Austin A40—Joe and Maureen Vavra
The Austin A40 sedan was a best seller in Australia after World War II. The big American cars long favoured by the Australian motorist were short in supply and the new Aussie car, the Holden, had not yet made its mark, although it was soon to do so. These cars were also expensive.
The A40 Countryman was first offered as a production vehicle in September of 1948. The Countryman was essentially the Panel Van body with a rear folding bench seat and with windows added to make a metal-bodied estate car.
The Countryman, advertised as a two door 4/5 seater wagon with excellent carrying capacity, particularly with the rear seat folder flat, was aimed squarely at the man on the land, at a time when Australia was said to be “riding on the sheep’s back”.
Our story of the “Batmobile”
I admit my darling wife Maureen, did not necessary accept my wedding anniversary present to her in 1971with quite the amount of gratitude I expected.
We lived in Sydney then. I bought MaurAeen the 1953 A40 Countryman as means of economical transport, from a workmate of mine at Nu-Ford Sales at Lakemba. He was the one who named the car the “Batmobile”. After 18 years of use the car had faded duco, rather worn upholstery and more than a suspicion of rust.
However, Maureen soon came to appreciate her vehicle, recognising, as I had, that the car had character as well as being practical for family use with its wide opening rear doors, handy carrying capacity and inherent strength.
A previous owner had replaced the original engine with 1622 cc “B” series BMC engine. To that a Holden Stromberg carburettor had been added. That engine had heaps of power unlike the original 1200cc. Maureen’s brother borrowed the “Batmobile” one day, because his car had been stolen, as he drove to work approaching an intimidating hill, he thought he should change down a gear or two. So he did, from 4th down to 2nd in one change at 45 m.p.h. This resulted in the crankshaft snapping like a fresh carrot. His ignorance was never forgotten. A second-hand 1200cc OHV engine, as originally fitted, and in quite serviceable condition was located and installed.
Eight years of hard work ahead. Thus began a restoration project which was to take us more than eight years to complete (notice I said us, Maureen helped), in between starting a family, moving house and coping with normal work commitments.
In order to learn more about our car I made contact with other Austin A40 owners. Some of them had begun to exchange ideas and know-how. A few of us joined the Austin A40 Car Club of Australia Victoria. We soon realised there was a need for a club in NSW to cater for locals and their A40s. The Austin A40 Car Club of Australia (NSW branch) was formed and I became a foundation member.
Restoration work then proceeded in earnest. We carried out much of the work ourselves, using very little outside professional help. The job was made much easier with the help and support of Maureen and A40 club mates.
I started by removing the body from the chassis and restoring the chassis to its former glory. Next I tackled the job of rewiring the car. When I removed the old wiring loom, it literally fell apart in my hands. I then set about rewiring the vehicle myself with little experience, loads of kept knowledge of electricity from school days and only a workshop manual (from a Morris Minor low light) to guide me. As it turned out, the wiring diagrams are very similar between the Austin and Morris. It was necessary to call in outside help to repair the badly rusted body sills, which had holes as big as your fist in them.
A Bedtime story.
One amusing side light on the restoration is about an old and rather disreputable mattress I obtained so I could lay the Countryman body on its side to work on the underside. The lady, who owned the mattress sitting in her carport, was sure I wanted to take the dirty, old thing home to sleep on. I had a job convincing her of what I was actually going to use it for.
One of the most laborious tasks was reupholstering the car. Earlier A40’s had been upholstered in leather but the Countryman and other commercial vehicles used Leatherette, similar to vinyl with less stretch. Carefully I set about hand-stitching new upholstery to match and retain the original pattern. Maureen’s domestic sewing machine was not equal to the task, so it looked like hand stitching was the only way.
When it seemed as though I was going to wear my fingers out on those seats, I began to look around for a better method. I invested in a second-hand industrial sewing machine, which set us back about $500 (a fair cop in 1978), but it was worthwhile. The finished upholstery, carpet and trim took about three weeks of concerted effort and looked great.
A tradesman friend of mine, Reg Lloyd, who had studied the mystic art, applied an authentic simulated woodgrain finish to the metal dashboard and front door window surrounds. I tackled varnishing the natural timber with which the sides of the interior of the car are lined.
Maureen and I laboriously stripped the body of all traces of paint, this took ages. Using an airless spray-gun, I etch-primed and applied five coats of undercoated to the body. The car remained in the garage in undercoat for about 4 months of summer. In this time I managed to buy a second-hand 8 cfm air compressor and 8 litres of “Land Rover Light Green” Dulon acrylic paint. The compressor was used to spray the smaller bits and pieces and I intended to spray the body using it.
Seeing I was a bit reluctant to tackle spraying the body, a good mate of ours, Tony Andrews, who was quite adept at spray painting, offered to do the job, so I accepted. We soon found our compressor couldn’t keep the air supply up when spraying larger bits like the body. So Tony went home and returned with his 12 cfm compressor. The job was finished to a very high standard by the following afternoon.
The home stretch.
There were bits of painted A40 scattered all over the yard. Our motivation to have the car finished was the A40 Club’s rally to Adelaide. It was only two weeks to departure day now. In fact, even with our huge effort, working late past midnight for days, it looked very much as though our family would not be able to take part, as on the appointed day, the “Batmobile” was still without glass and unregistered.
Reluctantly, the others in the club said “join us in Melbourne” as they left to fit in with the timetable and arrangements they had already made. Just one day later the Countryman was registered, a pop-up camper attached, and the Vavra family was on its way to catch up with the advance party.
Station Wagon or Panel Van?
By definition, the “Department of Motor Transport” now the RTA in NSW, would not accept the vehicle for registration as a station wagon. Their definition of a station wagon was: four door vehicle with open space behind the rear seat for luggage or goods. The Countryman had only two doors. They accused me of fitting the side windows and back seat myself. Naturally I disagreed with them. I then produced the A40 workshop manual that clearly illustrates the Countryman features. The inspector insisted I fit a pair of external mirrors as a compromise. I saw an opportunity for a win – win situation so I ducked out and paid $20 each for the mirrors, out of our holiday money. All else considered this was a minor problem in passing the necessary strict test applied to register an older vehicle that had been off the road for eight years.
The evidence that the “Batmobile” was worthy of registration is supported by the fact that the otherwise untried vehicle was able to complete the round trip to Adelaide and back uneventfully. The distance is about 5000 kilometres (or 3000 miles as recorded by the A40 speedo), with only a brake adjustment necessary and some “shaking out of cobwebs” from one or two instruments and gauges.
Competition & Rallies.
All this took place in May 1981. Since then “Batty”, as named by Maureen, has recorded a number of successes in Concours, including a National outright win for A40s of all models in Melbourne in 1983 and winner of the Commercial Vehicle class at the All British Day held at Greens Motor museum in 1984.
The “Batmobile” has travelled to and participated in: the A40 Rally in Adelaide; many A40 Concours in Melbourne & Sydney; all the Austins Over Australia rallies (Tamworth, Yass, Wangaratta Toowoomba, Queanbeyan, Adelaide); numerous NRMA Motorfests in Sydney; many All British Days in Sydney, Wagga Wagga, Griffith NSW, Canberra. And many other club organised events. All these were achieved under its own power. She only had to be trailered when we moved from Leeton to Canberra.
The old girl (the car) is showing normal signs of much use and age and could do with a tidy up here and there, but I still trust her to take us anywhere and get us home safely. Mind you, we have had our moments.
Specifications: 1953 Austin A40 GP4 Countryman.
Number Manufactured 1948 – 57: 26,587.
Options fitted: Heater, day / night mirror, Petrol locking cap and chrome dress rims.
Engine: 1200 cc Overhead valve, cast iron monobloc type with crankcase being integral part of block, compression 7.2:1. Bore and Stroke 65.48 mm x 89 mm. Maximum BHP 40 at 4300 rpm. Maximum torque 59 at 2400 rpm.
Induction: Downdraught Zenith type with accelerator pump.
Transmission: 4-speed manual column shift with synchromesh on 2nd, 3rd and 4th gears.
Brakes: front and rear Girling hydraulic drums 9” diameter x 1 ¼” width.
Suspension: Front Independent coil controlled by Armstrong double acting hydraulic shock absorbers. Rear – 9-leaf semi-elliptic reverse camber springs interconnected by anti-roll torsion bar.
Curb Weight: Early models with a fabric roof insert and an aluminium rear body section 1,900 pounds. The later steel body models weighed 2,259 pounds. Estimated top speed: 70 m.p.h. (downhill with a tail wind).
The Countryman (GP2) with full chrome grill as for the sedan, was introduced in September of 1948. GP3, with new pressed metal grill, was introduced in May of 1951. GP4 was introduced in August of 1951. GP5 was introduced in September of 1954 and discontinued in March of 1957. The GP5 was fitted with the new 1200cc “B” Series engine.
In August of 1951 the A40 models were changed to use a column gear change, a centrally-located instrument panel, a different steering wheel and full hydraulic brakes.
In 1950 the Countryman sold for £147 more than the Panel Van.
An A40 Devon 4 door sedan, 4 cylinder and quite nicely furnished, cost about £760 ($1520), as did the 4 cylinder member of the Vauxhall family, the Wyvern. On the other hand the Holden was more than £900 ($1800) and the American cars such as Ford, Dodge and Chevrolet were well over £1000 ($2000). With such long waiting lists some buyers were even prepared to pay a premium to get the car of their choice!
The four cylinder British cars were more economical too. An A40 with its 1200cc engine was capable of a useful 30 m.p.g. (10.7 km / ltr).