Austin, Herbert, Baron Austin 1866-1941, motor manufacturer, was born at Little Missenden, Buckinghamshire, 8 November 1866, son of Giles Stephen (or Stevens) Austin, farmer, of Wentworth, Yorkshire, by his wife, Clara Jane, daughter of Willoughby Simpson, officer in H.M. Customs, of Rotherhithe. After education at Rotherham Grammar School and Brampton College he went out with an uncle to Australia in 1884 and served his apprenticeship to engineering at Langlands Foundry, Melbourne. He moved thence to the Wolseley Sheep Shearing Machine Company, where he soon became manager. In 1893 he returned home, serving as production manager to this company in Birmingham, first at a small workshop in Broad Street and later in a bigger works at Alma Street, Aston. As the sale of sheep-shearing machinery was seasonal, the company also made bicycle components and small machine parts. Austin was therefore able to acquire varied experience, and his adaptability and inventiveness were displayed by many patents taken out in his name at this period. He was invited to join the board in 1901, and from 1911 onwards served as chairman
Austin's early Australian experiences had necessitated long and arduous journeys over very bad roads; and so, having had personal experience of slow and uncomfortable road travel, he was one of the earliest engineers in England to envisage the possibilities of the petrol-driven vehicle. As early as 1895 he produced his first Wolseley car, a three-wheeler. Soon afterwards an improved model was shown at the Crystal Palace. Long hours over the drawing-board and in the workshop brought the reward of a silver medal and first prize in a thousand-mile trial held in 1900
In the following year Vickers Sons and Maxim were approached by the Wolseley company and took over the machine tool and motor side of the concern, trading as the Wolseley Tool and Motor Car Company, Ltd., with Austin as general manager. In 1905 Austin launched out into business for himself, with a modest capital in the region of £20,000, as the Austin Motor Company, Ltd. His choice of a site at Longbridge, then outside the confines of Birmingham, betokened foresight, in that there was ample room for expansion, and that road and railway communications were excellent. Beginning with 270 hands, the works produced 120 cars in 1906; and by 1914 the firm, capitalized at £250,000, was employing a staff of 2,000 and had an annual output of 1,000 cars. During the war of 1914-18 the plant was turned over to the making of guns, shells, and aeroplanes, and as many as 22,000 workers were employed. Austin's services to war production were recognized in 1917 by appointment as K.B.E. and by admission as commander of the Order of Leopold II in Belgium. From 1918 to 1924 he was Conservative member of Parliament for the King's Norton division of Birmingham, and from 1919 to 1925 served on the government labour resettlement committee
Meanwhile, with his works restored to their proper purpose, Austin was continuing his inventive career and maintaining his position among the major British car manufacturers. An outstanding production, which gave him world-wide reputation, was the Austin Seven, put on sale in 1922. This little 7-horse-power car, known as the Baby Austin, at last brought motoring within the means of people of very modest incomes, and as a vehicle for moving about from place to place (not, perhaps, in the greatest of comfort) carried out its function most efficiently. The Austin Twenty (of 1919) catered for a more opulent public and the Austin Twelve (1921) was another very popular model. Austin was sensible of the need for keeping abreast with motor manufacturing developments in other countries and made sundry journeys to the United States, France, and elsewhere. A stream of new and improved models issued from the works as the years went on; and by 1937 the original factory site of 2— acres had expanded to 220 acres, staff had risen from 270 to 16,600, and annual production from 120 to 78,000 vehicles. In the war of 1939-45, as in the earlier one, the company's resources were mainly devoted to military needs
As Austin's wealth increased he devoted large sums to philanthropic causes, notably to the work of the Birmingham hospitals, which he had supported from an early period in his business career. He was nominated chairman of the Birmingham General Hospital in 1932, and in 1940 was president of the Birmingham United Hospital and governor of the Royal Cancer Hospital, London. He equipped many hospitals for deep-ray therapy, and in 1936 gave £250,000 to the university of Cambridge to forward the work of Lord Rutherford [qv.] at the Cavendish Laboratory
Austin was created a baron in 1936. He was prominent in the councils of the various engineering and transport associations, served on the Transport Advisory Council in 1934 and was chairman of the shadow aero engine committee (to provide for possible war needs) from 1937 to 1940. The university of Birmingham conferred upon him the honorary degree of Doctor of Law in 1937 and elected him a life member of its court of governors in 1940
Like Henry Ford in the United States and Lord Nuffield in England, Austin was first and foremost a skilled engineer who rose through the workshop, the drawing office, and the sales organization, by originality, foresight, and determination. The foundation of his success was the novelty and excellence of his designs for motor-cars. It was, for example, the Twelve and Seven models which re-established his firm in the difficult post-war period and initiated a new and still more successful phase in its history. His technical skill and the modesty of his bearing made him popular with his employees, for he knew how a piece of work should be done, and would often lend a hand on a difficult task, or suggest the right way out of a technical impasse. An insatiable appetite for work often made him spend part of his week-end alone in the factory, pondering on improvements or planning new models, and by his acumen he realized that no wide expansion of the motor industry could take place so long as the ownership of a car remained a luxury. His temper might be sharp, but an outbreak would be over in a few moments and give way to friendly talk with the person who had provoked it. He never forgot that economic worries, from which he himself was free, fell to the lot of common man, and he would exercise self-denial in order to help the less fortunate
In 1887 Austin married Helen (died 1942), daughter of James Dron, of Melbourne. They had two daughters, and one son who was killed in action in France in 1915. The peerage therefore became extinct when Austin died at Lickey Grange, near Bromsgrove, 23 May 1941. A portrait by George Harcourt was destroyed by fire during the war of 1939-45.
The Times, 24 May 1941
Autocar, 30 May 1941
Austin Magazine, June 1941
Contributor: Herbert B. Grimsditch.