Austin is today’s best long term investment because you get so much more in an Austin: The saga of the Pathfinder and J40 pedal cars

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Proudly at the wheel of his Austin Pathfinder pedal car, Ian Cooks is asking a bus driver for street information, Taunton, England. Anon., “La puce de la route.” Photo-Journal, 17 November 1949, 9.

Good morning to you, my reading friend, and no, the name of the bipedal creatures native to the icy planet Hoth that were used by the rebel alliance in the 1983 movie Return of the Jedi was not taunton. It was tauntaun.

To lead you back to the path that leads to enlightenment and joy, yours truly would like to quote the caption which accompanied the photograph found in the 17 November 1949 issue of the Montréal, Québec, weekly Photo-Journal:

“THE FLEA OF THE ROAD” – The young Ian Cooks is taking a ride in Taunton, in England, in his Austin auto, called “Pathfinder”; he asks the driver of a double-decker bus for street information. Ian’s auto, though tiny beside this huge bus, is a real automobile, made at a South Wales factory.

To uncover the origin story of the Austin Pathfinder portrayed just above, it will be necessary for us to dive into another world, a world at war. The year was 1943. The British coalition government / war ministry headed by a giant mentioned in a May 2019 issue of our blog / bulletin / thingee had just enacted a law which recognized that many coal miners had fallen victim to a most debilitating lung disease, known as pneumoconiosis, caused by the long term inhalation of coal dust. By the end of the Second World War, in 1945, more than 5 000 Welsh miners had been diagnosed.

The British government encouraged employers to give employment to miners who, after years of back breaking work in appalling conditions, could no longer go down the pits. These men could now do only light work, which imposed serious limits on the type of position they could occupy. In the years that followed the end of the Second World War, some / many not for profit factories subsidised by said government began to offer such jobs to former miners.

We all know the name of the giant who headed the aforementioned coalition government, don’t we? Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill, say ye. A good answer, say I. The government elected in July 1945, on the other hand, was headed by Clement Richard Attlee.

The chairman and managing director of an important British automobile manufacturer, Austin Motor Company Limited, was said to be deeply touched by the miners’ plight. One could also argue that the low rents and reduced salaries offered to said miners caught his eye. In any event, around April 1946 perhaps, Leonard Percy Lord conceived the idea of having miners produce a pedal car whose body styling would be based on that of real automobiles made by his company. He assembled a 3 member team and gave them a disused workshop in the Austin Motor factory. And no, neither the company not the team had any experience whatsoever in making pedal cars. From the looks of it, the work was to be done more or less in secrecy.

The new pedal car would have to be suitable for children between the ages of 4 to 9, with space enough to accommodate a younger and smaller sibling. It would need to have working headlights and a dummy engine that could be looked at by opening the bonnet / hood. The pedal car would also have a boot / trunk that could be opened. To minimise costs, it would be made with scrap sheet metal shipped from the Austin Motor factory. And the prototype would have to be ready in time for the Austin Progress Convention scheduled to take place in late June 1946, hence the secrecy.

Faced with a rather tight deadline (Hello EP, EG and SB!) and very much aware that it would need to take the measurements of at least 1 child to figure out the dimensions of the pedal car, the team turned to Marcia Ash, the 8 year old daughter of one of its members. A full size 2D template was made the following day. Work on the engineering drawings of the pedal car began in earnest. Two sheet metal workers soon joined the tiny team.

Lord often dropped in to see how things were going. He made a number of suggestions, which were sometimes / often taken up. One of Lord’s suggestions concerned the name of the prototype, JOY 1. It was accepted, as the new vehicle would undoubtedly give joy to many children. When the time came to take the official works photographs of the pedal car, the aforementioned Marcia Ash was asked to take the wheel. She was happy to oblige.

The aforementioned Austin Progress Convention of June 1946 was a significant event in the history of the company. It celebrated the one millionth automobile produced by Austin Motor over a period on about 41 years. Lord concluded the speech in which he listed the accomplishments of the company with a little surprise. He unveiled JOY 1 and explained his plans for its future.

The announcement raised a few eyebrows. The production of a pedal car was, after all, a radical departure for a major automobile maker like Austin Motor.

In any event, the team soon put together an improved and lightened vehicle, christened JOY 2. This prototype was loaned to the families of a number of managers to see how it would stand up to gorillas, sorry, children. (Hello again, EP, EG and SB!)

As this took place, a team member suggested that it would be nice to build a third prototype, a smaller vehicle based on the Austin Seven / 7 racing car, a vehicle based on the Austin Seven / 7 economy automobile, one of the most popular British models of its day and one made by Austin Motor between 1922 and 1939. First tested in October 1935, the Austin Seven / 7 racing car proved very successful. The few vehicles that were built (3?) won more than a few competitions before the start of the Second World War, in September 1939. The third pedal car completed by the team was christened, you guessed it, JOY 3.

If you must know, approximately 290 000 Austin Sevens / 7s were made in the United Kingdom. Fahrzeugfabrik Eisenach Aktiengesellschaft, a subsidiary / division of Gothaer Waggonfabrik Aktiengesellschaft, made this vehicle under license for some years, beginning in 1927. This German version was known as the Dixi. Bayerische Motoren Werke Aktiengesellschaft (BMW) acquired Fahrzeugfabrik Eisenach soon after, an acquisition which signaled the entry of this world famous company into the wonderful world of automobile production.

A subsidiary of Tobata Imono Kabushiki Kaisha, Nissan Jidōsha Kabushiki Kaisha, also made Austin Seven / 7 under license for some years, beginning in 1934. This production also signaled the entry of this world famous Japanese company into the wonderful world of automobile production. By the way, Nissan Jidōsha is now part of Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi Besloten Vennootschap, a Franco-Japanese giant, but back to our story.

As work on JOY 3 was proceeding / completed, our Austin Motor team learned that the company’s experimental department had completed a wooden mock-up of a pedal car which included a rear end nearly identical to that of JOY 1 and a front end based on that of the first postwar automobile produced by Austin Motor. This still secret vehicle, the A40 Devon, was produced between 1947 and 1952. Approximately 450 0000 examples of this automobile hit the road. Small, slow and narrow, the A40 Devon was also criticised for its conservative design. Would you believe that at least 1 member of the team behind the JOY prototypes thought that the experimental department’s design was a monster that no one would buy?

So, the team set out to build a fourth prototype, christened JOY 4, which would have a front end similar to that of the A40 Devon. Its members saw the full size prototype of this vehicle but did not gain access to its full size drawings. They therefore had to work from memory.

Now that he had 4 prototypes, Lord disbanded his tiny team and decreed that JOY 3 and JOY 4 be put in production. The design of both vehicles was soon modified to ease fabrication. It was around this time that the JOY 3 version of the pedal car became the Austin Pathfinder, while the JOY 4 version became the Austin JOY 40, after the A40 Devon, a moniker soon abbreviated to J40, meaning Junior 40.

It should be noted that the scrap sheet metal Austin Motor had planned to use to make its pedal cars proved unsuitable for the large panels of their bodies. The company had to use brand new sheet metal.

It is also worth noting that the spark plugs mounted on the dummy engine of the pedal cars were real ones, faulty ones actually, perhaps provided free of charge by an important British manufacturer. The detachable pneumatic tires and electrically-operated horn were also supplied by important British manufacturers. The front and rear bumpers, hub caps, grille, boot / trunk handle and bonnet / hood moulding with a winged letter A or Flying A (A for Austin Motor) ornament were all chrome plated. The safety of the young drivers being of prime importance, the moulding on the bonnet / hood of the J40 was removed at some point to reduce the risk of injury.

Did I mention that the Austin pedal cars had a powerful handbrake, which was good, for safety? The asbestos lining of the brakes was not so good.

As yours truly stated above, and I paraphrase myself, in the years that followed the end of the Second World War, some / many not for profit factories subsidised by the British government began to offer jobs to former miners. One of the factories paid for by said government was the one in which Austin Motor manufactured its pedal cars. It was set up in Wales, near a very productive colliery. The latter had the most productive 10 hour work shifts on this Earth in 1908 and 1909, for example. The new factory’s production personnel being made up of disabled coal miners, the salaries paid by Austin Motor were half the size of the ones it normally paid. The small factory was completed in January 1949 but was officially opened only in July. The tooling began to arrive in early 1949.

The 40 to 50 miners on the production floor knew nothing about automobile manufacturing but they proved anxious to learn because they were keen to work. One could argue that this useful and congenial work gave the men a new interest in life. All in all, they did very well indeed. This being said (typed), the minors readily admitted there was quite a difference between moving coal in a mine and working on the sewing machines used for the seats of the pedal cars.

By 1951, Austin Motor employed 110 or so miners. By 1953, this number had jumped to 150 or so. By 1965, the workforce totalled almost 520 people. Only a small number of managers and specialists were not disabled coal miners.

Given the physical condition of the factory floor personnel, a small modern medical centre was on site with a full time nurse and a part time doctor. A team with a mobile X-Ray machine visited the factory twice a year. There was also an experienced rehabilitation officer.

The management of Austin Motor decided to start production with the Pathfinder because the main elements of its simpler body were made in its car manufacturing factory. The J40 may have followed toward the end of 1949, just in time for the Christmas period. Production of the Pathfinder quickly came to a stop. It should be noted, however, that its name was given to a British Motor Corporation Limited (BMC) automobile made by a subsidiary, Riley Motors Limited, introduced in 1953 and produced until 1957. And yes, yours truly will explain what BMC is doing in this article. Be patient.

Selfridge & Company Limited, a chain of British high end department stores, took out the first advertisements for the new pedal car in June 1949. The British press was suitably intrigued by this machine, arguably the best pedal car on the market at the time. Indeed, it was not the only one to show interest. As we both know, the aforementioned Photo-Journal published a photograph of a Pathfinder in its 17 November 1949 issue, and… Sigh. Don’t you remember the photograph at the beginning of this article, my reading friend who has the mind of a flea?

In 1955, Austin Motor celebrated its 50th anniversary with one or more races involving its pedal cars. The winner of the final competition got to keep the vehicle he drove.

By the mid-1960s, Austin Motor’s pedal car factory had diversified its production. New tooling allowed it to make small components needed by automobile factories operated by BMC (You see. Explanation.), the firm which had taken over Austin Motor in 1952 and a firm mentioned in an August 2018 issue of our blog / bulletin / thingee.

In January 1962, a gas leak in the paint section of the factory caused a powerful explosion that ripped off almost half of the roof. Sixteen workers were injured. The need to deliver the pedal cars on order led to the erection of a temporary wall that isolated the damaged area of the factory. Even so, it proved very cold inside the building until spring came.

Many Austin pedal cars were solidly bolted to fairground roundabouts in the United Kingdom, while others went on coin-operated rides. Some automobiles went to at least one British summer / holiday camp organisation. Others were used by British police forces to teach youngsters how to behave on the road. Mind you, a safety village with a similar function could be found in Toronto, Ontario. Another training scheme could be found in Salzburg, Austria. Austin pedal cars appeared in many road safety films.

And yes, the Austin pedal cars proved quite popular in Canada, and in Denmark too apparently. This being said (typed?), it is possible that the J40 was intended at least in part for the American market.

A beaming Daniel Tardif of Asbestos Mines, Québec, at the wheel of his brand new Austin J40 pedal car. Anon., “Gagnants du concours ‘Heureux enfants’ de Schwartz.” Le Soleil, 26 September 1963, 48.

A beaming Daniel Tardif of Asbestos Mines, Québec, at the wheel of his brand new Austin J40 pedal car. Anon., “Gagnants du concours ‘Heureux enfants’ de Schwartz.” Le Soleil, 26 September 1963, 48.

Did you know that W.H. Schwartz & Sons Limited, a producer of spices, mustard, peanut butter, etc. from Halifax, Nova Scotia, but also Montréal, held a contest in 1963 whose prizes were 300 J40 pedal cars worth $ 135 (or $ 1 125 in 2019 money) and 1 800 Satellite photographic cameras worth $ 7 (or $ 58 in 2019 money)? And yes, one of the happy winners can be seen in the photograph above. The 2 gentlemen behind young Daniel Tardif were Benoit Vallée (left), representing of W.H. Schwartz & Sons, and Bruno Brault, assistant manager of the Coopérative de consommation d’Asbestos Mines, now Asbestos, Québec. Tardif’s mother looked on approvingly.

To enter the Happy Kids contest held by W.H. Schwartz & Sons, one simply needed to buy a specially marked jar of peanut butter and follow the instructions. Ads for said contest could be found in several French and English language newspapers in Québec, including La Tribune of Sherbrooke, yours truly’s homecity. Indeed, at least 3 of the happy kids who won an Austin J40 pedal car came from Sherbrooke, all of them boys: Clément Drolet, Pierre Gaudet and Jacques Sévigny. I can’t say I know any of them.

This being said (typed?), not all the winners were boys. Indeed of the 12 winners mentioned in the 26 September 1963 issue of Le Soleil, the main French language newspaper in Québec, Québec, 4 were girls.

At least one J40 was customised for a very special driver, the 4 year old heir to the British throne, Charles Philip Arthur George Windsor. This 1952 vehicle had a windscreen, a number plate, wing mirrors, side lights and a spotlight. Another vehicle was customised for a child suffering from cerebral palsy.

Would you believe that some ingenious fathers / brothers / etc. mounted a small gasoline engine or electric motor on Pathfinders or J40s driven by a child – or a taller (adult?) driver, if the chassis was suitably stretched?

A number of vehicles written off in some manner were seemingly repaired at the Welsh factory, and presumably returned to their young owners.

The last Austin pedal car left the factory floor in September 1971. Given the lack of production figures before 1955, we may never the exact number of vehicles produced. This being said (typed?), it looks as if approximately 36 700 Pathfinders and J40s found their way into the world. An unknown number of these solidly made machines still exist. If truth be told, the J40 and, even more so, the Pathfinder are collector’s items.

The pedal car factory and its employees continued to produce small components for BMC / British Motor Holdings Limited / British Leyland Motor Corporation / Austin Rover Group / Rover Group Limited until April 1999, when the former closed down for good, after half a century of operation. Sadly enough, yours truly does not know if its employees were still coal miners. And yes, both British Aerospace Public Limited Company and BMW owned Rover Group / BMW (UK) Holdings Limited at one point.

The coal mine which was responsible for the creation of this fascinating factory had itself closed down for good in 1977. Its colliery waste tip, the largest in Europe, is now a nature park.

Do you have a question, my reading friend? Why has there been no article on honest to goodness aircraft for some weeks, you ask? I hear your plea and respond to it. Please find enclosed some aeronautical content for you.

Would you believe, and of course you should because why would I bring up this question if there was no truth to it, that Austin Motor Company (1914) Limited, a name adopted in 1914 and used for an uncertain period of time, opened an aviation / aircraft department in 1917, during the First World War? Said department produced approximately 1 550 Royal Aircraft Factory S.E.5 single seat fighter airplanes. It was to produce 600 Bristol F.2 Fighter 2-seat fighter airplanes but the signing of the Armistice, in November 1918, led to a termination of the contract. It looks as if only 2 airplanes got delivered. And yes, the amazing collection of the Canada Aviation and Space Museum, in Ottawa, Ontario, includes an S.E.5 and an F.2 Fighter. The former was actually made by, you guessed it, Austin Motor.

The company also designed a few airplanes during the conflict.

Test flown in February 1918, the Austin Osprey single seat fighter airplane lost to the Sopwith 7F.1 Snipe in a 1917 competition launched by the Royal Flying Corps, the air service of the British Army. And yes, the mind blowing collection of the Canada Aviation and Space Museum includes a Snipe. Only 1 Osprey was made.

Test flown in May 1919, the Austin Greyhound 2-seat fighter airplane was one of machines designed for use with the A.B.C. Dragonfly engine, an abominable piece of machinery mentioned in an October 2019 issue of our blog / bulletin / thingee. Given this massive problem and the signing of the Armistice, only 3 Greyhounds were made.

During the Second World War, Austin Motor delivered numerous examples of combat airplanes like the Avro Lancaster heavy bombing airplane, the Fairey Battle light bombing airplane and the Hawker Hurricane fighter airplane. All 3 of these airplanes are represented in the… words fail me, stupendously impressive collection of the Canada Aviation and Space Museum.

The company also made parts for other manufacturers. Among other things, it made parts for the Bristol Beaufighter twin engine fighter airplane. And yes, the mind blowing collection of the Canada Aviation and Space Museum includes a Beaufighter.

Speaking of museum, may I be permitted to suggest that a sister / brother institution of said Canada Aviation and Space Museum, the Canada Science and Technology Museum of Ottawa, may wish to consider the possibility of looking into the possibility of acquiring a J40? Would it not be great if one of the vehicles given away in 1963 by W.H. Schwartz & Sons could be found somewhere? Just sayin’.

I hear (read?) that an Austin J40 Pedal Car Club still existed as of 2019. This British organisation seemingly had members from around the globe. A Canadian member might know where to find a J40, but I digress.

Nowadays, a number of J40s take part in the Settrington Cup, a race held since 2012 or so as part of the Goodwood Revival, a yearly commemorative festival held at the Goodwood Circuit, an automobile racetrack in operation between 1948 and 1966. Would you believe that racing car legend Sir Stirling Craufurd Moss presented the trophy to the winner of the first race? The competitors, aged 8 in average, ran to their automobiles, as was done at the 24 heures du Mans, the world’s oldest active automobile race, held in France. They then pedalled their way through a short circuit. Each pilot wore a 1950s style overall and crash helmet, in keeping with the theme of the festivities. Even a jaded old cynic like me must admit that this Settrington Cup sounded / sounds like a lot of fun.

So, give us a smile. Yes. Good human. Yes. You. Are.

Ta ta for now.

And yes, Wilbur Wright made many spectacular flights near Le Mans between August and December 1908. As you well know, this giant of aviation was mentioned a number of times in our blog / bulletin / thingee since December 2017.

P.S. A friendly bird was kind enough to mention to yours truly that Goodwood House was the residence of Charles Lennox, Duke of Richmond, Lennox and Aubigny, and Governor General of British North America in 1818-19. This gentleman died in August 1819, not too far from what is now Ottawa, during a trip he was making in Lower Canada and Upper Canada. His death seemingly resulted from a deadly combination of exhaustion, excessive heat and poor health. If that was indeed the case, a fox bite received a few days before had nothing to do with the duke’s death; the poor creature did not suffer from rabies.

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Rénald Fortier