There is a wholly unaggressive friendliness about this Austin A70 Hereford Countryman that speaks of the morality and values of another age, one so distant that the generation of motorists who bought them new between 1950 and 1954 must be long since passed.
Today, with its chubby cheeks and tall, skinny tyres, it looks to be an entirely different species of automobile to the vehicles around it.
It was built for a pre-motorway world of A- and B-road journeys, when AA men saluted and speeds rarely exceeded 60mph.
It was a time when a good proportion of traffic was either pre-war in origin or a slow-moving trunk-road ‘heavy’.
Overtaking was a high-stakes game of chance (5000 road deaths in 1950 was a post-war high) in a country where many drivers had never taken a test and there was no such thing as an MoT.
This was the era of ‘Sunday drivers’, who kept their pride and joy locked in a garage all week and changed the oil and set the points themselves.
Their children would see a ride in the car as a treat and the vehicle itself as a thing of wonder, even if the car-spotters among them might have been bored by the home-grown homogeny of other traffic.
The car in front was definitely not a Toyota, but it could easily have been an Austin.
The origins of the A70 Countryman, like all such British post-war shooting brakes, lie in tax avoidance, not the upmarket pursuit of country sports.
Since 1940, ‘luxury goods’ had been subject to a Tory Purchase Tax on anything considered a ‘wastage of raw materials thought essential to the war effort’.
Introduced as ‘wartime impost’, it was a savage 66% on goods over £1280; under that figure it was 33%.
Clement Attlee’s Labour, in the midst of launching the NHS and nationalising the railways, saw no reason to rescind the tax in peacetime.
The loophole, however, was that commercial vehicles were not subject to this tax, and the shooting brake qualified as such a Purchase Tax-avoiding vehicle – the only downside being that it was, in theory, limited to 30mph, like all other commercials of the day.
Thus, if the basic price of the new 1950 Austin A70 Hereford saloon was £680, the first owner was looking at paying another £350 to the government.
In the early post-war ‘export or die’ years, all manner of cars – from Bentley MkVIs downwards – received the shooting-brake treatment, with varying degrees of aesthetic success.
They were generally built in small batches – or even as one-offs – by obscure and now long-forgotten provincial coachbuilders.
With new cars then mostly earmarked for export, and steel in short supply, a secondary benefit of the ‘woodie’ approach was that there were no restrictions on the timber (usually ash) and aluminium used in construction.
It was also the case that chassis-cab commercial versions of some cars were easier to get than mostly export-bound saloons.
It was in these very particular circumstances that the English woodie briefly flourished, with Austin leading the way as a producer of factory-sanctioned models.
In partnership with a company called Papworth Industries, Austin was the most prolific station wagon/shooting brake maker in the UK.
Papworth was set up after the First World War to offer recovering tuberculosis sufferers meaningful work on the road to health.
The Cambridge-based trust had several divisions including agriculture, joinery and leather-goods manufacture.
But the firm had not built a single car body when director Frank Jordan called into Longbridge, almost on a whim, in 1947, hoping to capture an order that would keep recuperating joiners occupied.
If Jordan was surprised to come away with a commission to build 250 shooting brakes on the Austin 16 chassis, then Longbridge was even more impressed by the quality of the work Papworth turned out – so much so that another 250 were ordered for the Austin 16 chassis, and there was no hesitation in continuing the association when the A70 Hampshire appeared in 1948.
Much more modern-looking, this car was Austin’s answer to the Standard Vanguard, complete with independent front suspension.
It was branded Countryman and a further 900 were produced, plus 200 commissioned separately by London agent Car Mart but based on the A70 chassis cab, rather than the saloon.
The official wagons mostly went for export, but the Car Mart variants found a home market as television Outside Broadcast Vehicles, service barges for motorsport teams and hotel taxis.
Whitacres of Stoke-on-Trent also produced station-wagon bodies on both the A40 and the A70 Austin chassis.
The roomier, six-passenger A70 Hereford replaced the Hampshire in 1950, still with the 2199cc overhead-valve four-cylinder engine that would live on in the Austin Gypsy and the FX4 taxi.
The Hereford also came with fully hydraulic rather than hydro-mechanical brakes, plus a 3in wheelbase extension.
As with previous models, unfinished A70 Hereford saloons were driven, five cars at a time, the 100 miles from Longbridge to the Papworth workshops near Cambridge.
Upon delivery, the cars were missing their doors and much of the body aft of the windscreen.
The entire roof was removed and replaced by ash hardwood framing for the doors and a fabric-covered top.
Apart from the door bases, sills and wheelarches, there was no metal in the body behind the A-post.
The hardwood frames, including the split tailgate, had a veneer infill of a contrasting wood, thought to be mahogany.
The completed cars entered the Austin dealer network to be sold in its showrooms, and were supported by factory brochures illustrated with artists’ impressions showing the cars in suitably rustic English scenes.
NYE 631 was delivered new to London in August 1953, but the name of its first owner and details of the first two decades of its life are unknown.
We do know that in 1974 the A70 was acquired by a garage owner in Folkestone with a view to restoring it.
But that didn’t happen, and by 1995 the Austin was languishing under a pile of spares in a derelict building in Kent.
David Banks from nearby Ashford rescued it and, over a period of six years, completed a body-off chassis restoration with, predictably, extensive repairs to the woodwork.
It took to the road again in 2001 and David kept the Austin for a decade before selling it to prolific collector and estate-car fancier Dr James Hull, joining his 500-plus hoard.
In 2014, Dr Hull sold his complete collection to Jaguar Land Rover.
The story goes that JLR only really wanted about 100 of the more interesting and valuable cars, so it set those aside and stored the remainder.
The more interesting elements of this overflow collection (A70 included) were then dispatched to Gaydon for occasional public airings.
Four years later JLR decided to begin offloading the surplus cars at auction, and the Countryman came up for grabs.
A non-runner, but still in good condition, it was purchased by Brian Boxall of Bromsgrove in September 2020.
After a three-month recommissioning spell that included attention to the fuel system, ignition and brakes – plus four new tyres – the A70 passed an MoT, and it and Brian were on the road by December 2020.
He is happy to be proved wrong, but Brian suspects that NYE is the UK’s only roadworthy Hereford Countryman.
“The cars are now scarce, mainly because, although around 2900 of the three models were produced over a seven-year period, the attrition rate is high as a result of them being used as workhorses on farms or in factories,” he says.
“The wood rotted spectacularly if not continually protected by varnish or oils.”
In many ways the A70 is as charming to drive as it is to look at.
Much larger than the Morris Traveller for which some people mistake it, the Countryman is a car with a ‘face’ you feel you have seen before, perhaps as a drive-on bit-part in a Thomas the Tank Engine illustration or an Ealing comedy.
In the days before a visual kinship with cars in the same model family was seen as a positive thing, the Austin ‘counties’ saloons were lambasted for being styled in a Toby Jug idiom.
The Hereford saloon shares its doors with the smaller A40 Somerset and, at a glance, they are difficult to tell apart. Not so the Countryman.
If the A70 Hereford saloons make you think of the drabness of the austerity years, there is something cheerful about the Countryman that seems to come from a world just moving out of monochrome into technicolour.
Like all woodies it has a certain country-house chic, with that beautiful split tailgate, its varnished load area and slatted wooden roof-lining, all somewhat at odds with the plain, painted-metal dashboard.
Through narrow windows you look out over the snub-nosed bonnet topped by the once-famous ‘Flying A’.
The front seat is a split bench made of Dunlopillo and covered in what looks to be faux-leather Rexine.
The slow-selling A70 Hampshire had been slated for its lack of rear legroom, but the Hereford has ample space to support its family-sized six-seater status. The rear seats fold to make a giant load area.
Viewed from the outside, the Hereford looks surprisingly confident mixing with modern A-road traffic and would probably top 80mph if you were feeling brave, but Brian deems 50mph or so to be sufficient, having faded the brakes coming down the occasional steep incline.
Big ‘fours’ are generally rough, but this one has a soft feel with prodigious low-speed torque that minimises encounters with the column gearchange, which in fairness isn’t bad as long as you don’t rush it.
Once under way, you really only need third and top, and you can miss changes completely and barely make any difference to the casual rate of acceleration.
Clutch judder is easy to provoke, but the big steering wheel takes most of the work out of low-speed manoeuvres by virtue of sheer leverage.
Braking and direction changes need more anticipation than most of us are used to, but the Hereford isn’t quite the wobbling and imprecise blancmange its reputation suggests.
It traverses A-road corners – and rough surfaces – briskly and with surprisingly few rattles.
The A70 Hereford represents the end of the coachbuilt shooting-brake era.
As government restrictions – and the tax burden – eased in the early 1950s, there was less of a case to be made for expensive-to-build and sometimes difficult-to-maintain utility cars.
Also, the Hereford was to be Austin’s last mainstream separate-chassis car, and the move to unitary construction made a half-timbered version of its next family saloon hard to justify.
Woodie enthusiasts would have to content themselves with short-lived three-door Traveller versions of the Morris Oxford/Cowley, or a Minor Traveller
As for Papworth Industries, it produced station-wagon bodies on Lea-Francis chassis, a prototype A40 woodie and an all-steel A70 wagon prototype before going on to make vans for the Post Office and some of the famous Bedford ‘Green Goddess’ self-propelled pumps.
The Trust still exists, but the various individual businesses within it were sold off during the 1970s (most famously, its travel-goods division Pendragon).
The remnants of its coachbuilding activities – by then operating as Papworth Specialist Vehicles – continued trading until 2013, when it went into liquidation.
Some cars have a charm factor that just draws people to them.
With its cuddly styling and rustic half-timbered construction, this Austin A70 Hereford Countryman could gather a crowd of admirers anywhere, be it the local recycling centre (owner Brian regularly uses it for tip runs) or the concours arena.
In fact, I would put this rare ’53 Austin as a crowd-pleaser up against almost anything.
Images: Tony Baker
Austin A70 Hereford Countryman
- Sold/number built 1951-’54/1500
- Construction steel chassis, with steel and timber body
- Engine all-iron, ohv 2199cc ‘four’, single Zenith carburettor
- Max power 68bhp @ 3800rpm
- Max torque 116Ib ft @ 1700rpm
- Transmission four-speed manual, RWD
- Suspension: front independent, by wishbones, coil springs rear live axle, leaf springs; telescopic dampers f/r
- Steering cam and peg
- Brakes drums
- Length 13ft 11in (4242mm)
- Width 5ft 9½in (1766mm)
- Height 5ft 5½in (1664mm)
- Wheelbase 8ft 3in (2515mm)
- Weight 2825Ib (1281kg)
- 0-60mph 21.4 secs
- Top speed 81mph
- Mpg 22
- Price new £818
- Price now £25,000*
*Price correct at date of original publication
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