Exploring the world in a classic car is the dream of many enthusiasts, but few choose to make the process quite as challenging as attempting a journey equivalent to circumnavigating the world while driving an Austin Seven.
Like all pioneers, serial Seven owner Guy Butcher and partner Eunice Kratky stood on the shoulders of those who had gone before them.
John Coleman’s 1962 book Coleman’s Drive, in which the English schoolteacher drove a baby Austin from Buenos Aires to New York, served as inspiration.
Coleman himself roughly followed the route of Aimé Tschiffely, who had completed the journey on horseback from 1925-’28.
But while a Seven is faster and more comfortable than riding a horse (just), Guy and Eunice had planned a route far longer than either Coleman’s or Tschiffely’s.
The idea was to land at Baltimore in the USA and draw a reverse ‘7’ across the New World in celebration of the Austin’s 90th anniversary in 2012, taking the little car first to Alaska before beginning the long journey down to the Ruta del Fin del Mundo at the southern tip of Argentina: 25,000 miles, in a car that usually needs an engine rebuild every 20,000 or so.
The Seven chosen was a 1936 car, originally built as a tourer but recreated as a short-chassis 1928 Austin Chummy following an accident in the 1970s.
Guy rebuilt the car himself, fitting a trials-spec engine and a rear axle modified with a lower, 5.125:1 ratio to help attack hills.
The trip would be a fundraising journey, so the Seven was liveried with information about the campaign, named BESPK – Bringing Extra to SPecial Kids.
Save the Children and the Dame Hannah Rogers Trust would be the beneficiaries of the adventure.
The Austin arrived in Baltimore, Maryland, on 24 July, and a swift dash inland started straight away.
Miles were quickly racked up on what would be the easiest roads of the trip, passing Gettysburg before a stop at Butler, near Pittsburgh.
American Austin, as well as successor companies Austin Bantam and Bantam, were all based in Butler, one of many overseas outposts for Austin Seven production.
A prototype Austin V8 engine remains in the town, along with the factory building, which is now a listed historical site.
Driving towards Ohio, the Austin took the Lincoln Highway, one of the world’s first national roads, opened in 1913 and connecting the USA from east to west.
At just over a metre wide, the little Austin was dwarfed on its first venture on to an American freeway, and it was decided that such busy blacktop would only be used when there was no alternative.
The back-roads were taken to Auburn, Indiana, the home of Duesenberg, but there wasn’t time to stop for long: it was late July, and the Seven needed to make it to Alaska as soon as possible.
Chicago and the rest of Illinois were passed through quickly, and the Seven drove its 1000th mile in the Americas pulling into Dubuque, Iowa, on the western bank of the Mississippi.
The opportunity for a quick service was taken and the batteries were swapped out, the duo having been advised to replace them every month – and indeed one of the two units on board had died.
Diversions forced the Austin on to the freeway once more in Minnesota, where six-axle trucks thundered past, shaking the entire frame of the car.
As the scenery opened up into the vast cornfields of North Dakota, the flat, straight roads were kinder to the Seven, if boring, with one stretch devoid of a single turn or junction for 30 miles.
Just before the Canadian border the Austin was pulled over by a cop, but the reason for the stop seemed to be the Seven’s slow speed: an average of just 38mph.
A visit to a weighbridge a few days later revealed the fully laden weight to be 880kg (1940lb), which was proving a lot for the 25bhp engine to pull – a standard, empty Chummy weighs around 360kg (800lb).
The 2000-mile mark was crossed just as the team reached Canada at Estevan in Saskatchewan, and the car had its first of many oil changes.
The cornfields continued north of the border.
Flat roads helped to keep up the pace as the Austin made it into Alberta for another couple of days’ rest in Edmonton, where the first of the oil drops for the trip was waiting.
It’s there that Guy was made aware that his plans to drive to Ketchikan in Alaska wouldn’t work: the town was accessible only by boat.
Instead, it was decided to drive to Skagway, 500 miles further north along the Inside Passage.
It was more than 350 miles to Dawson Creek on the other side of the British Columbia border, then another 380 to the next territory, the Yukon.
The Nisutlin Bay Bridge provided a scenic location for the car’s first breakdown, with broken spokes obvious on one of the rear wheels, which was exchanged for the spare.
Once the Seven reached Whitehorse, the Yukon capital, the broken wheel was repaired with the help of the Yukon Motorcycle Centre, using all six of the spare spokes on board.
The climb over the mountains to cross the White Pass into Alaska proved challenging.
Force 8 winds pounded the lonely Austin, and 100 miles in it felt as if its engine was about to seize.
The passenger-side rear wheel was loose and the brake drum was hot, but no problems were found with the axle once it was jacked up.
The rest of the Klondike Highway was downhill to Skagway, allowing the car to freewheel much of the way.
From there, a ferry took the Seven through the Inner Passage down to Bellingham in Washington – a four-day journey, arriving back in the ‘lower 48’ on 31 August.
The axle issue turned out to be a crumbling wheel bearing, so a replacement was ordered from the UK, in turn forcing 12 days’ rest in Bellingham, the first major town south of the US border.
Once the bearing finally arrived, and with plenty of time for another service, the Austin got to Seattle and then out to the Pacific coast and Oregon without issue.
The route cut through huge redwood forests and hugged the scenic coastline with its many beaches and dunes.
The parts and consumables for one of the Austin’s next major services, meanwhile, had already arrived in Tulare, a few hours north of LA.
With help from friends, the oil was changed, the tyres replaced, the new wheel bearing reworked and the car was even washed.
The Seven’s odometer ticked back to 0000… it only counts up to 9999 – evidence, if any more were needed, that the Seven was not intended for cross-continental journeys.
The duo’s itinerary included the famous Los Angeles canyon roads, which revealed an odd sensation from the new tyres so the Austin was taken to Long Beach classic specialist Nate Jones Tire, where they were refitted, this time with talcum powder to lubricate the tubes.
Jay Leno’s garage was the next stop, where Guy and Eunice were shown around the collection by Jay’s workshop manager, Bernard, before a surprise visit from the man himself.
From LA it’s not far to Mexico, and the Seven took a leisurely pace through Baja before crossing the Gulf of California by ferry to Mazatlán.
Tequila, Guadalajara and Morelia followed in the hilly regions of central Mexico.
Some areas were so steep, and local trucks so overloaded, that the Austin finally wasn’t the slowest thing on the road.
Eunice and Guy got lost many times, but found no end of help from locals intrigued by their strange little car.
The dash across central Mexico eventually paused at Oaxaca, where the Austin had 20 days’ rest and its occupants brushed up on their Spanish skills for Central and South America.
Crossing into Guatemala, it quickly became apparent that, while the roads were relatively easy for the Seven, the border crossings were going to be the real challenge.
At El Salvador, Eunice and Guy discovered that right-hand-drive cars were illegal, and they had to drive the length of the country in 24 hours or face a $1200 fine.
A misprogrammed alarm clock and a couple of wrong turns led to the Austin reaching the Honduran border 22 mins late, where local fixers and a bit of ‘quantitative easing’ got the car through without a penalty.
Each further border had opportunistic locals waiting ahead to offer their services helping travellers pass through.
Some were helpful, others were agents of bribery, looking to take a cut.
Panama proved the most simple crossing, just a few hours waiting and achieved without a local helper.
The steepest drives yet greeted the Austin in Panama, where sections had to be taken in first gear on a climb from sea level to 2100m (6867ft).
The descent on the other side soon cooked the Seven’s brakes, forcing first gear to be deployed for engine-braking.
Once across the mountains, the wealthy panorama of skyscrapers that is Panama City proved a different world, where traffic swarmed around as locals tried to take photos of the car – all while Guy struggled to keep the Austin in a straight line as potholes threw it off course.
From Panama City the Seven caught a ferry over a relatively short expanse of the Pacific to Ecuador.
Once there, it wasn’t long before the steep climbs of the Andes proved too much, and at 3800m (12,500ft) the Austin boiled over.
It finally restarted and crawled to the summit of the mountain range, 500m away, with Eunice walking alongside and only Guy on board.
But once gravity had propelled the car back to a more sensible altitude, it ran well again.
On the other side of the mountains, in Peru, the Seven developed a starting problem: the distributor’s cam had significant play and the points were burnt-out.
The latter were replaced but, because the Austin was otherwise still running okay, Guy didn’t risk replacing the distributor, despite having a spare.
The increasingly desert-like surroundings were hard on the car: wheel spokes continued to break, and Guy noted that the Seven was feeling ever more worn.
Nearly 14,000 miles in, crossing the Rio Grande in Peru, there was a loud ‘ping’ from the engine.
The distributor had bitten the dust and was replaced at the side of the road.
Once it restarted, there was another, new noise: the alternator idler pulley had shattered, requiring more roadside work before the Austin could tackle the Nazca plain.
Once again, the supply of spare wheel spokes was exhausted and the next batch, due in Arequipa, hadn’t yet arrived.
In the end, it took more than two weeks for a new set to materialise before they could set off for Chile – where the Seven had yet another breakdown.
Guy suspected big-end failure, but friendly local mechanic Mauricio came by, promising a tow truck and a lift to Los Andes, 120 miles away.
That proved to be a slight mistranslation, however, because Mauricio soon returned with a pick-up.
But beggars can’t be choosers, so the Austin was strapped to the back and driven to Los Andes, where Guy had a friend waiting.
Assuming that a full engine rebuild was on the cards, the duo was close to giving up.
But orthodontist Guy discovered, rather ironically, that the problem was missing teeth on the timing gears.
Seven timing gears are hardly lying around in Chile, but an Austin enthusiast in Valparaíso had a set in a spare engine.
From Chile, the adventurers crossed into Argentina and headed south along its central valley, with the landscape turning less like the deserts of Peru and Chile and more similar to that seen in Alaska.
Large lumber trucks shook the Austin to its core, reinforcing the sensation of having come full circle.
The Argentinian towns had a Wild West feel, which proved a bit too accurate in Sarmiento, where the car’s radiator cap was stolen overnight. Fortunately Guy had a replacement on board.
One last breakdown – a failed condenser in the distributor – struck just before reaching Argentina’s Atlantic coast, but it was simple enough to repair once diagnosed, and the Seven finally made it to Punta Arenas, one of the southernmost cities in South America.
A detour to the island of Tierra del Fuego was cancelled due to Eunice picking up a cold, but Punta Arenas was always the intended finish point: 25,000 miles done. In an Austin Seven.
Throughout the trip Eunice and Guy gathered donations, finding remarkable generosity even in areas where people had little to spare.
The total of £15,000 was split between Save the Children and the Dame Hannah Rogers Trust, and a further £25,000 was raised in December 2022 with the raffle of the intrepid Austin, Eunice and Guy having decided their journey with the car was finally over.
Images: Guy Butcher and Eunice Kratky
Thanks to: Guy Butcher and Eunice Kratky. This story was adapted from their book, Austin 7 Around the Americas; find it here
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