Tales of Life With an Austin Seven

Part One - Buying The Ruby

My parents had aspired to having a car after they were married in the 1920s but my grandmother on my mother's side ruled the roost and decided that this was not going to happen. Letters from the time suggest that their independence would mean less time for her. So although my father drove trams and trolley buses all his working life there was no car on the scene. The trams ended in Cardiff in 1960 though the tram rails remained to take your Austin Seven to places where you didn’t want it to go!

When I became of age to have a driving licence and my grandmother was not such a force the idea of having a car re-emerged and I was an incipient chauffeur in their eyes!  This was no problem to me as although they were paying I was the one with the licence.

Various cars turned up at the door and I was supposed to know enough to judge which one to buy.  What faith!  Although we boys at school talked a lot about the merits of various cars the truth was that when it came to buying them we were complete novices. Anyway I had heard something about king pins and I duly grabbed and shook the front wheels of various pre-war cars which were presented to me and listened for clunks under the quizzical gaze of the sellers.  I recall a couple of Morris Eights, Austin Sevens and a particularly nice Jowett with horizontally opposed cylinders.

By this time the consensus in school moved in favour of Austin Sevens.  We decided against Morris Eights as being dangerous when Rusty Russell had the top of his finger removed when he tested the tension of his fan belt. Though that may have had something to do with the engine being running at the time!  I did say we were novices.

The search for Austin Seven got a result when a Green and Black 1935 Ruby was discovered for sale at £25 by two elderly sisters who were giving up driving. The deal was done and they drove it across Cardiff to our house.  We gave them the bus fare to get back home because no one could drive them there in the Ruby.

The car was parked in the local vicarage which had a large drive (and an increasingly irritated vicar’s wife) where I practised and found that the clutch was slipping.  An estimate for £12 10s was obtained from the main Austin dealer in Cardiff, another novice move, for a new clutch and armed with this my mother went to see the dear old ladies and demanded half her money back.  She got it, you didn’t argue with her!

By this time I was all for doing the job myself but the problem was tools.  Although my father was an eclectic hoarder tools were not his speciality except for heavy hammers and large nails and some two foot square redundant tramcar windows with mahogany frames from which we eventually made a greenhouse.  We had the only greenhouse in Cardiff, possibly the world with ‘No Spitting Allowed’ sign written on the window frames.

Eventually I gathered together some old gas spanners, things from bike tool kits, 'Meccano' screwdrivers and other oddments and removed the Ruby’s gearbox.  In those days you could still go to a motor factor and buy Austin Seven clutch lining kits complete with rivets.

Now the heavy hammers, bent screwdrivers and large nails came into their own. Though it was difficult drilling out the old lining rivets with a brace and bit I eventually succeeded and relined the clutch, bashing in the new rivets with the aforesaid heavy hammer and a large nail with the end sawn off.  We didn’t have a workshop and if I recall I did the whole job on an old tram seat in the back garden.

The gearbox went back on and I was once more able to irritate the vicar’s wife by scorching up and down the vicarage drive!



Part Two - How to Take your Driving Test

First have the huge unwavering confidence of youth in that you can do anything.  Then clean your pride and joy, remembering to remove any oil or grease from the passenger seat.  Phone up a mate with a driving licence and ask him to come with you to the test centre, best to offer him a couple of pints.

On the way get your mate to ask you questions about stopping distances at various speeds. You’ll soon forget them but they should stick in your mind for at least an hour which is all you want.

Park outside the driving test centre somewhere where you are not going to be boxed in, test yourself on memorising a couple of nearby car number plates and then give your mate some money so he can go and have a drink whilst he’s waiting.

When the examiner sees your car is twenty five years old take no notice, just get in and fiddle with the rear view mirror to show you know what you’re doing.  It’s best to pretend that this is a normal car and that everything which is about to take place is completely usual.

So when the examiner says to emergency brake when he slaps his pad on his knee make it appear as though yanking the handbrake at the same time as trying to push the brake pedal through the floor is an everyday event. Don’t mention to the examiner that there was no need for him to brace himself against the dashboard as you slowly glide to a halt.  It could undermine his confidence.

It may be that strange mechanical sounds start as you drive down a city street on the town part of the test.  Ignore them until the examiner says, ‘What’s that noise'?  Then get out and remove the exhaust tail pipe that’s escaped from the silencer and casually throw it on the back seat.  If the examiner gets nervy at this and says that the test can’t continue just reassure him that everything’s ok and carry on driving.  Try to ignore the line of cars behind you who are tooting as you remove the tailpipe, just give them a cheery wave!

I think by now you will have the examiner where you want him and when it comes to the part of the test where you have to use indicators instead of hand signals he won’t mind when you thump the B post to make the indicator arms spring out.  Neither will he seem to care about the dustbin you clanged as you reversed into man alleyway.  Perhaps Austin Sevens give peace and harmony to examiners, something like that anyway!

I hope these tips work for you, they did for me and I passed first time!



Part Three - Boys, Cars and Girls

Up to now we boys had not been that interested in girls in that we wanted anything to do with them or to do to them.  Apart from trying to splash the girls from the neighbouring girl’s grammar by going through puddles on our bikes as they walked home.  Apart of course for Andy Jones who like to show off in front of the girls at dinner time on the sports field.  This went down ok until the day he with great show took off his track suit bottom only to discover too late that he had forgotten to put on his shorts.  But now we had Austin Sevens, apart from one fingered Rusty who stuck too his Morris Eight but not as stuck as previously.

The only torque we knew was the sort now called chatting up and true to tell we weren’t that good at it.  And although the bike splashing had gone I suspect some of us would have been better off carry on splashing with the cars rather than attempting to get girls onto the back seat.  However hormones and Castrol SAE 30 were at work and we set to it.

Some one always had a good idea and knew some girl who would welcome us to visit.  So one evening in 1960 five of us packed into the Ruby and set out for the promised land. One girl, five boys, we really had no idea.  It was a nice house, in one of the better parts of Cardiff and I parked outside the front drive.

I can’t remember much about what went on that evening except that her father was not at all pleased to see us.  I think we had a jolly time.  Anyway when we had outlived our admittedly limited welcome we all piled into the car and set off home at full speed.  Full speed in reverse to back into the drive and that was the end of the brick gate pillar.  The Ruby seemed to be ok, didn’t feel a thing!

We decided that escape was better than taking responsibility so off we sped.  Well this is a Ruby with five up so not ‘sped’ as we now know it.  But soon it was downhill and full of adrenalin having avoided the angry father we took the left hand bend at the bottom of the road at full throttle.  Unfortunately the Ruby didn’t and at that moment lost its equilibrium.

I didn’t feel my elbow being mashed between the broken driver’s window glass and the asphalt until some time later after we had slid to a stop.  At which point we all clambered out of the sunshine roof escape hatch, shouted a lot, pushed the car upright, started the engine and set off home.  That is Mark and I did. The three who’d been in the back made other arrangements.  Not all that politely as I recall.

Nothing to it we thought as we roared home, until steam started to appear.  It would seem we had a water leak.  We thought it best to stop at a house and politely ask for some water.  Unfortunately the proffered milk jug didn’t hold much and after asking the dear lady three times for it to be refilled we thought it best to depart.

The Ruby did get us home and of course we had had a nice uneventful evening as far as parents were concerned.  The car still went though the driver’s window had ‘stuck down’. The water leak caused by the radiator shearing off its two holding bolts was repaired with sticky ‘Sylglas’ glazing tape and some wire.  We heard no more about the gate post and things were back to normal.



Part Four - Running Repairs

I don’t think it would be fair to say that the crack in the Ruby’s front axle was down to poor maintenance.  After all we were blessed with loads of those free Castrol lubrication charts and none of them mentioned servicing the front axle.  I put it down to metal fatigue just like the Mark one Comet airliner. This was about the only thing that my Ruby and the Comet had in common.

Lots of things that weren’t ‘right’ with the car I would usually ignore but this crack was on the corner of the axle just where the locating arms bolt through.  It was also getting larger by the week.

It was just a matter of removing the two axle nuts and replacing the axle. The nuts were stubborn even the gas meter spanners wouldn’t move them.  But we had a secret weapon. An Alligator steel wrench! It had a jaw at each end just like the open mouth of its reptilian names sake with sharp back sloping teeth.  It would grip any nut there was.
Unfortunately it did have the habit of adopting the nuts it came into contact with as its own. That is, it cut into the flats and corner on the nut so that no other spanner could ever be used on them again.  Sort of mechanical adoption.  The nuts came off but the axle remained firmly fixed to the locating arms.  Even therapy with Dad’s largest hammer did not encourage them to move.

Dad suggested we heat them up, so we dug out the blow lamp. These days it’s all gas and piezo sparkers but Dad’s blow lamp was of the paraffin variety.  And it was of course not new. Probably older than the Ruby.  We filled the dent at the top with meths and lit it to heat up the tubes so that the paraffin would vaporise and then burn with a fierce blue flame at the nozzle. Then we pumped up the pressure and opened the valve.

Unfortunately whether from lack of meths or because the blow lamp was past its best it didn’t quite work out like that. The yellow flame did warm up the axle a bit but we couldn’t stand all the smoke, smell and the spitting droplets of blazing paraffin which threatened to inflame not just the car but also the vicar’s wife.

At that time Cardiff’s trams had been replaced with trolley buses and the trams were being broken up for scrap.  Dad persuaded two of the blokes who were scrapping the trams to come out to help.  They turned up in a Land Rover with two large gas bottles on the back and a load of rubber tubing.  It was an oxy- acetylene kit.  That did the job and, for a ten shilling note, the axle was magically burned off its fixings.

Now we had a car without an axle.  No problem.  There was a scrap-yard in Barry where you could get anything.  It was a treasure trove; there was everything there from Rolls Royce hearses to Austin Sevens.  If you wanted a pleasant summer afternoon there was nothing better than a stroll around Barry scrap-yard.  When Beeching closed the railways you could also pick up a steam engine.

An axle was found and eventually arrived in the tramcar depot about a mile from our house.  No car to pick it up in and it wouldn’t go on the bus.  So I went on my bike.

The axle turned out to have its hubs and brake drums to which was attached a Bowden cable brake conversion.  This made it rather awkward to carry but I put one hub on my bike handlebars and balanced the rest on the saddle.  Easy! Though the cables dragged a bit I managed to push it home.  Putting it on was easy though I avoided using the Alligator wrench.  The Bowden cable conversion worked but I don’t think braking was improved.



Part Five - MORE Running Repairs

The time came of course when our beloved Austin Sevens broke down.  Up to then we hadn’t done much to them at all except drive them to and fro trying to avoid the local police sergeant of whom we had been frightened since a very early age.  My friend Mark had, he thought, developed a way to confuse the said sergeant by painting one door panel of his Chummy pink and the other one blue so no one would know if it was the same car which had irritated them earlier.  We always used Valspar paint on the cars as it brushed on well.

However cosmetic considerations ended when the engine was running and in gear and the car was at a standstill.  Eventually we carried copious supplies of those little half moon pieces that keep the hub from turning on the half-shaft.  If we had known about torque we would have tightened the big hub nut properly but as I mentioned in Part Three that’s not the sort of torque with which we were familiar.

We were allowed to drive our cars to school though we had to wear our school uniform cap whilst doing so, I don’t invent this, its true and I have the mental scars after a telling off from the Deputy Head to prove it.  However we did snatch them off if any girls came in sight!

Anyway one Wednesday school lunch time I went as usual to visit my Grandmother to see how she was, have lunch and go into her cellar to break up huge lumps of Welsh steam coal into bite size pieces for her fire.  I never liked the task which covered me with coal dust and got complaints from my mother for having to wash black handkerchiefs. After one such joyous lunch time I was on my way back to school when the offside wing took a dip, the car wouldn’t steer and we stopped.

Now as I recounted in the first part of these tales I knew all about king pins when looking for a car to buy.  What I didn’t know was that you had to grease them and consequently this one had snapped.

I left the car and walked back to school where at the time I was taking Botany and Zoology. Subjects which demanded clean hands and fingers when you did dissection or made botanical slides and drawings.  After a couple of days away from school trying to install a new king pin, clean hands were not available to me and that caused me some problem.  I do recall that at the time the Art department sent up some prawns which they had been drawing in still life for our Zoological attention.  Very tasty they were too, we were always hungry, and dirty hands didn’t seem to matter!

Fixing king pins and bushes on the side of the road is not easy.  I was pleased when I got the bushes in but dismayed when the king pin wouldn’t fit.  Some one then told me about reaming.  By now our tools had increased but not to the extent of having a reamer but we did have a mouse-tail file which I put to use until the king pit went in the hole.

Unfortunately the bushes were now sort of oval, well not sort of.  But at least the car could be driven.  Everything was ok as long as you avoided bumps and potholes in the road which caused the off side wheel to wiggle a bit and throw the car to one side!  This did tend to frighten some passengers but I always stuck to the attitude that these wobbles and other strange noises were nothing out of the ordinary.

That is until the banging and clattering told even my dud ears that a big end had run.  I did get the piston and con rod out from the block and borrowed a micrometer from the metalwork department in school to measure the crank journal.  But when the re-metalled end came back it proved to be a very tight fit.  So out came the mouse-tail file again and I smoothed it down until it was ok.

It was the beginning of the end for the Ruby.  Lack of any idea of how to maintain a car, coupled with a skill base characterised by the knowledge that you had to open the sunshine roof if you wanted to upend a quart bottle of Brains bitter as you drove along, meant that we couldn’t go on.

Austin Sevens weren’t so precious or sort after in the sixties, they were just old cars and after a while we bought an E93A Ford Popular and the Ruby went on the back of a lorry to the breakers yard.

But it was all such FUN!!!!!



Part Six - Post Ruby Life

A number of people were quite pleased with the demise of the Ruby.  My teachers looked favourably on the clean(ish) hands that now wielded scalpel and test tube. Though I’m afraid to say that I still had the 1950s A7 approach to practical science based on wire, flattened tin cans and hope; this was not useful.

My mother was pleased too. Her pillow cases were now not suffering from nightly’ black patch head under the car’ syndrome. That is, the cases were as clean in the morning as they had been when I got into bed. It wasn’t Brylcreem that had been causing the problem but Castrol or used Castrol and muck to be exact. In those days hair washing and showers were not a daily event, more of a weekly ritual. In our case Dad had to light the living room fire and make sure the back boiler got hot and thence the water. When we heard thunderous rumblings of super heated steam coursing through the pipes and the copper cylinder in the airing cupboard we knew it was time for a bath.

I did dally with an Alvis for a while, a TA14 saloon I think or was it a 21 but I never got it going. I saw the advert in the local paper and phoned up a very well spoken bloke who spun me the age old yarn that with a bit of TLC it could soon be on the road. “Too big for his garage etc etc” Same as!  Anyway he offered to come and pick me up and take me to see the car.

If you think riding in an A7 on the motorway is exciting you should try sitting in an Isetta ‘bubble car’ on the A48 in traffic! Just this thin bit of tin and plastic between you and the world and the horrible sound of a two stroke at your back. And it was pale blue.

It was a large black Alvis and as soon as I opened the door and smelled that combination of leather, oil and petrol and saw the polished wood dashboard I couldn’t get rid of my £30 fast enough.  It wouldn’t start of course, flat battery, been lying here a while etc etc. Anyway my friend Mark’s father had a Woolsey 6/90 and after some persuasion he agreed to tow the Alvis to my house.

All went well until we got near home when I thought that if I slipped it into second the engine would turn and fire up. The 6/90 shuddered and then the rope snapped as it took the strain of a couple of tons of Alvis with a ‘stiff’ engine and that was that.

After spending money on brushing cellulose paint and body filler and finding that new wooden door frames would be financially ‘difficult’ I gave up on it. Though I did spend happy hours just sitting in it cocooned in leather and fumes just imagining!  Eventually it followed the Ruby to the scrapyard.

Thinking back on it, these days it would have made a super ‘post modern art installation in the urban environment.’ Probably could have got an Arts Council grant. Too late now. 

A ‘sensible’ car was now bought.

A 1956 Ford Popular in stunning grey with maroon seats. This was a reliable car to the point of loosing the will to live. Apart from learning how to drive in the pouring rain without windscreen wipers, they were vacuum operated and their effectiveness diminished with the amount you pressed on the accelerator. The faster you went the slower the wipers worked until they stopped. I found it much the same as driving without wearing my glasses.

The only fun I got out of it was on Sunday mornings when I went up to the newsagent to buy the newspaper. On the return journey there was a bus stop. If you took a run up the road towards it and then turned off the ignition and floored the throttle the silencer filled with petrol vapour and if then with exquisite timing you switched the engine back on a tremendous back fire took place which frightened the life out of those waiting for the bus.  That all ended of course when a particularly fearsome explosion blew out the silencer. 

Whilst we cruised in the Ruby in ‘Suspension Heaven’ the Ford was made of sterner stuff. You felt the bumps and they were especially violent in the back seat. So much so that after a visit to a farm to buy some eggs we went over a hump in the road, perhaps a little too quickly and my father who was sharing the back seat with the eggs rose up and then came down on the eggs which had slid under him as he shot upwards. I can remember, with a smile, the exact spot in the road where it happened in West Wales to this very day.

The E93A did sterling service carrying me back and forth to college, taking blokes down the pub and spicing life up carrying girls into the countryside for romantic intervals. It also took part in car club rallies and driving tests apart from the silencer and a broken crown wheel and pinion it was reliable enough.

But it was not nearly as flash as our next car which was bought from the ladies hairdresser who administered to my mother. A two tone pink and cream Hillman Minx 3B with a white furry poodle on the back window shelf, whose eyes lit up with the brake lights AND white walled tyres. Talk about chalk and cheese!

Viv now has a Ruby ARQ (MK1) which he is working on; we look forward to seeing him out and about when it is finished.

This article, written by Viv Gale, originally appeared in Seven Focus August 2010 pp22-23; September 2010 p26; October 2010 pp18-19; November 2010 pp 22-23; December 2010 pp20-21 and January 2011 pp22-23.

It also appeared concurrently in the Magazines of the Austin Seven Owners Club (London), and the Devon Austin Seven Club; both of which Viv Gale is also a member.