Austin A35 Van

A clever en­gine con­ver­sion has trans­formed this lit­tle Austin.

Classics Monthly - - Contents - Words by Ivan Ost roff Pho­tog­ra­phy by Lyn don McNeil

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.

Be­spoke tank

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.

Sat­is­fy­ing re­sults

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.

Driv­ing im­pres­sions

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.

When bought, the van had been stripped and was lack­ing an en­gine…

Roger re­built the Ford diesel en­gine him­self, bor­ing it out to 1675cc in the process.

… while the in­te­rior was also in need of some care and at­ten­tion.

Strength­en­ing the rear end of the chas­sis al­lowed A35 to pull a car­a­van.

Up­rated brakes and sus­pen­sion have trans­formed how the van han­dles.

Early cas­sette player is now a clas­sic in its own right! Nu­mer­ous aux­il­iary gauges en­sure Roger knows what is go­ing on un­der the bon­net.

Austin A40 king pins were use to aid re­li­a­bil­ity. Con­ver­sion has been done neatly and the Ford diesel fits snugly un­der the bon­net.

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