An RK Saloon - The Restorer's Tale

It was in early 2002 when I noticed an Austin Seven on the E-bay auction site, it was a 1929 aluminium body saloon, and I fell for it immediately. It had an auction starting price and a 'Buy Now' price and, according to the page counter, I appeared to be the first 'punter' to view the auction entry.  With very little hesitation, I would square it with my better half later, I selected the 'Buy Now' option and bought the car. If I had left it any later and someone had put a bid in for the car then the 'Buy Now' option would have disappeared and I would have had to take my chances with all the other bidders.

I was in the middle of rebuilding an RP saloon which fellow club member had dragged out of a wooden garage, in a very sorry state; indeed the debate was on whether it was restorable or whether it was for spares, but that is another story!  My better half laid down the stipulation that the RP should be finished before anything was done on the RK saloon. This agreed, what else could I do, I arranged for a friend with a trailer to help me collect the car from the Leicester area and bring it back to Cornwall.

On the 14th April 2002 my friend and I arrived in a village in the Midlands. Following the excellent directions, we found a field with a shed some 50 or so yards from the road.  The seller of the car appeared and took us to see the RK which was looking very fragile indeed.  At least my heart did not sink when I saw it although the same could not be said for my friend who, although he has been involved with cars throughout the years, had yet to tackled an Austin Seven.

RK Saloon WreckFrom a quick glance, all the car appeared to be there, although most of the engine was in a box inside the car where the back seat should have been and one of the doors was resting against the car in an 'unattached' way. The only down side of the purchase as far as I could see was there was absolutely no paperwork with the car and the number plates were so rusty that little was discernible. The die was cast, I paid my money and we set about putting the car on his trailer.

The wheels looked as if they were about to collapse, many of the spokes having rusted through, and the brakes and or hubs had seized up, and so it was a matter of drag­ging and lifting to get it on board.  After surprising little I time the car was on the trailer, maybe I should have realised then just how light an RK saloon is compared with an RP saloon or even a Ruby.  I was a bit concerned when my friend lashed down the car by simply putting a ratchet strap around the cir­cumference of each wheel and down to the trailer.  Surely the suspension would not be able to take the journey home, after all the car looked as if it had been off of the road for 40 or 50 years. The loose door was pushed into the opening and held on with string, as was the bonnet, the difficult part being to find something strong enough on the rest of the car to keep the bonnet in place.

002We set off on the long journey home, my friend concentrated on the driving whilst I looked in the passenger mirror or through the rear window to make sure nothing fell off.  Most of the journey was uneventful thanks to his steady driving and each time we stopped the car was still solidly on the trailer. However, whilst heading down the M5 motorway I became concerned that the roof, or what was left of it, was lifting at the front and I had visions of it peeling back, not only providing a hazard on the motorway but also losing valuable information as to its structure.  We slowed appreciably but still the problem existed so off we went at the next services where we checked the roof.  It was as solid as a rock, but I was sure I saw it lifting!  After a rest and refreshment, somewhat puzzled by the roof, we returned to the car and it was while waiting to get mobile again I realised that the bevel edge of the car's rear view mirror was giving the effect of the roof lifting as I moved my head up and down.  Panic over we set off confidently once again for Cornwall!

The car arrived home and was dutifully put under covers, once the photos had been taken, until the red letter day came when I could start work.  Having rebuilt a Ruby and an RP saloon I was looking forward to tackling the aluminium and wood construction, there is nothing like a challenge to get my interest!

Whilst I was not allowed to work on the car, quite right too, I took a look at the what registration number information was still showing on the rusty remains on the number plates. Clearly the last two numbers on the back plate were '44' with possibly an '8' or a '0' in front of them but little was showing on the front plate until I gave it a spray of WD40. Looking at it when it was wet with oil I finally made out something like ?J 8044. Still not much further on but a start.

Whilst having a quick look around the car I had found a garage plate possibly indicating that the RK had been originally sold by a garage in Ledbury, Herefordshire.  A fellow club member, who works in the motor trade, was able to look up in documentation and found that Hereford had two sets of registration letters, 'CJ' and 'VJ' and that in 1929 the numbering would have been in the 2000's. 004I was getting closer and the final piece of the jig-saw was provided by Herefordshire County Council Records Office. I managed to speak to them by telephone and having given them the information that I had, possible registration number 'VJ 2?44' or 'CJ 2?44' and the chassis number from the plate on the car it turned out that I was  in luck and after sending them a search fee I was provided with a photocopy of the original registration card, made out on the 1st July 1929 which showed that an Austin with my chassis number was registered as VJ 2044. Success. Not only was I successful here but The Motor Heritage Museum at Gaydon was able to tell me the engine number; that the car left the production line on the 21st June 1929 and left the factory on the 24th June 1929 and that the colour was recorded as dual grey. My car appeared in one of the two surviving factory ledgers; how lucky can a chap be?

As a result of this research and the copy records from Hereford County Council Records office I was able to retain the original registration number which had been applied to the car on the 1st July 1929.

June 2003 had now arrived and I had finished my wife's RP, I had done all the restoration myself except for the upholstery which was done in leather by another member.  My wife drove her car to the National rally at Beaulieu in the beginning of July and was runner up in her class; obviously points were lost on the length of ownership, a matter of months!, and previous use, less than 300 miles, but never mind we were both delighted!

I set about the RK saloon with some trepidation.  In my mind I had decided that I would most likely have to detach the aluminium bit by bit only where it was attached to wood frame which I was replacing at that time.  By replacing them one at a time I would be able to keep the overall structure as one piece.  Little did I know then that life was far simpler.
For those who don't know much about RK saloons perhaps a quick description would help. The car is effectively a late 'Chummy' with a fixed roof. The floor pan is made from steel sections riveted together, it is virtually, if not, identical to the Chummy's. To this is attached a series of wooden frameworks to which the outer aluminium skin is attached. The bottom edge of the skin is also attached to the steel floor pan, mainly through the use of wood joiners but across the rear of the car it is an aluminium to steel join, this is where most of the problems were found.  The roof is made from a series of wooden slats attached to wooden cross members.  For the carpenters amongst the Austin Sevens restorers this is the car for you!

Before I started with any restoration I took numerous photographs, what a blessing digital cameras are, and even took extensive video footage as I had found on previous restorations that the information you are looking for is just off of the edge of a photo.  With video you just keep panning the camera around slowly so that you cover as much of the detail as you can.  I then lifted the body from the chassis, very little was holding the two together.  I had also removed every scrap of interior trim and labelled it and bagged it and put it into store.  The time to throw anything away is at least 12 months after the restoration is complete, never sooner.

RK roof front railRK rear seat backRK rear floor

My first attempts at restoration were a struggle as I tried to effect repairs to the floor pan with a minimal disturbance of the aluminium but it didn't take long for me to realise this was not the way. I had tried the method of only removing the skin at the site of the repair but found that far more had to be detached to enable the skin to be lifted out of the way without putting a crease in the aluminium sheet.  Looking at the construction details I found that the aluminium skin was pinned onto the wooden framework with the exception of the window openings. These were attached by means of a strip of aluminium, screwed to the inside surface of the wood frame, and lipped over a turned up lip on the body shell. Once these were removed the body shell was unclipped from the wood frame and was removable in two pieces, the first being the rear bodywork from the doors back and the other being the scuttle and door thresholds. Interestingly enough, call me a cynic if you like, but each piece could be cut from an 4 foot by 8 foot sheet of aluminium. In my view the wide door had nothing to do with the ease of entry into the back seats but down to the fact that two sheets, 4 foot by 8 foot, covered the body and another sheet would have covered the two doors. This kept any joins down to one each side less than 2 inches long.  It would appear that 4 foot by 8 foot sheets were the order of the day.

006Once the aluminium had been removed I discovered that although much of the woodwork was there it was in a fairly advance state of decay and had lost most of its structural strength.  As it was joined by steel screws I was able to open each joint by carefully prising the two parts apart letting the rusty screw pull out of its hole. In this way I made sure that I had a precise pattern for every wooden part in the car. Where the wooden frames form a sectional structure these were left intact until I was actually making the replacement parts. It didn’t take long before I was down to the steel floor pan. Much of the floor pan was kept and only those places with too much rusting were replaced, these were mainly the area under the rear seat which I suppose is the furthest point from the oil dripping engine and therefore have the least ‘natural’ protection. My guess is that 80% of the floor pan is original. The most serious rust being the lower edge of the two thresholds, as these give strength to the whole body they were subjected to careful repair with a complete new bottom edge to both of them, including matching up the lightening holes put there by Austin.

Whilst I was working on the mechanical side I took a little time to sort out what was to be done with the trim and paint. When I bought the car it had a grey layer of paint which had obviously been applied to it at some stage as in places it went over the remains of the window rubbers, it also had the ‘feel’ of emulsion paint of the type you would use inside the house although I am sure it was not. Having already restored a Ruby that was ‘Dove Grey’ in colour I was not sure that I was looking forward to another grey car, the comments of “ why is it still in primer” were far too often although I must say I do rather like the ‘Dove Grey’, it being a grey with a hint of fawn in it. I decided that, knowing the car had been two tone I needed to see if I could trace the join line as there was no raised waistline on RK saloons, the colour join was purely done by paint. Gentle rubbing down in several places soon revealed the join line and to my surprise, and I must say pure pleasure, I found that the two original colours were in fact ‘chocolate’ over ‘cream’ which was an ‘extra’ colour scheme you could have if you paid an extra £1 at the time the car was ordered from the factory. Why it is recorded in the ledger in Gaydon as dual grey I expect I will never know.

RK paint 1st topSo now the car was going to be a ‘Chocolate and Cream’ car GWR colours, my favourite railway and I must admit I also like the colour combination. I decided to lighten the interior, the original had been a very dark brown and as most of the interior, with the exception of the headlining, was this colour I felt the car would look very dismal inside so I decided on a lighter shade of brown, almost a fawn. It is a decision I have not regretted.

After many weeks of steel work, followed by even more weeks of woodwork it was time to start reassembling the body shell. The woodwork structure is almost like a sectional building, the rear, and the two rear sides are made from three separate structures; the two windscreen pillars are individual lengths of timber attached to steel supports, under each doorway are timber rails attached to the steel and finally the roof structure is added on top. Once the timberwork is in place the three rear sections are joined using metal brackets, these are not fastened until the aluminium skin has been put into place. I lost count of the number of times I checked the doors in their openings and put the skin sections on and off to make sure all was going well. Minor adjustments were needed but on the whole, by following the original patterns all went well.

As previously mentioned, the only area of the aluminium that had suffered to any great extent was where the body joined the floor pan, metal to metal, across the back of the car; this had set up an electrolytic reaction and with the damp over the years the aluminium had disintegrated.  I tried using ‘Lumiweld’ to attach new aluminium but found this to be beyond my capabilities, using it on aluminium castings is brilliant but on thin sheet it is a nightmare.  In the end I used a combination of ‘Lumiweld’, rivets and screws which were suitably hidden by a thin layer of metal rich body filler. To be successful at this you must  use the best quality filler you can and make sure the aluminium is abraded immediately before you apply the filler as aluminium oxide is a slightly ‘oily’ substance and prevent other materials from bonding fully.  Another tip with aluminium is never use a steel wire brush or wire wool as steel particles get embedded in the surface. The best abrasive materials are either stainless steel or brass wire brushes or , better still one of the fibreglass brushes.

My only regret with the aluminium bodywork is not paying full more attention to all the small dents; aluminium, being far softer than steel, dents more easily and over the years there were several ‘battle scars’, in the future I will see what I can do to remove some more of them.  I have to be careful if I am pushing the car about on the drive as there are few places at the back, other than the spare wheel, where you can apply pressure without denting the bodywork. 
The great day came when the skins were added to the woodwork and the joining lips were applied all around the window openings.  Followed by pins joining the shell around the door openings and a whole series of roundhead brass bolts, rather than the original rivets, around the bulkhead.  At last the car was taking shape again.  I decide that I would only use normal slot headed screws rather than the ‘Phillips’ or ‘Pozidrive’ types that are so readily available today, this caused me a problem until I found suppliers on the internet who could provide me with the quantity I needed, there were several gross of screws to be put in.  It would seem that slot head screws are becoming a thing of the past and it won’t be long before they are only available from specialist suppliers. If you are doing a wooden frame restoration now is the time to buy your screws.

Following some good advice I had done the bodywork first as this takes the longest, the chassis and engine should only take a relatively short time and then the car would be alive again.

The chassis was a disaster!  It would appear that in the dim distant past, maybe 30 or 40 years ago, a ‘restoration’ had been started, this would have accounted for the engine being totally in bits and the bottom edges of the body bent and worn where the body shell had been dragged about.  Unfortunately the chassis had been cleaned of all the oil and grease and then left exposed for years, some of which were uncovered as there was moss growing where moss should not have been.  There was already one visible hole in the chassis but on drifting out springs and other reluctant parts I realised that the chassis was past its useful life by the vast quantity of rust shale that was dropping from the inside top of the chassis rails.  I needed a replacement chassis.

Originally the car had uncoupled brakes, that is the handbrake lever operated on the front wheel only and the foot brake operated on the rear wheel only.  I realise that many Austin Sevens are driven this way today but I wanted coupled brakes so I decided to find a slightly later chassis with coupled brakes and modify the body mounting points to match the earlier chassis.  Also I made sure that the chassis was renumbered to the original car numbering, just as well considering the new MOT requirements. Now it was a matter of doing all the mechanics. From the start it was obvious that the car had either done very little mileage or was very carefully driven and serviced. Most of the mechanical parts were in excellent condition needing little more than a clean and lubrication, all bearing were replaced but with hindsight I wonder whether this was such a good idea as many bearings supplied today are now made ‘overseas’ and are nowhere near the same quality as the originals.  To my delight I found that the engine, although in bits in a box,  was substantially the original engine in the car when it left the factory, the crankcase, crank, block and con-rods all had the matching engine number to the engine recorded in the factory ledger.  Having rebuilt it and dropped into the chassis it ran like a Swiss watch. I just could not wait to get the body on.

The body, being lighter than most saloons, was easily manoeuvred into place, I did,  however, put the steering column in from underneath after the body had been dropped onto the chassis as it is almost impossible to feed the body down the column without scraping paint.  Once the body was on the chassis it was time to think about the wings and running boards.  The front wings are attached to the body, to the flitch plates and to the ‘cow horns’ on the chassis so none of the fitting could be done until body was accurately mated to the chassis.  The front and rear wings are the original wings from the car, heavily patched and repaired. When I thought about the cost of replacement wings, whether I could actually get the correct pattern of front wings and the fact that I like a challenge I decided I would first try a repair.  After a little experimentation and watching an MGB, of all cars, being repaired on TV, I repaired the wings by adding new metal using butt joins Mig welded.  This worked very satisfactorily and is a method I would use again.  The reason for butt joins is they are less obvious than lapped joins as the underside of the wings are fairly visible.

Having gone so far with the car, and having done all the work, so far, myself I set myself two challenges; for me to do 100% of the restoration and to get the car on the road for its 75th birthday on 1st July 2004 and it was now September 2003, I reckoned I had plenty of time but my wife always told me that I underestimate how long a job will take!

We were blessed with a very warm and settled September so I was able to start painting the car and to set about the interior.  I used an etch primer on all the aluminium surfaces and wished I had used it on all the other surfaces as well, there is nothing like it to make sure the first lays of paint stick. It is brilliant!  This was followed by a traditional cellulose primer and then the top coats.  I do all my own spraying using a low pressure, high volume, spray gun.  These do not kick up so much dust as the volume of air used is far less and under less pressure.  This means that there is minimal ‘overspray’ which not only saves paint, approximately 30%, but also means that your workshop does not take on a hue the same colour as the car.  As I have very limited space, a small garage and my drive, I have to work when the weather permits.  To paint I choose a warm day with little or no wind. I then push the car into the garage, spray the back and one side and then push the car out into the open air to dry off, I then push the car into the garage again so that I can spray the other side and the front before pushing it back out to dry off.  Unfortunately my garage is not wide enough to do both sides together.

In this way I build up various layers of paint, I painted the lighter top coat first then applied the darker brown over the top.  Not only will the darker paint cover the lighter paint more easily but it is better to paint down to a masked off line than up to it.  However, where the colour join is only a paint line not a physical shape like a raised waistline you need to make sure that there is not too thick a build up of paint so that the line can be subsequently polished fairly smooth without losing the edge.

Where ever possible I tried to reproduce the original finishes so the dash was sprayed with a crackle finish paint, there was evidence of this under the patent plate and rather than being a ‘wrinkled’ type of finish it was more like a random ‘crocodile skin’ effect.  I managed to find a paint made by Plastikote which produced the desired effect but it took several attempts, the heavier the spray the bigger the effect therefore I needed a very light spray, however, you need a light spray which uniformly covers all the panel, If you overlap the sprays you get bands of differing sized effects.  I eventually got it as best as I reckoned I could but it does take some practice.

In line with my desire to do 100% of the restoration I purchased a large DIY nickel plating kit; all the bright work was nickel plated on my version of the RK saloon, it was not until September 1929 that chrome was used.  I started off plating the smaller components such as window catches and stays and then moved onto the windscreen surround.  I had to make up my plating tank with a wooden box which I lined with polythene so I could get the front window frame in.  Having succeeded at this I then made up a larger tank in which I plated my radiator surround.  Unfortunately I could not do this in one go and when the radiator surround needs a polish you can see where the surface of the solution sat, If I was doing it again I would mask off the metalwork where it broke the surface of the solution so that the marks would not form. You live and learn!

My final task was the upholstery, having re-upholstered a Ruby several years earlier I did not panic about this task but set about it methodically.  I used the existing upholstery as a pattern and made sure that every stage was checked and double checked.  On this occasion I bought a second-hand heavy duty sewing machine, I had previously ruined my wife’s dressmaking sewing machine.  This made the task a lot easier as it tackled multiple layers of the vinyl material with ease.  I realise that the upholstery would not pass muster with the professional upholsterers but at least I can say I did it!  And after many thousands of miles use it is still looking good.

RK on a runThe car was on the road a month before it’s 75th birthday and I was amazed at its performance considering it only had a 11/8″crankshaft and a low compression head.  It was the first Austin Seven that I had driven that accelerated up the hill from my house.  The reason it is called ‘Ali’ is very simple, it is made of aluminium; it’s full name should really be ‘Ali Baba’ or to put it another way ‘Aluminium Baby’.  I realise that everyone loves their own car but I must just say that the RK saloons are amongst the prettiest of the Austin Sevens and I think the colour scheme on ‘Ali’ adds to its attraction.

I took the car to the 750 Motor Club rally at Beaulieu in 2004 and to my great pride won the ‘Restoration of the Year’ award, maybe no other cars had been restored that year!  But at the time I was over the moon!  The car has done several long trips including Beaulieu for a second time and then onto Longbridge via Slimbridge when we made a holiday of the two events.  I also took ‘Ali’ to France on a Club holiday.  I took my 93 year old mother shopping every week, she preferred the Seven rather than taking the trip in a modern, I am not sure whether it is the car or the attention that we got.

Is it finished?  Those who know me only too well know that I am a terror for not finishing a task, yes there are still things to be done, and there are still things that I want to improve.  I have made some changes to it, not only to make it more suitable for modern traffic but also to make it easier for my wife to drive, she feels it is too late for her to learn how to double declutch and use a 3-speed gearbox.  I must say that now I have put a 4-speed synchromesh gearbox and a high compression engine it performs very well.

RK on a run 3The brakes are the next thing due for further modification. I don’t believe in over-doing the brakes, in my opinion hydraulic brakes put too much strain on the king-pins, I realise that theory says otherwise but I think that the rear brakes, as the link between axle and rear spring is much stronger, are the ones to ‘beef’ up. I can just hear the purists telling me that it is wrong but any improvement is better than none as long as it doesn’t strain something else.

What of the future, I can see ‘Ali’ being with me for many years to come.  Once I had started in Austin Sevens in 1997 I realise now that I was searching for ‘my type’ of Austin Seven.  I restored a Ruby, then an RP saloon, then took on the RK saloon.  Many club members reckon I will soon find another ‘project’, and maybe some day I will, but at the moment I have found ‘my Austin Seven’.

This article, written by Malcolm Watts, originally appeared in Seven Focus May 2007 pp18-21; June 2007 pp18-21 and July 2007 pp18-20.