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Austin 7

Austin 7 Published: 20th Dec 2017 - 0 Comments - Be the first, contribute now!

Austin 7
Austin 7
Austin 7
Austin 7
Austin 7
Austin 7
Austin 7
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Why not own an... Austin 7

If there’s one car that sums up pre-war Britain it’s the Austin Seven, but can a car that débuted in 1922 still have a place on our roads nearly a century on you may well ask? Most definitely yes in the case of the magnificent Seven, the car that provided the basis for many inspiring designers and engineers to work their magic on – not least one Colin Chapman! Dubbed ‘Chummy’, this vintage classic is certainly a friendly as well as an easy to own.

Model choice

When it comes to choosing your Chummy, think carefully about what you want from it. Need it be said that they are old timers but pre-1930 (vintage) models, are probably too agricultural for many enthusiasts (especially if you are new to them) for anything other than occasional fair weather use. By the same token, if it’s a vintage car that you want, a 1929/30 Chummy is the best bet because its has a conventional coilignition so there’s no magneto to give any problems.

Models built between 1932 and 1934 sport a longer wheelbase and wider track, to give a more spacious interior and also improve their roadability. We reckon that the best compromise between vintage looks and a ‘comfortable’ driving experience is a ’34 box saloon.

The first Sevens (built in 1922), were four-seater open tourers. Nicknamed the Chummy, the first 100 featured a 696cc four cylinder engine, superseded by a 747.5cc unit that survived until the end of production 17 years later.

These first cars also featured an upright rear edge to the doors and a sloping windscreen; from 1924 the windscreen was upright while the body was longer and the doors had sloping rear edges.

Stronger brakes for 1926 and, two years later, a slightly taller nickel-plated radiator grille appeared along with conventional coil ignition, a more spacious body and wider doors. An even longer and wider bodyshell arrived in 1930, which was also when a stronger crankshaft appeared (most important) and the front and rear braking systems were coupled so they were both worked by the footbrake.

In 1931 the bodywork was restyled with a thin ‘ribbon-style’ radiator and by 1932 there was a four-speed gearbox to replace the earlier three-speeder. A year later saw the introduction of the Ruby, a car that looked more modern with its cowled radiator. The development continued with improved brakes in 1937, and in the same year there was a move to crankshaft shell bearings in place of the (expensive to refurbish) white-metal previously used. The last Seven was made in 1939, after around 290,000 Austinbadged versions had been built.

Aside from saloon and tourers, there were also vans and sports derivatives, like the Le Mans, with the supercharged Ulster the most revered. Saloons are the most plentiful and usable, particularly the De Luxe models, which, incidentally possess a steel body that’s much easier to repair and restore.

 

Behind the wheel

Be under no illusions, the Seven’s driving experience is pretty archaic and on all there’s not much room so the Chummy name applies across the ranges. On the other hand, you’ll know if you’ve driven well in one – small wonder that many racing drivers started life on this Austin as it was the closest thing to a go-kart.

In standard trim they make a 2CV feel like a Ferrari in comparison (although you can make a Seven go like a Prancing Horse – see our ‘Making One Better’ section). The next thing that strikes you is how sharp the clutch is; few get into a Seven and master this without a few kangaroo starts and stalling. Then it’s rapidly from first, up through second and into third, double-de-clutching along the way as there’s no synchro.


The three-speed gearbox (a fourspeed unit from 1932) takes little getting used to, which is just as well because you have to use those ratios to the hilt if you’re to make any sort of progress. But a well-maintained Seven will sit happily at 45-50mph, and thanks to sharp steering plus a surprisingly comfortable ride, even long-distance journeys are enjoyable (see separate story).

The inherent skittish handling can be quelled by reducing chassis flex and Sevens were popular and successful racers in their day.

There’s little in the way of braking so you really have to plan ahead; it doesn’t help that drivers of more modern machinery constantly get in your way in a bid to ensure they don’t get held up. If you’re looking for an antidote to the pace of modern life, the Seven is just the ticket…

 

What to pay

It’s a bit of a double-edged sword. On the one hand these cars are simply designed and parts plentiful, but on the other, restorations are quite difficult and costs can soon mount up so only consider a major project if a restoration is what makes you happy; expect to pay a couple of grand for something saveable. That said, you should be able to get one in need of some TLC but still perfectly usable from as little as £5000 with Rubys around £1000 on top.

Then it starts to get quite expensive as open-top cars cost considerably more, up to £20,000 in the case of a genuine Ulster but from as little as £6000 for a regular Tourer. It’s probably better to buy a good saloon rather than a poor Tourer if finances are tight because the fun factor is much the same and we’d certainly suggest trying a few Sevens before making any decisions, just to see if you actually like one.

 

Making one better

Colin Chapman, founded a sports car company and F1 team starting from a humble Austin Seven (his underrated 1970’s works driver, John Miles is a long-time lover of Sevens and has recently made his own modernised, supercharged special), so there’s still no shortage of potential and available options with the lovable Chummy, from those just wanting a bit more pep for less nerve-jangling road use or perhaps building their own special for some club motorsport.

Pigsty Racing (pigsty-racing. com) is the leading tuner. Minor but pleasing gains can be had from just a better carb such as a single 1.25in SU from a Mini or Minor with a No.6 needle and blue spring for starters. Better still is to combine it with the inlet/exhaust manifold from a later Ruby. A range of tuned inlet and exhaust manifolds are available starting from under £200. Another cheap trusted tweak is to have 80-100thou skimmed off the cylinder head before fitting a racier camshaft.

Racing engines can yield in excess of 50bhp – for the road you’re looking at around 32-25bhp. A turn-key tuned Pigsty road engine works out at £3050 with race/trials unit some £350 extra but can go up to £4200. Special close-ratio (three and four-speed) gearboxes have been developed.

Reliant engines can fit too, as it used a modified A7 side-valve unit well into the 1960s (along with a four-speed gearbox) before it was replaced with Reliant’s all alloy ohv engine, albeit still based on the Austin unit, which, in standard tune, spelt a solid 40bhp.

Better springing (with more extreme alternative to the beam axle arrangement for motorsport, usually to Ulster spec) worth having but the biggest gain lies in an adjustable, twin damper conversion which, Pigsty and Oxfordshire Sevens claim, makes a big improvement on any model. You can modify the existing cable brakes to achieve four-wheel compensated brakes (as described in the 750 Motor Club’s Austin Seven Companion, scrap the existing system altogether and go for the new, still mechanical Pigstydeveloped alternative (Oxfordshire Sevens has similar upgrade) or, convert to full hydraulic operation based upon many Morris Minor parts.

 

Maintenance matters

Basic maintenance is simple – involved repairs less so. Despite the Austin’s simplicity, its bodyshell can cause all sorts of problems. Most cars have been restored by now, some better than others, so check the door gaps; if they’re all over the place the structure has either been rebuilt badly or weakened by rot. There’s timber in every bodyshell; Tourers featured alloy panels until 1931, when they became steel, although special-bodied cars could be clothed in aluminium, steel or fabric – a complete professional overhaul will typically cost around £3000. Many of the more popular bodies types are available and it’s normally easier to start again than try to revive a seriously tired original, which is why specialists offer the most common designs from anywhere between £1400-£5000.

The engine is quite complex consisting of an aluminium crank case, cast iron block and cylinder head. You’ll be doing well to manage much more than 20,000 miles between rebuilds. Until 1936 there were just two main bearings fitted (one at each end of the crank); later models had an extra one – but any Seven crank breaks due to flexing and white metal repairs to its shells are specialist and expensive. If the engine has been rebuilt it should have had a new Phoenix crankshaft – if not budget on close to £1000.

Dynamos can give problems as they’re mounted on top of the engine, leading to damage from fumes and high temperatures. To overhaul it needs to be removed, but this leads to the engine’s timing being knocked out of sync. Magneto system can give trouble. A properly overhauled magneto costs around £200 which is why a largely maintenance-free modern £260 coil conversion is common. Recently launched, is an all new complete distributor set up; timely as it’s been unavailable new for some 50 years!

Available from siminbbc.com, it’s designed as a direct replacement for the DK4A plus, of course, is now electronic for better sparks. Prices start from under £120 but you’ll need to convert magneto to coil ignition, along with 12 volt electrics.

Noisy gearboxes and rear axles are common. Don’t try any old oil additive to quell the din as some may be corrosive to the bronze bushes Modern tyres designed for the Smart city car (fronts) can be fitted and are said to make a huge benefit to grip and usefully cheaper than classic ones – it depends if you hanker for originality – go to 350x19 types from Longstone tyres if you do.

Finally, we have to mention the Magnificent Seven’s support by an army of specialists and clubs over the many decades, the latter forming the Austin Seven Clubs Association as long ago as 1968 – so look out next year for something a bit special! Why not join a club before then?

 

Buying tips

Body and chassis

Most cars have been restored by now, some better than others, so check the door gaps; if they’re all over the place the structure has either been rebuilt badly or weakened by rot. Problems can crop up in the steel floorpan. Until 1932 these were riveted but some home restorers weld everything up, which is fine as long as the structure isn’t twisted in the process. Be wary if floorpan has been badly restored, replacements aren’t available. State of wheelarches are critical, as these are the most rot-prone areas. Also see how secure the spare wheel is; if it’s not very, it’s because the rear section of the bodywork has seen better days, meaning major repairs. The sills are very important to a Seven’s strength, as even though there’s a separate chassis frame, it isn’t very stiff, so as much extra bracing as possible is required. Even if the sills are sound, check the base of each A and B-post, finish off by looking at the chassis near the front crossmember, which is prone to cracking.

Engine

If the engine has been rebuilt it should have had a new Phoenix crankshaft fitted. If an original was refitted, consider it a major weakness and something needed soon. Rumbling from the back belies a worn main bearing. Replacing the bearing costs around £200, but if crank needs replacing as well, the bill will be more like £800. Oil leaks are par for the course, but expect a weep rather than a torrent.

Running gear

Pre-1932 cars relied on three-speed crash ’box, while later cars got a four-speed unit – from 1934 there was synchro on third and fourth. It’s strong enough, but the threepiece clutch has to be set up correctly; a specialist bench job.

Pre-1931 axles are weak. Expect to pay up to £1200 for an axle to be rebuilt. As well as the diff, its mounting can also wear, given away by clonking as you take up drive.

Even when in good condition you can expect a couple of inches play at the wheel – any more though and the box probably needs a rebuild. However, before you condemn the box, make sure the problem doesn’t lie elsewhere.

The suspension is simple and generally durable enough, but the leaf springs can wear rapidly if they’re not oiled every 1000 miles; the required parts alone are £300. Lack of lubricant is common on the suspension king pins; jack the car up and check for lateral movement here.

 

In conclusion

Life in the slow lane is so much fun. Your first go at the wheel of a Seven may be a culture shock, but once you get used to the pre-war dynamics, you’ll be amazed at how usable and enjoyable this baby Austin can actually be and as you get to know it more, you will find yourself driving it more. Because as the name suggests, the Chummy becomes a real friend – perhaps for life.



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