My Early Austins

My first encounter with an Austin 7 was around 1955. As a 10 year old boy at boarding school in Scotland we had an eccentric maths master who taught us more about mountaineering than calculus and subsequently left to take up a post as Professor of Maths in Salisbury, Rhodesia. His gain, our loss as we now had to learn some maths. A cross between Ken Dodd’s elder brother and Einstein, we called him Goofy because of his distinctive nashers and he drove a very early Austin 7 Tourer which I suppose was not really that old then. Imagine driving a 1970’s car now, many do and think little of it. On a visit to our House Master for dinner, the prefects picked up his little car and carried it across the hallowed turf of the lawn to deposit it in the rose bed. On emerging after dinner, while dozens of small faces peeped round closed curtains – well after lights-out on a summer evening – he drove it out of the rose bed and across the lawn to the dismay of his host.
About 3 years later, I bought my own Austin 7 from a school friend. I am not sure how he managed to find it as such things were of course strictly forbidden – the most we were allowed to own at school was a rugby ball or a fishing rod as befitted young gentlemen – but it was hidden in a garage within walking distance of school. I paid £3 + 5/6 for the petrol in the tank and persuaded my father to tow it home. 

He was and still is a long-suffering parent. Some years later I bought another Austin 7 and persuaded him to tow this home from the West Coast of Scotland to the East Coast where we lived at the time. I have alarming memories of rattling across the Moor of Rannoch on a string behind the Bentley while he, lecturing a visiting Belgian cousin on 500 years of Scottish history, completely forgot about me, he could not see me anyway in the rear view mirror and drove on ignorant of my frantic hand signals. A steady 60 miles an hour was the fastest the car had ever travelled and the fastest I ever wanted to travel in it. It was only the total absence of traffic in those parts which ensured that I lived to tell this tale. 

Back to Seven No 1, a 1931 Top Hat saloon, soon to be christened Jezebel. I first cut off the roof then ditched the body completely and raced her around a large garden with one seat bolted to the chassis. After a summer holiday of this sport and a ruined tennis lawn I built a shed where I hid myself away during school holidays  for several years. I had a picture of a Brescia Bugatti which was the epitome of motoring in my young eyes and what eventually emerged from the shed was a very crude copy. The 7 radiator remained but there was now a hemispherical scuttle and a rounded seat upholstered with the blue leather that was formerly the back seat  all in ash and aluminium with a stout box on the chassis behind it – to carry the tools and spares. 

I again persuaded the parent to tow me to a nearby disused airfield where I did speed trials. The highlight of the enterprise came when a passing motorist turned off the road to come over and have a look. He actually said he thought it was a Bugatti from a distance but having discovered his error remembered a pressing appointment and disappeared as quickly as he had arrived. Still, I had almost fooled someone even if it was at 500 yards. 

When I was eventually allowed legally on the roads, Jezebel took me many miles. I don’t remember her ever breaking down and she rarely went fast enough for the brakes to be a problem but I was very proud of my creation until I received an offer I could not refuse at the same time as the sports 2-seater appeared on the West Coast. 

This machine would have been better named Jezebel. She had an ash/ally 2-seater body and if it had been home made it was very good. It had a lowered front axle but as I recall a fairly standard engine apart from the carb. a down draft SU. Like all Sevens she had her little ways, one of which was over-heating when pushed. I remember powering up a hill, found her boiling and roared into a garage with steam hissing out from everywhere. As I stopped, the horn short-circuited, went off by itself and could not be stopped even by switching off the ignition. The garage owner rushed out brandishing a fire extinguisher. Now I recall a communication problem in Scotland on occasions but there was no mistaking the meaning this time. What he lacked in comprehensible speech he amply made up for in noise backed up by vigorous hand signs and my machine was pushed to the far end of the fore court faster than she had come up the hill. Of course she soon cooled down as did he and after a short drink all was happiness and contentment and I puttered quietly home. 

I worked week-ends that winter as a ski-instructor and used the car to travel from University at St Andrews to the mountains. I found my grand-father’s snow chains neatly stowed away against the day when they might come in useful 50 years later even though spoked wheels were long out of fashion. In exactly the same way I found a set of 1920’s plugs carefully wrapped and put away which kept my 1929 Model 19 Norton ticking for years. The snow chains were short lengths of chain in pairs, the ends made up to a leather strap and buckle. It was a simple matter to lay the chains over the top of the wheel and fasten the buckle through the spokes. Each wheel had 3 chains making 6 chains on each wheel. These were enormously effective but sounded like a Sherman tank at speed. If not tight enough they soon took out the wings, not to mention the side of the body. 

One night we left the ski-slopes late in convoy. I volunteered to take all the skis in my passenger seat so that all the others could be in the relative comfort of an enclosed car. Being topless, the dozen or so pairs of skis pointed skywards into a black blizzard of a night as we set off down the precipitous narrow road in deep snow, getting deeper by the hour. Too late I realised that the road had dived into a downward twisting bend to my left. In a flurry of deep snow I went up the right hand bank like a motor bike going round a wall of death as the road disappeared off below me to my left, took out a dozen fence posts along the top of the bank before turning to nose-diving to the road below. She hit the deep snow, spun round and slid down the road backwards. My lights now pointing back up the road averted the car behind which stopped and the occupants proceeded on foot. Nonchalent as we all were in those days especially in our favoured environment of deep powder snow  at midnight, minus 10 at 3500 feet, we spun the car round – the engine was still running – and I jumped in to continue the journey. After all, the skis were all still in the passenger seat. Only then did I realise that the wheels were pointing at each other and turning the wheel made little difference to the direction the car travelled. Youth has luck on it’s side and 100 yards down the road was a cart track to the only human habitation for as far as anyone had discovered since 1745. I snow-ploughed up the track and boldly knocked on the door. Another communication problem was averted as soon as an irate little native caught sight of the Seven. “Oooo Laddie, yu hoot n annie sock it to yu weel ane o’ they “. Of course he had learnt to drive on an Austin Seven – his “auntee had ane oop the glen in they days”. 

We pushed the car into a barn and by the light of a storm lantern I removed the track-rod and straightened it with the only engineering tool to hand, a 15lb sledge hammer. As I recall, it only took about 15 minutes and I was off again, this time encouraged by a drop of the only sustenance they have in those glens which seemed to keep the bitter night air out for the 2 hour run back to St Andrews in an open car.

The next morning in the clearer light for what passes as day in the winter up there, I found the track rod was reasonably straight but the off side spring shackle had reversed it’s attitude and the spring was now slung above the axle on that side. I knew she had felt a little funny on the wheel but cold is a curious anaesthetic and as long as the engine was purring through the night who worried about a little wandering. I missed a philosophy class on the deeper implications of right and wrong the next morning in order to right the wrong on my front axle.
Some years earlier had come the Chummy. Looking at the log book I see it was 19, I had met her at a vintage rally somewhere in the north and had consulted her owner on occasions about the niceties of Jezebel so when he called to say he needed some funds to complete the only surviving veteran Swift cycle car which he was restoring I bought the little Chummy. In truth the real reason was that I was taken with the number plate which was my initials as she was much too good for me. This was a concourse winning car with plaques and points and as we all know, points means prizes. Star of television and local gymnkanas, polished and perfect. Now I am not someone to own perfect things as they never seem to stay that way. Machines are meant to be used and use in my ownership is inconsistent with preservation of perfection. However,  35 years later and she is still mine, admittedly having spent most of those years on blocks under warps in a barn. 

After 20 years of not having run or even seen, I decided to bring her to Devon and commission her. She was duly wheeled out of her mausoleum, onto a trailer and off to the sea-side. It took a couple of hours to extract the engine and a couple of evenings to dissect it. Once done never forgotten and all the memories came flooding back.

2 pistons were stuck in the bores and broken rings finally released them. A new set of rings all round and some new gaskets – yes new gaskets this time now being a cash money earner unlike my condition in earlier relationships with Sevens when gaskets went back with a bit of grease, crumpled, torn or even in two halves. And a week later with a new battery she was as good as new. Dusted off, polished up and she ran like a bird. After that summer 6 years ago I put her away again not to exhaust her little heart too much. She still has another generation to look after and entertain. 
And talking of the next generation it is now their turn to learn about Austin Sevens. I could not in all honesty let a couple of eager boys loose on the Chummy but I had collected a pile of rusty metal over the years which I proudly called spares and in a rash moment I said we would put a pile of rust together and call it an Ulster Special.
We had that picture of Sammy Davies and the Earl of March after the Brooklands 500 and that was the car we wanted to build.
So back up to the barn to sort out the bent metal and try to work out what was needed. Of course we all know that anyone can assemble an Austin Seven from a pile of bits in under 15 minutes just like the army used to do with field guns in military displays. The sergeant blows the whistle and the team jumps into action. Off come the wheels, the barrel is on the shoulders of the two big chaps from Newcastle, a couple of others pick up the chassis and the little chap runs behind to collect the bits that fall off. They jump over something like the third fence in the Grand National, wade chin deep through a fast flowing river, crawl 50 yards through a 6” diameter pipe and assemble the gun again ready to fire all in 3 minutes and 36 seconds.

An Austin Seven is just the same isn’t it, Dad? That’s what you said.

The morale of this tale is do your research first. I extracted a chassis with a number which proved to be 1931. A good start and a good chassis. Having decided to set an example by doing things properly this time I had it shot-blasted and primed followed by a coat of black chassis paint and it looks like new. It was set up on blocks and we all took turns to sit on it and pretend we were going round Brooklands. 

I sent the front axle off to be bowed and this started the trouble – we were spending real money now. In fact it proved to be more serious. I decided to use a set of semi Girling stub axles and back plate assemblies for the front brakes which I think is probably a good idea. New king pins and bushes, brake cams and bushes, new flat front spring, new shackles which we made from the old ones with replacement pin kits – very easy in case you are worried – and front friction shocker with new rubbers and friction discs. All looked great till last week-end. What prompted the examination of castor angles was my decision to make radius arm end fittings like the original rather than use the double plates to drop the ends below the axle.  Using the radius arm cast steel end fittings I made a pattern to be cast in bronze, left and right. Length became an issue which led to the study of castor angles.
Re-reading the question of all angles in the steering assembly in general I decided to strip it all down just to make sure. I had assumed it was fine, after all it was a professionally bent axle by the people who know about these things and a new spring and all the other bits so it should have assembled with the correct angles as there are no built-in adjustments but my experiences of steering a Seven in the past made me double check. The inner steering column tube that does the ignition control is half inch diam. the same as the king pin but 10 times the length and – hopefully just as straight. With hubs and king-pins removed, stick the ignition control tube down the axle beam end and you can eye up a discrepancy of a thou from 50 yards.
Now I was back in that barn on the remote Scottish hillside. My axle was all over the place. With the chassis set up horizontal I had learnt that the pins should be at 90 degrees in an athwart ships direction. And they should have a castor angle of at least 5 degrees and preferably 10 although there appears to be various opinions on this one. And the camber angle should be set in the axle eye itself.

The angle of the stub axle to the horizontal can’t be altered so all depends on the axle eye. If this is wrong then all is wrong and mine was all wrong.

I am told that the castor angle can be adjusted by swivelling the radius arms but this of course is a nonsense because all you are doing is taking up the slack in worn shackles. And if they are not worn then they soon will be if you force a twist into them. However I am also told that you can induce castor angle by shimming the trailing edge of the spring off the front chassis casting once the U-bolts are released which seems logical but I can’t believe Austin actually did this as there is no apparent facility to allow it. And most things on Sevens do appear to have a logic to them even though not always obvious at first. I can therefore only assume that castor angle was built into the beam axle eyes. And if so, my axle is not only cross-eyed, it is bloody near blind. So I suppose it is off with everything and back to Gloucestershire with it for a rethink unless anyone has any other bright ideas.
Then there is the tale of the back-axle. Again, the morale is do the research before you start work. I had 3 or 4 Ds but in a drive for reasonable authenticity I wanted a banjo. I had a complete banjo with screw-in torque tube which I mistakenly thought was an earlier type and wanted to keep it as a spare for the Chummy, not realising that it was not the same as the Chummy. I also had a banjo with torque tube but the axle arms cut off which was a curiosity and I have no idea where I got it from. There was even a diff inside when I opened it. This comes from keeping things and not looking at them at least once every 10 years. So I decided on a brilliant solution to conserve the quantity of world-wide Seven spares by cutting the arms off a more common D-type and welding them to the rarer banjo type. The brilliant Ian Jenkins undertook the job with perfection and I guarantee nobody would know it was not an original banjo axle. The whole thing was assembled and hung on the chassis if only to encourage the troops. 

Attention was turned to the diff and after extensive reading, close examination of the diff teeth showed that it was quite worn. A couple more diffs were sorted out from the pile, none much better, although I was encouraged to read somewhere that the crown-wheel /pinion match is not as sacrosanct as usually stated. I had a couple of little-worn crown-wheels but with chipped teeth. I stripped down 4 torque tubes and swear I found 4 differences in design.  
I then turned to the screw-in torque-tube banjo axle and study of drawings quickly revealed that an Ulster usually had this type of axle. Do your research first! And my sense of stupidity was doubled when I stripped it and found a perfect, little-worn diff. So now we start again, restoring this axle but I do have a restored spare banjo casing for the Chummy which of course is unlikely ever to be needed – though I  still have another 1931 chassis to build on one day.

The next stage will be the question of the torque-tube support fitting – long or short, turn the chassis fitting upside down or what? 

I have a couple of Hardy Spicer shafts and one of the intermediate types but I am thinking of staying with the earlier type of universal joint like the Chummy which I think is more correct for this machine though shaft length might be a problem. I suppose I must decide on which gear-box to use first and work backwards along the chassis. Help! 
To demonstrate the folly of precipitate action without research, I restored a steering column only to find that it was a year late, it is the earlier type of box but with a longer column which takes an ignition/throttle quadrant and levers but with a bakelite disc covering the quadrant. And incidentally I have had difficulty obtaining a new felt seal round the drop-arm. Then there is the steering wheel to be recovered but I am keeping that one for a bad time when I need some encouragement. I know a smart new steering wheel will lift the spirits. 

Then there is the tale of the wheels. I had some nice chrome centred 19” wheels shot blasted and powder coated and they looked like new. But I discovered that the car I was trying to copy had solid centre wheels so I parted with the smart ones because I knew I had some solid centre wheels in the pile of rusty bits. Close examination of these rims revealed that 3 were really past recovery with rust. I found 2 excellent 19” rims, rims only, no hubs, and started to re-spoke them only to find that the spoke holes in the rims are different for different hub types. Research or trial and error, take your pick. So if anyone has 3 19” rims with holes equally spaced all the way round rather than in groups of 3 then I would much appreciate the contact. I might have something to swap in the rusty pile. And on the question of wheels and hubs, I found that the Girling cast iron drums do not fit into the hubs of 19” wheels so I must fit the earlier type, 1.25” drums.

I have a set of 17” wheels with chrome centres as well as a set Ruby 17” with the big chromed centre but I want solid centre 19s.

I had a rare moment last week to think ahead and my glance fell on a radiator. I have what appears to be an excellent Ruby radiator but I want a Chummy type, shorter with central filler. One alternative is to butcher the Ruby rad, re-position the filler and fit a new core but I am very reluctant to destroy good original material. So I suppose I am looking for a defunct Chummy rad with good top and bottom tanks that I can re-core. 

Ian Jenkins will make a stainless steel fuel tank but I need drawings for the original type. The car I am trying to copy was unlike the production Ulster with it’s long bonnet and seems to be a modified Chummy type of body with a short scuttle in front of the instrument board followed by a longer, possibly removable scuttle section over the fuel tank with fillers protruding, followed by a Chummy bonnet and a Chummy radiator. This indicates a new bulkhead forward of the tank which would be a good idea to separate the fuel from a hot engine. 

One evening I turned my attention to the only lighting and ignition control panel I found in the pile. It was a little seized and the ammeter was rusted out but otherwise it is recoverable. Has anyone had any luck fitting a modern ammeter into the hole? I have a suspicion I can rebuild the old one by dismantling a 1920’s test meter I have but new guts in the original casing might be a better solution.
At this rate, rebuilding the engine and gear box will be material for all next year’s articles in your magazine but hopefully this article will encourage others to put their knowledge and experience on paper, however small the detail.
This article, written by Peter Letwas-Gregson, originally appeared in Seven Focus Oct 2004 pp6-9 and Nov 2004 pp5-7