came from a higher-rev limit, so there was only a very marginal one or two pounds-feet increase in torque.
Better breathing came from some cylinder head modifications and a pair of 1¼-inch HS2 SU carburettors, replacing the saloon’s single Zenith carburettor.
However, it was no firecracker in the acceleration stakes, alhough the new Sports’ body was aluminium and the roof had been eliminated, reducing the weight by almost 200lb (90kg), its 0–60mph (100km/h) time was around 26sec. The Devon saloon’s 0–60mph elapsed time was around 36secs.
Top speed was boosted by 10mph to 80mph, partly with the aid of the more svelte body and a changed rear axle ratio. The braking area was increased by some 50 percent and a front anti-sway bar was also fitted.
The bodies were built by Jensen in the British Midlands at West Bromwich and transferred to Austin’s assembly plant at Longbridge in Warwickshire. Mechanical changes to the chassis included plating the centre section of the chassis, both top and bottom, in order to give it more structural rigidity. The scuttle area and ‘A’ pillars were also strengthened, as the car was now a soft-top convertible and no longer had a structural roof component.
The 1950 model shared the A40 Devon saloon’s long, gangly floor–mounted gearstick, but in the northern autumn of 1951 both vehicles were ‘upgraded’ with the gearshift mechanism moved to the steering column – in colloquial terms ‘four-on-the-tree’ – making it a less sporty specification.
Lord’s then competitor MG had been very successful in the US market with its TC model and its new model 1950 TD was already quenching the American car buyers’ thirst for a quirky British sports car. So his target market was North America, in particular the US. He knew if the A40 Sports took off in this volume market, not only would he be able to obtain lucrative export credits from the British government, but also dramatically increase profits for his company.
In the three years of TD’s production (1950–53) – the same period as Lord’s little car – MG sold 23,488 of the total 29,664 TDs produced in the North American market. However, only 650 A40s crossed the Atlantic during its three years of production.
The introduction of the A40 Sports was a gamble for Austin when it was launched in 1950, as the small convertible wasn’t a sports car per se and reasonably expensive for its specification. When early sales volumes weren’t up to expectations, Leonard Lord thought of a publicity stunt in which he made a wager with Austin’s PR manager, Alan Hess, that he couldn’t drive an A40 Sports around the world in 30 days.
Hess willingly accepted the challenge and in 1951 he took off on the journey in a Dutch KLM cargo plane that freighted the car from continent to continent, where there was rugged terrain and, of course, over water.
Hess won the bet: circumnavigating the Globe in only 21 days, covering 9263 miles on terra firma at close to 29mpg. However, this stunt couldn’t save the A40 Sports. Austin discontinued it in 1953 after producing only 4011 (production numbers vary slightly depending on the source) of these quaint little convertibles.
Canberra’s Sporty Forty
The owner of our feature car was octogenarian Ken Walker and this car was his second A40 Sports – the first was T–boned in a road accident in Canberra.
Ken said: “I’d just dropped my wife Jeanette at work in Canberra’s CBD and was crossing an intersection when I was collected midships on the left-hand side of the car, pushing the passenger’s door well towards the centre of the car.
“If Jeanette had been sitting there, as she had been only a minute or so before, she would have at the very least been critically injured, if not killed.
“The culprit was a brand new 1956 FJ Holden driven by a local bank manager’s wife, who failed to give way to her right at the intersection, drilling the Holden into my car.”
NRMA Insurance wrote the car off and that was the end of his short love affair with his first A40 Sports. He’d bought it in low mileage, ‘as-new’ condition from a staff member of the British High Commission in Canberra, only a year before in 1955.
Ken was an Austin aficionado, having owned and fettled several Austin Sevens over the years. He’d recently finished a long-term restoration of an early1924 example of the marque – but wait; there was more. He had another Austin in his mini-fleet: a restored Mk III Sprite.
He’d spent almost 50 years bemoaning the loss of his rare A40 Sports and then one day in 2005 a friend who knew of his interest in the model contacted him about an A40 Sports he’d seen advertised on-line.
Ken said: “I had a garage full of restoration projects underway at the time and didn’t need another car, but I took the phone number down and then thought about it during the weekend.
“Inquisitiveness got the better of me, so I dialled the number and before I new it, I was the owner of the car, sight unseen!
“It was in Tamworth, so I drove it back to Canberra and that’s when I found out that I was destined to own it.
“You see, I’d kept the tools and keys from my previous car and when I tried them in the ignition and door locks they fitted perfectly.”
The car came from a deceased estate and the previous owner had imported it from California in 1992. He liked the model and knew that a small quantity had reached US shores. He asked a friend who was travelling in the US to keep an eye out for one and he did, finding one abandoned in the Mojave Desert.
It was in a very sad state, but the enthusiast had it crated up and sent to Tamworth. He then undertook a major, ground-up restoration project, finishing it in 1995.
Its first outing was to a rally in Wangaratta, Victoria during that year. It had travelled only 5000 miles in the 10-year period before Ken’s purchase.
Ken said: “The car wasn’t perfect and I knew there’d be a ‘gunna do’ list that I would have to complete.
Ken found some electrical issues and under the bonnet there was the need to sort out carburettor and fuel pump issues. After replacing the front suspension knuckle joints and having it wheel aligned, most of the bugs had been ironed out. He wanted to keep it as original as possible, but it was hard to find original parts for such a rare car.
“The seat bases and upholstery had disintegrated after sun-baking in the desert, therefore Toyota Corolla seats now grace the interior,” said Ken.
“The grille was missing and had been replaced with one that was close to original.”
After driving the car for a time Ken said it was evident that the engine required some investigation, so he pulled it out and stripped it down.
“There was evidence of excessive heat, as number two piston had deep striations,” he discovered.
“ As well, there were some seized rings and the cylinder wall also had hairline cracks,” he noted.
“So, I thought rather than recondition it, I’d look at the feasibility of fitting a later model B-series 1500cc as a replacement, in order to give it the extra performance needed in modern traffic.”
Ken made enquiries that led to purchasing a completely rebuilt 1500cc engine, for which he additionally had the cylinder head converted so it was compatible with unleaded fuel.
Athough it was 5/8-inch longer, Ken said the engine fitted like a glove. The clutch was upsized from the original 7¼-inch to an 8-inch diameter and was fitted with new thrust spigot bushes.
He also had to fit slimmer air cleaners to the twin SUs, because the B-series inlet manifold pushed the carburettors further out towards the inner guard.
Ken and Jeanette were long-time members of the Canberra Antique and Classic Motor Club and had travelled 9000 miles (14,500km) with the Club on many long and short distance rallies and displays. Their unique A40 attended specialist Austin gatherings around the country, where this rare car was always a big hit.
When Ken had checked there were six to seven examples of this model Austin in Australia, from Western Australia to the eastern seaboard.
Engine capacity – 1200cc
Horsepower – 46hp at 5000rpm
Max torque – 59 lb ft at 2400rpm
Compression ratio – 7.2:1
Carburation – twin SU 1 ¼-inch
Rear axle ratio – 5.14:1
Brakes – 10-inch diameter drums
Length – 13ft 3inches
Width – 5ft 1inches
Height – 4ft 9ins
Wheelbase – 7ft 8inches
Track front – 4ft ½ inch
rear – 4ft 1inch
Weight – 2127lb (965kg)
Price ex Works:
May 1951 £818
May 1952 £919
May 1953 £831 (notice the reduction in RRP)