x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Through Second World War and peacetime, Herbert Austin served Britain well

Making Their Marque Decorated by Belgium and Britain for his contribution to the war effort, Herbert Austin transformed British society with his Austin Seven.

Austin, centre, next to his Seven creation, in 1931. Topical Press Agency / Getty
Austin, centre, next to his Seven creation, in 1931. Topical Press Agency / Getty

Herbert Austin left Britain as a restless teenager in search of adventure and fortune on the other side of the world. But it was only in returning home that he found his calling and became one of the most successful British motoring magnates of all. He swapped sheep shearing in the Australian outback for the ermine robes of the British peerage and played a pivotal but unheralded role in the Allied victories in the two world wars. His legacy was to bring motoring to the masses but he also deserves to be considered alongside Churchill and Montgomery as a war hero.

A farmer's son growing up in Yorkshire in the 1870s, young Austin was set to join the Great Northern Railway as an apprentice but instead emigrated to Australia with his uncle as an intrepid 17-year-old. Showing early promise as an engineer, he made gold mining equipment before joining the Wolseley Sheep Shearing Company. He spent many months in the Australian outback improving the reliability of the mechanical shearer and patented several improvements. Then, 10 years after he had left, he returned to Britain with Wolseley, setting up a factory in Birmingham. They soon diversified into bicycles before Austin became fascinated with the new technological marvel, the motor car. He designed several models that were offered for sale under the Wolseley brand, which soon acquired a reputation thanks to the publicity of winning a 1,000-mile trial in 1900. Wolseley Motor Company was acquired by Vickers and Austin joined to oversee its expansion.

In 1905 he took the brave or, as a friend described it, "reckless" decision to leave Wolseley and go into business under his own name. He acquired a factory in the Birmingham suburb of Longbridge and began taking orders for Austin motor cars. In a period where car companies founded and fell with alarming regularity, he enjoyed unprecedented success. In just three years he was offering 17 different models and employing 1,000 staff. Continued growth was only thwarted by the war, where Austin relished in the patriotic duty of turning his factory over to munitions work. Staff swelled to 22,000 and Longbridge produced millions of shells for the western front. His contribution to victory was honoured by two nations: knighted in Britain, he was also awarded the order of King Leopold II, one of the highest honours in Belgium, for giving employment to 3,000 displaced Belgians.

But the war had left his business in danger of liquidation by 1920. His solution was to unveil the Austin Seven, a baby size car that would, for the first time, make motoring affordable to the masses. It transformed British society and is considered one of the most important milestones of 20th century social history. Some looked at its size and laughed, but when a Seven successfully scaled Ben Nevis, the tallest mountain in Britain, they realised the joke was on them.

The company went from strength to strength but by the mid-1930s the clouds of war were forming once again and Austin was once more asked to perform his patriotic duty. Despite Hitler's aggressive policies, appeasement was the prevalent mood of the political class. And despite Churchill's impassioned entreaties, the risk of Nazi mobilisation was not taken seriously. When Hitler laid the cards of war on the table in 1936, Britain was woefully underprepared. Austin was given the near-impossible task of building a fleet of aircraft strong enough to repel the Luftwaffe. He was getting older but Austin took the role of chairman of the so-called shadow factory scheme and under his stewardship and unwavering commitment British industrialists were able to produce a fighting force to withstand the Blitzkrieg that was to come. Though, quite rightly, it is the valour of the pilots that is remembered, if it were not for Austin the Battle of Britain would have been lost.

Due to his war work and generous donations to cancer research, Austin was raised to the peerage as Baron Austin of Longbridge in 1936, two years after his great rival William Morris. Austin factories became a war machine once again with Lancaster Bombers and Hurricane Fighters rolling off the production lines, as well as helmets and jerrycans. He died in 1941, at a time when Britain's fate in the war was hanging by a thread. But it was thanks, in part, to his commitment that the Allies were victorious. By then he was a household name and with the 1959 launch of the Mini, his company was assured a special place in motoring history. But his influence was not limited to industry, for though he never landed on a D-Day beach, he deserves to be venerated as a war hero.