Austin 7

The first models were little faster than a horse, but it became as legendary as the Mini, says Brian Sewell
Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online

It was Hodgetts, a blokeish friend of my stepfather, who resolved the mystery of why the smallest Austins had "Seven" writ large upon their noses and the largest bore the legend "Six". Hodgetts knew all about cars and was, after World War II, to take me hill-climbing in his AC, but this was 10 years earlier, in my Wind in the Willows days. "Seven", he said, "is the horsepower, six the number of cylinders."

It was Hodgetts, a blokeish friend of my stepfather, who resolved the mystery of why the smallest Austins had "Seven" writ large upon their noses and the largest bore the legend "Six". Hodgetts knew all about cars and was, after World War II, to take me hill-climbing in his AC, but this was 10 years earlier, in my Wind in the Willows days. "Seven", he said, "is the horsepower, six the number of cylinders."

As six was the number of cylinders that Rolls and Royce thought perfect, Herbert Austin decided that his 16, 18 and 20hp models should share that mark of engineering status rather than declare their size. The Seven, however, had only four cylinders and was, in horsepower terms, about as small as it could be; quite how so slow a car, so futilely incapable on hills, could be a match for seven horses, Hodgetts allowed to remain a mystery.

Not even as a child did I want an Austin Seven; as a schoolboy I regarded them with amused contempt; and as a National Serviceman I refused to join the ranks of impecunious subalterns who drove them legendary distances on weekend leaves. Now, in my dotage, the overheated world crumbling about me, I realise how sensible they were -- 50mph and 50mpg in their final incarnation, the four-seater Ruby saloon with which Baron Austin of Longbridge ended the car's 17-year run in March 1939, allowing it to be usurped by an imposter, the "Big Seven", damned for its four doors and 900cc engine. This, an infelicitous attempt to introduce an "Eight" to compete with the slightly larger smallest cars of Ford and Morris, is not counted a true Seven by aficionados.

The real thing began as a sheet of paper on Herbert's billiard table and had a 747cc engine that remained in production until 1962 as the power plant of the three-wheel Reliant (since 1935). Truth to tell, in the earliest models of late 1922 the engine was of 696cc, but within six months the bore was increased to give another 51cc and 10bhp at 2,600rpm. With some uncertainty in terms of date, power rose to 23 bhp in the standard models, but weight rose too and even with the comparatively powerful last Ruby, the recommended cruising speed was only 35-40mph, much the same as the first Seven.

The car was always intended to seat four, but a body only inches longer than the current basic Smart and many inches narrower scarcely made for comfort. The model called the Chummy was exactly that - occupants overflowed the sides, and rear passengers had a bumpy ride perched behind the rear axle. It was hellish for the driver too, with a clutch that was either in or out (its useful pedal movement perhaps 5mm), uncoupled brakes operated by foot at the rear and hand at the front, direct steering easily thrown off-course, and suspension that skipped a beat and jittered sideways over every drain.

The butt of every music-hall comedian and Punch cartoonist, it nevertheless became, like the Mini of the Sixties, the car in which to be seen. Coachbuilders to the gentry joined in the fun with special bodies, the close-coupled Doctor's Coupe and Top Hat two-seater saloons favourite designs.

Austin was quick to realise that his baby had potential as a sports car. Within months of the first saloons a "works" racing car emerged from the Longbridge factory, a standard chassis fitted with a lightweight two-seater body; three racing Sevens prepared as "team" cars followed; and in September 1923 Gordon England, a racing driver, circled Brooklands at 73 mph with an even more modified Seven.

England then put fast variants into production, the Brooklands and the Cup, and Austin himself followed with the Ulster in 1927, supercharged and with modified valve gear and manifolds capable of 5,000rpm, giving a road speed of more than 80mph. Even the far less re-engineered Nippy and Speedy of the Thirties were capable of 75mph, and these proved wonderfully amenable to amateur tinkering. Austin again followed suit, more to prove the absolute reliability of the Seven than to win, say, the Mille Miglia, giving the little engine twin overhead camshafts and two-stage supercharging, of which the results were 116bhp at 7,600rpm - figures that are still remarkable today. With the four-speed gearbox and partial synchromesh of the late Sevens, the Nippy and Speedy were the stalwarts of the Seven Fifty Motor Club formed to race in the late Thirties and still active in the 1990s.

The two most extraordinary specials were the single-seater built by the young Alec Issigonis in 1939 and one entered in the International Six Day Motor Cycle Trial of 1938. Issigonis constructed a mini-Maserati racing car in plywood and aluminium on the monocoque principle, with rubber suspension, two decades ahead of his Mini. For the Motor Cycle Trial the designer took advantage of the rule that two driven wheels would count as one if less than a foot apart, accordingly reduced the rear axle of an Austin Seven and clad it in a body resembling a Morgan.

The Austin spawned the German Dixi in 1927, a Seven made in Eisenach under licence transferred to BMW in 1928. With a derivative of the Seven, paying royalties to Austin, the Parisian engineer Lucien Rosengart achieved his independence from Peugeot in 1928. Throughout the Thirties handsome but heavy Sevens were made under licence in the US as American Austin (subsequently Bantam), and Datsun plagiarised it in 1933. Add these to the 375,000 or so made at Longbridge and we have, perhaps, the first World Car. Quite certainly the Austin Seven was as important a concept in the history of motoring as the Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost or the Issigonis Mini. The ghost of Hodgetts might agree.

Search for used cars

Comments