Herbert's Last Office Boy


John Cleaver called in at The Austin just before his 14th birthday, in 1940, and told them he wanted to be a draughtsman. "I couldn't become an apprentice until I was 16, so I was put with other juniors in the works post office, lugging the mail round in big leather satchels.

It was a wonderful chance to see everything that went on in the factory. In the stamp shop the drop hammers would be going bump, bump, bump, and those Black Country guys from Cradley Heath and Halesowen thought it a great joke to throw a white hot crown wheel to one another just in front of you.

After three months John was promoted to being Herbert Austin's office boy. Austin told him: "Your first job every morning is to take my used blotting paper and the contents of my paper basket and burn them." People have since suggested that John must have got his hands on some interesting sketches and he agrees: "There were sketches galore, which would be quite valuable now, but I did what I was told. Anything in that basket had to be burned."

Austin once sent him on the tram to a bank in Northfield, saying: "I'll give you a cheque for £100 and I want it in fivers." John had never owned a pound note and, as for fivers, he swears he hadn't even seen one: "My 11s a week went straight to my mother and I had sixpence back. When I came out of the bank I felt as though I was carrying half a million quid. I put it in my pocket, but still kept hold of it. When I got back he just dropped the money into a drawer and shut it. I said 'Aren't you going to count it, sir'. 'There's no need to son', he said. I felt ten feet tall - fantastic!"

When Austin died in 1941 John was still his office boy. He says: "I was very upset. There was a big turnout for the funeral. His personal staff, Miss Parker and Bobby Howitt and me, rode in the first car of a big cortege to Lickey church. I still visit his grave when I go through - brush the leaves off and sit there in contemplation. There are people now at Longbridge who don't even know there was a Lord Austin. They think Austin was a word that was coined just like Ajax or Persil. A shame really.

Think Tank

"Soon after John began his apprenticeship, during which he went round all departments. "In 1943, while I was in the pattern shop, Dick Burzi, Austin's stylist, came in. He wanted someone to make plaster casts from an oval clay plaque he had made. On the plaque was a raised profile of what turned out to be the A90 Atlantic. He wanted the castings so he could paint them in different colours. He told me to do them in a corner so no one would see. I made half a dozen and when the Atlantic eventually came out I remember thinking that I saw that thing when it was only a piece of clay."

After his apprenticeship John went into the factory planning department, working with a group which was asked to develop all sorts of new ideas for production processes - a sort of think tank. Leonard Lord brought many an idea along for us to work on.

As John recalls: "About 1948 Lord called us together and said 'We are going to build cars like they've never been built before. I don't want any of you blokes to go into the present erecting shop or chassis shop, because the new cars will have no chassis'. We laughed - a car without a chassis? - ha ha ha. But he carried on 'Forget what we've done in the past. I want a building with a completely clear floor and a hole in it for the engine to pop up. A bit further along the axles can pop up and then the body will come along. There will be different types of bodies, two doors, four doors, all the different colours, left and right-hand drive, different engine specs and axle ratios - and it's all got to be synchronised'.

"We took a Devon to bits and numbered everything and gradually worked out all the different stations on the track, the production rates and how many people we needed per station and worked out the marshalling of parts. That was how CAB 1 came about in 1951."

Lord is officially credited as the first to sign the millionth Austin car, but John tells otherwise: "I've never told anybody else this. That millionth car was taken as an excuse for a bit of a knees-up. Tables were set out in the old showroom and I had the job of putting the names of those invited on the place settings. They locked the showroom with me inside. Well, I mean, a car in virgin white which you know is going to be scribbled all over, so I got on the dark side away from the lights and put my name high up on the door pillar, right underneath the roof guttering. The Press came in at lunchtime and Sir Leonard stepped up and wrote his name on the bonnet and for the next few days the workforce came in to sign it. No one knew that my signature went on first!"


Not long after that Austin set up a new dealer network. John recalls: "There was little experience to draw on really because garages before the war were very unsophisticated, but George Harriman asked me to apply 'factory systems' and 'organisation and management' to the service industry. I did my own research and measured turning circles and things like that to produce a book filled with ideas of how garages could go about developing their service and spares facilities. I produced suggested layouts for workshops, lubrication bays, counters, aids to sign writing and the painting of vehicles - everything."

In trying to devise a new corporate colour scheme for Austin, John and his gang had come up with options from pink and grey, to greens and yellows, but after a board meeting word filtered down that Austin director Chris Buckley, who was also a director of Aston Villa, had said: "Claret and blue are the Aston Villa colours so why not use them." Apparently Startins of Aston was the first Austin dealership to use Villa colours."

With the merger of Austin and Morris, John became chief planning engineer, BMC Service, with responsibility for planning premises of BMC dealers worldwide. "Do you know where the BMC rosette came from?" he chuckled. "Sir Leonard Lord's cattle!" We had done all sorts of schemes for a new logo and no one could decide which was best. Sir Leonard said 'Look, since you can't make your bloody minds up we'll use this'. He had brought one of the rosettes he'd been awarded for his Hereford cattle and said that's what we'll use - in red white and blue."

Article by Barney Sharratt in 1994 for Classic Car Weekly