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