The 1930-1934 American Austin

During the 1920s and 1930s, the Austin 7, popularly known as the “Baby Austin,” was one of the most popular and influential cars in the world. Cheap to buy and economical to operate, Austin 7s were much beloved by those who owned them. Not only were they immensely popular in the United Kingdom, they were also well-liked in other countries, so much so that Austin allowed them to be built under license by Dixi in Germany and Rosengart in France (see The Baby Austin: A British Interpretation of Motoring for the Masses at http://hagleyserver.org/vinson/2012/10/the-baby-austin-a-british-interpretation-of-motoring-for-the-masses/).

Photograph of a surviving example of a 1930 American Austin 2-Place Roadster.

Photograph of a surviving example of a 1930 American Austin 2-Place Roadster.

In 1929, encouraged by the success of the Austin 7 outside of the United Kingdom, Austin’s founder Herbert Austin hit upon the idea of building and marketing the car in the United States. In order to do this, Mr. Austin established American Austin Car Company, Incorporated to build the Austin 7 under license and set up a production facility in Butler, Pennsylvania. The end result of this ambitious venture was not a success, but went down in the annals of automotive history as an early attempt to market a small economy car in the United States: the 1930-1934 American Austin.

Trade catalog image of the 1930 American Austin 2-Place Cabin Coupe.

Trade catalog image of the 1930 American Austin 2-Place Cabin Coupe.

The American Austin, which was also referred to as the Austin Bantam, was an Americanized version of the Austin 7. In most respects, it was similar to its British relative. Much like the “Baby Austin,” the American Austin was a truly tiny car, riding on a 75-inch wheelbase and a 40-inch track. Underneath its skin, the American Austin was built on an Austin 7 chassis and was powered by a “mirrored” version of the Austin 7’s inline-4 engine (engine components that were mounted on the left side of the British car were moved to the right side on the American car), which displaced 747 cc (45 cubic inches) and was good for 15 horsepower. In an effort to make them more visually appealing to American customers, the American Austins were given striking new body shells, which were designed by Alexis de Sakhnoffsky and built by Hayes Body Company of Detroit, Michigan. American Austin Car Company also went to great lengths to promote the car’s economic attributes, claiming it to be capable of fuel economy in excess of 40 miles per gallon.

Trade catalog for American Austin’s (referred to as Austin Bantam in this case) “Free Motoring” maintenance plan, in which one year’s worth of gasoline, oil, tires, and repairs are included in the car’s purchase price.  Unfortunately, even during the Great Depression, this innovative marketing idea was not successful.

Trade catalog for American Austin’s (referred to as Austin Bantam in this case) “Free Motoring” maintenance plan, in which one year’s worth of gasoline, oil, tires, and repairs are included in the car’s purchase price. Unfortunately, even during the Great Depression, this innovative marketing idea was not successful.

The American Austin made its debut at a private exhibition during the 1930 New York Auto Show and the first examples rolled off the assembly line later that year. Initially, it appeared that it might succeed, with American Austin Car Company claiming that it received 184,000 orders. But the onset of the Great Depression prompted the cancellation of most of these orders. This problem was further exacerbated by the American motoring public’s resistance to small economy cars. Even more remarkably, good fuel economy was not seen as being terribly important at the time. As a result of this combination of factors, the American Austin never became a big seller.

American Austin Car Company, Incorporated went bankrupt and ceased production of the American Austin in 1934. Approximately 19,000-20,000 American Austins were built. The few surviving examples are highly collectible today.

Sources

A Car to Run Around In: Bantam: Trade Catalogs: Various Models, 1930-1937, Z. Taylor Vinson Collection, Hagley Museum and Library.

American Austin Bantam Club

the Bantam keeps ahead – Gasoline, oil, tires, and Repairs for a year now included in the purchase price!: Trade Catalogs: Various Models, 1930-1937, Z. Taylor Vinson Collection, Hagley Museum and Library.

Georgano, Nick, ed. The Beaulieu Encyclopedia of the Automobile Volume 1: A-L; Norwich, England: The Stationery Office, 2000, p. 49-50.

How Stuff Works – 1930-1934 American Austin

How Stuff Works – How American Austin Cars Work

Kimes, Beverly Rae and Henry Austin Clark, Jr., Third Edition, Standard Catalog of American Cars, 1805-1942; Iola, Wisconsin: Krause Publications, 1996, p. 37.

Photograph of 1930 American Austin 2-Place Roadster: Bantam: Photographs, 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.

A “Contemporary Classic:” Brooks Stevens’ Excalibur

Z. Taylor Vinson had the opportunity to meet and correspond with a number of automotive designers and manufacturers during his career as an attorney for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. One of these well-known personalities was noted American industrial designer, Brooks Stevens, who created over 3,000 products throughout his career, including home furnishings, cookware, and farm machinery, as well as automobiles and automotive equipment.

Photograph of a Series II Excalibur (1970-1974) from the album given to Z. Taylor Vinson by Brook Stevens.

Photograph of a Series II Excalibur (1970-1974) from the album given to Z. Taylor Vinson by Brook Stevens.

In the early 1960s, Stevens worked as a design consultant for Studebaker. Company executives asked Stevens to design an eye-catching car for an upcoming series of automobile shows. Brooks decided to create what he referred to as a “contemporary classic” for Studebaker. He designed a sports car from contemporary automotive parts and a Studebaker chassis, but his new car had the aesthetics of a classic Mercedes SSK from the 1930s. Stevens named his new car, “Excalibur,” after his sports car racing career in the 1950s.

Although Studebaker was not interested in Stevens’ prototype, the Excalibur attracted the attention of attendees at the 1964 New York Auto Show. Stevens immediately began taking orders for his new sports car, and he sold the Excalibur exclusively through a New York City Chevrolet dealer for $6,795. An advertisement for the Excalibur placed in the December 16, 1964 issue of the New York Times declared, “It has the classic beauty of the original S.S.K. coupled with the power and the reliability of the 1965 Sting Ray.” By marketing the Excalibur as a custom-built, luxury sports car, Stevens and his newly formed company, S.S. Automobiles Incorporated, pioneered the market for reproduction classic cars.

Photograph of a Series III Excalibur (1975-1976) from the album given to Z. Taylor Vinson by Brook Stevens.

Photograph of a Series III Excalibur (1975-1976) from the album given to Z. Taylor Vinson by Brook Stevens.

In 1975, Mr. Vinson met with Brooks Stevens to discuss motor vehicle safety regulations pertaining to the Excalibur. Limited production automobile manufacturers like S.S. Automobiles worked extensively with the Department of Transportation after the passage of the National Motor Vehicle Safety Act in 1966. Throughout this period, S.S. Automobiles struggled to meet the passive restraint requirements for passenger cars because of the projected expense of having to incorporate air bags and seat belts into their pre-existing design for the Excalibur.

Stevens wrote a letter of appreciation to Vinson after their meeting and expressed how happy he was to learn that Mr. Vinson was also an automobile enthusiast and collector. Similar to Z. Taylor Vinson, Stevens had developed a love of automobiles during his childhood, while accompanying his father to various automobile shows. In his thank-you note, Stevens included a photograph album of Excalibur Series I-III automobiles from the 1960s and 1970s. Mr. Vinson preserved the photograph album presented to him by Brooks Stevens in his professional papers from the Department of Transportation. This album, as well as the correspondence between the two men, remains available to researchers as part of Z. Taylor Vinson Transportation Collection now housed at the Hagley Library.

Sources

“Brooks Stevens,” Wisconsin Historical Society

“Classified Ad 20,” New York Times (December 13, 1964): S15.

“Excalibur: 1975-1995,” Temporary Exemption Petitions, Z. Taylor Vinson Collection, Hagley Museum and Library.

Excalibur History

“Excalibur- Photograph Albums,” Z. Taylor Vinson Collection, Hagley Museum and Library.

Georgano, Nick, ed. The Beaulieu Encyclopedia of the Automobile; Volume 1: A-L; Norwich, England: The Stationery Office, 2000, p. 512-513.

Preston, Alice. “Excalibur: The Story”

Alison Kreitzer is the graduate assistant for the Z. Taylor Vinson Collection at the Hagley Museum and Library.

The 1938-1939 Rolls Royce Wraith

Cars have always been a fixture within pop culture, present in stories told in books and movies, and sometimes even in song. From Herbie the Love Bug to the Dodge Challenger in 1971’s Vanishing Point, cars have always been a source of fascination in fiction, and are often as much the heroes of the stories as the people driving them. The other side is the use of cars as villains, such as with Stephen King’s Christine, a book in which a 1958 Plymouth Fury is possessed by a vengeful spirit and commits a variety of murders before being destroyed.

A recent novel, NOS4A2, by Joe Hill, happens to focus on the 1938 Rolls Royce Wraith as its villain, the weapon of a man named Charlie Manx who uses it to drive children into a world that literally exists in his mind, which he calls “Christmasland.” Once the children are driven there, they cannot escape. NOS4A2, the title and the license plate on the Wraith, is a play on “nosferatu,” a word associated with vampires due to F.W. Murnau’s famous 1922 film, Nosferatu.

Photograph of the 1939 Rolls Royce Wraith

Photograph of the 1939 Rolls Royce Wraith

Although Charlie Manx is the main antagonist, the Wraith has a will of its own, shutting its doors or driving itself, or trapping victims in a “pocket universe” in the backseat. The Wraith also drains the life from those within, transferring the energy to Charlie Manx and allowing him to heal or to remain young forever. It is up to a troubled biker named Victoria McQueen to stop Manx (with her restored Triumph motorcycle, no less), whom she simply calls “The Wraith.” The image of the Wraith slicing up a drive through the fog, its narrow headlights like two eyes, becomes a frankly terrifying image by the end of the novel.

The Rolls Royce Wraith itself was a very rare pre-war model, produced over only 2 years, 1938-1939, before production ceased due to World War II. In all, there were only 491 Wraiths ever made. It was meant to be an updated 25/30, and had the same engine, a 4257 cc Straight 6, but with larger valves and new crankshaft. The chassis was now welded rather than riveted, and was designed along the Phantom III lines, but on a smaller scale. The wheelbase was 136.0 inches, extended 4 inches from the 25/30, and the car was heavier. It was not much faster than the 25/30, maxing out at about 80 mph.

Photograph of a Rolls Royce Silver Wraith

Photograph of a Rolls Royce Silver Wraith

After the war, production on the Wraith never restarted, and instead Rolls Royce began building the new Silver Wraith, which was similar to the pre-war Wraith in that it shared the cylinder block and gearbox, as well as a similar chassis. However, the head was changed to an inlet-over-exhaust model, and over time a variety of other changes were made. The production of Silver Wraiths would continue until 1959.

The Z. Taylor Vinson Transportation Collection contains a variety of photographs of both the 1938-1939 Wraith as well as the post-war Silver Wraith models. While processing the collection, I was thrilled to come across images of the very car that had been so recently haunting me as I read NOS4A2, and to be able to see the car as it was first presented to the world, especially considering the rarity of the 1938-1939 model.

Strangely enough, Rolls Royce announced in January of this year a new Wraith, which of course looks nothing like the 1938-1939 model, but was declared by Rolls Royce to be “the most potent and technologically advanced Rolls-Royce in history.” Some of the promotional footage is eerily similar to the imagery in NOS4A2, the lights slicing through the fog once again, perhaps hunting another victim in a new form.

Sources

Georgano, Nick, ed., The Beaulieu Encyclopedia of the Automobile; Volume 2: M-Z; Norwich, England: The Stationery Office, 2000, p. 1356-1361.

How Stuff Works-1938-1939 Rolls Royce Wraith

Rolls Royce

Sedgwick, M. and Gilles, M., A-Z Cars of the 1930s; Bideford, Devon: Bay View Books, 1989, p. 169.

Annalise Berdini is a Z. Taylor Vinson Collection summer intern in the Imprints Department at Hagley Museum and Library.

The Vinson Pictorials Series: A Window to the Past

Hello, readers! My name is Annalise Berdini and I am the summer intern processing the Pictorials Series of the Z. Taylor Vinson Collection. I’d like to give a little overview of what I have been doing since I started and highlight some of the interesting materials I’ve come across while working through the collection.

Postcard of a Baker electric car advertisement.

Postcard of a Baker electric car advertisement.

As a devoted collector of automotive literature and materials, Z. Taylor Vinson spent much of his life corresponding with other like-minded collectors across the globe, sharing tips, materials, and insights. Many of the items in the Pictorials Series, which consists of photographs, prints, postcards, and the like, include letters or notes from the collectors who sent them along to Vinson. This gives unique insight into the way Vinson was able to develop his collection, making global contacts, and often close friends, who sought out and shared the same items for which Vinson searched.

My job so far has been to process the Pictorials Series. This involves surveying the series’ contents, arranging the materials, and placing the materials in acid-free folders and protective sleeves. The images in the Pictorials Series depict the development and growth of the automobile, even including images of mockups, prototypes, or one-of-a-kind vehicles that never made it to the production line. Some of the images, especially the postcards, are as much an example of the automobiles of the period as the social and economic climate of that time period.

Henry J advertising postcard.

Henry J advertising postcard.

The Pictorials Series provides a fascinating look at how these early cars were marketed, and how those strategies evolved during each change that affected the countries in which they were made. For example, a Baker postcard of a reproduction of an ad from the early 1900s shows the car being marketed to “high society.” A set of Henry J. postcards from the 1950s includes images of the nuclear family ideal that was prevalent at the time. One item in the Chevrolet file is a photo of assorted ads depicting changes in attitudes towards women and the need for an economic car. Vinson’s pictorial materials also provide a unique window into the past, giving a taste of how automobiles developed and changed, along with the world itself.

Photograph of three Chevrolet advertisements.

Photograph of three Chevrolet advertisements.

Sometimes, the materials do not quite fit into the car make hierarchy, simply because they are not about cars! Vinson was a true collector, and as such, did not limit his acquisitions entirely to autos. The Pictorials Series contains materials depicting airplanes and airships, buses, trains, and ships. It also holds stamps depicting the royal families of some of the countries Vinson visited (he was extremely well-traveled) and postcards depicting scenes from various locales. An assortment of personal items that show Vinson and his family, and a few photos that capture the construction of his “Autotorium” are found in this series as well.

It is fascinating to have a collection of images that expand beyond automobiles into general transportation and travel, as well as to have a record of Vinson’s life and interests in images. Researchers and car enthusiasts alike will find the Pictorials Series of the Z. Taylor Vinson collection to be a valuable and exciting resource.

Annalise Berdini is a Summer Intern for the Z. Taylor Vinson Collection at Hagley Museum and Library.

Introducing the Z. Taylor Vinson Manuscripts Series!

Greetings!  My name is Alison Kreitzer, and I am the Z. Taylor Vinson Graduate Assistant.  I am currently processing the Manuscripts Series of the Z. Taylor Vinson Collection, which will be available to researchers in 2014.  The Manuscripts Series document Mr. Vinson’s career as an attorney for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) from 1967-2003.  These materials provide insight into the development of Federal motor vehicle safety standards in the decades following the passage of the National Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966.  Throughout his career, Mr. Vinson was instrumental in implementing safety regulations for passenger and commercial vehicles that we continue to benefit from today.  The Manuscripts Series of his collection is a notable resource for researchers interested in automobile design, automotive safety, and the history of consumer advocacy in the United States.

Lamborghini badge on the cover of the company’s 1975 certification petition for the Lamborghini Countach LP400.

Lamborghini badge on the cover of the company’s 1975 certification petition for the Lamborghini Countach LP400.

As an attorney-advisor for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Mr. Vinson corresponded extensively with automobile manufacturers, congressmen, citizens, and fellow NHTSA staff members to interpret and enforce Federal regulations for automobile safety.  His correspondence files make up the bulk of the Manuscripts Series.  These files predominately focus on issues of manufacturer compliance with Federal policies regarding the production, importation, and sale of automobiles and automotive equipment within the United States.  Mr. Vinson and his fellow legal staff members worked extensively to provide manufacturers and citizens with interpretations of the various safety standards that regulated everything from windshield wipers to braking systems.  The NHTSA’s litigation team also drafted and reviewed proposed amendments to these regulations before they were passed into law.  Unpublished and published copies of these Federal Register dockets pertaining to specific safety standard rule-making decisions are included within these correspondence folders.

Photograph of the Lamborghini LP400 from Lamborghini’s 1975 certification petition.

Photograph of the Lamborghini LP400 from Lamborghini’s 1975 certification petition.

A second substantive section within the Manuscripts Series documents petitions made by both foreign and domestic automobile manufacturers for exemption of their vehicle models from specific aspects of the Federal motor vehicle safety regulations.  Manufacturers requested exemptions due to financial hardship, limited production runs, and made arguments that elements of their automobile designs were inconsequential to the overall safety of their vehicles.

This section of the Manuscripts Series is predominately arranged by automotive manufacturer and will be of particular interest to scholars and enthusiasts of renowned automotive manufacturers.  For example, Lamborghini petitioned the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in 1975 for certification of their Countach LP 400, which influenced the shape and design of sports cars throughout the 1970s and 1980s.  The applications for exemption and certification includes over 90 pages of information, diagrams, and photographs documenting the various internal and external components of the Countach LP 400!

The Manuscripts Series also contains correspondence documenting Mr. Vinson’s involvement with the Society of Automotive Historians (SAH) in the 1990s.  He held various positions on the Society’s executive committee during this period.  The files in this section document Mr. Vinson’s involvement in several administrative tasks for the organization, including planning of yearly meetings, organizing membership materials, and overseeing SAH finances.

Mr. Vinson was very successful at combining his personal interests in collecting automobile ephemera with his professional career working to implement vehicle safety standards as an attorney for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.  Not only did he leave Hagley a wonderful collection of automobile memorabilia, he also left behind a comprehensive record of his contributions to automobile safety.  The Manuscripts Series of the Z. Taylor Vinson Collection promises to be a fascinating resource for years to come.

Alison Kreitzer is the Graduate Assistant for the Z. Taylor Vinson Collection at Hagley Museum and Library.