A Short History of the Austin 12/4 1921 – 1930

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Having gained the experience of new production techniques during the First World War, the British Motor industry re-started with renewed vigour in 1919. The first British car on the market was the brilliant Austin Twenty which was of such an advanced design that its production was continued basically unchanged until after the close of the Vintage period. Many other firms followed suit and the market was soon flooded with British and foreign cars of about twenty horsepower in the £700 to £1,200 range.

To cater for the increasing number of owner drivers demanding a light, economical car that was something more than a cyclocar, Sir Herbert Austin set out to design and develop the “Austin Twelve”. This was to be little more than a scaled down model of the already popular Twenty and was described as “a utility vehicle of attractive appearance and efficient performance”.

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1921 arrived with little in the way of new developments, a murmur was heard from the press in March that the Austin Company was in some sort of financial difficulty and that the Longbridge Factory would probably have to cease production for a few months. Money was short in 1921/2 following the spending boom of the immediate post war years and the motor industry was one of the first to suffer. This particular rumour however was vigorously denied and although Austin products were excluded from the 1921 Automobile Show the “Twelve” was introduced to the public on 1st December 1921. It was shown in the Oxford Street Showrooms from the 4th – 12th November and a model was sent to the “Motor” to be tested and inspected. This was strictly the non-production, prototype model and had a five main bearing 1660cc engine of bore and stroke 72 x 102mm, giving 20 B.H.P at 2000 rpm. and having an R.A.C. rating of 12.8 H.P. This car had no front wheel brakes and differed from the 1922 production model by having  four stud Michelin disc wheels fitted with 760 x 90 beaded edge tyres, only one bolt on each side of the windscreen frame and a handbrake on the left of the centrally mounted gear lever. It was to cost approximately £550.

In January 1922 a number of Twelves were shown at the Scottish Show, most of them having Scottish coachbuilders. Those models had detachable wooden wheels and 760 x 100 BE Tyres, a 9ft 4in wheelbase, 4ft track and  9in ground clearance.  Austin built bodies were available as a 4 seater tourer at £550, the 2 seater at £535, and the Coupe at £695.

It is assumed that many orders were received in early 1922. In that year sales improved and the demand for more comfort seems to have been great, no longer were motorists content to sit in open, draughty cars through all weathers. Rear passenger screens were fitted to touring cars; fixed on to the back of the driver’s seat they offered good protection for passengers and became a standard fixture on the “special” models of most tourers, including the Austin.

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Austins led the field (in the cheaper range) by being the first to provide, as a standard fitting, side curtains that ‘opened with the door’. These were supplied on all of the Austin open models and being rather cumbersome jointed affairs probably spent most of their lives stowed away under the rear seat or in the pocket provided for them in the back of the front seat.

Some details of the actual production model that stirred the motorists of 1922 include a four speed gear box with ratios of 5.2, 8,12.1 and 19.1 to 1, either steel or wooden artillery wheels with 765 x 105 BE tyres, a two bladed fan, and an H.T. Magneto. The car weighed 19 cwt. fitted with the four seater touring body which was 12ft 9in long and 4ft 10in wide. Finish was either in blue or grey and provision was made for the carrying of two spare wheels on the rear bracket. Aluminium alloy pistons were used from the earliest production model.

A famous motoring weekly tested the 1922 model. This, a perfectly standard tourer, it was claimed, weighing just over 20 cwt. was reported to have averaged 43.9 mph over the measured mile at Brooklands. Good points noted were the exceptionally light steering (to be marred later by the introduction of medium and low pressure tyres) the accessibility and flexibility of the engine. Bad points included unsteadiness at ‘high speed’ with no passengers in the back, overcooling causing difficulty in starting from cold and ‘slight chatter’ when the handbrake was applied. The car can hardly be blamed for the following two ‘faults’ – accidental depression of the throttle whilst using the footbrake, and a ‘whirring sound’ noticed on several occasions. This whirring, the tester admitted, was due to the fact that he rested his left foot on the starter switch whilst in motion!

The earliest date of purchase seems to be by a gentleman on the 24th February 1922 who proudly stated in an Austin advertisement in April that he had completed 300 miles at an average of 28 mpg. Austin Twelves sold well during the early part of 1922 and the Austin House Journal, the ‘Advocate’, was first introduced, whilst delighted owners continued to figure in regular full page advertisements. Then competition became fierce and a new slogan was to be seen in advertisements: “for every foreign car brought into England two workmen are put out of work.”

In July 1922 the “Seven”, an alternative to the motorcycle combination, was announced. This, followed by price reductions to take effect from 1923, seemed to stimulate interest. The new “Twelve” prices were to be: a 4 or 2/4 seater tourer at £490, the “Harley” 2 door Coupe with leather hood and the “Berkeley” landaulotte at £600. A version of the 4 and 2/4 seater tourers, obtainable in one colour only and supplied with a spare wheel with a tyre was offered at £450. This had the desired effect – the Seven, with four wheel brakes in 1923 at about £160 and the Twelve at £450 made the Austin one of the most popular everyday cars of the period. Slight reductions in prices occurred later in 1923 and the 4 seater tourer became known as the 5 seater, the 1924/5 seater touring model was to be slashed to £375 for the standard model and £395 for the special. At the 1923 Olympia Show the “Windsor” was first shown and was priced at £550.

During 1924 models could be obtained in a choice of colours and with either leather or Bedford cord upholstery. Air vents were placed in the scuttle sides of the 1924 5 seater tourer which was reduced to £355, complete with rear screen.

Four wheel brakes were very popular during 1924 and on October 2nd Austin announced that from 30th September all models would be fitted with simultaneously applied four wheel brakes and shock absorbers. These brakes were only adapted after they had undergone twelve months of trials and tests, this was necessary to satisfy a slightly doubting public, many of whom were not too happy about brakes on the front wheels. By the way, these brakes were capable of halting the car in 126ft from 40 mph in top gear. Tyres were also changing (not by Austins who were still using beaded edge at this time) the new Dunlop Balloons and the straight-side tyres designed for medium pressure were to be seen on some of the models at the 1924 show.

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1929 Windsor Saloon

Austin Twelve 1925 models and prices at Olympia in 1924 included: the bare chassis at £270, the “Hertford” 2/4 seater tourer at £355, the “Harley” all weather “Berkeley” landaulette and the “Windsor” saloon all at £475. The track on these models had increased by 4in to 4ft 4in and the length by 9in. to 13ft 6in, a BLIC Magneto and 6 volt CAV electrics were fitted and the central instrument panel with two glove compartments was adopted.

Windscreen wipers were fitted for the first time on the 1925 models, rubber pipes for these being fitted to a new suction elbow on the top of the Autovac; also clocks, mirrors, spring gaiters, electric horns, luggage carriers and Motometers were supplied as standard. Covered cars were coach painted and varnished and were obtainable in the following range of colours: Royal Blue, Kingfisher Blue, Elephant Grey, Nigger Brown and Maroon. Prices were again lowered during September1925 and, owing to increasing popularity, a new saloon was introduced – the “Ivor” costing £470 which was £15 more than the “Windsor” the only difference being the addition of a glass partition behind the driver. The chassis was to cost £270; other models being the tourer at £350, the “Gordon” saloon at £455, or with a division £470, and the “Mulliner” four door at £395.

High pressure beaded edge tyres were still standard with medium pressure Balloons available as optional items, there still not being complete confidence in them in 1925. At Olympia the 1926 Models were introduced. They were provided with wider doors and bolt-on side screens and all models had the new horn ring switch fitted. Leather upholstery was used on the open models and Bedford Cord or leather on the closed.

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1926 Clifton Tourer

From February 1926 3.3/8 x 4 3/4 Balloon tyres were used throughout, the later type of Zenith carburettor with an air strangler was employed and the “Clifton” hood was given a more squarely shaped back. Prices were reduced from the 1st March, the “Clifton” dropping to £295. This was probably done to help clear out the old stocks as quickly as possible for the first major change in the Austin Twelve was to take place in September 1926 – the introduction of the increased stroke engine which was produced to carry the heavier bodies. A different crankshaft was used and the 114.5 mm stroke increased the engine capacity to 1861cc. BHP at 2000 RPM was increased to 27 but the RAC rating remained at 12.8 – an increase in this rating would have meant higher taxation as the rate was then £1 per H.P.

The following were the main features of the 1927 models at the 1926 show at Olympia. All metal bodies were provided and the bottom of the windscreen was curved. Cellulose, which had recently been introduced and proved successful was used on all models. 1927 models were at reduced prices once again; the “Windsor” saloon at £350, the “Clifton” at £275, the “Iver” at £375 and the “Open Road Tourer de Luxe” at £325.

In October 1926 a ‘Lap’ overhead valve conversion was available at £30 however there is no information available as to the suitability of this head and it does not appear to have been very popular. There is also the mystery of a1954 cc. engine with a120 mm stroke and the rear axle with a top gear ratio of 4.8, giving an average of ’27 mpg over 10,150 miles.

For the 1928 the track was again increased by 4in to 4ft 8in and the radiator was increased in height to provide more efficient cooling for the larger engine. Prices were reduced slightly: the chassis to £195, the Mulliner 2 seater and Clifton at £255 (£10 extra for a rear screen) the Open Road tourer and 2 seater special at £295, the Windsor and Iver saloons £325, a Mulliner 4 door Weyman saloon £325, and the Gordon saloon and Fabric Saloon landaulet £375. Owing to the growing popularity of six cylinder engines in 1928 Austins introduced the 16/6. During 1928 the Twelve became even more popular, the door handles on all models were changed with the straight type replacing the older carriage variety.

For the 1929 models shown at Olympia in 1928 the 8 gallon petrol tank was replaced by a 10 gallon tank, 30 x 5 s.s. tyres were fitted, the width of the car was now 5ft 6iin and the overall length increased by 2in; full length slots were also cut in the bonnet ” to improve the appearance”.

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All prices were much reduced: the Clifton to £245, the Open Road 5 seater and 2 seater to £265, the Fabric Saloon to £305, and the Burnham saloon to £315. The Austin Twelve of 1930 was to be greatly changed, the car had gained an enormous following but its days were numbered, surprisingly enough it lasted until about 1935 – even the introduction of the dull 11.9 HP model of the early 1930’s did not seriously affect its popularity. Prices were increased for 1930 when a new long lever, ball change crash gear box was fitted, a small plastic control lever block, Triplex glass throughout, chromium plating on all outside fittings, wider running boards, single sliding front seats, a lower chassis, which placed the frame an inch nearer the ground, new type domed wings, silent rubber spring shackle bushes, the petrol tank was moved to the rear and 30 x 5 wired-on tyres were used. All closed models were available with sliding roofs at an extra cost of £5 and two new models were introduced called the “Sportsman” saloon at £320 and the “Four Light” saloon in fabric at £310.

A resource for owners of the 'unbreakable' Austin