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Today, the world of working from home has polarised views on productivity more than any other topic in most employees’ minds.
But in the automotive world – especially in design and engineering – there really is no substitute for face-to-face collaboration.
So it’s easy to imagine how key that interaction would have needed to be more than 100 years ago, when even a telephone was a rarity.
Despite this, one of the most important and influential cars of the 20th century was brought to market, from conception to finished product, by one junior engineer and a far-sighted industrialist, both working from the latter’s home.
That car was the Austin Seven.
Proving that necessity is the mother of invention, the Seven was born out of economic strife and a government hell-bent on using the motorist as a cash-cow.
Following an all too brief period of growth in the aftermath of the Great War, British car production had plummeted by 50% in 1920, not helped by the Treasury switching from a graduated system of vehicle tax to an excise duty of £1 for every RAC-rated horsepower that a new car produced.
Austin, like many other companies at the time, catered for the relatively affluent middle-class motorist.
Its sole post-war offering had been the 20hp model, and for it to attract a £20 levy in such straitened times was a hammer-blow to Austin’s sales.
By 1921, the business was in receivership.
Company chief Sir Herbert Austin was an industry stalwart who had founded Austin Motors in 1905. He was also a visionary, and realised that a radical reinvention of his firm and its products was vital if it was to survive.
That meant not just downsizing the Austin range, but double-downsizing it.
However, lesser minds on Austin’s board were not convinced and, constrained further by his company’s administrators, Austin took matters into his own hands.
Poaching a promising 18-year-old draughtsman called Stanley Edge from the Longbridge factory in Birmingham, the two men set up shop in Austin’s Lickey Grange residence, with the objective of creating a car that would save the company.
The design that emerged from Sir Herbert’s billiard room eight months later was testament to the focus of two talented men unburdened by the weight of company politics and bureaucracy.
While Edge had largely been responsible for the powertrain, Austin had managed the overall design of the car.
Called the Seven because its prototype 696cc four-cylinder engine generated 7.2 RAC-rated horsepower, the model was cleverly designed to accommodate four occupants within its minuscule 9ft 2in by 3ft 10in dimensions, while offering drivers technology unheard of in the class.
Edge’s tiny engine, with its 55 x 77mm cylinder bores, had a cast-iron cylinder block with a detachable iron head and aluminium crankcase, in which a camshaft operated eight side-mounted valves.
Its crankshaft used one roller bearing each at the front and rear, with the big ends splash-lubricated.
In short, it was simple, easy to maintain and, as it turned out, immensely durable throughout the car’s life.
During its 17-year career, the Seven’s basic design evolved, but remained fundamentally unchanged.
It used a rudimentary A-frame steel chassis with channel-section side members and minor cross-bracing.
The front suspension was via a transverse leaf spring, with the rear using cantilever-splayed quarter-elliptic springs.
And while there were no dampers initially (a single, central front shock absorber was introduced in mid-’24), Seven owners were to experience the joys of four-wheel brakes a year before premium marques such as Vauxhall and Bentley introduced this technology to their own models.
The Seven was never intended to be any kind of performance car, but even with a real-world 10.5bhp – the RAC figure being calculated differently – the Seven’s ultra-low kerbweight of just 840lb (381kg) compensated to some degree for its lack of power.
However, while the Seven was technically a four-seater, early cars retained fixed front seats, Austin’s theory being that it would preclude adults from accessing the rear, while parents would simply lift their offspring over the seatbacks.
Performance, or the lack of it, was a minor consideration compared with the Seven’s affordability.
When it was unveiled to the public in July 1922, the Seven was priced at just £165.
Given that the average British worker was earning around £5 per week, the only car that had been attainable up to that point had been Ford’s primitive and underdeveloped Model T.
All of a sudden, people of modest means could set their sights beyond the village or town in which they lived.
It didn’t simply satisfy recreational wanderlust, either. Tradespeople could ply their wares further afield, levelling an economic gulf between the haves and have-nots that had previously been exacerbated by a lack of mobility.
The Seven was family transport, too, so for the first time parents and children could broaden their horizons, exploring Britain’s highways and byways.
Sir Herbert had facilitated automotive escapism, and it was available to almost everyone.
Seven production started in 1923, by then equipped as standard with a slightly larger 747cc engine.
The model was an immediate hit, with 100,000 cars being sold by the end of the decade.
But that only tells part of the story.
The little Austin was also a catalyst for change in the industry, which led to other so-called mainstream manufacturers, such as Vauxhall and Sunbeam, starting to downsize, winning sales from buyers with smaller budgets.
It was a successful formula: when the first Seven rolled off the line at Longbridge there were 383,000 cars on UK roads.
By 1930, that had grown to a million – a quarter of them Austins.
Remarkably, the Seven’s popularity dimmed very little during its 17-year life, and that can be attributed to a combination of steady development, multiple derivatives and maintaining its low price-point.
Initially only available as a two-door Chummy tourer, the Seven range soon spawned a variety of saloons, cabriolets, two-seater sports cars and even vans.
In the mid-’30s, in the wake of a global depression, a more basic Seven was available for an eye-catching £100, though typically the Austin was sold for around £130.
And by that time the model had evolved considerably.
As well as the existing chassis being stiffened and lengthened, an electric starter motor was introduced in 1924, saving owners the inconvenience of waking the engine with a handle.
Coil ignition was made standard in ’27, and in ’30 there was a stronger crankshaft, followed in July ’32 by a four-speed ’box replacing the three-speed.
Synchromesh came soon after, as did the introduction in 1937 of a three-bearing crank. Power rose steadily, too.
By 1933, the Seven was making a dazzling 12bhp at 2600rpm, upped to 13.5bhp the year after, with final-series cars reaching the giddy heights of 17bhp at a heady 3800rpm.
That the British motoring press warmed to the Seven probably had as much to do with it boosting circulation figures, thanks to increased car ownership, as it did the cleverness of the car itself.
The world’s oldest automotive title, The Autocar, made the Seven the subject of its first road test in 1928.
Its testers clearly approved of the England Sunshine Saloon they reviewed, too, saying: ‘The more experience one gains with the Austin Seven, the more certainly it seems that this car is, in its way, a miracle because it can do so much and do it well, though it costs so little.’
So it’s no surprise that the diminutive Seven rapidly became an institution, and not just with Joe Public: it was a tuner’s dream, too.
The motor was so tuneable that Austin’s son-in-law, Arthur Waite, raced special-bodied Sevens with great success, prompting Sir Herbert to sanction a small series of single-seater racing cars equipped with supercharged 747cc units.
Even after production ended in 1939, some legendary drivers and engineers were cutting their teeth on the Seven.
Colin Chapman’s first Lotus – the ‘Mk1’ – was a modified Austin, with boxed-in chassis rails and a cigar-shaped body, which he campaigned successfully in 750 Motor Club events.
Bruce McLaren, Grand Prix racer and founder of the McLaren F1 team, entered his first competition in 1952, in a Seven Ulster restored by his father.
And Arthur Mallock, father of the eponymous Mallock U2 racers that still dominate club events today, developed all the chassis systems he was renowned for around his ‘Bombsk’ special, based on a short-chassis Austin Seven.
But today we’re not driving anything so glamorous.
The British Motor Museum in Gaydon has a fine and diverse collection of Sevens, and has been kind enough to let us sample two versions that bookend the model’s long production run: a 1923 Chummy tourer, and a very late 1938 Ruby saloon.
Contrasts don’t come much greater.
First up is the Chummy, which in 1923 would have been the only version available and is closest to Austin and Edge’s original design.
With carburettor primed (only necessary because the engine is cold), magneto switched to ‘on’ and the hub-mounted ignition lever on the four-spoke steering wheel in its fully retarded position (to avoid injury when the engine fires), you engage a little handle with the crank via a hole below the radiator and it fires on the first rotation.
Back in the cabin, and my 5ft 7in frame fits perfectly into the small driver’s bucket seat.
In front of me is… well, not much. One dial for amperes and some light switches.
The Seven was the first mainstream car to have its pedals arranged in the way we’re familiar with today, as opposed to using the central throttle favoured by most contemporaries.
Using the accelerator is more like pressing a button, and the clutch has an equally short travel – it’s very abrupt, too.
But this century-old car feels remarkably sprightly. Not fast, by any means, but nippy, biddable and eager to please.
The three-speed gearshift has a well-oiled feel to it, and works in a reverse H-pattern, with first to the right and back, and second across to the left and forward (reverse is opposite first, with a tab to prevent accidental selection).
This early car responds well to a polite double-declutch, but you need to use generous revs in second to cater for the wide gap to top. Then it’s plain sailing.
Steering is very direct and light as soon as you’re up to speed, but the car’s lack of dampers means that, even at 35-40mph, it’s easy to be deflected from your course on anything other than smooth road surfaces.
The little engine is torquey rather than revvy, and chunters along quite happily at moderate speeds, which, given the braking performance, is all you would want to consider: there may be four of them, but slowing this tiny car is a leisurely pursuit.
In comparison, the Ruby feels positively luxurious.
Four dials face you in a neat black binnacle, with a starter key and ignition advance now managed by a conventional distributor.
Pull away and everything is more convenient: the four-speed ’box uses a modern shift pattern, working from left to right, and the clutch has a longer, more progressive action.
The Ruby is far more refined, too, losing the first-gear whine of the Chummy, and by the time we’re motoring along at 40mph (50mph would be about its lot) the whole car feels very civilised.
But as fun as the Chummy? Strangely, no.
The steering is vague, and the car wanders over the slightest of road cambers, meaning plenty of concentration is required.
In fairness, this could be down to a lack of use (this was its first outing for some time) but, even so, it’s the Chummy that steals your heart.
Sir Herbert Austin took a personal commission of two guineas (£2 10s) for every Seven sold, which, given that nearly 300,000 of them were built, is quite some return.
But he also democratised motoring for the masses by licencing the Seven around the world, and for that the price was pitifully small.
Images: Stuart Collins
Thanks to: Stephen Laing at the British Motor Museum; Nick Turley at the Austin Seven Clubs’ Association
Simplicity with innovation
On any Austin Seven, you will find a plate in the cabin listing up to 23 patents held by the model, but three stand out.
While the Seven was the first truly mainstream car to employ four-wheel braking, the system had been conceived before.
However, Austin’s unique take meant that the Seven’s rear axle was braked in the normal way by the foot pedal, but the front brakes were activated by the hand lever, or parking brake, simplifying what would otherwise have been a very complicated system.
The idea of patenting ‘detachable wheels’ appeared laughable, but three drum-mounted pegs meant that removing the Seven’s wheelnuts was unnecessary: you just loosened them, rotated the wheel to the left slightly and lifted it off, with the nuts passing through oversized holes.
But it was the Seven’s ingenious chassis design that set it apart and above many more expensive cars.
The steel frame was A-shaped, with the apex of the ‘A’ forming a mounting for the front transverse leaf spring, connected by radius arms and balljoints on either side.
It was light, stiff, and simpler and cheaper to produce than a more common H-frame chassis, while offering drivers a level of agility previously unheard of in such a low-priced car.
Sevens by another name
Enterprising as ever, Sir Herbert Austin never missed a trick when it came to maximising the profit potential of the Seven.
In 1923, he granted a licence to Automobiles L Rosengart in France to build the Seven.
Known as the Rosengart LR2 and on sale from 1928, it was well promoted (one car covered 100,000km in a three-and-a-half-month road trip to prove its durability) and sold in various forms until 1939.
Sevens even emerged in the USA, when a licence to assemble the car – known there as the Bantam – was granted in 1929.
Unfortunately, sales dropped severely in the wake of the Great Depression and the American Austin Car Company filed for bankruptcy in 1934.
No licences were granted in Australia, but coachbuilders imported rolling chassis to produce their own derivatives, of which Holden’s mid-’20s tourers and roadsters were the most prolific.
And there’s still debate about whether a licence was ever granted to Datsun for its 1932 Type 11, which bore an uncanny resemblance.
But perhaps the best-known licenced Seven is the Dixi. In 1926, Fahrzeugfabrik Eisenach (Dixi-Werke) signed up to build the Austin in Germany, and the first Dixi DA1 was produced in 1927.
The following year, the business was purchased by BMW and the Dixi continued to be built and developed until 1932, with 25,300 units produced.
The 1931 Dixi pictured above was gifted by BMW to the British Motor Industry Heritage Trust in ’94 to celebrate its then-new partnership with Rover.
Continuing a century on the track
I doubt another car in history has influenced motorsport as much as the Seven. Yet the little Austin was never designed to be a racing car, nor even a sports car.
When it made its debut 100 years ago, it was billed as a small and affordable family car for the masses.
The Seven was raced comprehensively and successfully during the ’20s, setting records at Brooklands to keep the car in the news, and Twin Cam single-seaters were winning races until production finished in 1939.
But it was in the late 1940s that the Seven really took on a racing life. A 750 Formula was created in 1949, with Sevens as the key donors, and it is now the longest continually running race series in the world.
Specials were fast and fun when near standard, but when highly modified they became the primary way to win in the burgeoning club-racing scene.
Those who competed comprise a Who’s Who of motorsport: as well as Arthur Mallock, Bruce McLaren and Colin Chapman, Mike Costin, Eric Broadley and John Cooper all raced Sevens.
Even Gordon Murray’s first race car was made to the 750 Formula.
As part of the Seven’s centenary celebrations, the 750 Motor Club invited me to Snetterton in July to race two cars in the Historic 750 Formula Series, which is primarily for Austin-based machines.
The first is a Speedex, built by the firm founded by Jem Marsh, raced by Linda Price in the non-supercharged class.
It’s a pretty conventional Special, with a 747cc engine and the four-speed ’box that was standard on post-1932 cars.
As I squeeze in, the car immediately feels kart-like: compact, upright, knees bent, snug.
Before the event, I’d been telling myself that this is an 88-year-old car so I must be ginger with it. But you wouldn’t know that the engine is so small or so old, because it pulls cleanly and linearly to the far side of 6000rpm.
The steering is direct, quick and takes on lots of weight very rapidly. Even on skinny old tyres, there’s more grip than power.
These are privately owned cars with open wheels, driven by club drivers in the friendliest paddock I’ve visited, so the racing is extremely respectful.
Then there’s the blue car. John Miles was a Formula One driver, Lotus test/development driver and engineer and, for a time, an Autocar writer, and this was the fourth Seven he owned after his retirement.
Having set out to make the fastest Austin he could, he offset the drivetrain to create space to sit low between it and a chassis rail, rather than on the chassis, and semi-stressed the gorgeous aluminium body to increase rigidity.
He found the car a home in the 750 championship, and it competes in the supercharged category today.
Its current owner, automotive engineer Tim Roebuck, tells me that it has 80bhp, will rev to nearly 7000rpm and weighs just 325kg.
It’s a joy, with an engine that gets going early and keeps pulling. The steering is light and accurate, and the car is fast: at Snetterton it will average more than 65mph in Roebuck’s hands.
This race is a handicap, where we set off at predetermined intervals with the intent that we all finish at the same time.
Not that the result is the takeaway, anyway. This is a celebratory series, not a cut-throat championship. As one participant explains to his friends: you do a bit of racing, sit and drink tea and eat cake together, then race again.
In what is one of my favourite books, Building and Racing my ‘750’, author PJ Stephens shares stories from the paddock of when competitors helped each other make it to the grid.
A century after the Seven’s introduction, this club and the mighty, tiny Austin are still pulling people into the sport.
Words: Matt Prior
Images: Richard Styles
Austin Seven (1923 Chummy)
- Sold/number built 1922-’39/290,924
- Construction steel A-frame chassis, separate steel body
- Engine iron block and head, aluminium crankcase 747cc ‘four’, Zenith carburettor
- Max power 10.5bhp @ 2400rpm
- Max torque n/a
- Transmission three-speed manual, RWD
- Suspension: front forged axle, leading arms, transverse leaf spring rear torque tube, live axle, quarter-elliptic leaf springs
- Steering worm and roller
- Brakes cable drums
- Length 9ft 2in (2794mm)
- Width 3ft 10in (1168mm)
- Height 4ft 10in (1475mm)
- Wheelbase 6ft 3in (1905mm)
- Weight 840lb (381kg)
- 0-60mph n/a
- Top speed 50mph
- Mpg 42
- Price new £165 (1923)
- Price now £8-20,000*
*Prices correct at date of original publication
Dressed to deceive: Rosengart SuperSept
The race to 100mph: MG C-type Montlhéry Midget vs Austin Seven Ulster TT