Thursday 8th November 1866
Born on this day, in Little Missenden, Buckinghamshire – Herbert Austin, – English automobile designer and constructor who founded the Austin Motor Company in 1905. In 1882, at the age of 16, he went to Melbourne, Australia with his uncle, and served an apprenticeship as an engineer at Langlands foundry. During the following eleven years to 1893, he worked for six other engineering firms.
In 1893, Herbert was working for the Wolseley Sheep Shearing Company, where he soon became manager. He was asked to return to Birmingham by Frederick Wolseley to supervise a sheep shearing equipment manufactory firstly in a small workshop in Broad Street, and later in a larger works at Alma Street, Aston, Birmingham. As the sale of sheep shearing machinery is seasonal, the company also made bicycle components and small machine parts. Austin was therefore able to acquire varied experience, and his adaptability and inventiveness were displayed by many patents taken out in his name at this period. He was invited to join the board in 1901, and from 1911 onwards he served as chairman
Austin’s early Australian experiences had necessitated long arduous journeys over very poor roads; and so, having had personal experience of slow and uncomfortable road travel, he was one of the earliest engineers in England to envisage the possibilities of the petrol-driven vehicle. As early as 1895, he had produced his first car, a three-wheeler steered by tiller. (As the Wolseley board would not finance the building of this car, Herbert Austin rented premises down the road from the Wolseley factory to build the car himself with help from his brother and others. This therefore makes the car a Pre-Austin Motor Company Austin. The vehicle is now housed at the Motor Heritage Centre, Gaydon, Warwickshire, UK, and is marked as a Wolseley). In 1896, an improved model was exhibited at the crystal Palace, London. Long hours over the drawing-board and in the workshop brought the reward of a silver medal and first prize in a thousand mile trial held in 1900. During the following five years, Austin remained as general Manager of the Wolseley Tool and Motor Car Company limited, then in 1905, he launched out into business for himself with the modest capitol of £20,000, as the Austin Motor Company Ltd. His choice of site at Longbridge – then outside the confines of Birmingham, demonstrated foresight, in that there was ample space for expansion, and that road and railway communications were excellent. Beginning with 270 hands, the works produced 120 cars in 1906, and by 1914 when the firm went into public ownership capitalised at £250,000, was employing a staff of 2,000 and had an annual output of 1,000 cars. In 1906, 120 25 hp Endcliffe Phaeton costing £650 were produced, and in 1908, three special racing cars at 100hp were produced and entered in the French Grand Prix. The car driven by J.T.C. Moore Brabazon came in a creditable fifteenth. At this time, production of the main stream cars had become so popular that a night shift was introduced at the factory and production hit a thousand cars per year. In 1913, a two ton lorry was produced, establishing Austin as a manufacturer of commercial vehicles.
During the 1914 – 18 war the plant was turned over to making guns, shells, and aeroplanes, and as many as 22,000 workers were employed. Austin’s services to war production were recognised in 1917 by appointment as commander of the Order of Leopold 11 in Belgium. From 1918 to 1924 he was Conservative member of Parliament for the Kings Norton division of Birmingham, and from 1919 to 1925 he served on the governments labour resettlement committee.
At the end of the war, the factory returned to producing cars only and concentrated on a 20hp model which was sold for the staggeringly low price of £495, followed by a 12 hp model which also proved very popular. Then in 1920, Austin began working on the concept of a smaller car to meet the needs of the family and because he received great opposition from his board he financed the project himself. In July 1922, the new car designed by a small team under Herbert’s direction and called the Austin Seven was unveiled to the public. It quickly became known as the “Chummy” and sold for a mere £165. Sales began slowly. By 1924, the size of the engine was increased and other refinements such as an electric starter were introduced, and by 1926, production passed the 14,000 per year mark and the project was considered a success. A new version of the Seven was introduced in 1927 – nicknamed the “Top Hat”. Production of the seven continued until the start of world war two in 1939. By 1937, the factory size had increased to 220 acres, staff had increased to 16,600, with annual production of 78,000 vehicles. As in the earlier world war, production was turned over to the production of military vehicles and items during the second world war from 1939 to 45.
As Austin’s wealth increased he devoted large sums to philanthropic causes, notably to the work of the Birmingham hospitals, which he had supported from an early period in his business career. He was nominated chairman of Birmingham General Hospital in 1932, and in 1940 was president of Birmingham United Hospitals and Governor of the Royal Cancer Hospital, London. He equipped many hospitals for deep-ray therapy, and in 1936, gave £250,000 to the University of Cambridge to forward the work of Lord Rutherford at the Cavendish Laboratory.
Austin was created a Baron on 1936. He was prominent in the councils of the various engineering and transport associations, served on the transport Advisory Council in 1934 and was chairman of the shadow aero engine committee (to provide for possible war needs) from 1937 to 1940. The University of Birmingham conferred on him a honorary degree of Doctor of Law in 1937 and elected him a life member of it’s court of governors in 1940.
Like Henry Ford in the United States and Lord Nuffield in England, Herbert Austin was first and foremost a skilled engineer who rose through the workshop, the drawing office, and the sales organisation, by originality, foresight, and determination. The foundation of his success was the novelty and excellence of his designs for motor-cars. It was, for example, the Twelve and Seven models which re-established his firm in the difficult post-war period and initiated a new and still more successful phase in it’s history. His technical skill and the modesty of his bearing made him popular with his employees, for he knew how a piece of work should be done, and would lend a hand on a difficult task, or suggest the right way out of a technical impasse. An insatiable appetite for work often made him spend part of his week-end alone in the factory, pondering on improvements or planning new models, and by his acumen he realised that no wide expansion of the motor industry could take place so long as the ownership of the car remained a luxury. His temper might be sharp, but an outbreak would be over in a few moments and would give way to friendly talk with the person who had provoked it. He never forgot that economic worries, from which he himself was free, fell to the lot of the common man, and he would exercise self-denial in order to help the less fortunate.
In 1887, Austin married Helen (who died in 1942), daughter of James Dron, of Melbourne. They had two daughters, Irene, born in 1891, and Zita Elaine, born 1892. They also had a son Vernon, who was killed in action in 1915. The Peerage therefore became extinct upon the death of Lord Austin 1n 1941 at Lickey Grange, Bromsgrove on 23rd May 1941.