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Austin Seven

Pedigree Chum Published: 25th Sep 2011 - 0 Comments - Be the first, contribute now!

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When it comes to pre-war classics, there’s nothing quite like the friendly Austin Seven

Pros & Cons

Period charm, cheap to buy and run, lots to choose from
Needs constant maintenance, cramped, slow, hard to restore
£1000-£15,000

If there’s one car that sums up pre-war Britain it’s the Austin Seven. With those fantastically cute looks, there’s something about the baby Austin that makes you want to forego modern comforts and turn the clock back half a century every time you make a journey. But just because the Seven is mechanically primitive, don’t be fooled into thinking there’s little to go wrong – as this guide illustrates all too well. When it comes to choosing your Seven, think carefully about what you want from it. Pre-1930 (vintage) models, usually found in Chummy or Top Hat guises, are too agricultural for many people for anything other than occasional fairweather use. If it’s a vintage car that you want, a 1929/30 Chummy is the best bet because it’s coil-engined so there’s no magneto to give any problems – they’re also very competitive if you fancy going trialling.

Models built between 1932 and 1934 have a longer wheelbase and wider track, to give a more spacious interior. There’s still not much room though, and the driving experience is pretty archaic. The best compromise between vintage looks and a comfortable driving experience is a 1934 box saloon, which has the traditional upright radiator. From the Ruby’s introduction in 1935, things started to look less dated – but of course part of the Seven’s appeal is its vintage appearance.

Towards the end of the Seven’s life the braking system improved – fi rstly in 1937 and again the following year. Even with these improvements you can’t pull up a Seven in a hurry like you can with a typical post-war classic – but adapting your driving style to suit is no hardship – it’s all part of the fun. Many 60s and 70s racing drivers cut their teeth modifying and driving A7s – today you really know when you’ve driven one well.

History

The fi rst Sevens were built in 1922, as four-seater open tourers. Nicknamed the Chummy, the fi rst 100 examples featured a 696cc four cylinder engine, which was superseded by a 747.5cc unit that survived until the end of production 17 years later. These fi rst cars 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. By 1926 there were stronger brakes and two years later a slightly taller nickel-plated radiator grille appeared along with 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 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 threespeeder. The following year 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 white-metal that was previously used. The last Seven was made in 1939, after around 290,000 Austin-badged versions had been built.

Driving

It’ll come as no surprise that the fi rst thing that strikes you with the Seven after a classic let alone a modern is its dramatic lack of pace; with so little power from such a tiny engine, you’re forced to change down a gear or two mentally before you even set off. And that’s no bad thing, because if you’re looking for an antidote to the pace of modern life, the Seven is just the ticket. Once you’ve started it up, 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 plenty of stalling. But the three-speed gearbox (a four-speed unit from 1932) takes little getting used to, which is just as well because you have to use those ratios quite a bit if you’re to make decent progress. Of course it’s just as well that there’s not much power, as the chassis couldn’t really cope with any more. There’s little in the way of braking ability so you really have to plan ahead if you’re not to have a shunt; it doesn’t help that drivers of more modern machinery constantly get in your way in a bit to ensure they don’t get held up. 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. As long as you’re not in a hurry anyway.

Prices

With so many variants on the Seven theme, values can vary enormously – just working out which is the right model for you can be a longwinded process, then you’ve got to fi nd a decent example of whichever model you settle on. Projects of some editions, such as the Ruby, can be picked up from just £1000, but you have to be incredibly careful with projects. The costs of revival are invariably very high, which is why you’re better off going for a decent car as a start point; a suitable Ruby can be picked up from around £4000, while a really good one is closer to £6000. Chummys range from £4000 to £10,000 depending on condition. Specials and rarities are hard to value as pretty much every one is unique – or at least extremely unusual. However, it’s perfectly easy to spend £20,000+ on something with swoopy bodywork and a perkier engine than standard. Good A7s are starting to make serious money, especially the sports types, and a car’s personal history will be of importance.

Improvements

Colin Chapman founded a whole sports car company by starting with an Austin Seven, so there’s no shortage of potential. There’s also no shortage of options, with the options only limited by your imagination and your budget. There are all sorts of things you can do with the engine, including fi tting a stronger crankshaft, sportier camshaft and Renault 4 pistons so you can increase the rev limit. A single 1 1/4-inch SU carb also helps to squeeze a little extra power, although twin 1 1/8-inch Sus are even better if you don’t mind using the revs. For better reliability it’s worth swapping the fabric coupling between the propshaft and rear axle for a conventional Hardy Spicer universal joint. When it comes to uprating the brakes there are numerous o p t i o n s d e p e n d i n g on the car’s age, including converting to a hydraulic system. But the limitingfactor is usually the grip afforded by the tyres, so before you spend a fortune on better anchors, make sure it’s actually going to be of some benefi t.

What To Look For

  • Despite the Seven’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 Seven bodyshell, although the amount reduced over the years. Tourers featured alloy panels until 1931, when they became steel, although special-bodied cars could be clothed in aluminium, steel or fabric. The latter causes the most problems as DIY repairs aren’t recommended – a complete professional overhaul will typically cost around £3000.
  • Problems can also crop up in the steel floorpan which forms the basis for all Sevens. Until 1932 these were riveted together but some home restorers weld everything up, which is fi ne as long as the structure isn’t twisted in the process. Be wary if the fl oorpan has been badly restored, as replacements aren’t available.
  • Many of the more popular types of bodyshell are available on a new basis. It’s generally easier to start again than try to revive a seriously tired bodyshell, which is why specialists offer the most common designs for anywhere between £1400 and £4000.
  • Your fi rst checks should be to see what state the fl oorpans and wheelarches are in, as these are the most rot-prone areas. Also see how secure the spare wheel is; if it’s not very secure, it’s because the rear section of the bodywork has seen better days and this means major body repairs.
  • The sills also need a close look, especially where the rear wheelarches and front valance are attached; inspection is easy as there are no box sections. 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, as they can rot profusely. So can the rear wings as well as the panels to which they’re bolted. Finally, make sure the seam between the running boards and each front wing is intact; it often isn’t.
  • The chassis is more durable than the bodywork. The most important check is to stand well back and look at the car’s stance. The chassis stops at the back axle, so the rear bodywork is unsupported. As you can imagine, once things have started to corrode, distortion is guaranteed, so see how well everything lines up.
  • Felt pads were used to isolate the bodyshell from the chassis below; the felt soaks up water then the metalwork gradually dissolves. Inspection is tricky because it’s the top face of the chassis that’s affected. On a pre-1930 car, fi nish off by looking at the chassis near the front crossmember, which is prone to cracking.
  • The Seven’s engine is a complex unit which consists of an aluminium crank case, castiron cylinder block and cast-iron cylinder head. You’re doing well to manage much more than 20,000 miles between rebuilds.
  • A 747cc side-valve engine featured in all Sevens apart from the fi rst 100, which had a 696cc unit. Until 1936 there were just two main bearings fi tted (one at each end of the crank), while later cars had an extra one – but any Seven crank can break because of fl exing. The big end journals were also increased from 1 1/8” to 1 5/16” in 1930.
  • Oil leaks are par for the course, but expect a weep rather than a torrent. Silly amounts of oil suggests a cylinder block retaining stud has broken, for which there’s no quick fix. Dismantling of the engine and some machining are essential, so expect a bill of at least £500 to put everything right.
  • If the engine has been rebuilt it should have had a new Phoenix crankshaft fi tted; using modern materials and processes, they’re far more durable than the original items. If an original was refi tted, consider it a major weakness and something that’ll mean another rebuild will be needed sooner rather than later.
  • Rumbling from the back of the engine belies a worn main bearing, either because it’s tired or because it’s worn a groove in the crankshaft, damaging it as a result. Replacing the bearing costs around £200, but if the crank needs replacing as well, the bill will be more like £800.
  • Pre-1932 Sevens have a three-speed crash ‘box, while later cars got a four-speed unit – from 1934 there was synchro on thirdand fourth. It’s a strong enough box, but the three-piece clutch has to be set up correctly if it’s to disengage properly; this is a specialist bench job.
  • If the clutch is slipping, it’s likely that oil has got onto the driven plate from either the engine or gearbox. The only cure is a new set of components for £40 – although your best bet is to get a specialist to fi t everything for around £250, to ensure it’s set up correctly.
  • Pre-1931 axles are weak. The crown wheel and pinion both wear; the job requiresspecial tools and knowledge to set it all up, the task is best left to the experts. 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 updrive. The mounting is in the form of a ball joint, attached directly to the chassis and which can be adjusted up to a point.
  • Clonking when taking up drive can also be down to worn couplings in the propshaft, which didn’t use universal joints until 1934. Parts for all the various types are available.
  • 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, like in the many links.
  • 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.
  • All Sevens featured wire wheels, which cansuffer from broken or loose spokes. If the wheel has to be replaced, expect to pay £140 for a new one or £40 second-hand.
  • The braking system was a cable-and-rod affair which is effective enough. The pedal on post-1930 cars activates the front and rear brakes; on earlier cars the front drums were operated by the handbrake.
  • Overhauling a Seven’s interior is simplicity itself. By now most Sevens have been retrimmed, often in hide regardless of what was there originally – unless you’re desperate for originality, that should be viewed as a good thing. Despite the apparent simplicity of the Seven’s weather equipment, expect a bill of £1500+ as there’s a lot more work involved than you’d think.
  • Dynamos give problems as they’re mounted on top of the engine, leading to damage from fumes and high temperatures. To overhaul the dynamo it needs to be removed, but this then leads to the engine timing being knocked out.
  • Magnetos also give trouble, but if properly rewound by somebody who knows what they’re doing, years of trouble-free use is normal. A properly overhauled magneto is £200 – which is why a largely maintenancefree £260 coil conversion is common.

Three Of A Kind

Ford 8 Y-Type
Ford 8 Y-Type
Although the Y-Type didn’t arrive until February 1932, it caused a sensation when it did appear. Not because it was especially innovative, but because it was so affordable. Priced at just £120 it was bigger and faster than key rivals. The 8HP remained in productiion until 1939, in saloon form only and with a 933cc sidevalve engine fi tted to all cars. Spares ok but not as good as A7.
Morris Minor
Morris Minor
Built only between 1929 and 1932, the Minor was Morris’s belated riposte to the Seven. As such, it featured an 847cc engine and at fi rst there were cable-operated brakes only, although hydraulic items arrived in 1932. With just 39,000 made though, you’ll have to search that much harder to fi nd the car you’re looking for, compared with a Seven.
Singer Junior
Singer Junior
While Austin and Morris were the two biggest players in the UK’s new car market of the 1920s, Singer sat in third place. Its Seven rival was the Junior, built between 1927 and 1932 in overhead-cam 848cc form and between 1932 and 1935 in 972cc guise. Well built and engineered, the Junior offers a great ownership proposition, but they’re quite unusual.

Verdict

Few cars have more charm than a Seven. Maintenance is easy too, and on a summer’s day you’ll struggle to fi nd anything more romantic than piloting a Seven along empty country lanes. Throw into the mix the fact that it’s economical and well made, and you’d think the Seven might be your ideal car. Certainly, if you’re looking for an antidote to the pace of modern life, it’s hard to beat a Seven. Drive a well-maintained one and all your problems melt away. But there’s not much performance available and even less space – at least in most derivatives. You also have to accept that constant fettling is needed to maintain reliability, with overhauls of major mechanical components part and parcel of Seven ownership. While buying a Seven to restore is easy enough, carrying out a full rebuild including the bodywork is nothing like as easy as you’d think – there are lots of pitfalls for the unwary. For this reason you need to ensure that if you do buy one, it hasn’t been the subject of a bodged restoration attempt by a previous owner – such cars are all too common. If all this sounds scary, don’t be put off by it. You have to go into Seven ownership with your eyes open, but do that and you’ll have a hoot every time you just open the garage door – but buy badly and you’ll be too afraid to even open the door, never mind take the car out.



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