"something of an extraordinary nature will turn up..."

Mr. Micawber in Dickens' David Copperfield

Kit Foster's

CarPort

AUTOMOTIVE SERENDIPITY ON THE WEB

CarPort
December 5th, 2007

Austin A90 Atlantic convertible

…or so it seemed. After World War II, Britain’s motor industry faced an edict of “Export or Die!” The island nation needed hard currency, and exporting automobiles was a good way to make a buck. The Austin Motor Company got with the program, and by 1947 was the top-selling import in America. The A40 Devon and Dorset models developed a certain cachet, especially in coastal markets, and the cars were marketed to an upscale clientele (note how the Austin has been stretched in this ad to make it appear larger).

Leonard Lord, head of Austin, felt they could do better with a larger car targeted toward the Yankee crowd. He directed his designers to come up with trendy convertible appealing to American tastes. The result was the A90 Austin Atlantic, using a 2.6-liter version of their ohv four-cylinder engine, few with twin carburetors for 90 bhp. A streamlined body followed Italian cues, and a bright interior featured column shifting of the four-speed gearbox. The winged “A” was Austin’s emblem, and the Atlantic proudly displayed two of them on the front fenders. A large boot included an indoor fuel filler, probably verboten today.

In order to create some buzz in the colonies, Austin PR director Alan Hess staged a week-long campaign at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in April 1949, setting 63 endurance and speed records, albeit in categories no one had thought to contest before. However, what the Brits thought Americans would like was not what they bought. Selling at $2,995, the Atlantic was overpriced, and even a 1950 reduction of $500 merely brought it in range with the Buick Super, arguably much more car.

Sales literature was revamped for the U.S. market, putting left-hand drive cars in place of RHD home market illustrations, but some US-specific pieces showed whitewall tires, all but unknown in the UK. A “Sports Sedan,” basically the convertible with a fixed hard top, was introduced in 1951, but by that time the Atlantic’s trans-Atlantic market was all but abandoned, although the Devon’s successor A40 Somerset continued to sell in decent numbers. Of 7,981 Atlantics produced, only about 350 were sold in the intended market. The effort was not a total loss. The Atlantic’s engine soon found a home in a car the Yanks liked better: The Austin-Healey 100-4.

Although Austin Devons were commonplace in Connecticut when I was growing up, I never, ever saw an Atlantic, despite there being a dealer not 60 miles away. The car headlining this piece was sold a couple of years ago by Hyman Ltd. Classic Cars in St. Louis. They don’t currently have one in stock, but Mark Hyman, whom we thank for providing photos, is partial to unusual cars, so check their website periodically. Otherwise, you’ll have to make do with the only Atlantic most Americans saw: the Dinky Toy version.

Serendipity: n. An aptitude for making desirable discoveries by accident.
“They were always making discoveries, by accident and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of.”
Horace Walpole, The Three Princes of Serendip
© 2004-2014 Kit Foster
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