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The forgotten story of the iconic Austin J40 pedal car, built by Welsh miners

18 Sep 2023 4 minute read
The BBC filming at the Bargoed factory

A new book tells the remarkable story of the iconic Austin J40 pedal car, which was produced in Wales by former coalminers.

Austin boss Sir Leonard Lord came up with the idea of the vehicle in 1946 and put together a team to design a pedal car after creating a hand-built prototype.

Based on Austin’s 1948 A40 Devon and Dorset, production started in 1949, with the help of Government funding, at the Austin plant in Bargoed.

The factory was staffed entirely by local miners disabled by pneumoconiosis, who built the cars using scrap metal left over from production at Longbridge of the Austin Road car.

At the end of the Second World it was estimated that 5000 miners in south Wales suffered so severely from pneumoconiosis they could no longer work in the coal industry.

The Bargoed factory is thought to be the first in the world where every employee was registered as disabled.

Medical supervision

Ex-miners could work at Bargoed under full-time medical supervision and with medical facilities on-site at the factory. Their work was designed to be as untaxing as possible.

By 1953, 150 men were employed at the factory and Austin began the manufacture of small metal pressings for its full-size cars, including dashboard parts, car registration plates and rocker covers at the plant.

The workforce swelled to over 500 men, all pneumoconiosis sufferers, by 1965 and by 1971, when production of the J40 ended, there was enough other work to keep the factory open.

An Austin J40 jigsaw puzzle from the 1950s. Photo by Puzzler4879 is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

As conditions in the mines improved and the coal industry contracted during the 1980s, the number of miners employed declined and workers were employed who were not pneumoconiosis sufferers.

The plant finally closed in 1999 when production of the Austin A-Series engine was ended by Austin’s then owner the Rover Group.

By the time the factory closed it employed only 45 people, of which only 11 were registered as disabled.

More than 31,000 pedal cars were sold before production at Bargoed finished in 1971.

Goodwood revival

In recent years, interest in the Austin J40 has been boosted by the annual Settrington Cup race for the cars at the Goodwood Revival.

Austin Pedal Cars, which produces and supplies new parts for the classic J40, and restores and sells J40s around the world, will launch a new model J40 Continuation Car at the 2023 Goodwood Revival.

The Continuation model is a modern-day interpretation of the original pedal car, designed, and built using the latest engineering technology, whilst staying faithful to the look of the classic original.

Austin Pedal Cars commissioned David Whyley to write this comprehensive history book on their behalf, uncovering new information, stories and images to tell the full story of this important Austin car.

A 1952 Austin J40 pedal car. Photo by tautaudu02 is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

The book features numerous previously unpublished archive photographs and documents and provides the definitive story of Austin’s diminutive Pathfinder, based on the 1930s Austin racers, and its successor the J40, intertwined with their impact on the lives of those who have built and pedalled the cars over the years.

For British car industry enthusiasts, the J40 story is an unknown chapter of British car making history. This book uncovers how many heroes of the industry learnt their trade at the J40 factory, before making a name for themselves in years to come.

Comprehensive chapters include the origins and design of the cars, the background to the Bargoed factory and its workers, racing J40s, the cars’ use in road-safety campaigns around the world, J40s on the screen and in advertising, and the rebirth of Austin Pedal Cars today.

The Austin Pedal Car Story: The fascinating history of Austin’s J40 and Pathfinder from 1946 to present day by Dr. David Whyley is published by Porterpress and you can buy a copy here.

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Mab Meirion
Mab Meirion
9 months ago

Who remembers the council pedal cars for hire on the ‘Black Patch’ in Barmouth during the 50’s and 60’s…

9 months ago

At launch the J40 cost £27 plus £6 purchase tax,
(about three weeks’ wages for a working man ).
You can get them at auction for between £3 – 5 ,000.

9 months ago

Are pedal cars like bicycles, exempt from the 20mph limit?

Padi Phillips
Padi Phillips
9 months ago

Looks like a nice book, but at £85 it’s hardly a snip.

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