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David Whyley is a very fortunate man, but his immaculate Austin A90 Atlantic is even luckier.
After decades of neglect, this post-war oddity has been given a new lease of life and today represents surely the world’s finest example of its kind.
That wasn’t always the case, though.
I first encountered this particular radical-looking British convertible, registered FPN 717, 40 years ago, when it didn’t run and was painted white.
I was enjoying probably my busiest year as a designer of record sleeves, and among the myriad acts I worked with was a rock ’n’ roll revival outfit called The Stargazers.
The band members had a keen appreciation of retro style and were big fans of all things 1950s.
Drummer Ricky Lee Brawn had always been fascinated by the reimagining of American design and culture through British eyes, and loved the way that in the UK we never quite got things right but managed to create something unique of our own.
Think Elvis versus Cliff Richard, Flash Gordon versus Dan Dare – or Hudson Hornet versus Austin Atlantic.
So when it came to the sleeve for the band’s ’82 album Watch this Space, and wanting to use an old car to help create a memorable front cover image, rather than putting the band in a big-finned American convertible, we plumped for Longbridge’s take on early ’50s US-inspired glamour.
Both Ricky and saxophonist John Wallace were into classics, and they knew a character called Dave Cropper who, among his collection of early Ford Consuls and Zephyrs, had an Austin Atlantic convertible restoration project.
It wasn’t a runner, but was cosmetically sound and would photograph well. Cropper was game and agreed to trailer the car to London.
“My first love was Mk1 and Mk2 Zephyrs, but I had a thing about A35 vans,” Cropper recalls. “One thing led to another and I ended up with an Atlantic in about 1976.”
“It had been painted white and the hood replaced with cream vinyl, but it did run,” he recalls.
“I remember a spirited drive in it to Buckingham. That 2.6-litre ‘four’ was very long-legged and advanced for the time.”
Six years later and the big Austin was less willing to perform for our photoshoot, which lasted 36 hours.
Despite not starting the shoot until 2am, the band members performed for photographer Peter Ashworth with unbridled energy from inside their Birmingham-built rocketship.
The session and subsequent production of the sleeve was filmed for an episode of the BBC children’s TV show Take Hart, including yours truly flicking through a very early copy of Classic and Sportscar.
Post-photoshoot, Cropper put FPN under a tarpaulin and forgot about it.
He used to have impromptu get-togethers with like-minded classic owners in his orchard, and it was at one of these that the Austin changed hands and ended up at a new home in Ascot, Berkshire.
The abode belonged to one Vernon Cox, a serial Atlantic fan well known to the members of the Austin Counties Car Club because he already owned a convertible and a coupé.
FPN became his third in 1986, albeit only to be immediately squirrelled away in a lock-up garage.
By this time ACCC member David Whyley, who had been driving his A40 Devon every day for three years, had met Cox at shows.
“I asked if he ever came across another one to let me know,” says David. “I didn’t really know about the ‘Stargazers car’, but the rumour was that Vernon owned it.
“Each Christmas I would send him a card, asking if he would sell me one of his cars. He would reply with a joke and let me know they weren’t for sale.
“That was until Christmas 2012, when he asked me to come and meet with him and his wife, Valerie. It became clear that Vernon and Val saw me as a worthy owner of one of his Atlantics.
“We were taken to the lock-up, where we had to unscrew a wooden ‘security’ door to view the car in its concrete garage tomb.”
A price was agreed and arrangements made to collect the A90.
“We managed to push it out,” continues David. “Remarkably, the brakes weren’t seized. I was given a copy of The Stargazers’ album with the sale receipt, and it was only then I discovered I had a famous car.”
David had already become something of an early post-war Austin guru.
He’d carried out an exacting restoration of a Jensen-bodied A40 Sports (C&SC, December 2013), as well as writing a book on the J40 pedal car.
He has a J40 of his own, another Austin with a TV past (it featured on the BBC’s Antiques Roadshow) and even the name of his home is Austin House.
For somebody that knowledgeable about the firm, it was only natural that he should want an example of the company’s ultimate expression of technical excellence.
“I believe that the Atlantic was a halo project for the Austin Motor Company’s US export drive,” he says. “Austin had set about breaking into the American market with a clear strategy.”
“It had gradually built up its dealer network and established headquarters in New York for its subsidiary, the Austin Export Corporation,” explains David.
“With marketing key to success in America, Austin engaged a US-based agency, JM Mathes, and appointed JF Bramley, former head of Austin Advertising at Longbridge, as managing director.
“Austin chose to associate its brand with its country of origin, and the managers decided on using the association with England, rather than Britain, thinking the words ‘Britain’ or ‘British’ might have political overtones in the USA.
“‘England’ or ‘English’, they thought, would convey an impression of tradition and craftsmanship.”
The phrase ‘Austin of England’ was soon accepted in the US and world markets.
In an interview with the Daily Mail in 1949, Leonard Lord recounted that exports to worldwide markets had amounted to £24,100,000, but it had not been an easy year for meeting US export targets.
He admitted that prices of the full-size Austins in the US had been reduced to such a level as to incur a loss, yet he viewed exporting loss-making vehicles to the USA as ‘buying dollars for the Labour Government’.
David is beyond partisan when it comes to loyalty to the Austin name. Mention Morris at your peril!
“The Atlantic was the first high-production Austin to bear the ‘Austin of England’ logo,” he says. “The prototype had four; production cars used two.
“It had its debut at the 1948 Earls Court show, where Ford was still selling the Pilot with its 16-year-old V8.”
Today the Atlantic is a largely forgotten symbol of the post-war export drive, yet, as David boasts, it was quite the talking point at its London debut – only Jaguar’s new XK120 garnered more column inches.
It wasn’t as svelte as the Jag, but the lines of the Atlantic had an equally sophisticated heritage.
Its distinctive shape was inspired by a certain Alfa Romeo 6C-2500, restyled and bodied by Pinin Farina in 1946 for perfumer Giuliana Tortoli di Cuccioli.
So proud of it was Farina that, having borrowed the car to tour Europe, he eventually bought it back, using it every day for six months before selling it to Leonard Lord.
While at Longbridge it was used extensively by the company’s managing director, George Harriman, and eventually sold to a visiting designer, Holden ‘Bob’ Koto, who had been sent from Raymond Loewy’s design practice in America to help pen the A30.
With that insight, the Atlantic’s collective DNA becomes obvious, right down to the rear wings with their single, Frenched rear lights.
The mysterious – for the UK – third, middle light was a feature Loewy’s company had been developing for the likes of Ford and Studebaker’s first post-war offerings, so was no doubt a design gift from Koto, although full credit for the Atlantic’s styling should really be attributed to Austin’s head designer, Argentinian Dick Burzi.
Acknowledging the car’s target market, and following the example of the one-off Alfa Romeo, Austin bedecked its standard-bearing new convertible with as much chrome as it could muster.
More signs of luxury were the Atlantic’s innovative electro-hydraulic windows and roof that replicated the systems then current in the USA.
Forget Alvis or Daimler, the Atlantic was the first UK mass-produced car to have a powered hood and windows as an option.
Its engine was a 2660cc in-line ‘four’ based on Austin’s 2.2-litre overhead-valve Hampshire and Hereford A70 unit, but it wasn’t a bored-out version of that block.
The casting was known as the A90, the block and head being wider, and would later be deployed in the Austin-Healey 100.
Over the years a fair proportion of the 7981 Atlantics built (both convertible and coupé) have surrendered their internals to keeping early Healeys on the road, making the four-seater Austin a relatively endangered species in either configuration.
It is thought that 3718 convertibles were built, with production ending in December 1950, although it is possible that a few cars were assembled very early in 1951.
From January 1950 the coupé – or A90 saloon – was built alongside.
David takes up the story: “On its launch the convertible was £952 with powered hood and including Purchase Tax, or £888 without power hood and windows.”
“By 1950 this had been reduced to £824 and £786 respectively, probably brought about by efficiencies in manufacturing as the coupé was put into production alongside the convertible,” he continues.
“There was a price reduction of the Atlantic in the USA from $4006 with power hood to $2998, but this was due to a devaluation in sterling, not as a desperate attempt by Austin to sell Atlantics.”
Cynics might well have considered the company’s record-breaking attempts with the car in the April of the previous year at the heart of American racing, Indianapolis Speedway, to be equally desperate, but in reality it was a brave and commendable exercise for a brand such as Austin.
As Motor Sport magazine wrote: ‘The Stock-Car Records established by an Austin A90 at Indianapolis rather take one’s breath away!
‘In sober fact the car, driven for three-hour spells by Charles Goodacre, Dennis Buckley and Alan Hess, established or broke 68 AAA-recognised standard-car records, 53 in the 3-litre class and ten in the unlimited class.
‘But the overall show – 11,875 miles at an average of 70.68mph – is sufficient in itself to prove the worth of the achievement and to put it in its true perspective.’
Not exactly the performance associated with the XK120 at Montlhéry, but Jaguar’s record-breaking exploits were still three years away and far more appropriate to a company with designs on winning Le Mans.
Yet, despite all the favourable attention it received, the Atlantic failed to ignite US sales, which ended up being politely modest despite the recognition of the car’s quality, both in its own right and against smaller domestic competition.
However, it did prove popular throughout the Commonwealth and particularly so in Australia, where the car still has a strong following today.
By nature of its design, finding any 70-year-old convertible that has been subjected to the climate of this green and pleasant land is hard enough, and particularly so one that still has a floorpan.
But with so much of its production having been shipped abroad, finding a healthy Atlantic in the UK is nigh-on impossible.
FPN was built in December 1950 with body number 3688, so is one of the last convertibles made, and found its first owner the following May in Battle, East Sussex.
“Two years later it was bought by Mr James Scott of Ringwood, Hampshire, and he owned the car until at least 1967,” David continues.
“It then appeared on sale for £155 with London Motors (Highbridge) in Somerset and was sold by that firm after having had a respray in a Jaguar white and being fitted with a replacement vinyl hood. At that time the recorded mileage was only 37,000.
“By 1972 the car was with a Stanley Burman in Tottenham, London, and it was from him that Cropper purchased the A90.”
On removing the Atlantic from its tomb, David found that its mileage sat at 46,000 and, despite the repaint, it was an unmolested, very original survivor.
On jet-washing the car, he found that underneath the white paint-job was the original metallic Seafoam Green and, regardless of the low mileage, it was obvious that it would need a full restoration.
The paintwork was lifting, the Maize upholstery with green piping was disintegrating and all of the chrome had gone rusty.
The engine would not start and the car was undriveable – he later discovered that the clutch had been put in back-to-front.
Yet this, and its long-term storage, had probably saved the Austin.
Determined to return the convertible to its original, factory-dispatched state, and to do the majority of the work himself, David embarked on a marathon eight-year restoration.
To his credit – and the car’s good fortune – he was determined not to cut corners and persevered to maintain originality, even when faced with the 42 hydraulic joints incorporated into the hood mechanism.
“I wanted future generations of enthusiasts to be able to study the Atlantic and know exactly how it was when it left Longbridge,” David explains.
The quality of the restoration goes a long way to highlighting the level of craftsmanship and design, quirky though it may be, showcased in the company’s top-of-the-line convertible.
The lengths to which David has gone to demonstrate this can’t be commended highly enough. Restoring the interior alone would faze most professionals, from the unique switches (a number of which were found in Australia) to the beautiful cream steering wheel.
The result is a car that could well hold its own on the golf course at Pebble Beach – yes, it’s that good – and after a brief drive between photos, I can confer it rides as well as it did the day it left Longbridge.
I’d always intended that my reunion with FPN should also, at the very least, be with Ricky from The Stargazers, but in a strange twist of fate the band reformed, after 39 years apart, to play a one-off concert in Italy the week we were scheduled to meet Dave and the Austin.
Hopefully they will be reunited soon. We’ll just have to Watch this Space…
Images: Luc Lacey
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