AUSTIN, Sir Herbert

Type

Person

8th November 1866 to 23rd May 1941

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Occupation

Biographical Text

Austin was an engineer and industrialist who founded the Austin Motor Company.

Austin was born on 8 November 1866 at Little Missenden, Buckinghamshire, the son of a farmer. He was educated at Rotherham Grammar School and then Brampton Commercial College. At age seventeen he emigrated to Australia, where he apprenticed as an engineer. He then worked for a number of firms in the Melbourne area, and also took evening classes at Hotham Art School. He married Helen Dron in 1887.

After working as an engineer for the Wolseley Sheep Shearing Machine Company, Austin was appointed manager of the company's newly formed British subsidiary, and returned to the UK in 1893. After setting up the factory, in 1895 Austin began experimenting with building automobiles. In 1899 he won a major endurance race, and with funding from Vickers, set up the Wolseley Tool and Motor Car Company with himself as general manager. In 1905 he left Wolseley to set up the Austin Motor Company at Longbridge, near Birmingham. Growth was slow at first, hampered by a proliferation of new models and designs, but by 1913 Austin employed 1,900 people and was making 900 cars a year.

Following the outbreak of the First World War the Longbridge plant converted to making explosive shells, and supplied ammunition to the British army and navy throughout the war. By the end of the war Austin employed around 20,000 people. He was knighted KBE in 1917 in recognition for his wartime services, and also received the Order of Leopold from the Belgian government.

Following the war Austin returned to building cars and embarked on an ambitious expansion project aimed at capturing the high end of the market, but was badly caught out by the depression of 1920-21 and barely escaped bankruptcy. Changing strategy, Austin followed the example of Ford and concentrated on cheap, mass-produced cars. The result was the Austin Seven, one of the most successful motor cars of all time.

Austin served as president of the Institute of British Carriage and Automobile Manufacturers, of the Institute of Automobile Engineers, the Institute of Production Engineers, the British Cast Iron Research Association and the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders. In recognition of his contribution, Austin was honoured with a peerage, bestowed in 1936, with the title of Baron Austin of Longbridge. He died at Lickey Grange, near Longbridge on 23 May 1941.

Austin's Rowntree paper was part of a debate on the 40-hour working week, with William Sherwood arguing in favour and Austin against. The basis of Austin's argument is that the long-term effect of reducing the working week from 48 hours to 40 would be negative, as costs would rise and make British firms uncompetitive, especially in export markets where they were already struggling with competitors who had access to cheaper labour. The result, Austin declared, would be industrial contraction and job losses, and while those in work might be better off, many more would be without any work at all. The first task, Austin declared, was to stimulate greater demand for British goods and put industry onto a sounder footing.

Bibliography

Church, R., Herbert Austin, The British Motor Car Industry to 1941, London: Europa Publication Ltd, 1979.

Jenkins, A., 'Austin, Herbert', in M. Witzel (ed.) Biographical Dictionary of Management, Bristol: Thoemmes Press, 2001.

Lambert, Z.E. and Wyatt R.J., Lord Austin the Man, London, Sidgwick & Jackson, 1968.

Citation

“AUSTIN, Sir Herbert,” The Rowntree Business Lectures and the Interwar British Management Movement, accessed July 16, 2020, http://rowntree.exeter.ac.uk/items/show/5.