November 8, 1866 – Herbert Austin, founder of Austin Motor Company, is born

herbert austin
An Austin Motor Company showroom in London in 1910.

In the annals of automotive history, Herbert Austin stands as a visionary whose legacy continues to reverberate through the world of automobiles. As the founder of the Austin Motor Company, he played a pivotal role in shaping the British automotive industry during the early 20th century. His company’s journey, from a humble beginning to eventual merger with Morris, is a fascinating tale of innovation, competition, and corporate consolidation.

Herbert Austin

Herbert Austin was born on November 8, 1866 in Little Missenden, Buckinghamshire, England. His early years were marked by a fascination with engineering and a penchant for experimentation. This passion for mechanics eventually led him to become an engineer and, after emigrating to Australia, to work for the Wolseley Sheep-Shearing Machine Company. Once the company relocated to England, and Austin with it, he found himself with time on his hands, given the seasonal operation of the business. While the company built bicycles during slow periods, Austin continued to hunt for new products. In his spare time he tinkered on motorized three-wheelers.

After demostrating its capabilities, the Wolseley Sheep-Shearing Machine Company marketed the contraption starting in 1900. The venture did not last long. The next year, Vickers, a British engineering firm, purchased Wolseley’s automotive interests and persuaded Austin to come along too. He toiled for them until 1905 when he resigned and struck out on his own.

Founding Austin Motor Company

Austin took that bold step forward and founded his own company, Austin Motor Company, with the primary goal of manufacturing motor vehicles. He set up his first factory in Longbridge, Birmingham, a location that would soon become synonymous with the Austin brand. The company’s first vehicle, the Austin 25-30, was introduced in 1906 and was an immediate success. Its affordable price and reliability made it a favorite among the growing middle-class population in Britain.

Austin’s commitment to innovation was evident throughout the company’s early years. He introduced the “Four-Inch” car in 1907, the world’s first car with fully working brakes on all four wheels. This innovation made the Austin brand a trailblazer in automobile safety.

Herbert Austin driving an Austin 7

As the Austin Motor Company continued to thrive, it expanded its product lineup and ventured into various market segments. The Austin 12/4, a popular model introduced in the 1920s, became an emblem of British motoring excellence, renowned for its reliability and affordability. The brand also ventured into producing commercial vehicles, which found success in the global market.

The death of Herbert Austin

Throughout the interwar years, Austin Motor Company was a dominant force in the British automotive industry. The brand’s reputation for durability and affordability made it a household name, and the famous “flying A” emblem became synonymous with British motoring heritage.

As with most manufacturing firms, Austin produced many different items to support efforts during World War II. However, a year and a half into the war, Herbert Austin died of a heart attack on May 23, 1941. The company pushed on, but as the war ended an the automotive industry evolved, competition intensified. It became evident that mergers and partnerships were becoming essential for survival.

The Austin and Morris merger

A major turning point for Austin Motor Company came in 1952 when it merged with Morris Motors, creating the British Motor Corporation (BMC). This merger brought together two of Britain’s most prominent car manufacturers and marked a significant consolidation in the industry. The BMC merger was an attempt to pool resources, cut costs, and create a stronger, more competitive British car manufacturer in the face of rising international competition, particularly from the United States. Under BMC, Austin and Morris brands continued to produce vehicles separately, with each brand retaining its distinct identity and characteristics.

1963 Austin Mini Cooper S. By Writegeist – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

The Austin and Morris brands coexisted for several decades, producing various models and expanding their presence in the global market. However, by the late 1960s, the British car industry faced a series of crises, including declining quality and reliability, and the emergence of new competitors from Japan and Europe. The Austin and Morris brands, along with other BMC marques, gradually lost market share and faced increasing financial challenges.

The end of Austin cars

In 1968, British Leyland Motor Corporation (BLMC) was formed, which absorbed BMC, including the Austin and Morris brands. While the merger was intended to revitalize the British car industry, it faced persistent difficulties, including labor strikes, quality control issues, and financial instability. British Leyland struggled to compete effectively in the global market, and the Austin and Morris brands experienced a decline in their reputation.

Ultimately, the demise of the Austin brand came in 1988 when it was officially discontinued, marking the end of a storied automotive legacy. Morris had already met a similar fate earlier, and the two brands that were once major players in the British car industry ceased to exist in their original form.

An Austin Montego, one of the last cars built under the Austin name. By Charles01, CC BY-SA 3.0

Although the Austin and Morris brands may have disappeared, their legacy lives on in the hearts of car enthusiasts and collectors, and they remain an integral part of British automotive history. The story of Herbert Austin and the Austin Motor Company serves as a reminder of the dynamic nature of the automotive industry and the enduring impact of visionaries who shape its course. However, the history of Austin Motor Company is not over.

Austin Motor Company revival

In a remarkable turn of events, the name “Austin Motor Company” experienced a resurgence in the 21st century, albeit under new ownership and with a vision to preserve the memory of the iconic brand. In 2012, former Longbridge worker Steve Morgan registered a new entity as “Austin Motor Company.” It’s worth noting that he had no legal rights to the original brand and declared his intentions were not to engage in commercial trading but rather to safeguard the legacy of the company. Unfortunately, this endeavor was relatively short-lived, and the company was dissolved in 2014.

Austin Arrow EV. By Tim O’Riordan – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

The Austin name, however, found a new lease on life in 2015 when British Engineer John Stubbs, the owner of specialist suspension company Black Art Designs, registered the “Austin Motor Company” along with the classic 1930s “Flying A” logo. By 2021, a retro prototype electric vehicle, named the Austin Arrow, emerged and began seeking investors, with an anticipated release date set for late 2022. The revived Austin Motor Company soon revealed the Arrow 2, a two-seater variant of the Arrow, while also announcing plans for an electric commercial Austin van, slated for release approximately 18-24 months after the launch of the Arrow 1 and 2.

By May 2023, a production line for the Austin Arrow was established in Rajkot, India, marking a promising chapter in the revival of the once-iconic brand. The resurrection of the Austin Motor Company in the 21st century serves as a testament to the enduring fascination with its heritage and the enduring appeal of the brand’s legacy.

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