Vintage Cars of ‘The Great Gatsby’ – Austin Highway King Twelve

What Cars Would Jay Gatsby Have Really Bought?

Is Daisy waiting for Jay Gatsby? The Great Gatsby.

Is Daisy waiting for Jay Gatsby? The Great Gatsby.

A 1919-1921 Shopping List by Igor Spajic

AUSTIN HIGHWAY KING TWELVE

Basically defunct by 1920, Austin (no relation to the British car maker) of Grand Rapids, Michigan had been a pioneer automaker which had always offered the largest proprietary engines available. Firmly in the fine car market, Austin equipped its large touring cars and limousines with engineering advances of its own, such as two-stage rear suspensions, self-starters using compressed air and dual-range differentials.

Billed as the ‘Highway King’, the Austin was royal in size and larger than most of its contemporaries, being sized and priced accordingly in Locomobile and Pierce-Arrow sales territory for the wealthiest of clientele. Austin owners of note were opera singer Emma Calve; Bissell Carpet Sweeper general manager Charles B. Judd; press magnate William Randolph Hearst and world heavyweight boxer Jack Johnson.

A 1916 Austin Highway King 36-66 4-passenger roadster. Designs changed little by 1920.

A 1916 Austin Highway King 36-66 4-passenger roadster. Designs changed little by 1920.

 

Austin offered different six-cylinder models up to 1913, the largest being the Highway King, Model 77. This featured a 668 cubic inch powerplant and cost $6,000 and up. Lesser models were the Model 50 for $4,400 and Model 45 for a mere $3,600

For 1914 through 1917, the Austin line was rationalised to a single Model 66 Master. This Highway King was still a monster with a bore and stroke of 4 ½” x 6”, giving a 572 cubic inch displacement. Wheelbase was 141” and prices began at around $4,000. The Austin formula of offering the largest engines in the largest chassis sizes still held.

A range of body styles were offered for the tastes of each customer. In 1915, these included a Runabout; Close Coupled touring car; and 4-, 5- or 6-Passenger Touring cars, all for $3,600. Closed cars offered were 4- or 5-Passenger Limousines at $4,200 and the 7-Passenger Limousine for $4,700. The twin-speed rear axle continued, giving six forward speeds (and two reverse). The larger engined Model 77 returned, for a familiar asking price of $6,000, but cheaper chassis models were offered for 1916. The new Austin Model 36-66 had a price of ‘only’ $2,800 for the 4-Passenger Roadster; $3,800 for the Sedan and $4,000 for the formal Vestibule Brougham. The engine was smaller too, at only 36 hp tax rating, and a bore/stroke of 3 7/8” x 5 ¼” gave a modest displacement of 371.5 cid. You get what you pay for, or so the Austins might have reasoned.

For 1917, the Model 77 disappeared and Austin’s sole six-cylinder offering was the same smaller Model 66 as before.

1919 Austin Highway King Twelve Limousine. V12 power for Gatsby's formal use.

1919 Austin Highway King Twelve Limousine. V12 power for Gatsby’s formal use?

However, Austin did not abandon its high horsepower policy. After Packard’s twelve-cylinder challenge of 1915, Austin availed itself of the proprietary V-12 offered by Weidely Motors for 1917. The Indianapolis, Indiana, engine manufacturer supplied an overhead valve unit of 389 cid (6.383 litre), which put out a generous 87 bhp @ 3000 rpm – a performance ballpark Austin had been hitting in since 1907.

The Weidely V12 engine was used by a number of auto makers in the 1916-21 period. It was an OHV design with 87-90 bhp.

The Weidely V12 engine was used by a number of auto makers in the 1916-21 period. It was an OHV design with 87-90 bhp.

The V-12 was offered from late 1917 through to 1920 as Austin’s only engine. Its chassis rode on a limousine-size 142” wheelbase, whether it was a limousine or a rumble-seat roadster!

Wheels could be had of wood spoke or wire as the customer desired. Service brakes were external contracting, while emergency brakes were internal expanding. The three-speed, selective sliding gearbox still worked through a two-speed differential in a full floating axle, both of Austin design. The two-speed was a welcome addition to driving flexibility in an era of change-resistant, crash gearboxes and slow-revving engines.

The Austin Highway Twelve was available in a range of bodies to customer order. Wartime inflation had forced price increases: Two-Passenger and Four-Passenger Roadsters were $3,750, as was the Seven-Passenger Touring. A Coupe was $4,550; a 7-passenger Sedan at $4,950; and Limousine at $5,250. In real terms, these were relatively modest prices, considering the previous Austin sales tags.

 

The roadsters were sleek and long, with all passengers sitting well forward of the rear axle. There was enough leftover room behind the occasional rumble seat (on a 2-Passenger Roadster) or tonneau (on a 4-Passenger Roadster) to carry the spare wheel rims and tyres horizontally – on top of the rear bodywork. After all, there was plenty of room on that 142” wheelbase.

Together with Austin’s own advanced chassis features, the Highway King Twelve was an advanced specification all up. It would have interested Gatsby had he been a connoisseur of cars, which he did not seem to be.

Ultimately as a small volume car maker, assembling proprietary components, Austin could not survive the twin difficulties of wartime materials shortages in 1917-1918 and the postwar recession. Increasing competition from more efficient rival companies finally consigned Austin to history as a carmaker in 1921.

It’s an unlikely buy for Gatsby.

 

Austin Automobile Company

Austin Highway King Twelve

1919 prices – $4,250 – $5,750

Speak Your Mind