This 1939 Austin Bantam Roadster packs a ton of style into its tiny frame.
For this month’s Cool Car Spotlight, we chose this diminutive runabout, the Austin Bantam. This beautiful red and white convertible is a charming combination of British and American designs popular during the 1930s.
While the car itself might not be familiar, those two names, Austin and Bantam, might be. In the 1930s, the British Austin Motor Company licensed the American Austin Car Company to build its cars in the US. (The American Austin Car Company was a subsidiary of the Standard Steel Car Company, a maker of railroad cars.) As was the case with many companies during the Great depression, American Austin had a rough go of it, production continually struggled to meet orders, and the company declared bankruptcy in 1935. British Austin continued on in Europe, merging with both the Morris Motor Company and with Don Healy’s company to form Austin-Healy.
Back in the US, the former American Austin company emerged out of receivership under the leadership of one Roy S. Evans to form the American Bantam Car Company. Roy reportedly paid just $5,000 for the American Austin factory. Bantam is best known to automotive history for designing and producing the first jeep prototypes for the US Army during WWII, but back in the late 1930s they were busy producing small economy cars and light trucks.
Despite the popularity of large and heavy Fords and Dodges at the time, American Bantam’s finances were such that they weren’t able to do much more than a light redesign to the original Austin cars. That meant continuing to produce what was basically America’s first economy car.
Though their cars were economical and well styled, Bantam continued to experience the production issues that had plagued its earlier incarnation. Even so, Bantam was one of only two companies (the other being Willys) that took on the monumental challenge from the US Army for a company to deliver a military do-it-all vehicle design in just 49 days and producing working prototypes in another 75 days. Though Bantam delivered, leaning heavily on existent components from their civilian cars, they didn’t have the production capacity to deliver the sheer number of cars the US Army needed, producing just 3,000 jeeps. Willys-Overland and Ford went on to produce approximately 700,000 jeeps for the war, using designs derived from the Bantam prototypes.
Bantams came in numerous body styles including coupes, roadsters, trucks, and even woody station wagons. Even for the hard hit 1930s, Bantams were cheap, costing between $439 to $499. For context, the average new car price in 1937 was over $750 dollars.
Bantams were powered by a 45.6 cu. in. flathead inline four-cylinder engine. It made between 13 and 15 horsepower, depending on who you ask, and could attain a top speed of 50 mph (though I’m sure it felt, terrifyingly, like 150 mph). Together the engine and clutch weighed just 148lbs.
This 1939 roadster owes its unique proportions and charmingly bulbous fenders to a 1938 redesign that took cues from Donald Duck’s car in the Disney film Don Donald. Features of note include the stunning red and white paint job, the spare wheel (complete with cover) on the rear deck, whitewall tires, the single, driver’s side taillight, and those glorious fenders.