Austin A40 Sports - The Jensen Connection

To develop and build lower quantity niche models Austin cooperated with various English coachbuilding companies to produce bodies for cars to be sold under the Austin name. One of these long-lasting cooperative arrangements was that between the Jensen Motor Company and Austin.


In the late 1940s, Jensen was producing a conglomerate of low-volume vehicles. They were building small trucks, buses to order and doing work for other car manufactures. But the Jensen Brothers were eying to produce a line of fast, modern, high end touring cars under their own name as well as they did before the war. According to Richard Calver, the design which should carry Jensen forward into the 1950s had its genesis on a trip to Switzerland: Richard and Elizabeth Jensen were holidaying with friends Michael and Pam Christie (see Race Her!) when the idea for building the next Jensen in the Italian style was born. Impressed by the new Italian design ideas Richard and Michael cobbled together some sketches which they discussed with the new house designer Eric Neale on their return to England (Calver 2007). Neale and Jensens chief draughtsman (=engineer) Colin Riekie who had joined the company shortly before Neale happily embraced the project.

For this project, the Jensens needed mechanical components, especially a chassis and a drivetrain, and more orders to keep their company economically healthy. 


Contacts to Austin already existed from the fabrication of K2 & A70 Hampshire pickup bodies at Jensen and using Austin components for the Jensen PW saloon, so to check with Austin for components seems to be a logical move. One account (that has just recently been repeated: Barrett 2019, p. 26, the original source of this variant is unknown to me) tells the story of a difficult start of this post-war cooperation: The idea of the Jensen’s first new car model the “PW" was to offer a luxury saloon to compete with the more expensive offerings typical of Daimler, Bentley, and Rolls Royce. So one can imagine the shock at Jensen when Austin came up with the same idea and a kind of similar design with their A125 Sheerline, beating Jensen's price by 1000 pounds. So in this story, a furious Richard Jensen went to meet Austin chairman Leonard Lord to complain about stealing Jensen's design, only to come back with an Austin order and to be allowed to use Austin components including an engine for their Interceptor model. Colin Riekie hinted at one point that he knew about the background of the "long story" to "this one", the Interceptor, but I don't think he shared them somewhere. 


Barney Sharratt (Sharratt 2000, p. 93f.) summarizes Eric Neale’s recollections of the origins of the Austin A40 Sports as follows: "I went to Longbridge with Richard Jensen hoping to persuade Len Lord to let us have the A70 chassis and Sheerline engine for our Interceptor sports car. Lord loved wheeling and dealing [of the Interceptor design] and said he would agree provided we designed him a sports car too. So I designed the Interceptor and A40 Sports at one and the same time. […] When Dick Jensen took the drawings for the A40 Sports to Longbridge, Lord just said, 'Make one.' We made prototypes and got an order for 3,000 (?). I didn't build any models. I just used my own method of line development to produce the different sections and handed those out to the panel makers in the experimental shop. The prototypes were all made by hand. The assembly of the production A40 Sports was all done at Jensen. We made jigs to argon arc weld the aluminum pressings together. The motorized chassis came from Longbridge and we mounted the bodies, painted, trimmed, and finished them. The bonnet was in steel but the external body panels, including the boot lid, were in aluminum."

The design of the Austin A40 Sports was unlike any other car in the Austin range and unlike any of the other small sports cars, British companies were offering. Leonard Lord was probably eying at the success MG had with their somehow dated T series abroad. Jensen in return got a contract to produce the small convertible in numbers so far way out of their reach! For Jensen, this contract proved invaluable to test their skills at mass production and as competent partners for Austin. Producing an aluminum body not only suited Jensen's capabilities, but it also resulted in a lighter car and helped out Austin's quota of steel.


In 1949 a small number of prototypes were built and two finished cars were sent to Austin for in-depth pre-release testing in Spring 1950. They were taken on extensive test tours together with the Austin A40 Somerset and Austin A70 Hereford prototypes also in the test phase for launching. One group of drivers took their cars on a continental tour to the French Alps and to the Riviera. A second group did their tests in British East Africa almost wrecking their cars into pieces (Feilden 1951). The A70 Hereford and the Sports were finally ready to be shown on Austin stand No. 141 at the 1950 Earls Court motor show in London and in Geneva shortly afterward. Michael Alexander Christie who was involved in the early sketching process liked the cars so much that he bought the first Jensen Interceptor and owned an Austin A40 Sports later as well.


The initial production for the Austin A40 Sports bodies was set up along the A70 pickup production line in the main Carters Green works, with 170 bodyworkers busily fabricating bodies. It seems that the Jensen brothers quickly realized that more space was needed, so a new plant was rented and the production lines were set up in two newly constructed buildings at Pensnett Industrial Estate (Brown & Whyley 1992). Jensen enthusiast Felix Kistler has just recently been able to find out about the exact location of the site and wrote an interesting background story about it (see sources). The Jen-Tug line was moved to Pensnett as well. For the A40 Sports bodies, the basic aluminum pressings were supplied by Austin as well as the motorized chassis and the coachbuilders at Jensen built and painted a body to be dropped on the chassis.


Volume production in the new factory started mid-1951 and was soon full underway. Model change to the later column change GD3 variant was done in August 1951 and from Autumn 1951 to October 1952 there was a steady output of between 220 and 320 Sports bodies per month! (only the Jensen accounting numbers have survived, so actual production timing might be slightly different; thanks again to Richard Calver for this interesting information). Production sharply dropped in November 1952. Leonard Lord had just struck a deal with Donald Healey to produce their new Healey 100 as Austin-Healey 100 and the fate of the Austin A40 Sports was immediately evident to Austin and Jensen management. Especially American customers had wanted more power in a real sports car package and the Austin-Healey 100 promised to offer just that. Using Austin components it could be offered at a price tag in between the Jaguar XKs and the small MGs.


The outcome of this development for Jensen Motors was fortunate luckily! Since they had proved their skills to produce bodies for Austin in considerable numbers and quality, they got a new contract from Austin shortly afterward: they were chosen to produce the bodies of the new Austin-Healey model. But that is another story.

 

A GD2 Austin A40 Sports at the Pensnett factory with four proud workers.            Source Richard Calver 2007.

 Sources:

 

Barrett, Scott 2019. 'Moulded Marvel. The glassfibre 541 was Jensen's first foray into the genuine high-speedgrand touring market'. The Automobile, 36, No. 11, Jan. 2019, pp. 24-30.

 

Brown, Stuart J. and David Whyley 1992. Austin - The Counties Years. Newbridge, Arthur Southern for the Austin Counties Car Club.

 

Calver, Richard 2007. '1950-52: Austin A40 Sports.' In: Richard Calver. A History of Jensen - All the Models. Privately Printed, pp. 154-155.

 

Feilden, Ralph 1951. 'Testing Two New Austin Models Under Severe Overseas Conditions'. Great Britain and the East, Vol. 67, 1951, p. 42-43.

 

Kistler, Felix. 'Jensen Motors - Pensnett Factory'. http://www.jensenmuseum.org/jensen-factory-pensnett-kingswinford/

 

Sharratt, Barney 2000. Man and Motors of 'The Austin'. London: Haynes.

 

Taylor, Mike 1982.  'Devon Cream’. Classic & Sportscar, 8/1982, pp. 47-48.