The Big Austin

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Christmas 1957 was spent in what then seemed to be a very desirable British Motor carriage, in the form of an Austin A105 saloon. Austin have usually had a big car in their range, ever since the advent of the famous 4-cylinder Twenty constituted their first post-Armistice model in 1919. Later this was joined by a 6-cylinder Twenty (which in theory was in production until 1938), but both 4- and 6-cylinder versions have by now practically vanished into limbo; those mid-‘thirties very large saloons with deep radiator grilles, easily mistaken for the last of the 23.5-h.p. sixes, nearly always turn out to be 15.9 or 17.9-h.p). models, referred to as the Sixteen.

With happy memories of the luxury and performance of the A 105 I had been trying for a long time to test its successor, the Austin A110, and the other day this became possible. B.M.C. must imagine that I am unable to change gear, because the last two test cars they have provided have had automatic transmissions. This is fine for traffic driving, or would be if that of the A110 didn’t spend so much time changing up and down at low speeds and lagged under kick-down. There was, however, an ingenious if rather ugly and prominent pull-out control under the centre of the facia which enabled upward changes to be postponed to any desired degree. Normally low to intermediate is selected automatically at 12-14 m.p.h. and that from intermediate to direct drive at 24 m.p.h. but use of this control raises these speeds to anywhere up to 38-42 m.p.h. and 68-72 m.p.h., respectively. Moreover, although intermediate will engage when speed falls to below 66 m.p.h., low will remain out of action, re-starts being made in intermediate drive until the control knob is pushed in and the accelerator released. Otherwise there is the usual P, N, D, L, R selection from a somewhat indefinite r.h. lever.

One day someone will write about the various methods of overriding automatic transmissions, from the Armstrong Siddeley Star Sapphires pre-setting lever and the press-buttons favoured by Chrysler, to the normal lever action of the excellent Hobbs gearbox, if Dennis May hasn’t done so already.

The initial impression of the 100 m.p.h. Austin A110 Westminster saloon is that it is a decently compact rather than a big car, although four slim people could occupy the broad back seat with the arm-rest folded. In appearance, indeed, it could be mistaken, at a distance, for an A60, except for the air-intake slot in the bonnet.

There is plenty of performance from the twin-S.U. C-type 6-cylinder 2,912 c.c. power unit developed from that of the successful Austin Healey 3000 rally cars. A new high-lift camshaft giving increased exhaust-valve opening and a dual exhaust system with independent silencers, together with stronger valve springs, contribute to an output of 120 (gross) b.h.p. at 4,850 r.p.m. in worthwhile smoothness and silence, although the engine in the test car hunted when idling and was prone to stall. The luxury element is ensured by very comfortable hide-upholstered scats and a steel facia in simulated wood-grain set in black leathercloth incorporating a crash-pad. However, the lid of the deep glove-box does not lock, the matching dial to the 120 m.p.h. speedometer is a mediocre affair found on cheaper cars, combining the functions of fuel gauge, thermometer and oil gauge, and although the old steering-column flashers-control which threatened to chop off a finger as the half-horn ring caught it up has been deleted, the simple stalk with bulb at its tip, which is found in the least-expensive B.M.C. cars, is a poor substitute, for its spring-return soon failed and it had to be not only operated manually but held in position while signalling. . .

The steering is light but too low geared, with an enormous, high-set wheel, the brakes (disc at the front) work nicely with a faint tendency to suddenness, the r.h. brake lever is well placed for unobstructed entry and exit, and the electric screen-washers are a boon. Two knobs only, for these washers and the mixture control, are encountered, the remaining minor controls being four flick-switches, labelled from l. to r., “Blower,” “Lights,” “Panel” and “Wiper,” these inscriptions, with another for “Ignition,” being illuminated when the side lights are in use. Seat-belt wearers might find the lamps-switch inaccessible. Fuel consumption was 16.6 m.p.g. and after 540 miles the sump oil level had not dropped perceptibly.

One sits comfortably in this accelerative Austin A110 in fine armchairs, it rides not badly but does a bit of kangaroo-ing when lightly laden, there is a big boot for the cabin trunks, with the spare wheel in a compartment underneath, but the too-stiff twin quadrant heater controls are insensitive. Properly set, demisting is effective and there is plenty of heat but the engine takes its time warming up and runs cool, so that the blower is called for at low speeds; with the engine off it makes a noise suggesting that B.M.C. too, have a gas-turbine car on the road. The very wide, full-width parcels shelf is appreciated.

The modern big Austin hasn’t much character but offers considerable comfort for a modest outlay of £1,112. I would like to try it with an ordinary gearbox, even though this only provides three forward speeds (and an overdrive). – W. B.

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