My 1950 Austin A-40~circa 1966
As a teenager, I lived in the New Jersey "Pine Barrens".............a place that is unique throughout the world, due to it's weak sandy soil, numerous bogs (often used to grow cranberries) and stunted "scrub pine trees. We lived near a unique "pygmy forest" that has been widely studied and is still an ecologically unexplained phenomenon. Stories exist that the area is populated by secret "piney people" who are unchanged since the 1600's. The "Jersey Devil" , a terrifying half-man, half-monster, is said to live in this region. The Pine Barrens is susceptible to forest fires...........the dry summers and tinder- like trees are the perfect formula. Actually, some of the local trees (Fire Pines), need a fire, to crack open their pine cones and release seeds for future trees. I have seen some truly overwhelming fires in this region as a child. Local fire departments, in order to fight these fires, encouraged the maintenance of "fire lanes", which would allow fire trucks to go in and cut off spreading wild fires. These "roads" were the perfect place for a kid to learn to drive..........In fact, the local officials encouraged it.........."Keeps the fire lanes open", they would say. The A-40, a 1950 model, was my first car, purchased for $20 (U.S.) in 1966, when I was 15 years old. I did not yet have a driver's license, but like many kids in the Pine Barrens (at the time), I drove the Austin illegally, as a "woods car". (got to keep those firelanes open!.....it was practically like a public service!) Believe it or not, my father actually approved of all this..partly because he liked "T" series MGs, and recognized the Austin's kinship to these clamshell-fendered roadsters. The Austin started a long tradition of small car (particularly British) ownership that I continue to the present day. Many of my friends also drove smaller cars on the narrow dirt fire trails..big American sedans, though fast and cheap, couldn't make it through many of the tighter roads..and of course, if one got stuck in the mud in a 5000 pound sedan, it took forever to extract the beast. Other "woods car" owned by my friends included a Simca Etoille , a Renault Dauphine, a Ford Anglia (flathead) and even an 850 Mini. My friend with the Simca actually had Epilepsy..........once (I swear, this is true!), he had a seizure while driving, and we crashed into a tree, breaking a tie-rod ("repaired" by welding a short length of chain to re-connect the tie-rod and steering arm).I should say that we ALWAYS wore seat belts . From a practical point of view, you couldn't control the car if you didn't wear them, due to all the bouncing. This good habit of seat belt usage has stayed with me. Throughout 1966 and into 1967, the Austin competed in many impromptu races..we connected a series of local "fire lanes", widened them (so we could pass) and ended up with a 3/4 mile (dirt) roadracing track. The little motor saw "valve float" quite often. I learned to match revs, shifting without the clutch. My favorite opponent was the flathead Anglia, which was a bit faster. We would "even thing out" by making five people ride in the little Ford, while I drove the Austin alone. He could still pull away on the straights, but I murdered him on the curves.
The car never had an air filter...........the combination of dusty air and high revs probably gave it a "free rebore"........the Austin burned oil furiously, and I never had money for "new" oil...I would go around the neighborhood and collect used oil..and of course, I was always encouraging my father and the neighbors to change their oil (so I would have a good supply of used oil). One time, in desperation, I used old paint instead of oil (hey, at least it was oil-based paint!). During the Summer of 1967, the Austin even starred in a film. I was taking a summer enrichment course at Trenton State College that involved photography. My instructor offered to loan me free film and a camera, if I documented the "woods car" racing. The film came out great, but sadly, I never received a copy of it. Later in life, the skills I first learned driving the A-40 served me well as an amateur SCCA and EMRA sports car racer. It also catalyzed a technical interest that culminated in a career in Mechanical Engineering. My present involvement in vintage motorsports and tailwheel aircraft is a continuation of this interest (some would say, "affliction"). Eventually, the car snapped a rod (I still have it..a great paperweight!). We removed the various broken bits, including the piston, and ran it on three cylinders for awhile, but it was never the same. In December of 1967, I bought an MGA roadster, abandoning the A-40 in the woods. Eventually, someone came and towed it away..I was told they made it into a "Hot Rod". The pictures shown here were taken by my friend Sam Woodson (another MGA driver), in 1967. The front shot shows me rounding a turn in full understeer mode (note the front wheels).The side shot is a "high speed" pass, probably doing about 35 MPH. The Austin would barely hit 50 MPH on a good day........which was a good thing, because it had fairly useless brakes...towards the end of it's life, I learned to double clutch into reverse at speed and slip the clutch, thus "helping" the brakes. The rear shot shows the skinny 16 inch inside wheel spinning in the sand during a slide. This shot also shows the back bumper.....it was eventually knocked off by a friend who was push starting me with a V-8 Rambler (the Austin always had hand-me-down flat batteries, so it never got going of it's own accord........I usually tried to find a hill, rare in the Pine Barrens, to park in on) We would often fold down the trunk and have friend stand on it while driving. One particularly wild friend used to crawl out through the sunroof "at speed".............amazingly, we were never hurt!
My racing Spridget-recent pictures
My racing Spridget-some old and some recent pictures
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