By Brian Earnest
Back in the mid-1970s, Bob Cunningham came up with a unique way for choosing a car and charting his course in the old car hobby. The Des Moines, Ia., resident was no stranger to the world of old cars – he bought his first car, a 1936 Chevy, at the age of 15, and went on to own a 1927 Willys and ’52 Packard, so he hasn’t played favorites when it came to picking cars.
But being a bit of a bantamweight himself, Cunningham started to think maybe he needed to match his cars to his own stature. “Well, at time I was 120 lbs., and if I had a dead battery or broke down on the road, that was a lot weight to push around,” he said. “I decided to make a list of all the aesthetic qualities I wanted in a car, and then try to find them in the smallest car possible. That’s what led me to buy my first Bantam roadster in 1976.”
Cunningham says he took his wife, Cathy, who has turned into his equal as a American Austin/Bantam buff, on their honeymoon in the roadster in 1980. Their destination: their first Bantam club meet. Since then, the couple’s marriage has been a match made in micro-car heaven. The Cunninghams have gone on to immerse themselves in the quirky, undersized world of Bantams and American-Austins and have served as the editors for the American Austin Bantam Club News publication for many years. They have both become authorities on the history of their favorite little cars and are the proud owners of this week’s “Car of the Week:” a 1932 American Austin roadster.
The Cunninghams don’t drive the pint-sized roadster on the highway as much as they used to, but the car is still pretty much a daily driver for their shorter excursions in and around Des Moines. And regardless of how short the trips are, the little car with the seemingly oversized wheels never fails to illicit a reaction from other motorists.
“People think it’s a kit car, because it’s so little and cute,” Cathy said. “A lot of people see this type of car somewhere … W/C. Fields used it in one of his movies, and a lot of them were used as prop cars in the movies.”
Indeed, while they never really caught on with the buying public, didn’t enjoy a long production run, and were destined to become orphans a young age, the American Austins certainly didn’t lack personality. With almost cartoonish proportions, tiny 75-inch wheel bases, disc wheels, fat-looking tires and a high ground clearance (8 3/4 inches), they certainly had a look all their own. The cars were only 10 feet long, 4 feet, 4 inches wide and a weighed in at about 1,100 lbs. Looking a little like a fattened-up pedal car, the American Austins cars frequently turned up in films of the day, with celebrities like Buster Keaton, Ernest Hemmingway and the Our Gang kids all taking being seen crowded into their cozy confines.
American Austin was founded in 1929 and produced cars from 1930-34 in Butler Pa. The total production run during that time period was only about 20,000 cars. The company went into receivership in 1932 and production was halted in 1935-37, but re-started again from 1938-41 under the American Bantam banner. Bantam, of course, became legendary for its efforts in designing the first military Jeeps, but the contracts to build the rugged new vehicles for the government eventually went to Willys and Ford, and Bantam quietly disappeared for good in 1941.
The Cunninghams estimate that only about 100 of the American Austin roadsters survive, and probably only 300 to 350 American Austins of any kind remain, counting the various coupes the company also built from 1930-‘34. “We had about 80 cars show up at a meet in 2005, which is pretty amazing when you consider how many are probably left,” Cathy noted.
Still, even considering its rarity, the Cunninghams have no qualms about treating their car as it was intended — as practical, reliable no-frills transportation.
“My husband is not afraid to drive it. He will take it out frequently in the summer,” Cathy said. “I don’t drive it because you have to double clutch, and I’ve never quite gotten the hang of it. We’ve had other people who drive old cars who have tried to drive and they couldn’t… But once you master it, it’s quite a fun little car.
“It’s a good little driver. We take it to nationals and so on, and there is always a 20-25 mile road tour, and it runs just fine for those times … The roadster has no heater in it, but because there is little insulation between you and engine you stay quite warm. I always thought best weather for these roadsters is about 50 degrees.”
But Bob draws the line when it comes to getting out on the highway. If it was possible to “underpower” a car that weighed only 1,100 lbs., American Austin was apparently able to do it. Under the hood is a 45-cubic inch, water-cooled, L-head four-cylinder engine that kicks out about 12 hp and drives a three-speed. With a top speed of about 45 mph, the car isn’t exactly traveling in the passing lanes out on the Interstate.
“It’s a lot of fun, but I have to look in my rearview mirror a lot, especially when leaving stoplights,” Bob said. “People expect such a small car to be peppy, but it takes a while to get up to speed … Most people probably wouldn’t be driving it in city of 500,000 people, but I’ve been driving them for 30 years, so I’m pretty used to it. I just don’t drive it on the highway anymore. I don’t get respect from people that I need with it. People tend to ride up on your bumper.”
“When you get two people in car on slight hill, you kind of feel like, ‘Should I get out and walk?’” Cathy added with a laugh. “I remember one time we trailered it to a river rally, it was fine going in, but then coming out we were crawling probably 5 miles up the hills coming out. I thought, ‘It might help and be faster if I just got out and walked.’”
In the end, the lack of power, and no doubt its overall diminutive size, were enough to doom the American Austins and Bantams. The idea of a small, economy car was still a bit of a foreign concept for Americans in the 1930s, and though the cars were certainly conversation pieces and attracted their share of attention, few customers actually wanted to take one home.
The Cunninghams bought their “Car of the Week” selection back in 2000, sight unseen, from a fellow American Austin fan who lived in Virginia. The original owner was able to send the couple pictures of the car, a videotape and amazing documentation about who had owned the car and where it had been for its entire life.
“I’m the 10th owner,” Bob said. “We know who the original owners were, the dealership car was purchased form, identities of all the owners, a number of the long-distance trips it has taken …”
“I wanted a videotape because I wanted to see the car run, and also see a close-up of the tail pipe to see the color of the exhaust. I knew the engine had been rebuilt and was aware of the engine rebuilder, so I felt very confident buying it sight unseen.”
“Prior to this we had had a 1939 American Bantam roadster,” Cathy added. “We had always preferred an open car because they are a little more desirable, and hold their value a little better. We’re not the kind of people that take it out and get worried people are going to touch it. We let little kids sit it if they ask. We figure, who knows, you might be fostering the next Austin buff of the future.”
Overall length, 10 feet.
Overall width, 4 feet, 4 inches.
Wheelbase, 6 feet, 3 inches.
Tread: 3 feet, 4 inches.
Weight: Approximately 1100 pounds.
Ground Clearance: 8 3/8 inches.
Four cylinder, water cooled, detachable “L” head.
Bore, 2.2 inches, Stroke 3 inches.
Oil System, Austin jet type with pump.
Oil capacity, 5 pints.
Cooling system, Thermo-syphon.
Water capacity, 6 quarts.
Crankshaft bearings: Front, Double Row Ball. Rear, Heavy Duty Cylindrical Roller
Starter: Autolite, Bendix drive.
Ignition: Autolite, six volt
Clutch: Single plate.
Transmission: Three speeds forward, one reverse; all gear shafts running on ball or roller bearings.
Rear Axle: Semi-floating. Torque tube drive. Ball or roller bearings throughout. Final drive by helical bevel pinion and gear. Ratio 5.25 to 1.
Springs: Semi-elliptic transverse spring inf front.
Two quarter-elliptic springs in rear.
Austin shock absorbers front and rear.
Steering: Worm and wheel, adjustable for wear.
Front Axle: Forged, “H” section.
Brakes: Four wheel internal expanding, equalized and easily adjustable.
Rims: Drop center demountable.
Gas Tank: 5 gallon capacity.
1932 American Austin Roadster
No. 1 condition: $19,700
No. 2: $13,790
No. 3: $8,870
No. 4: $3,940