Infants learn the rhythm and tone of their native language before they’re born. In fact, newborns from different countries have different cries. My mom brought me home in a 1970 Austin America. I can’t consciously remember it, but it burned an obsession with tiny, quirky little cars into the synapses of my brain.
If you remember the car, you’re snickering or cringing (or both). It was absolute crap, disintegrating into iron-oxide dust in a light rain or simply rattling itself to bits out of the dealer lot. But despite its faults, it was an impressive little car. It was designed by the legendary Sir Alec Issigonis the man behind the original Mini, with assistance from PininFarina. It had unit-body construction and a transverse-mounted four driving the front wheels. It was also the first car to employ Dr. Alex Moulton’s crazy-ass Moulton Hydrolastic pressurized liquid and rubber suspension. The system used fluid-filled rubber bags at each corner to absorb shock. The bags were connected front to back, making a kind of real-time adaptive ride height setup. It worked really well—when it worked—and gave the little car an extremely smooth ride and good handling characteristics.
The Morris 1100 debuted in the UK in 1962. British Leyland began exporting it to the US as the Austin America in 1968 to compete with the VW beetle, touting it as the “perfect second car.” Technologically, it was a century ahead of the VW. It was front wheel drive and had disk brakes. It had a 1.3-liter four good for 58 horsepower and 69 pound-feet of torque and only weighed 1,800 pounds. It was roomy for its size, and thanks to its innovative suspension, smooth riding and nimble.
But, like I said, it was also horrid. Issigonis designed the engine and transmission as one piece—the transmission actually served as an oil pan. Because the transmission ran engine oil, it was prone to failure. Especially the automatic. Add mythical Lucas Electrics and shoddy Leyland build quality to the mix and you’ve got a rolling time bomb. Of course the VW wasn’t much better, but it ultimately trounced the Austin in sales due to its cuteness and cult following.
My Mom’s Austin was white, with a four speed manual. It perished shortly after I was born. See, Mom sold the car to get a roomier and more reliable 1978 Mazda GLC five door (in orange). The guy who bought it drove it off the road and into a tree a week or two later. The guy was okay, but the Austin was totaled.
The Austin may be gone, but it left its mark on my psyche. I can’t see any hatchback without taking a second look. I dream of owning a Mini Cooper S and consider anything bigger than a GTI an absolute tank. The Austin may have been a crappy little car, but it was my first crappy little car and it shaped my automotive tastes for good.
For more information about the Austin America, visit Austin America USA.