Curbside Classic: 1929 Austin Seven – Helping Put The World On Wheels

CC does not normally go back 90 years – I guess 20 to 60 years is our real sweet spot – but this one was too good to ignore. A curbside (or kerbside, at a preserved steam railway) example of one of the most significant British cars, one that had an impact not just in the UK but in France, Germany, Japan and even the US, out of all proportion to its diminutive size and capacity. Never has 748cc seemed so powerful.

The origins of the Austin Seven go back to the end of the Great War. Britain, and most of Europe, came out of four years of a vicious, wasteful struggle of attrition practically broke, heading for a depression and ready for social change, for many reasons.  Women had stared to work and earn, outside domestic service, the imperturbability of and trust in the rich and land owning families had been severely tarnished, people had seen the benefits of modern technology and industry had discovered the power of mass production. Britain was ripe for some, maybe a lot of and overdue, social change.

And one key to that was possession of the keys of a motorcycle, perhaps with a sidecar, or maybe a cyclecar, such as the Carden above. Typically, these had single or twin cylinder air cooled engines, perhaps tandem seating and primitive coachwork. Belt and chain drive were common, often to a single rear wheel. In many ways, they were adaptations of motorcycles and motorcycle components, rather than truly cars.

One group of companies faced huge problems. The motor car industry, then in its infancy, faced huge competition, shortages of materials, customers and suitable labour to be able to build a successful industrial infrastructure. There were perhaps close to 100 motor manufacturers, of varying sizes and stages of development, in the UK in 1919-20, and few, if any, were financially secure in any way. Two of the names better established and remembered were Morris and Austin. In 1919, Morris built fewer than 400 cars, and had a 2% market share. By late 1920, the company, then owned privately by William Morris, had debts of £100,000 (£3million now, and probably 6 months turnover) and in February 1921 avoided collapse only by cutting prices by 20%, squeezing his suppliers and agents, and borrowing more. As we know, Morris got away with it; by 1923 Morris were building 20,000 cars a year and William Morris was on his way to becoming the richest industrialist in Europe.

Austin was different; it was already a public company, albeit with Sir Herbert Austin as Chairman and Managing Director. He declined to recommend a sell out to General Motors in early 1920, but in April 1920 the company failed and the receivers were called. Longbridge, Britain’s’ largest car factory, which had 20,000 staff at the end of the war, risked going silent. It was not building the cars the distressed and depressed market needed.

The Austin Company was restructured, allowing Sir Herbert to keep the Chairman’s spot. Even so, by March 1922, Austin shares were worth 3% of what they were two years earlier. Austin needed the cars the market wanted, and fast, if there was to be any future for Longbridge. Sir Herbert had an answer, one that had been in process since 1920.

This is where the commonly recorded tale gets a little less than fully credible. Certain facts are accepted and recorded truth – Austin did privately, as in fund from his own resources, design and develop the Seven in his home, Lickey Grange, and indeed later collected a royalty on each car sold, although he was still Chairman of the Austin company. The less credible bit is that the new car and engine, albeit both simple, were designed and drawn in a matter of months on Sir Herbert’s billiard table by one man, Stanley Edge, working for Sir Herbert. Surely, the eighteen year old Edge had assistance?

Starting in 1920, Austin and Edge had designed a new four cylinder side valve engine with an aluminium cranckcase, initially of 696cc. Even for the time, this was an unstressed engine, running a compression ratio of 5 to1 and producing around 10 bhp at 2400rpm, fitted to a three speed gearbox. The Seven designation refers to the RAC horsepower, which was then the basis for vehicle taxation, and was based on the piston bore and number of cylinders. On the early cars, this was actually 7.5 taxable horsepower. The engine had a relatively long stroke, which was typical for a British engine at this time as the taxation was based on the bore, so torque was in better supply than you may imagine, and it was deliberately unstressed. Considering how cheaply it was made, that sounds like a valid plan. Lubrication was notoriously weak and almost random, though, with no oil pump.

The chassis took the form of an “A”, with the engine at the apex, and was reportedly inspired by the design of an American truck being used at Longbridge, although the Peugeot Quadrilette and Bébé were all inspirations. Suspension was by leaf springs, transverse at the front with no damper and quarter leaf springs at the rear. There were front and rear brakes, worked independently, by foot at the rear and by hand at the front.

Driving the car was quite an experience, given how flexible the chassis was, how sharp the clutch was (a working movement of around 5mm was typical) and the ineffectual cable operated rear brakes. Roll, swaying in a straight line and the unpredictable effects of the poorly located rear axle in corners all added to the experience, and the ride was bouncy to say the least. But compared to a cyclecar, it was a significant advance.  The Seven was one of the first cars to have a control layout a modern driver would immediately recognise, with the (RHD) throttle to the right, brake in the centre and a central gear change.

Size wise, the car was smaller than anything other the cycle cars then proving popular. The first Seven was 119 inches long, 62 inches wide on a 75 inch wheelbase and weighed well under half a ton. (A 1959 Mini was 120 inches on a wheelbase of 80 inches with a weight of 1300lb; a current Fiat 500 is 140 inches on a wheelbase of 90 inches with a weight of 2300lb.)

Sir Herbert persuaded the Austin company to put the car into production, which started in July 1922. It was known as the Chummy, as in chum, a casual and now slightly dated English word for friend, to reflect the friendly nature of the car. It was best if larger drivers and passengers were chums, given the cramped accommodation.

The initial price was £165.00, say around £6500 now, for a four seat car with a folding hood. The cycle car’s demise was starting, as both Morris and Austin were now able to if not undercut, then get so close in price that the penalties of the cyclecar did not seem worth the saving.

However, the Seven was slow to get established. 1923 sales were under 2000. In 1924, the engine was increased to 748cc and 4700 were sold. By 1926, 14,000 were being sold, and Austin was becoming secure, if second in the market to the dominant Morris. By 1929, Austin’s UK market share was 25%, second only to Morris with 35%. The UK industry was now in a form that would be recognisable for over 40 years and by 1939, Austin, by now under Morris’s protégé Leonard Lord, and Morris, under Nuffield’s increasingly conservative and dogmatic rule, were level pegging, with Ford catching up fast, and Rootes, Vauxhall and Standard covering the balance.

The Seven, or 7 as both spellings were used, had a series of gentle evolutionary improvements. The original three speed crash gearbox gained a fourth gear in 1932, a synchromesh on third and top gears in 1933 and on second in 1934. Coil ignition came in 1928 and an electric starter came in 1932. A third bearing was added to the crankshaft in 1936.

Early cars were open tourers, like the feature green car, but by 1930 the saloon, known by some as the Box Saloon, was the favourite. In 1932 the chassis was lengthened by 6 inches to give more room for the rear passengers, albeit with a wheelbase close in length to a 1959 Mini.

The biggest change was in 1934, when the flat radiator was changed for a curved cowl and grille, together with a softening of the edges to create curves.

The famous Austin 7 Ruby was born, alongside the Opal two seater and Pearl cabriolet, and these cars would remain in production until 1939, 17 years after the original Seven emerged.

Austin tried to step up with the 1938 Austin Big 7, although this was quickly superseded by the Austin 8, which bore a strong similarity to the Morris 8, which Leonard Lord knew well from his previous employer.

The position of the Seven in British memory is completely set, and there was no other car Autocar could wheel out for a commemorative road test. This is a 1936 car.

By 1939, Longbridge had produced some 290,000 Austin Sevens, and assembly had been undertaken elsewhere in the Britsh Empire, perhaps most notably by Holden’s Motor Body Builders before that company was absorbed by GM. But there were other Austin Seven body builders and users who became even better known, including three who used Austin Sevens to kickstart spectacular careers.

As early as 1923, the Seven had been adopted by the motor sport community, and the first of many Austin Seven Specials were emerging, including some from within Austin.

One car lapped Brooklands at 73mph and by 1927 Austin were offering the Ulster (named after the Ulster Tourist Trophy races) with superchargers, cylinder modifications including twin overhead camshafts and 80mph capability.

Private owners built their own Seven Specials, and the club racing scene soon started to develop. The fashion for hill climbs, off road trials and long distance trials, where outright speed was less important than agility, was ideal for the Seven, especially cars fitted with the supercharged engine. Typically, an Ulster would have a lowered chassis with flatter springs and the supercharged engine. The Seven remained a staple including of club motorsport well into the 1950s.

In 1936, Alec Issigonis, then working at Morris Motors as a suspension engineer, constructed a monocoque car in aluminium and plywood, with a rubber suspension and an Austin Seven drivetrain. The car had considerable success in various trial and hill climbs, and still comes out today for period events.

Later, Bruce McLaren, as a teenager in New Zealand, helped his father rebuild a 25 year old 1929 Austin Seven into a special that the young Bruce would then take to 87 mph.

In 1954 the 15 year old entered his first race, and won it in the Austin Seven that is now at the centre of McLaren’s collection of milestone cars.

The Seven was also ideal for the specialist coach builders to build something more distinctive than Austin’s standard coachwork. Cars were sold as a chassis, with or without the standard coachwork, and many coachbuilders offered bodies suitable for the Austin chassis (and of course Morris, third placed Singer and others), and the most well known and remembered was the Swallow company.

Based in Blackpool, arguably the classic British seaside resort town on the northwest coast of England, Swallow initially designed and built sidecar bodies to the motorcycle trade and later moved onto specialist coach work for many cars. Swallow’s first big car success was building bodies for the Seven.

First shown in May 1927, the Austin Seven Swallow was adopted by the leading retailer Henlys, who ordered 500 and sold them at £175 a copy. Swallow were on their way. In 1929, the business moved to Coventry, the company started working closely with Standard and in 1931 the SS sports car was available, followed in 1938 by the SS100. Sir William Lyons and Jaguar had arrived.

The Seven helped bring on some of the industries other big names too. In 1904, the Fahrzeugfabrik Eisenach (FFE) factory opened in Eisenach, eastern Germany, building cars under the Dixi brand. By the 1920s, Weimar Germany had a situation that made the rest of Europe look like a boom, and building a small car was vital objective for survival. FFE took a licence from Austin for the German production of the Seven which comes to market as the Dixi DA-1 3/15 – DA is Deutsche Ausführung, or German version, type 1, 3 speeds, 15PS (or bhp). Left hand drive and metric fasteners were used, and over 25,000 copies were sold.

From 1929, after the takeover of FFE by BMW, they were sold as BMW DA-1 3-15. Later models were known as the DA-2 3/15, DA-3 3/15 and DA-4 3/15. The DA-3 was a sports version with 18bhp, and the DA-4 diverged more clearly from the Austin, with independent front suspension. Production continued until 1932, with a wide range of bodies being offered.

In France, the Seven was licensed to Lucien Rosengart. Rosengart ran a component business, supplying the French motor industry with basic parts and fasteners, whilst seeking to break into vehicle manufacture as well. In 1927, he took a licence from Austin for production of the Seven as the Rosengart LR1, which evolved to the LR2 in 1929 and the LR4 in 1931. By 1936 and the LR4 N2, royalties to Austin had stopped, and Rosengart was looking more upmarket for the next products, although production continued until 1939 at a declining rate.

In the US, Austin set up the American Austin Car Company in Pennsylvania in 1929 to build the Seven for the US market. Sales started in 1930, with a car very close to the UK market version, apart from some styling flourishes, bonnet louvres and elaborate two tone paint schemes, making the cars closer in concept to something like the Swallow products than the basic Austin. Sales went well for the first year, and then trailed off. The American Austin Car Company filed for bankruptcy in 1934 and was resurrected as American Bantam, and another 6000 cars were produced by 1941. By then, of course, the Bantam Jeep design was attracting a lot of attention.

One other builder of Sevens to be noted is Nissan, who built the Datsun 11, 12 and 13 series from 1932 to 1935. The origins of the car and its relationship with the Seven are not clear, but some milestones are. In 1929, World Engineering Congress was held in Tokyo and a delegation from the British motor industry went and made a series of presentations, one of which outlined the specification of the typical British light car, effectively the Austin Seven. Datsun had representation at the Congress and took the information away to help create the first 495cc Datsun 11. Was it a copy of the Seven? Was it an unauthorised copy? Did it just absorb a similar design philosophy, by then in the public domain?

The later, 1933, Datsun 12, was similar but with a larger 747cc engine. In 1934, came the Datsun 13 and the very similar subsequent 14, with a much more modern style than the very basic earlier cars. There were some exports, including an ambitious but unsuccessful attempt to sell the car in Australia, and a wide rage of bodies were offered. Production was limited to the hundreds though.

Austin secured a car from Australia and shipped it back to the UK, to assess any potential for intellectual property infringements. So, there was no licence, but also Austin did not pursue Datsun in 1934, for reasons that are now not clear. Possibly, the level of divergence between the Datsun 13 and the Seven, possibly the low volumes and possibly the issues created by different legal systems and languages. The companies made up, though, when in 1955 BMC licensed Nissan to produce the Austin Cambridge and elements of the A and B series engines.

The Austin Seven was never a fast car, or good to drive, or truly technically innovative. But, in pre-war Britain, it was a key factor to the increasing use and ownership of motor cars, and for and square earns its place in the list of milestone affordable British cars, alongside the Morris Cowley and (1948) Minor, Mini, Ford Cortina and BMC 1100 (ADO16). Arguably, it deserves a place at the top table internationally, alongside the Beetle, 2CV and Fiat 500, maybe even the Model T.

So much so, that in 1928 William Morris paid it the ultimate tribute – engine apart, the first Morris Minor was a very close to a copy of the Seven. Very close indeed.