The Baby Austin: A British Interpretation of Motoring for the Masses

Trade catalog for the Austin Seven, better known as the "Baby Austin," ca. 1930

In 1920, the Austin Motor Company found itself in receivership, a misfortune largely brought on by a depression that hit Britain immediately following World War I. In response to these economic difficulties, company founder Herbert Austin proposed the development of a small economy car that would be affordable for Britain’s middle class families. When the company’s board of directors opposed the idea on economic grounds, Mr. Austin developed the car using his own personal resources. The end result was a much-beloved car that turned Austin Motor Company around and in the process helped put Britain on wheels: the Austin 7, which was popularly known as the Baby Austin.

The Baby Austin was designed by Herbert Austin and eighteen year old draftsman Stanley Edge. In terms of overall design, it was a remarkably advanced car for its time and place in the market. As its nickname suggests, the Baby Austin was indeed tiny. Designed around an A-frame chassis, it initially featured a 75-inch wheelbase and a 40-inch track. Mechanically, the Baby Austin was equipped with a number of innovative features. Instead of a two cylinder engine initially planned by Mr. Austin, the Baby Austin was by powered by a water-cooled, inline-four power plant (initially 696 cc, but soon enlarged to 747 cc) at Stanley Edge’s suggestion. It also was also fitted with uncoupled four-wheel brakes, a transverse-leaf front suspension, and quarter-elliptic rear suspension.

Dutch trade catalog for the Austin Seven, better known as the Baby Austin, 1935.

In addition to being an innovative design, the Baby Austin was blessed with a number of attributes that made it a very desirable economy car for its time. It was initially offered at a sticker price of £ 165, which made it affordable to British middle class families. Because it was powered by a small engine rated at 7.2-7.5 horsepower, it was taxed at a lower rate than most other British cars of the day. In a nod towards the needs of growing families, the first Baby Austins were four-seat touring cars designed to accommodate two adults and two children.

The Baby Austin was introduced to the British motor public in July 1922. Over the course of its long production life (1922-1939), it became an enormously successful and influential car. The Baby Austin succeeded admirably in fulfilling Herbert Austin’s goals of returning his firm to solvency and providing affordable cars to the British middle class. As for the Baby Austin itself, it proved itself to be the right car for its time. Due to its affordability and innovative design, it became enormously popular with the British motoring public. As the car’s popularity grew, a number of models were developed, and it eventually became available in five body different styles (Tourer, Saloon, Cabriolet, Sport, and Van). The Baby Austin also became well known outside of Britain and was exported to a number of countries. It was also built under license outside of Britain in France (Rosengart), Germany (Dixi), and the United States (American Austin).

Trade catalog for the Austin Seven, 1930s. Note the Baby Austin's accommodations for two adults and two children.

The last Austin 7, aka Baby Austin, rolled off the assembly line in March 1939. Approximately 290,000 of these cars were built.

Sources

Georgano, Nick, ed. The Beaulieu Encyclopedia of the Automobile Volume 2: A-L; Norwich, England: The Stationery Office, 2000, p. 101-104.

The Austin Seven, Britain’s dependable Car, Austin: Trade Catalogs: Specific Models: Seven, 1930s, Z. Taylor Vinson Collection, Hagley Museum and Library.

The Austin Seven, Proved by Time, Austin: Trade Catalogs: Specific Models: Seven, 1930s, Z. Taylor Vinson Collection, Hagley Museum and Library.

The Austin Seven, The Little Friend of All the World, Austin: Trade Catalogs: Specific Models: Seven, 1930s, Z. Taylor Vinson Collection, Hagley Museum and Library.

Kenton Jaehnig is the Project Archivist for the Z. Taylor Vinson Collection at Hagley Museum and Library.

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