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Homepage. This page: The A-Series Engine - Its First Sixty Years.

The A-Series Engine - Its First Sixty Years.


Graham Robson.
ISBN 978 0 85733 083 3
Published 2011. (Hardback, 207 pages).
Review date 2011.
Book on BMC's A-Series car engine

UK RRP £30.00

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There can be few adults in Britain today who, at some point in their lives - and possibly without realising it - have not driven, or been driven in, a car powered by the four-cylinder A-Series engine. Some of my own earliest journeys were spent sat in a child's seat, in the rear of dad's MG 1100, and my first 100+mph road trip was as a passenger in a tweaked Cox GTM, propelled by a 1275 version bolted in behind our backs. I took (and passed) my test in the 1960 A40 I still own, while my first lessons proper, with dad sat alongside, were behind the wheel of mum's 1967 Mini estate. So one way and another, the A-Series engine has appeared at many key moments of my life, and no doubt of many people's reading this today.
There can be few engines that have experienced the longevity and variety of service that this unit has enjoyed, an engine that started out displacing 803cc yet ended up being stretched to 1275cc (and beyond) by the time the curtain on its career fell. Along the way, the A-Series was installed in both in-line and transverse applications, powering racing cars, kit cars, tractors and driving school cars, fed by carburettors and injection systems, with the occasional turbocharger for assistance too.
Well-known author Graham Robson, himself a long-term owner of A-Series powered cars, has put pen to paper and written the story of this amazing little engine. And what a story it is! First seen partially-hidden beneath the bonnet of Austin's A30 Seven in October 1951, it continued in service until the final proper Mini rolled off Longbridge's production line in 2000. Such is the ongoing interest in the A-Series, and the cars it powered, that it was high time a book like this was produced. Not since Vizard's book on tuning the A-Series has such a comprehensive book on the subject arrived on the shelves, and I have to say, it's a very interesting book.
Robson takes the reader back to the beginning of the story, by introducing Leonard Lord, one of the key players behind the growth of BMC in the years following WW2, following his falling-out with William Morris prior to the war. Chapter two discusses the decisions that were made by Austin's top brass, leading to the design of a new small-car engine, featuring overhead valves and cast iron composition. While pre-war designs could keep the production lines rolling for so long, new cars and a new range of engines were both urgent priorities for Austin's management, and it was Bill Appleby that headed the team designing a new range of units for the proposed new models.
The book is illustrated throughout with both contemporary and more recent images, although all are reproduced in black and white with no colour images, other than those shown on the cover, featuring within this book's 207 pages.
The all-new A30 would debut the A-Series in 1951. A compact four-seat saloon, employing chassis-less construction and fully enclosed bodywork, the A30 was the perfect home for the new, 803cc A-Series engine.
Following Austin's merger with Nuffield to form BMC, attentions turned to the popular Morris Minor, still at the time powered by an out-dated 918cc sidevalve engine. The car was an exceptionally modern design for its time, roomy, comfortable, and with surprisingly good (for its time) handling, yet was saddled with an engine whose design dated to the 1930s. Tests proved that the A30's new OHV unit would slot in rather neatly under the Minor's bonnet, and it didn't take long for the new engine to become standard fitment to all Morris Minors, still in 803cc form initially.
With an upgrade to 948cc, the engine's potential was becoming fully realised, and - with approval from Lord - Donald Healey in the mid-1950s set forth on designing a new, affordable sports-car, to be propelled by (virtually) the same 948cc engine that was, by this time, doing sterling service beneath the bonnets of Minors and A30s/A35s up and down the land.
Chapters five moves ahead to 1959, and the launch of the Mini, utilising a transversely-mounted, 848cc version of the A-Series, with the gearbox mounted beneath it. The same basic installation would also feature in ADO16, the 1100 and later 1300 saloons and estates badged as Austin, Morris, MG, Wolseley, and Riley. The combination of the Mini's great roadholding, and the perky performance of its four-cylinder engine, soon led to performance versions being introduced by both the factory, and outside concerns such as Downton Engineering, both of which are covered in the book. Chapters six and seven concern themselves with the A-Series' involvement in competition and speed-record attempts, with full-page photographs of both cars and rally-prepared engines finding their way in this section.
Development prototypes of possible Mini replacements, utilising the existing running gear, were often the focus of attention within Longbridge's design offices of the 1970s, and the merits and failings of these proposals are discussed in turn, as are proposed new engines such as the stillborn H-Series, designed as a replacement for the A-Series.
The 1970s would see a swathe of new cars hitting the British Leyland showrooms, with many ranges featuring at least one A-Series variant in its line-up. Marinas and Allegros, followed by Metros, Maestros and Montegos, would all go on to be offered with A-Series, or in the case of the later models, A-Plus engines. While the other cars came and went, the Mini soldiered on, even re-visiting its associations with John Cooper with a range of "hot" Minis offered throughout the 1990s in various forms. In 2000 the final car rolled out of Longbridge, into the care of the British Motor Industry Heritage Trust. The Mini, and the A-Series, had finally reached the end of the road, and Chapter 11 recounts the wind-down of these two legends' production. In all, this plucky and reliable little engine had served for exactly fifty years, an incredible achievement for any engine in such a fast-moving world as automobile production.
The final chapter wraps up the story with the gradual disappearance, at the hands of the wrecking ball, of the Longbridge plant, birthplace of the engine and the millions of cars it powered. While the factory has all-but gone, the A-Series engine lives on in the many preserved cars that owe so much to the gifted engineers who first dreamt up its design in the early post-war years.
I'd happily recommend this book to anyone interested in finding out more about this iconic powerplant.
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