The British-built Austin A40 made quite a splash in Vancouver, British Columbia, in 1952. Twenty-two splashes, in fact. Right into English Bay. On purpose.
Beginning in 1932, Vancouver auto dealer Fred Deeley served as the official distributor of Austin Motor Cars, and the partnership was so valuable that, at Deeley’s urging, Austin began building a left-hand-drive model for export in 1948. The small, four-cylinder Austin A40 was offered in several forms—coupe, pickup truck, van, even an ambulance—and it proved to be popular in the western Canadian province and other parts of the world.
In fact, as writer Alyn Edwards explained in the Vancouver Sun several years ago, the Austin A40 became Britain’s leading export, earning $70 million in its first four years of production. Sales in B.C. alone—through 40 Austin dealerships—totaled $15 million in those first four years.
Fred Deeley Motors not only served as the marque’s distributor, it was by far the most successful Austin dealer in British Columbia. Deeley’s year-over-year Austin sales had already doubled twice when, in August 1951, Deeley held a giant 10-day Austin of England show in Vancouver that was attended by Austin executives.
Unfortunately, Deeley’s wild Austin ride was about to hit a bit of a speed bump. On April 28, 1952, the Dutch ship Dongedy, carrying 50 Austin A40 cars and light trucks, caught fire in Vancouver’s harbor. A fireboat showered salt water onto the freighter, which extinguished the flames but also damaged a number of vehicles that had otherwise escaped the fire unscathed.
Several days later, the Vancouver Sun reported that Austin execs had decided to dump the fire- and water-damaged cars “into Burrard Inlet, somewhere near English Bay.” An Austin spokesman told the Sun, “We don’t want anyone to have any doubt in his mind when he buys a car. We are making sure no one claims his car is acting up because it was damaged in the fire.”
So on May 9, under the supervision of a customs official, 22 damaged A40s—stripped of their tires and batteries—were loaded onto a barge, towed to the entrance of Howe Sound, pulled one by one into the water by cables linked to a tugboat, and were sunk to their watery grave. (Robert O. Bentley photographed the disposal; his images are part of the Dominion Photo Studio collection in the Vancouver Public Library.)
After a tugboat crew was seen dragging the bottom of English Bay, the Sun published a follow-up story warning anyone who hoped to snag a free Austin or two that they ought to consider the consequences. “The legal situation is ticklish. The cars have paid no duty…and ownership is still vested with the company that had them dunked.”
The warning apparently worked. “To my knowledge, the Austins have never been disturbed,” says Edwards, who is now a partner with the Vancouver-based public relations firm Peak Communicators Ltd.
As a longtime newspaper reporter, Edwards has heard some interesting tales over the years, none quite as memorable as the day that 22 Austins met their fate in English Bay. “I’ve written hundreds of stories about classic cars, but this one is the most unique,” he says. “Could you imagine if an auto manufacturer did that now?”
Courtesy Dominion Photo Studio collection in the Vancouver Public Library