Austin A35 Van
A clever engine conversion has transformed this little Austin.
When Roger Blockley heard that his hero James Hunt once owned an Austin A35 van, he had to have one. “I discovered a wreck in Cornwall in 1997, for £75, and grabbed it. The floor, wings and sills were rusty, but Roger fabricated repair sections from 18 gauge steel. “It would have been 24 gauge originally, but now you can jack it up anywhere, the structure is that rigid.” When the bodywork was finished, Roger sprayed the van himself, in Old English White.
As the van had no engine or gearbox, Roger thought it an ideal opportunity to fit a diesel engine, along with an automatic gearbox. It would be relaxing to drive on long journeys, and be very economical. Therefore, he bought an old Escort Mk3 1600 diesel engine and a Borg Warner 65 automatic gearbox from a Triumph 2500, as it could be used with a cable downshift to link with the carb. Roger rebuilt the Escort engine, bored it out from 1608cc to 1675cc and fitted a later cylinder head and cam from an 1800cc model.
Learning on the job
To fit it, Roger had to cut away the van’s bulkhead; given the engine was designed to be fitted transversely, he constructed a right-angled mounting to attach the front of the engine to the chassis. “I hadn’t worked with an auto before and mounted the torque converter directly to the flywheel. I didn’t realise that
a flex-plate was essential. Within 500 miles I had oil leaking from a split converter. I had the converter repaired, added a flex-plate and that did the trick. Then the engine was revving high and going nowhere, so I removed the 5.14:1 differential and fitted a 3.7:1 unit from a Riley 1.5, which was perfect.”
The worst thing on the A35 was the brakes; hydraulics at the front and cable operated rears. Roger dealt with that issue by converting to a hydraulic setup all round, with 8” A40 Farina drums, and an MG Metro brake servo. He used suspension parts from the A40, with tougher king pins. The lower wishbones are standard, but there are double acting shock absorbers from a Morris Oxford and cut down MGB coil springs to compensate for the extra weight up front.
The original fuel tank was too corroded, so Roger made up a ten gallon tank for the diesel, to fit under the floor at the back. The old defunct filler neck was left in situ, rather than alter the appearance of the offside rear panel. The diesel tank filler is accessed by opening the rear door and lifting the spare wheel out of the way. This may seem irritating, but as a result of the economy, it is an operation that
Cut-down MGB coil springs are used to compensate for the extra weight up front
is not performed very often.
There are also some subtle exterior improvements, such as the chrome plinths from an A35 saloon under the chrome side lamp bodies, replacing the rubber items normally fitted to a van. Also, there are chrome trim strips running along the tops of the wings, from an Austin Healey 3000, which Roger cut down to fit: “I just think they enhance the appearance.” In the interests of safety Roger has also rewired the van and added lap and diagonal belts, as there were none previously fitted.
I asked Roger, if he had to do the job again, what he’d do differently. Roger: “Nothing much, it is more or less what I wanted. I might improve the steering; the worm and peg is not very precise. But the engine didn’t leave room to fit a rack and pinion system.”
The van is used and enjoyed on a fairly regular basis. “It does not go out in the winter, but I just like to go for a drive from time to time, sometimes down to the pub. In 2003, I fitted some 2x2” box section steel, an 1/ 8” thick, to the rear end behind the panel work where it is not visible, to give more than enough strength on which to base the tow bar. Then, I designed and built a caravan out of fibreglass and my wife and I went to the West Country on holiday. The A35 managed fine.
The van sits low, due to the altered spring rates and also the extra heavy gauge metal Roger has used, including for the fuel tank, and the tow bar strengthening work.
Sliding behind the wheel, in addition to the original speedometer panel, one is confronted by a rev counter, plus gauges for oil pressure, water temp, amps and volts. You know immediately that you are sitting in something a trifle special.
Diesels are lower revving than petrol engines and the tachometer is calibrated from zero to 4000rpm, but Roger happily winds the needle right around the dial back to zero, which in effect is about 5500rpm! I’d describe the A35 steering as safe, but typically ’60’s worm and peg vague. It’s heavy at parking speeds, but once moving, it’s acceptable.
The combination of diesel engine and automatic gearbox makes the car sluggish initially, but once on the move, the torque yanks the car forward. The gate is unmarked and thus takes a while to get used to; apart from reverse and neutral and park, there is D, 1 and 2. So the gearbox can be held in the lower gears if required. The kickdown works in D1, but at low speeds only, so you can’t over rev the engine in error. The automatic box is reasonably smooth, but if you accelerate hard, it can become a tad jerky. However, in normal use, it is acceptably smooth.
The added torque from the Ford engine is well harnessed and there is no feeling that the rear end is going to break away suddenly. The modified suspension has endowed the little Austin with good cornering manners and even in the wet, it grips well. The upgraded brakes are tremendous, and feel completely different from the standard car.