1952 Austin A40 Somerset
Some cars are neglected and fall by the wayside, others are more fortunate and get restored. Only a select few are lucky enough to be maintained in perfectly original condition from new. Romer Adams' Austin Somerset is one of them.
STORY TOLD TO SIMON GOLDSWORTHY
AUSTIN SOMERSET AN ORIGINAL SURVIVOR
Austin Somerset. A car that has survived nearly 70 years without a rebuild and is in fi ne shape.
I know you couldn't have bought this Somerset new because you are far too young! Tell me when and how you came by it. Romer Adams: I bought it in May 1975. I was in the motor trade all my life, and at that time I was Sales Manager at Henlys in Northampton, who were the main Nuffield distributor for Northamptonshire at a time when Austin and Morris dealerships were still in fierce competition with one another.
In 1960 I'd sold a Wolseley 1500 to a lady called Miss Lack, taking her Austin A40 Devon in part exchange. Then in 1966 she came back, and this time I sold her a Wolseley 1100. I didn't see her again until that day in May 1975 when she returned, told me that she was getting married and wanted a new Marina, adding: 'I've got my uncle's A40 Somerset outside which I'd like to part exchange.' So I inspected the Somerset, we agreed a price and I sold her a Marina.
This was actually rather fortuitous timing for me because I had been looking for an Austin Devon myself, and so I told my boss I wanted to buy this Somerset. Despite working for a Nuffield distributorship, I've always loved the Austins, something that I can trace back to my childhood. We didn't have a car back then, but my uncle had an A40 Devon that he bought in 1952 when it was two years old. He used to take us out for drives on a Sunday, as you did back then, and I would always really look forward to these trips. So I was brought up on Austins, as it were.
CM: For the benefit of readers who may not know the Austin Counties range, perhaps you can explain why it was that you were happy to buy a Somerset when you were looking for a Devon?
RA: Well, the two models are not as different as they may look. To summarise the Austin Counties model line briefly, it consisted of the A40 Devon, Dorset and Somerset, plus the A70 Hampshire and Hereford (and the closely related Atlantic which was named for its intended US market and so not strictly speaking a Counties car, though the Austin Counties Car Club is naturally happy to welcome them into the fold). The first of the County cars were the A40 Devon with four doors and 1200cc and the Dorset with two doors but otherwise essentially the same. Both were launched in 1947. The A70 Hampshire – a similar shape, but bigger all round and with a 2199cc engine – followed in 1948, but was replaced by the more rounded Hereford in 1950.
A smaller version of the Hereford was developed as the Somerset at the same time, but the Devon was selling so well that Austin didn't want to disrupt production and so put the Somerset on hold. And you can understand why, because the Devon was the single biggest foreign currency earner for Britain at a time when we needed every dollar to get the economy back on its feet. (The Dorset had never been such a big seller and had been discontinued in 1948.)
In the end the Somerset was kept under wraps until 1952, at which point it finally appeared with the new body, but essentially the same chassis and running gear underneath as the Devon. By that time it was possibly looking a little dated, which might explain why it was only in production until 1954 – the Austin Cambridge that then took over the A40 mantle had a much squarer profile, one which Austin touted as the Continental look. Mind you, in only 2½ years of production, Austin managed to build 173,306 of them!
CM: So is it fair to say that a Somerset gives you all the feel of a Devon, but in a slightly different body?
RA: Yes, the same driving experience, and they even smell the same when you stick your head inside. And oh, that aroma – every car from this era seems to have its own distinctive and lovely aroma, and this one could only have come from Longbridge! As for the driving experience, the engine looks like a B-series, but that was later developed from this unit. It sounds like a B-series too, a little tappety, but you mustn't tighten them down too much.
The cars were low-geared as was the custom of the day to cope with heavy loads and hills, but it was such a good engine that it would cruise happily all day at high revs, as Austin proved in record-breaking runs. Don't forget, this was an OHV design when others were still producing sidevalves. It would do 75mph and cruise happily at 60mph, though I find 45- 50mph is a more comfortable cruising speed today.
There is a four-speed gearbox with synchromesh on the top three ratios and a column gear change. Being a four-speed unit does complicate the change a little, and I have to say it is not quite as good as some of the three-speed cars of this era were. Confusingly, the gears are located in a different plane to those on the contemporary Morrises with column change; on the Austin, first is away and up while fourth is towards you and down. Fortunately the transfer on the quarterlight reminding you of the gear positions was still on the window of this car when I bought it, even though it was 22 years old at the time. I had the foresight not to remove this transfer, but to photograph it and fill in any lines that had lifted. The Austin Counties Car Club that caters to these cars then put it back in production.
CM: You've mentioned the Austin Counties Car Club a couple of times now; we take it you are an enthusiastic member?
RA: Absolutely. In 1978 I'd had the Somerset for three years when I found out that a club for them was getting under way. I've been a member since then, and my membership number is 297. They provide an excellent spares service, and are a very friendly club.
CM: Have you needed to use that service and fit many new parts over the years?
RA: Not as many as you might think. I always intended to keep the Somerset indefinitely, and I've had it now for 46 years and counting. In all that time I have never stinted on it and if the car needed something, then it got it. But although I have done plenty of maintenance work, it has never been restored as we would understand the term. In fact, most nuts and bolts on the car today were last tightened down by the workers at Longbridge in 1953.
CM: How do you think it has managed to survive in such good condition?
RA: There were only 9000 miles on the clock when I bought it, but looking at the general grease, oil and road dirt under the car, I felt it had done more. Miss Lack said that as far as she knew it had never had anything changed, but I went to see her uncle. He was pleased that I was going to preserve his car, and when I asked him about the mileage, he assured me that it had never had a new speedo. I met his nephew some years later when he himself was an elderly man. He agreed that the recorded mileage was probably correct as the car had never come out in bad weather and was used sparingly by his uncle, the only long run being once a year to the seaside.
When I first got the Somerset, I did put it on a ramp and clean the underside, but even then I didn't have to rub it down or anything like that because there was absolutely no rust. This is the last Austin model to have a chassis, and the body has never been off because I managed to get in everywhere to clean and protect it. I gave it two coats of chassis paint, followed by four coats of coach enamel for the underside of the body.
CM: Grey is very fashionable these days! What shade is this one?
RA: It is called Windsor Grey. That name came about because this is a 1953 car, and in celebration of the coronation that year, Austin painted their cars Windsor Grey, Balmoral Blue, Coronet Cream, Sandringham Fawn and Buckingham Green. Those were just marketing names of course, and have no particular link to any of those places. The colours were, incidentally, chosen by the famous lady racing driver Kay Petre, who was employed by Austin at the time.
CM: What else can you tell us about your car's build?
RA: A bit more than you might expect! Ten years after buying the car, I had cause to remove the seat cushion and found a production card underneath. When I started as a young salesman in 1958, one of my jobs was to go down to Cowley and fetch cars back on trade plates. I would walk along the lines of Morris Minors, Clipper Blue here and Rose Taupe there etc, and select one that was the right colour and specification.
The keys and relevant production paperwork would be in the vehicles, and when you found a suitable one, you'd jump in, drive it to the gate and hand in the paperwork on your way out. The production card would have been part of the paperwork that ensured the car was invoiced to your company. The cards never left the factory, so I have no idea how this one escaped. Perhaps Austin is still waiting for payment!
I know from a Heritage Certificate that my car was built on 2nd November 1953 and the production card is dated 4th November. The car was first registered on the 7th, so it didn't hang about long. On the production card is written:
- Colour – Windsor Grey
- Trim – Blue
- Heater – with
- Radio – less
- Glass – standard
- Lamps – left hand dip
- Speedo – in mileage
- Tyres – standard
- Body type – saloon
So it was all pretty straightforward with a very minimal set of options, all very different to the myriad of choices on a new car today. CM: And it is still to that very same specification? RA: Pretty much, yes. The only thing I have changed is that I have fitted a screw-on oil filter, because I am wary of buying a NOS filter cartridge that may have been knocking about for 50 years – there is no way of knowing what state that might be in on the inside.
About half of the brightwork has been rechromed, but that was carried out some 40 years ago. The hubcaps were redone, and so was the grille, which is unusual because it is Mazak, (the so-called monkey metal,) and this is not usually in good enough condition to be rechromed. We had the Flying A on the bonnet done too, but everything on the car is original rather than replaced. It still has the original Hardura mat in the front and carpet in the back for example, and every bit of rubber on it is original except for the tyres.
CM: That certainly makes it very special. Your passion and enthusiasm for the Somerset are clear, but how would you explain the appeal of the model and why you have developed such a bond with this particular example?
RA: I think that to really appreciate the Somerset, you have to relate to the quality of the product and to the history that it represents – all the Austins played such an important part in putting both the motor industry and the country as a whole back on its feet after the war that they are of huge social and historic importance. I think patriotism also plays a part because the Somerset is a completely traditional British motor car with no American influence.
As for this particular example, I'd inspected it at the dealership but I didn't fully realise just how good it was until I got it home and started investigating properly. The paint was dull because Miss Lack's uncle hadn't polished it, but the car needed no work at all and it had no rust. The classic car movement hadn't really got into its stride and at the time many old cars were simply bought by young chaps, hammered into the ground and wrecked.
I instantly recognised that this was a totally original and unmolested car and vowed that it should not be lost. I really do feel that I saved this one, and that makes it extra special. With grateful thanks to the friendly classic car specialists at John's Motors Limited for their hospitality and kindly allowing us to take pictures in front of their historic premises at The Old Forge, Watling Street East, Fosters Booth, Towcester NN12 8LB (01327 831191, wwwjohnsmotors.co.uk).
The Austin Counties Car Club caters for Austin cars and related commercial vehicles manufactured from 1939-1954 (and to 1957 for some commercial derivatives), starting with the Austin 8hp and ending with the last pre-BMC Austin design, the A40 Somerset. Check them out at www. austincounties.org.uk
The Somerset was a five-seater, but presumably they couldn't all bring luggage along at the same time!
ABOVE AND RIGHT: The Somerset was not exactly a luxury car, but back in 1953 you still got leather seats and a full array of gauges fitted as standard.
The Somerset's engine was a 1200cc overhead valve unit that produced 42bhp@4300rpm and 62lb.ft of torque from a lowly 2200rpm. The 0-60mph dash took 36.6 seconds.