American Austin and American Bantam

Donald Duck, Bruce McLaren, Graham Chapman, and the Jeep

Have you ever wondered what was the inspiration for Donald Duck’s car? Have you ever realized that the cars first raced by Bruce McLaren and Graham Chapman of Lotus were originally made by the same company that invented the Jeep? For a journey into a bit of a “Believe it or not” story read on.

Donald Duck car

Donald Duck at the wheel of his American Bantam lookalike automobile, gunning it as if he’s in a motor race. (Picture courtesy Disney).

After the American War of Independence as the decades progressed the British and the Americans progressively forgave each other and started doing business again. Thus it was that the story of American Austin, American Bantam, and Donald Duck’s cute little car began back in 1905 when a British gentleman named Herbert Austin went into the car making business after spending some time in Australia making machines with which to shear sheep. It was in 1894 that Austin set up his sheep shearing business in Aston, Birmingham, in England and from there he branched out into making bicycles and then cars, all under the Wolseley name because the sheep shearing company he had bought was called the Wolseley Sheep Shearing Machine Company.

Herbert Austin car

Herbert Austin behind the wheel of one of his 1908 models.

In 1905 Herbert Austin set up his new car making company in his own name located in Longbridge, which would become part of Birmingham. In the early years Austin experimented with various styles of cars to test the market but by the early 1920’s his Austin Motor Company had run into financial difficulties and he was keen to “pull a rabbit out of the hat” and design and build a small four wheeled car with good performance and great economy. The receiver of Austin Motor Company was not impressed with his idea. In class conscious Britain there was a thinking that said that rich people of high rank can own large and expensive cars, the middle and lower classes can be content with small and cheap cycle cars, and that was all one could really find in the marketplace. But Herbert Austin knew that the Ford Model T had transformed things in the United States and he could see that for Britain and related countries such as Australia a small but reliable real car would be likely to sell rather well.

Since the receiver was not going to allow him to spend money on developing a small car Herbert Austin decided that “What the eye does not see the heart does not grieve over” and he got stuck into his small car project in secret.

The Austin 7: the Most Economical Racing Car Ever Made

At his home Herbert Austin had a pool room which he converted into a design office. He employed a seventeen year old draftsman named Stanley Edge and he got together a consultancy team of knowledgeable people to advise him. This was just as well because Herbert’s original ideas were just a tad too original. He had ideas about using a radial engine, great in an aircraft but not in a car, and he wanted to lay the wheels out in a diamond shape which would likely have resulted in his creating an ideal Mr. Bean car rather than one suitable for Donald Duck. But he was talked out of the far too creative ideas and persuaded to build something conventional: and the Austin 7 was born.

Herbert Austin Austin7

Herbert Austin in an Austin 7. This was to become economical transport, and an affordable racing car. (Picture courtesy Birmingham Museums Trust).

The Austin 7 made its debut in 1922. It used a scaled down version of an existing Austin 20hp engine, brought down to a capacity of 696cc with two main bearings and producing 7.2hp, hence the name “Austin 7”. The chassis was an “A” frame with outriggers to support the body. The engine sat in the apex of the “A” and the front suspension was a transverse leaf spring while the three speed transmission sent the 7hp to the road via a torque tube and spiral bevel rear axle. Rear suspension was by quarter elliptic springs cantilevered from the rear of the chassis.

Austin Seven car

Austin 7 seen just outside Harrods in London: they were made to last and this one certainly has.

The rather small drum brakes were foot operated for the rear and hand operated for the front, just like a motorcycle. The brakes did not so much stop the car as cause it to “lose momentum” but the expectation was that the driver would use the transmission, not the brakes to slow it down.

The little Austin 7 weighed in at a modest 794lb and if the owner wanted to take it racing, as many did, they could lighten it and boost up the engine power to make it into a rather exciting little race car.

Austin7 racing Australian Grand Prix

Racing an Austin 7. This was how both Bruce McLaren and Graham Chapman got their start in motorsport. (Picture courtesy The Official 50-race history of the Australian Grand Prix).

It was in an Austin 7 that Bruce McLaren began his motor racing career, and if you have the opportunity to visit the McLaren Technology Centre you will find his Austin 7 painted in resplendent red in pride of place in their display of the most significant McLaren cars. Graham Chapman of Lotus Cars started out in exactly the same way, rebuilding an Austin 7 and giving it a homemade aluminum body to prune that 794lb down into something much lighter.

Austin Opens a Business in the United States

In Britain the Austin 7 was a great success. It was just the right size, it was the right price, it was reliable and easy to drive. Not only was it discovered by those who wanted to go racing on a budget, but it was also marketed as a car that women would appreciate. It was very much the predecessor of the later Austin Mini that became the trendy car of the 1960’s, even the Beatles had them: and just like the Austin 7 the Mini of the 1960’s proved to be an excellent motorsport car. So in the 1920’s Austin’s thinking that the Austin 7 would prove to be a car that would have appeal for American customers, and that it was a car that might just appeal to women, made good sense.

Austin7 advertisment

Advertisement for the Austin 7 aimed at attracting women drivers. (Picture courtesy Birmingham Museums Trust).

Austin America was founded in 1929, just in time for the Wall Street Crash and the Great Depression. The company was established in Butler, Pennyslvania, in a premises previously owned by the Standard Steel Car Company whose products had been railroad cars and automobiles.

American Austin roadster

1937 American Austin roadster. (Picture courtesy RM Sotheby’s).

American Austin did not import the British Austin 7 nor did it build its new cars for the American market by making Austin 7’s. Instead the company created their own design, albeit based on the Austin 7, and gave their cars bodywork styled to appeal to American tastes by Alexis de Sakhnoffsky. Sakhnoffsky worked for the Hayes Body Corporation and designed bodywork for such prestige makers as Auburn and Cord.

American Austin Engine

Engine of a 1937 American Austin. (Picture courtesy RM Sotheby’s).

The cars were fitted with a 747cc/45.6 cu. in. inline four cylinder engine which gave the car a top speed of 50mph and fuel consumption of around 40 mpg. So these little cars were not high performance gas guzzlers like the Ford V8 or so many of the standard cars Americans were used to, which made them much cheaper to run: and with the shadow of the Great Depression looming cheaper to run should have been a good selling point.

1937 American Austin interior

The interior of the 1937 American Austin was kept simple and easy to drive, clean and maintain. (Picture courtesy RM Sotheby’s).

The selling price for a new American Austin was USD$445, which was only slightly cheaper than a Ford V8, and a lot more than a second hand car. Initial sales for the diminutive American Austin were around 8.000 cars but, despite initial sales being quite promising, they soon lagged and by 1932 American Austin stopped producing cars, intending to wait out the Depression to see if it would be possible to resume production.

American Austin roadster

The body styling for the American Austin was attractive and the car looked well proportioned. (Picture courtesy RM Sotheby’s).

The company tried doing a production run between 1934-1935 but stopped after that. At that stage the financially stressed American Austin was bought by one of Austin’s salesmen, Roy Evans, and he reorganized it under the name of American Bantam. Evans had Alexis de Sakhnoffsky restyle the bodywork and the car was put back into production in 1937. It was the 1937 American Bantam that became the inspiration for Donald Duck’s car which makes its first appearance in “Don Donald” with Donald Duck and Daisy making their first attempts at off road motoring.

American Bantam made around 6,000 cars up until the end of 1941 at which time the United States entered the Second World War after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The company had by then already created one of the most important vehicles in the history of modern warfare but would receive scant recognition for its contribution.

1938 American Bantam roadster

1938 American Bantam roadster. (Picture courtesy RM Sotheby’s).

These final generation of the American Bantam were powered by a 50 cu. in. inline four cylinder engine driving through a three speed manual gearbox just like their predecessors. These were a stylish looking small car and it would seem Roy Evans had done his level best to get the formula right.

American Bantam engine

The 50 cu. in. inline four cylinder engine of the American Bantam cars. (Picture courtesy RM Sotheby’s).

Other than the restyling by Alexis de Sakhnoffsky and the larger engine the changes to the American Bantam version of the car that had started out as an American version of the Austin 7 were kept minimal. It was small, practical, easy to drive, easy on the wallet, and easy to maintain.

American Bantam roadster

The interior of the American Bantam is almost identical to that of the earlier American Austin models. The changes to the instrumentation and the top of screen mounted windscreen wiper being the most obvious differences. (Picture courtesy RM Sotheby’s).

The Creation of the Jeep by American Bantam

It was on 11th July 1940 that the US Department of War seems to have pressed the “panic” button, realizing that the nation was near certain to be going to war in the near future. The expectation at the time was that the United States was going to get caught up in the war started by Time magazine’s “Man of the Year” for 1938. The degree of urgency can be gauged by the fact that the Department of War sent out its invitation to create a small reconnaissance car to no less than 135 manufacturers “great and small” giving them a scant eleven days in which to respond, 49 days in which to have a working prototype ready, and 75 days in which to produce an initial run of 70 vehicles. Of those 135 manufacturers only two answered Uncle Sam’s call and they were American Bantam and Willys Overland. But only American Bantam would commit to meeting the War Department’s deadlines, and meet them they did creating the “Bantam Reconnaissance Car” “BRC 60” and “BRC40” that would go on not only to be the father of the Willys Jeep, but also the Japanese Toyota Landcruiser.

Amercian Bantam BRC40 Jeep airborne gun

The iconic picture of a “Jeep” getting airborne with an anti-tank gun actually features an American Bantam BRC 40, not a Willy’s.

When you look at the iconic picture of a “Jeep” getting airborne towing an anti-tank gun that “Jeep” is in fact an American Bantam BRC40.

The End of the Road

Despite its successes American Bantam and their small cars were perhaps just a little too far ahead of their time for the United States. By 1956 the company had long since stopped making cars, having made trailers for a while, and they disappeared when bought out by American Rolling Mills. Whilst in Britain, Europe, Australia and New Zealand the small cars made by Austin of England had gone on from strength to strength, in the United States the people had inexpensive fuel and the incomes to support large cars.

American Bantam roadster

The American Bantam managed to be small and yet also stylish. (Picture courtesy RM Sotheby’s).

The American Bantams and American Austins that have survived have a rich historic legacy and they are just as much fun to drive nowadays as they were back in the 1920’s and 1930’s. For the car collector these are a fascinating little vehicle that was made in a wide variety of body styles and can form into a superb collection.

The two cars featured in this post, the red and cream 1937 American Austin and the 1938 American Bantam are both coming up for sale by RM Sotheby’s at their Auburn Fall auction to be held from August 29th to September 1st, 2019.

You will find the sale page for the red and cream 1937 American Austin that looks like the inspiration for the Donald Duck car if you click here.

You will find the sale page for the two tone green 1938 American Bantam if you click here.

The American Bantam was the “little car that could”, and the company deserves an honored mention in the history of the American automotive industry.

American Bantam roadster

The 1938 American Bantam roadster coming up for sale by RM Sotheby’s. (Picture courtesy RM Sotheby’s).

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