During the 1950s and early ’60s, before anyone had even heard of Honda, Nissan, Toyota or Hyundai, the best-selling import brand in Canada was Austin.
Models like the Devon, Somerset, Cambridge, Westminster and, eventually, Mini, dominated the small car market.
Like a lot of other Canadian families, we usually had an Austin of one type or another in the driveway when I was growing up. After emigrating to Canada from England after the war, my mother insisted on it, much to the chagrin and frustration of my Pontiac-driving father, who seemed to spend every spare minute fixing the little British saloons.
Austins were surprisingly comfortable and comparatively easy on gas, but hell on wheels when it came to maintenance. Fried head gaskets, out-of-tune carburetors and mysterious electrical glitches were routine nightmares.
Nor did they adapt well to Canadian driving conditions. For example, our family summer holiday sometimes involved driving through the Rockies to visit relatives in Alberta, which meant traversing the pre-TransCanada, Cascades Highway. Then, this was two-lane all the way, and sometimes too narrow to accommodate trucks and cars at the same time. If you came across a logging truck or transport coming the other way up in the mountains, you might have to squeeze over to the edge of the road and hope and pray he’d manage to get by. If that didn’t work, you backed your car up until you found a widening in the road.
So it was in the summer of 1959, when my father decided we’d take the family 1953 Austin Somerset to Alberta. With a mighty 42 horsepower on tap, a four-speed on the column gearshift, three kids in the back seat and a trunk full of luggage and camping gear, it’d overheat at the first sign of a hill.
We carried one of those South African canvas water bags to refill the radiator, which would be spouting steam like Old Faithful as soon as the elevation changed and we’d pull over to let it cool down. I can still see my mother, clicking her fingernails and sulking in the front seat, while the old man fussed with the car, and us kids went exploring.
At the end of it all, back home, he’d swear that that was it: no more Austins! But it wasn’t until the 1970s that he finally got the monkey off his back.
You’d think he’d have learned his lesson. But no. In 1986, one of his neighbours happened to be cleaning out his greenhouse, and there – resting under a canvas tarp – was a 1953 A40 Countryman purchased at an auction, years before. Although it hadn’t run in more than 20 years and was full of mice and wasp’s nests, it was all there and complete. He couldn’t help himself, and fell for it like a blind roofer.
According to the neighbour, the B.C. Forest Service had bought a fleet of these things for its timber cruisers and government inspectors. Although they started life as garden-variety A40 sedans, Austin apparently shipped them to an aftermarket coach builder, who fitted the back “estate” section of the vehicle.
With wood and leather interior trim, folding back seats, and a special low-ratio differential, they were almost luxurious inside, and did duty in the forests and back roads of B.C, despite lacking any kind of 4WD system. Designed for work, not play, they weren’t built in large numbers. There might be a dozen of them left, worldwide, mostly in Canada.
Anyway, after a one-year restoration, the ex-Forestry Service Countryman was roadworthy and ready to make the rounds at the show and shines.
My father, who taught automotive shop in high school for 25 years, hoisted the body off the frame, and everything was re-done; new engine, new running gear, new brakes, new tires, new wiring, new paint. Miraculously, the interior was almost perfect and only required a little TLC. Even the semaphore style flip-out signal indicators worked.
Initially, because of the low-ratio rear differential, the car wouldn’t do more than 70 km/h without revving itself to death, but once that was changed, it could manage 100 km/h with a bit left over.
At the first show and shine he attended, the Countryman took home first place in its class and, over the years, has gone on to win a wall-full of trophies and plaques. Although it’s often surrounded by much more expensive and prestigious automobiles, the little olive-drab Austin is a crowd favourite.
I sometimes attend these events and it’s a treat to sit there and watch the smiles that break out when people see it. Sometimes they’re moved to tears, as was the case with one middle-aged Scotsman, who described how his father, a butcher, had one for years back in the U.K.
The Countryman is still going strong, even after throwing a connecting rod a couple of years ago. This happened en route to a major British field meet, and I was leading the way in my own car at the time. As I looked in the rearview mirror to see how things were going, I heard a muffled thud accompanied by debris and oil spewing out of the bottom of the Austin. Popping the bonnet revealed a fist-sized hole through the side of the engine block and bits and pieces of shredded steel all over the ground.
Fortunately, the old man had a spare motor and, back home, he took out the blown engine and installed the new unit (at age 82, mind you). I drive it occasionally myself these days and the little green Countryman continues to steal people’s hearts wherever it’s parked.
Some people just never learn.