Life was more than cars to Baron Austin

October 08, 2003|by JASON STEIN/Wheelbase Communications

His philanthropic efforts made him a Baron.

His services in a world war led to his knighting. His idea that a three-wheel vehicle would be a perfect form of transportation made him one of the world's first automotive legends.

Herbert Austin would become a Member of Parliament, a draftsman, a skilled engineer and a sales organizer who rose through the ranks with hard work and a little foresight.

His charitable work would forever live on in England's hospitals. His automotive work would lead to the creation of a 20th-century cult car known as the Mini.


But, thousands of vehicles and a century later, where does Austin's story begin and where does the real tale take a twist? In wool. Naturally.

Without a little initiative, the bright-eyed, 27-year-old employee might never have moved to Australia's southern coast from England to his first position keeping the machines running at the Wolseley Sheep Shearing Company.

From shearing company to sheer automotive genius? Austin was no average employee.

Born in 1866 to a family of hard-working farmers, Austin maintained those first shearing machines so well he was asked to return to Wolseley's headquarters in England to supervise the whole operation.

In his spare time a legacy blossomed.

From the darkness of his garage, Austin would remember the long journeys into the Australian Outback, the same trips that gave him insight into the need for gasoline-powered vehicles. It was the future, he believed.

A few years later he built an experimental three-wheeled motor car that was propelled by a two-cylinder engine. A year after that, his first four-wheeler was exhibited at the renowned Crystal Palace exhibition center in England. And, by the turn of the century, his three-horsepower, single-cylinder, two-seat carriage was capable of traveling 100 miles without stopping.

He was onto something. The wool could wait. The Wolseley group felt the world could not.

With Austin as general manger, the Wolseley Tool and Motor Company opened. After taking the company name around the world, Austin resigned and looked to begin his own business.

With 20,000 pounds of capital, he founded the Austin Motor Company in 1905 in a small derelict printing shop near Longbridge, England. He received his first orders at the 1905 London Motor Show and produced his first car, the 25-horsepower Endcliffe Phaeton that cost 650 pounds. Word quickly spread. Skilled craftsmen from around the country were on their way to the new plant.

Austin made 120 cars the first year. A night shift at the plant came next. And, soon after that, new models were developed and activity hummed.

They made everything at that little plant - cars with four-cylinder engines, six-cylinders and even a 9.7-liter engine with 60 horsepower.

Eight years later the company was producing more than 1,500 cars with 2,000 employees.

When the First World War began in 1914, he halted production of his popular vehicles and changed everything over to munitions. His organizational ability to achieve remarkable volume out of one plant turned his factory into a central production point in England.

When the war ended, Austin went back to what he knew best.

He made the Austin Twenty, a vehicle powered by a 6.6-liter engine, as well as the Austin Twelve and the Austin Seven, a then-new concept in small cars conceived in the billiard room of his home.

The Seven was meant to meet the needs of the everyday family. Not everyone saw the genius. Austin received great opposition from his board of directors, and and had to finance the project himself and do most of the work in his garage.

In the end, the Seven would be exactly what post-war England wanted. Within four years, production of the 'Chummy', as it became known, topped 14,000 units per year.

Business was booming. Through the 1920s and '30s, Austin was Britain's largest manufacturer.

Another world battleground again sent him into the factory to help supervise the changeover to munitions.

Austin died at his home in late May of 1941, a full 36 years after forming his car company.

Later, heavily modified Austin Sevens became the foundation for the Lotus Car Company and Austin itself became part of the giant British Motor Corporation.

But his designing genius and unfailing energy made him an inspiration to many for years to come.

The Mini, which arrived in 1959, was based on Austin's Seven and his concept of small-car transportation.

Mostly, Austin was a man of many things and those efforts were frequently recognized.

He was knighted in 1917 for his services to the war effort in England. He also held public office as a Conservative member of the House of Commons from 1919-1924. In 1936 he was made a Baron - Lord Austin of Longbridge - for his philanthropic efforts, including support for several Birmingham hospitals and research centers.

In life, and death, he was no average man.

Jason Stein is a feature writer and the editor of Wheelbase Communications' RaceWEEK racing page. He can be reached at

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