Guilty pleasures: Austin A55 and A60

| 31 Jan 2023
Classic & Sports Car – Guilty pleasures: Austin A55 and A60

When I was growing up in the 1970s, Austin Cambridges and Morris Oxfords of the Farina-styled variety were still an everyday sight on the roads.

Yes, you could still buy a new Oxford in 1971, but despite that, at that time I think they already seemed like vehicles from another age.

They were tall, skinny and sort of heavy looking, with by then out-of-fashion two-tone paint schemes and lots of chrome.

To me, they never seemed to be driven by anybody under about 80 years old (in truth most Cambridge/Oxford drivers were men in their 50s, but when you’re seven or eight, there’s no difference worth mentioning between those two ages).

That all those drivers seemed to be hunched, grim-faced, over the massive, high-set steering wheel as they plodded through the gears, vision likely as not half-obscured by flag-shaped stickers on the rear ’screen that told of outings to places like Margate and Tenby, probably didn’t help my perception.

Classic & Sports Car – Guilty pleasures: Austin A55 and A60

Today, the two-tone paint of this Austin A55 Cambridge MkII is regarded as a charming feature

If you were posh, you might have preferred a Wolseley 16/60 version, of which there were still a few to be seen, but the ‘high performance’ MG Magnette and Riley 4/72 Farina variants were fairly rare, even 50 years ago.

I had a (now not-so) secret fascination with these Farina models that centred around the interiors, which were nicely finished even in the basic Austin/Morris versions, complete with leather seats.

I understood they were ‘crap’ cars because of my dad’s attitude to them (although he had been very happy with his A55 pick-up), but I didn’t understand why he thought they were so.

Weight, as much as anything, was the answer, the monocoque construction being of a ’50s belt-and-braces concept that was much heftier than it needed to be, a lesson Ford learned when it built the much livelier first-generation Cortina.

Heavy does not mean rust resistant: even as a youngster I noted that most of these cars had a generous application of black underseal on their sills to divert the prodding attentions of the MoT testers’ screwdrivers.

Classic & Sports Car – Guilty pleasures: Austin A55 and A60

The cabin of this Tartan Red over Farina Grey A55 MkII is pretty spartan

The proliferation of Farina variants (seven if you include the Austin and Morris versions of the estate) were built to placate the Austin/Morris/Riley/Wolseley/MG dealerships, a neat illustration of the muddle BMC had got itself into by the early 1960s.

Yet the Farinas proved difficult to replace, because their popularity held up so well – almost 870,000 buyers remaining loyal to the primitive concept, even when BMC offered its 1800 Landcrab as the intended replacement.

If my grandad had been in possession of a driving licence, he would have owned a Farina A60 because it was the perfect car for those who had no interest in motor cars or driving.

Flat out at 80mph and with glacial acceleration, these were the dullest things imaginable to drive, having been designed for a pre-motorway domestic market largely concerned with solidity (their popularity with banger racers pays testimony to that), reliability, ease of servicing and family-sized roominess.

Classic & Sports Car – Guilty pleasures: Austin A55 and A60

The Riley 4/72 was the four-cylinder Farina range’s flagship, its Arianca Beige paint unique to the model

Such people drove in a temperate fashion, were appreciative of the fact that the low gearing and flexibility of the B-series engine minimised gearchanging, and would never discover the modest limits of the ADO9’s handling and roadholding.

Believe it or not, BMC did a 66mph diesel version of the Oxford/Cambridge, which might be a contender for the worst car ever offered to the British public – it struggled from 0-60mph in 40 secs.

Most ended up as cabs. I wonder if any survive?

Classic & Sports Car – Guilty pleasures: Austin A55 and A60

It felt a little more upmarket inside the Austin A60 Cambridge than the A55

Given all of the above, these once-prolific saloons might seem like a ‘guilty pleasure’ too far, even allowing for the sentiment of rose-tinted nostalgia for the lost world that, in 2023, they represent.

But I saw a Cambridge in traffic a few months ago, a notable enough event in itself, yet this one appeared ‘new’, a gleaming black restored example of the slightly earlier A55, with the full-sized fins.

Amidst all the boring, modern cars it looked seriously seductive, not a word I ever thought I would write about a BMC Farina, but it’s true.

Classic & Sports Car – Guilty pleasures: Austin A55 and A60

This Morris Oxford Series VI Traveller has been modified with an MGB cylinder head, illustrating Martin Buckley’s point

In my memory, this car seemed to be very slightly lowered and sitting on wider but otherwise standard wheels, but I might just be projecting those onto it by way of wishful thinking.

Which got my mind whirring… Being based around largely MGB mechanical elements, an A55/A60 would be an ideal candidate for a subtle restomod project with a completely standard outer appearance.

I know it has been done, because I drove a Wolseley 16/60 a couple of years ago with all the ‘hot’ bits.

It was an absolute hoot to scream past moderns in this most pedestrian of ’60s saloons. And I wasn’t even wearing a trilby.

Images: Jonathan Jacob

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