CHOW MEIN IN PARIS
The Atlantic that failed on both shores
One thing you should never do when you have people from another country over, is try and serve them the cuisine of their homeland. I say try, because in reality, you will not be able to make better Chinese than the Chinese themselves, and all you will look like is a fraud.
Besides, they probably don’t want Chinese. They have Chinese all the time at home. They haven’t travelled halfway around the world just to have it again. When you go to Italy you expect real pizza. When you go to Japan you expect sushi and green tea and to sit on mats on the floor. When you go to Mexico you expect tacos and chillis. Not a steak sandwich.
The only time it is appropriate to serve your foreign guests their own type of food is when they visit you in India. As a very little boy I once went to an Indian restaurant and I took a bite of some red chicken, which was lovely. But then when I was going in for the second bite, someone threw a grenade in my mouth. All the cucumber sauce in the area could not quench the inferno that resulted.
The same goes for cars. If you are going to export a car to another country, don’t try and copy the styling trends of that country. Because if you do, you will end up with a car like the 1948 Austin A90 Atlantic, a car that fell between two stools, because the British thought it looked too American and the Americans thought it didn’t look British enough. So it effectively went into a serviette and was led in a nonchalant walk to the toilet.
It was just after the war, and Britain had spent so much money beating the Jerries, that there wasn’t much left over. So to get the money coming in, the British government told its car manufacturers to, quite simply, “export or die”.
Because the USA had the most money, it made sense to export there. But while most of the British car brands, like MG, simply served up what they did best, Austin decided to make the Americans a distinctly American meal. Or so they hoped.
The body was streamlined, with lots of chrome bits, and the headlights and horizontal grille were incorporated well into the front – which is something the Americans were doing, moving away from the conventional vertical grille that some British marques kept using well into the 1960s. The rear wheels were concealed, like a Buick, and most tellingly of all, the front was crowned by a big winged Austin badge. They stopped just short of calling it LeBaron and putting ‘Deluxe’ on all the wheel hubs.
They also stopped short of giving it an engine the Americans would actually be interested in. To them, anything under a V8 was communist. The A90 had a straight-four.
And because the American cars were offering hydraulically-operated this, and electric that, and something-o-matic everything else, some of which was mildly fraudulent by the way, Austin was eager for the Atlantic to look advanced as well. They feared the Americans would think that little semaphore hands that stuck out when you wanted to turn was so last year, so the Atlantic was fitted with flashing lights (blinkers, in modern-speak). The convertible was available with a power-operated roof, and hydraulic windows and an Ecko radio were also options. The funny thing is some of these things were actually rare on American cars.
The result, though, was a rather unique two-door car that…didn’t really look American. But the trouble was, it looked like it was trying to look American. So when it finally landed in the USA, they weren’t impressed. The Americans wanted European cars to look European. If they wanted a car that was American, they would buy one of their own. Not a wannabe American.
They didn’t. In the four years the Austin A90 Atlantic was made, only a bare few hundred were ever sold in the USA. It was dismal.
The only countries that were interested were a couple of small European countries, and Australia. In fact, almost half of the A90’s ever made either went Down Under, or up to Scandinavia. But that wasn’t enough to compensate for its failure elsewhere, and after some brief and heroic publicity stunts, which did nothing, the A90 was discontinued. Some were scrapped before they were even sold.
Beautiful? Not really. Ugly? Possibly. Unique? Definitely.
It’s tempting to feel sorry for it. After all, it was technologically advanced, it was fresh, it was brave, and above all, it shone out from a cynical, somewhat numb post-war era. But it was also rubbish. So much effort had been placed on the styling, to the exclusion of just about everything else, that the A90 was apparently quite poor to drive and could be crashed into a tree quite easily. And despite its pretensions, it was actually a thoroughly British car underneath, which meant it rusted. And fell apart. And those are not endearing qualities.
They're also not qualities which tend towards long life, which is about the only reason why Austin A90 Atlantic's are appreciating as collector's cars. There's so few of them around.
In fact, the only thing good, or praiseworthy, or remotely successful about the Austin A90 Atlantic is its engine.
It was plundered from the remaining A90’s and put into the stunning 1953 Austin-Healey 100, a sporty, zippy little roadster, which unlike the Atlantic, was quintessentially British. And unlike the Atlantic, the Americans actually went up for more.
Photo credit: uniquecarsandparts.com.au, innermobil.com, austinworks.com, i.wheelsage.org, Flickr (Racin Jason)