Considered to be a poor-man’s Bentley when it was new, we discover the Sheerline’s charms...
The big Austin is all about space and luxury and they are the first things to hit you when you step aboard. Acres of fine leather and beautifully polished wood provide a great ambience, and while the square-faced instruments mightn’t be everyone’s cup of tea, there is no doubting the craftsmanship involved.
Underway, the torquey straight six is refined and performance is more than adequate given the hefty kerb-weight, while the long wheelbase provides a supremely comfortable ride – you can certainly see why the Sheerline was compared to Bentleys of the day. As you might expect from something so large, this is a car that is all about wafting its occupants around in comfort so handling dynamics don’t really enter the equation. That said the independent front suspension and leaf-sprung live axle cope admirably with the bulk if you decide to press on and the drum brakes are more than up to the job. Frankly though you wouldn’t want to push things – instead sit back and enjoy the luxury on offer knowing you’re behind the wheel of one Britain’s finest post-WW2 models.
Austin A12/5 Sheerline
Power (bhp@rpm) 130bhp@3700rpm
Torque (lb ft@rpm) 150lb ft@2000rpm
Top speed 81mph
Gearbox 4-spd manual/4-spd auto opt.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR
BODYWORK & CHASSIS
Major restoration of such a large car can be an expensive prospect, so careful checks of the bodywork and separate chassis are needed. The steel chassis is considered bulletproof but easy to repair if necessary, while the rear edge of the front wings, the lid of the spare wheel compartment, and the boot lid corners are potential rot spots. Beneath the steel skin of the doors is a wooden frame which can rot away, so any doubts over their integrity should ring alarm bells. Bear in mind too that replacement panels are almost impossible to source, so it’ll be a case of repairing what’s there or letting-in fresh metal. Interestingly Sheerlines were fitted with a ‘Jackall’ internal jacking system, operated by a hydraulic pump that allowed all four wheels to be lifted at once. It is worth checking to see if this is still operational.
While on the exterior, take a good look at the chrome-work and light fittings. The latter are hard to find now so may have been replaced with non-original parts, while the huge Lucas P100 headlamps can cost a few hundred pounds each to replace. Items such as door locks and handles are equally rare so take the time to ensure everything is present and correct. It’s worth checking the operation of the sliding steel sunroof as a re-build is labour intensive, and ensure that leaking seals haven’t caused water damage inside.
The 4.0-litre engine is derived from the Austin K-Series truck and is strong and reliable with proper care, and the simple construction means a re-build is fairly straightforward. If there’s a weakness it’s the cooling system, considered to be the result of squeezing a big engine into a poorly-ventilated engine bay. Overheating will likely result in a blown head gasket so it check for any evidence of this. Recent radiator refurbishment or replacement is good news as is the fitting of a modern electric fan which pretty much cures the problem. Engines can suffer from fuel vapourisation, cured by insulating the pipes around the carburettor.
A thorough check of the electrical system is recommended too. The braided wiring may have started to deteriorate – always a risk with old cars – while items such as control boxes and instruments are very hard to find now which means re-building original components.
The four-speed manual gearbox is also lorry-based with all the strength that implies. It’s generally trouble-free although problems selecting gears are likely to be caused by wear in the column change linkage. It’s an easy fix though. Wear in the propshaft joints or an especially noisy differential will be apparent on the test drive.
The running gear is robust, but there are a few things worth checking for. The hefty kerb weight puts a strain on the lever-arm dampers and rear leaf springs so check these aren’t leaking or sagging respectively while joints and bushes may be ready for an overhaul, the track rod ends particularly. The steering’s cam gear can’t be adjusted so a re-build will be needed if it’s worn. The non-servo hydraulic drum brakes are up to the task but look for signs of leaking wheel cylinders – original-spec replacements are costly but specialists can re-sleeve them instead. The handbrake was poor even when new so ensure it holds the car on a slope.
The cabin of a Sheerline was an object lesson in the use of high quality materials, with features such as Wilton carpets and a wool cloth headlining adding to the luxury feel. That means a decrepit interior will be seriously costly to restore, most likely needing professional attention, so don’t ignore trim in poor condition. Take a good look at the horn rim on the Bakelite steering wheel – the original Mazak part is almost impossible to find and may have been replaced with a stainless steel item. Lastly, check for evidence of water leaks from the rear screen – an issue even when new which may have damaged the trim, or worse allowed rust to take hold.
The Sheerline is a fine blend of simplicity, reliability, and comfort and those attributes alone would be enough to swing it for most buyers. It enjoys a degree of exclusivity compared to other luxury cars of the day, which is an added attraction – you’re unlikely to be disappointed if you were to choose one of these over a Bentley. Finding a good one is the key though as the quality of its construction (not to mention its sheer size) means major restoration work will sap funds depressingly quickly. There are probably few finer ways to travel though.