Collection in action: Austin Sevens

One hundred years ago, Herbert Austin decided to work on a new small car to meet the growing needs of a population wanting affordable transport. But as Mike Monk explains, it was not plain sailing…

Necessity is the mother of invention. Before WWI the Austin Motor Company had produced a range of cars, but Herbert Austin had been influenced by the manufacturing philosophy of Henry Ford and decided to follow the American’s lead by also mass producing a single model, the 20. Austin’s Longbridge factory had been enlarged to help Britain’s war effort, and it was here that Herbert’s plan was put into effect. However, the Austin 20 proved to be too large for the home market and the one-model policy was soon dropped. But the damage had already been done – the company was struggling and in receivership.

Despite this, Austin was spurred on by the post-war depression and the new Horsepower Tax, and in 1920 came up with the idea of producing a new small car for the masses.   However, the board of directors and numerous creditors opposed the idea so, to his eternal credit, Herbert – who was a talented engineer – decided to go it alone and develop the concept at his own expense. He hired 18-year-old-draughtsman Stanley Edge from the Austin factory and set up a design office in the billiard room (NOT on the table, though…) of his house in Lickey Grange. Edge lived in a lodge on the 40-hectare Grange estate and ate in the library. So working from home is nothing new, coronavirus or not…

The chassis was simply a steel, channel section A-frame with minor cross-bracing and the engine mounted between the channel sections at the narrow front end. It has been said that the layout was influenced by the design of an American truck used in the Longbridge factory. Initially, the wheelbase was 1 910 mm and front and rear tracks 1 020 mm. Around 1933, the 2 690 mm chassis was increased by 152 mm with a corresponding increase in the rear track. The forged front beam axle was located and suspended on a transverse half-elliptic leaf spring and splayed radius arms, while the spiral-bevel rear axle was supported on quarter-elliptic springs cantilevered from the back of the chassis. Early cars did not have any shock absorbers. Drum brakes were fitted on all wheels – a notable feature for the period and especially given the basic nature of the car – the fronts operated by the handbrake. These became fully coupled in 1930. Worm-and-sector steering was employed.

Edge convinced Austin to use a small four-cylinder engine and the original side-valve design had a capacity of 696 cm3 that equated to an RAC rating of 7,2 hp but by the time the car went into mass production, the capacity was increased to 747 cm3 and the rating became 10,5 hp. Peak power arrived at a ridiculously low 2 400 r/min. The cast iron cylinder block and detachable head were mounted on an aluminium crankcase. The crankshaft used two roller bearings and was splash lubricated: a centre bearing was added in 1936. Cooling was by thermosiphon without a water pump. The early cars used magneto ignition but this was changed to coil in 1928. An electric starter – another surprising feature for the time – was fitted from late 1923.

Edge also carried out the design of other mechanical components such as the three-speed gearbox and clutch assembly – an extra forward ratio was added in 1932, synchromesh provided on third and top a year later, then on second in 1934. Austin was largely responsible for styling the Seven, which was reportedly influenced by the Peugeot Quadrilette.

The design was completed in 1922 and three prototypes were built at Longbridge. The Austin Seven (named after its nominal hp rating) was announced to the public in July 1922 and went on general sale in March 1923 with a price tag of £165. Austin had put a large amount of his own money into the design and patented many of its innovations in his own name, and in return for his investment he was paid a royalty of two guineas (£2.2s) on every car sold. Nearly 2 500 cars were made in the first year of production and within a few years the Baby Austin – as it was to be affectionately known – had wiped out the cyclecar industry and transformed the fortunes of the Austin Motor Company.

So what is so special about the Seven? From my 1,9-metre perspective, it is a very small car. FMM has two 1926 models – an open-tourer that is referred to as a Chummy, and a Top Hat saloon. The Chummy started easily with a press on the floor-mounted starter but pulling away took a couple of attempts, the clutch is very stiff with practically no free play – it is almost like depressing a button. But after a couple of kangaroo lurches I was on my way, first gear enthusiastically building up momentum before I double-declutched into second, which proved to be an amazingly flexible gear. The lever moves around a tight, exposed aluminium gate and my hand brushes the handbrake but this is vintage motoring – 10 decades ago ergonomics was not an issue. But my left leg ached for a few days afterwards…

Top gear of the three-speeder is a bit of an overdrive and the car was claimed to have a top speed of 45 mph (72 km/h), but I reckon that would take a l-o-n-g time to reach without the help of wind or gradient. I also had two passengers with me, which in a car that weighed around 360 kg was a major handicap. Driving alone for some photography, the difference in performance was dramatic. But was it FUN. Sure, the body wriggled around but the ride quality was amazingly smooth and the steering is light and quite direct. What really impressed was the fixed, body-hugging seat – oh that some modern perches could provide such support.

Switching to the Top Hat, much of the sensations were the same. The generously-sized front and rear glazing affords a tremendous view but without the swirling wind and sun’s rays adding to the occasion. The gearbox was a little easier to operate on this car – the clutch is inherently in or out – and the steering wandered a little, but it was no less of an enjoyable experience. Brakes naturally need careful consideration, the drums looking almost impossibly small behind the wire-spoked 19-inch wheels shod with 3.25-width tyres.

By 1939 when production finally ended, around 300 000 cars and vans – carrying such charming names as Chummy, Nippy and Ruby – had been made and it had become the world’s leading small car. And what should not be overlooked is that Herbert Austin’s bold go-it-alone initiative all those years ago spawned some significant spin-offs: the car was built in Germany as a BMW Dixi, in the USA as a Bantam, in France as a Rosengart and in Japan as a Datsun. Swallow, later to become Jaguar, and Gordon England were just two vehicle body builders who established themselves courtesy of the Seven’s chassis, which also formed the basis for all manner of successful sports cars. The engine was practically indestructible despite its almost crude construction, and even withstood supercharging. When the engine became obsolete at Longbridge, Reliant continued with it for its three-wheelers.

Without doubt, the Austin Seven helped motorise a nation and little wonder that in 1999 it was a short-list candidate for the Car of the Century title. Simple, robust, affordable – it was Herbert Austin’s counter to Henry Ford’s Model T, and while it may not have ultimately been quite as successful, it nevertheless ranks as a landmark design in motoring history.

(While certain lockdown restrictions still apply on movement and accessibility, this story is based on my article that first appeared in the Dec2012/Jan2013 issue of Classic & Performance Car Africa magazine – MM.)