The Rooster Takes On Detroit: 1938 American Bantam Model 60 1/4 Ton Pickup Truck
The first American economy car/truck range was a commercial failure, but not like most.
Logo of American Bantam Car Co.
In 1929, the Great Depression (and through much of North America, the events leading up to the Dust Bowl) were ongoing issues. While gasoline and motor oil were not yet rationed by state/federal order like they were during World War II, the costs were still high, and an entrepreneur in Butler, Pennsylvania whose name has been lost to history saw a market niche for a stylish mini car, both for the nation as a whole, but especially for crowded Eastern/Southern cities like New York City, Boston, Richmond, Charleston, Chicago, Philadelphia, etc., that were designed around horse and wagon transport.
1931 ad for the American Austin car, introducing the popular nickname of "Bantam Austin" or simply "Bantam" for the car. The nickname became a trademark in 1932, and the official company name in 1935.
This now nameless entrepreneur licensed Sir Herbert Austin's 1922 design Austin 7, and recruited Russian American industrial designer Count Alexis de Sahnoffsky to create a new body design. This design was pleasantly redolent of Franklins, Marmons, and Stutzes, which were among the top luxury/performance marques of America in the 20s, but was strictly a two seater, on a petite 75-inch wheelbase, with a modest 20 horsepower, and the coachwork was created by Hayes Body Company in Detroit (best known for its custom bodies on Lincoln, Cadillac, Packard, Marmon and Pierce Arrow chassis).
Initial body styles were a choice between a 1/4 ton pickup truck, an open roadster, and a small coupe (billed as a sedan), The coupe sold for $445, slightly less than a Ford V8 roadster, but the Great Depression made the cheaper secondhand cars more appealing, so sales dropped off after a lucrative first year of production with 8,000 cars made.
1937 postcard advertising the Bantam Model 60.
The American Austin Car Company fell to what is now known as a Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 1934, due to the high cost of Hayes coachwork (the dies were sent to Butler in 1932 to cut production costs and bodies built in-house from then on), and flagging sales in the face of Chrysler's new Plymouth marque and Willys' Model 77 and Whippet (as well as imports of Lancia Augustas, Fiat Balillas and Fiat 500 "Topolinos" starting in the early 1930s) eating their market share alive, but former salesman Roy Evans bought out the moribund American Austin operations and assets in 1935, recruiting De Sahnoffsky to restyle the American Austin into a more modern product, revising the engine & gearbox, and throttling the connection to the UK factory (though still retaining some level of relationship well into WWII). Production was resumed in 1937, by which time other body styles, including an open express/roadster pickup, woodie station wagon, panel van, touring car/"speedster", and "boulevard delivery" (similar to Ford's Model A "town car delivery" in styling), were developed by Evans and De Sahnoffsky and put into production. A convertible sedan with full weather gear was introduced for 1939. The name of the car was changed to Bantam Model 60, adopting a popular nickname for the original American Austin officially, and a nationwide dealer network set up.
Prices were slashed to a measly $399 USD for a coupe, up to $565 USD for a station wagon or boulevard delivery (or just under $600 USD for a convertible sedan), with an early finance plan available through the Commercial Investment Trust (now Citi Group). Deluxe equipment, including Philco AM radios, two-tone paint, whitewall tires, carpeting, chrome grille guards & rooster hood ornaments, and Arvin hot-water heaters, was available at extra cost, ensuring that the "Bantam Austin" could hold its own with full-size American cars in terms of creature comforts. The cars were favored by celebrities and "Who's Who in America" in the 30s/early 40s, with the likes of Mickey Rooney and Frank Lloyd Wright owning at least one, among many others that included DuPonts, Vanderbilts, Rockefellers and other prominent rich families, and stage/screen/recording industry/sports celebrities.
American Bantam is credited with the design of the first World War II jeep, by Karl Probst and Harold Crist, and built 2,675 of their pre-production designs, ca. 1941. More than half of the initial production went to the British Army, and some to the Soviet Union. Some of the engines and chassis were imported from Toledo, Ohio, but the original bodies were made at the American Bantam factory in Butler, Pennsylvania.
Frank Lloyd Wright purchased a fleet of 5 Bantam cars (including a pickup and a wagon) in 1939, later purchasing two more along with one of their cargo trailers.
Advertisement for Bantam's utility trailers, that were the ancestor to their famous WWII/Korean War Jeep trailers, and shared many parts/panels with Bantam panel trucks.
The Bantam Car Company produced the most fuel-efficient engine and first prototype under the original U.S. Army tender specifications, and was awarded the first contract. However, because elements favorable to Ford within the Quartermaster Corps claimed that Bantam lacked production capacity to produce the vehicle on the scale needed by the Army, the awarding of ongoing contracts was reopened. Eventually the Army gave the BRC (Bantam Reconnaissance Car) 40 designs to Willys-Overland and awarded the bulk of orders to Willys and Ford, while Bantam went on to produce jeep trailers.
After jeep production stopped, Bantam made two-wheel trailers for them. This continued until the company was taken over by American Rolling Mills in 1956, with the passenger cars and light trucks not seeing production after WWII either, due mostly to the antiquation of the design.
The Austin Bantam Club of America was started in 1962 to provide club support/owner support for the remaining civilian and BRC production (as well as any British Austins or other license-built Austin Seven variants Stateside), and still thrives to this day with both an active Facebook group and a proper club. Donald Duck's car and Susie The Little Blue Coupe, of Disney Silly Symphonies fame, were both patterned after American Bantams.
Starting in the 1990s, Ertl Collectibles produced a roughly 1/18 scale 1938 Bantam model, in open express, pickup truck, or panel van body styles. It was also released at least once by Johnny Lightning, and the dies currently belong to the parent company of Johnny Lightning/Auto World and are available for custom imprint production as of 2021.
1997 release Ertl JC Penney promo '38 Bantam pickup in "1/24 scale" (more like 1/18)
A total of 20,000 American Bantams, American Austins, and Bantam Jeeps were produced between 1929-1942, and many survive today as either stock examples, hot rods, dragsters, or fiberglass specials.