It might look dowdy now, but in the late 1950s the Austin A40 ushered in a whole new type of car – the small family hatch
How much to pay
• Project £400-800 • Good £1200-3000 • Concours £3200-5000 •
Running costs ★★★★★
DIY friendly ★★★★★
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In 1929, Austin recruited Italian stylist Dick Burzi to design its cars, and he went on to style all Austins of the immediate post-war period. These were conservative designs that suited the brand and its customers perfectly, but by the 1950s consumer tastes had changed. In 1952 Austin merged with Morris to create the British Motor Corporation, and three years later company head Leonard Lord decided it was time to be a little more daring.
Lord enlisted the help of Pininfarina to create a car that would take over where the A35 left off. In the event, the new A40 Farina sold alongside the A35 for several years, with the new model borrowing the mechanicals from the old one.
With the A40 Farina now so old it’s easy to think that at the time of its arrival it was no less conservative than its siblings, but when it was unveiled in 1958 the styling was bang up to date. At first the A40 featured a conventional boot despite the hatchback silhouette; a year later it became the world’s first production hatch built in any quantity, with the arrival of the split-tailgate Countryman.
Since production ended more than half a century ago most A40s have disappeared, ravaged by rust or crash damage. Survivors are rare, but find a good one and you’ve got a charming piece of British history for peanuts – and a very usable piece of history at that.
Your AutoClassics Austin A40 inspection checklist
The engine is the same A-series unit as seen in the A35 and Frogeye Sprite. The fitment of a scroll-type rear crank seal means leaks are inevitable, but lip seal conversions are cheap, which makes a big difference to the engine’s incontinence levels.
While the 948cc engine isn’t powerful, swapping it for a larger unit isn’t hard; you can choose between 1098cc or 1275cc powerplants in standard or breathed-on forms. If you want to create a Q car, an A40 with a twin-carb 1275cc engine will prove surprisingly perky, without guzzling fuel. Expect tappet noise and a rattling timing chain; a Duplex assembly will quieten things down.
The A-series engine will take hard use without complaint. Expect to get 100,000 miles between rebuilds; that’s when the cylinder bores will probably be too worn to function efficiently. To check for the early stages of this, run the engine with the oil-filler cap removed. If any fumes are evident, a rebore is due soon. Before the bores have worn the big end bearings can wear out, so listen for rumbling denoting their impending demise.
The A40’s ’box and back axle were carried over from the A35. There’s synchro on second, third and fourth, although early gearboxes had weak synchromesh on second ratio. Original cars will have a smooth gearbox casing (visible down the back of the engine), which is often substituted for the later ribbed version as seen in the A40 MkII – this is stronger and also features improved synchromesh. If the trans is getting worn it’ll jump out of gear while you’re giving it a test drive, but rebuilds aren’t especially costly.
Half-shafts break or bend, especially if the engine has been upgraded. A lack of soundproofing makes it easy to hear whines and knocks from the half-shaft splines once they begin to wear.
Suspension and brakes
At a time when rack-and-pinion steering was becoming the norm, BMC stuck to a cam-and-peg system. As a result the A40’s tiller isn’t very precise, but if it’s really vague an overhaul is due. Boxes last well, though, as shims can be removed and the peg can be gently tightened down. Oil leaks are common, too, but the cork oil seal can be replaced with a better one.
Kingpins form the basis of the front suspension on all A40s, with the MkII getting a stronger set-up. Whatever is fitted, it’ll need to be lubricated every 1000 miles if it isn’t to wear quickly. To check for wear, jack up the front of the car by supporting it under the front crossmember, and grip the road wheel top and bottom. Try to rock it – any play suggests kingpin wear, but to be certain get somebody to apply the footbrake while you repeat the process. If it’s ‘cured’, a new wheelbearing is needed – if there’s still play, the kingpin bushes or lower links (fulcrum pins) are due for replacement.
It’s worth upgrading from the early to the late kingpins for greater durability and strength; the bottom bush is more substantial. If you’re converting to disc brakes, this upgrade is essential. The rear springs – unique to the A40 – have a tendency to sag. If the wheelarch sits lower than the top of the tyre, they’ll need to be replaced or retempered.
All A40s came with drum brakes all round, but it’s possible to convert the front anchors to the disc set-up used for the Midget. Things are even easier if your start point is an A40 MkII, which featured the same uprated kingpins as the Midget. Again, it’s easier to fit the whole suspension from the MG.
Poor rustproofing, hopeless panel availability and low values ensure most A40s have at least some rust – often lots of it. Check the entire car from bumper to bumper, prodding, poking and looking for evidence of filler (take a magnet with you). Mk2 versions are more rust prone than the MkI because these later cars feature thinner metal. The MkI also had better rustproofing – although no A40 left the factory with truly decent protection from the elements.
You also need to check the whole car for signs of bodged repairs, but there are a few key areas that are likely to be hit first. These include the sills, wheelarches and door bottoms, along with the headlight surrounds, rear valance, floorpans and rear spring hangers. The A-posts, boot floor, lower wings and boot lid can also rot. So can the grille support and front valance, both of which bolt on so replacement is easy – if you can find suitable parts to fit.
It’s easy to overlook the scuttle, which incorporates the heater plenum chamber. Repairs here are involved, awkward and if you’re not able to do them yourself you’ll pay plenty for proper repairs. Also check the front crossmember, which the radiator sits above. Moisture gets trapped between the radiator and crossmember, and corrosion starts – and because it’s hidden out of sight, the rot can really set in before it’s spotted.
Although the original trim is hardwearing, age might be taking its toll by now. With no new trim available (including anything remanufactured) and most used parts being tatty, retrimming is your only option. Carpet sets are easy enough to make up, and seats can be reupholstered, too – at a price. Look for splits in the top of the dash; the sun can wreak havoc here.
It’s a similar story with the brightwork; new-old stock bits turn up regularly on eBay and in autojumbles, but there are no guarantees you’ll find a specific part. Bumpers can usually be rechromed (they’re the same between MkI and MkII, but have over-rider holes in different places) while over-riders can also normally be revived – MkI front items are unique, but those on the back of the MkI also fit the front and rear of the MkII. The headlight surrounds are Mazak, so they age and can’t be reclaimed.
- 1958: A40 unveiled at Paris Motor Show in October
- 1959: From March there’s improved soundproofing plus hinged boot floor to cover spare wheel; Countryman edition appears in September
- 1960: A40 MkII arrives in September, with wheelbase stretched by 3.5 inches. There are now wind-up windows, full-width grille, hydraulic brakes and two-tone trim
- 1962: In September 1098cc engine replaces 948cc unit, plus there’s higher final drive, stronger gearbox and kingpins, and larger clutch
- 1964: Simulated wood-grain dash supersedes previous crackle-black finish
- 1967: Last A40 built in November
If you’ve decided that the A40 is for you, your biggest problem will be finding one worth buying. Although they’re structurally and mechanically simple, poor panel availability means trying to fix the inevitable rust can be a thankless task.
You can’t really be too choosy about which version you buy, as the condition is more important than the specification. Having said that, the MkI’s low gearing and small engine mean long-distance journeys are hard work.
The higher gearing of the MkII makes it a better bet, especially if it’s got the later 1098cc powerplant – but it’s not especially difficult or costly to stick in a bigger engine or higher-ratio diff. Finding the parts isn’t always as easy as you might expect, though.
On this note, an A40 that’s already had a few tweaks to improve performance and usability is the best way to go, unless you’re an originality fetishist. A car with disc brakes up front, twin-carb 1275xx engine and taller axle ratio will provide you with a car that’s fun, practical, rare and affordable into the bargain.
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