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It’s always intriguing to peek into the private garages of respected marque specialists, to find out what makes them tick away from the day job.
Never more so than with Paul Wood, twin brother of Andrew and partner in the internationally renowned Rolls-Royce and Bentley business P&A Wood based near Dunmow, Essex.
Regularly in the car park, dwarfed by Ghosts and Phantoms, is one of Paul’s Austin Sevens, which he alternates for the five-mile morning commute.
On our recent visit, Wood’s choice for the early run was his treasured Ruby, one of 11 Sevens stored in his barn at home.
“It’s the perfect drive because I use mostly single-track roads with passing places, which really suit the Seven,” enthuses Wood.
“It always cheers me up. Some enthusiasts look down on Sevens, but they are the roots of our company and both Andrew and I have great affection for them.
“As well as driving them to work, we go out at weekends with family and friends. I always look forward to the National Austin 7 Rally at Beaulieu, which is in its 59th year. We take three cars and drive the 150 miles to the New Forest. It’s become a tradition and The Pre-War Austin Seven Club is a great group of lovely people.”
The connection with the marque started in the late 1950s when the Wood twins used to clean their dad’s Austin Eight for pocket money.
“We lived on a council estate in Wood Green,” recalls Paul, “and before we could drive we’d go around looking for cheap cars – particularly Sevens, which were common then.
“We found a running Ruby for £15, which was way beyond our resources. Dad refused to lend us the money, but we had the idea of clearing a huge tree that had blown down in Epping Forest.
“We managed to cut it up with just handsaws, which took ages, and Dad helped us transport the wood back home in his Ford 100E. Once it was loaded up the front wheels lifted off the ground!
“We then went around local households selling the wood, and raised enough to buy the Seven. Dad wouldn’t let us store it at home so we kept it in a Nissen hut in the next field.
“With mates aboard we used to tear around the field, slowly wrecking it. That all changed when an uncle agreed to repaint it for us, but only if we rubbed it down. The transformation was fantastic and that totally changed our outlook.”
When the Woods’ parents split up the twins were separated, with Andrew heading up to Nottingham with their mother and Paul staying with their father in London.
“Andy used to come down and help with the Ruby,” remembers Paul. “The engine had started to smoke badly but I’d heard of a good one for sale in a local scrapyard in Chingford.
“We did a deal and together tried to carry it home. After a while it was a real struggle, but a friendly chap stopped and offered to give us a lift. People were more helpful in those days.
“After dabbling with a James motorbike and a Bond Minicar, we soon discovered we could make a bit of money from buying and selling Sevens.
“Few owners bothered to tidy them and, inspired by our uncle, we soon got good at it.”
On one occasion in Leytonstone, Andrew spotted a Ruby that had crashed head-on into a lamp-post.
“The impact had directly crushed the radiator,” says Paul. “There was water leaking everywhere and the owner just wanted to send it to the scrapyard. We did a deal for £2 and fixed it up
“With our chum Martin Williams we decided to drive it to Scotland for a week’s holiday, but three-up with all our camping gear on the roof it was very slow. I remember getting to Epping Forest and thinking, ‘We’re mad!’
“Sevens seem slow at first, but once you get into the groove they’re great. We plugged on up the A1 at 45mph, but coming back we were confidently doing 50mph. The registration, LMO 511, is the only one I instantly remember and I’d love to know if it’s still around.”
Those early experiences with Sevens have always been fondly remembered by the brothers: “When we were kids our dream cars were the Silver Ghost AX 201, the Bentley Continental ‘Olga’ and the Napier-Railton. We never imagined we’d one day get to work on all of them, but it all began with Sevens and I love them.”
The car that started the unplanned Seven collection was a 1925 Chummy that Wood bought back in 1990.
“I’ve always loved original cars and had looked at more than 20 before I saw this,” he explains. “When new it had been gifted to a girl on the Isle of Wight as a 21st-birthday present, and there it had stayed until the 1950s.
“The paint, hood and Rexine trim are all original, and cosmetically all I’ve done is to retouch the wings. I found it with an old boy, the second owner, near Newmarket, and he was very honest about what was wrong with it, which for me is always a good sign.
“I love working on Sevens: nothing is complicated and it’s very rewarding. I went right through the Chummy mechanically, rebuilding the engine, spring shackles and propshaft.
“Now it drives like a dream. We’ve driven it to Beaulieu many times, and if I could only have one Seven this would be it.”
The second Austin to join the collection was a Ruby.
“I wanted it to be just like our first car. Again I loved the challenge of tracking down the right one. After looking at loads, I found this tatty but very original Ruby down in Yeovil. It still had the factory running boards and interior trim.
“It always starts and we’ve never had to push it. I did my courting in our first Ruby, and when I went to pick up Valerie, her sisters always took the mickey saying we’d break down.
“Eventually they agreed to a lift to Chelsea, and after 100 yards, the Ruby cut out with a distributor problem.
“Fortunately I always carried a kit of spares with coil, condenser, plugs and points. We were soon back on the road and made it to Chelsea.”
Wood has driven Rolls-Royces all over the world, from the desert roads of Jordan to soaring Alpine passes, but Scotland remains a favourite destination.
To mark his 70th birthday, he had ambitions to sail his much-missed, Rosneath-built 1934 50ft James Silver motor yacht around the UK, but that proved impractical.
Eventually he hit upon the idea of driving his Ruby around the coastline using historic routes. Wife Valerie happily agreed to join him and enthusiastically planned the route.
“We did 3100 miles without a problem,” recalls Wood, “where possible on single-track roads. Then on the way back from John O’Groats I got a call from Rolls-Royce requesting that I go to LA for the launch of the new Dawn.
“When I told them what I was doing, they thought I was mad. We left the Ruby at Glasgow Airport long-term car park, where it looked so tiny among the moderns.”
When he returned from California, they carried on the journey: “We cut out Wales and headed to Land’s End, then back via Dover and Harwich to home.
“It was a beautiful experience in the Seven and everywhere we went people loved it, letting us out and waving. The reaction in a new Rolls would have been very different.”
Wood’s intention had never been to build a collection of Sevens, but the number just grew as he discovered cars he couldn’t resist.
Just such a model was the cute 1925 Doctor’s Coupé: “I first saw it at the Louis Vuitton Concours at Bagatelle, Paris, and immediately fell for it. The original was made for Herbert Austin’s daughter, Irene Waite, but has long since vanished.
“This replica was built from a few pictures by the very talented John Heath. His craftsmanship is superb. I made the disc wheeltrims and fitted a cockerel mascot. It’s very comfortable, and it’s a shame Austin didn’t build more of them.”
Also in the collection is a second Seven built by Heath: “I’d always wanted a van, and again had looked at several but this was special. I love the shape and the detailing.
“The woodwork is lovely and the door fit is superb, which is rare on a recreation. Heath really went to town in the back and fitted it out with imitation pies, crab, fish and eggs, but the rabbit and pheasants are stuffed.
“When Donaldsons of King’s Lynn heard about the van, they were mad keen for me to visit for a photocall.
“It’s an early model, based on a 1923 chassis with the two-bearing engine and small brakes. With beaded-edge tyres the steering is a delight and there’s no grip, but I’m used to that driving Edwardian Silver Ghosts.”
Another novelty in Wood’s Seven collection is a lawnmower based on a shortened 1925 chassis.
“It was converted by Ransomes, Sims & Jefferies, the famous Ipswich manufacturer of agricultural machinery including steam-powered mowers. We think it was the only one made and I’d love to know its history.
“It has solid tyres at the back with friction-drive for the blades – the engine runs well but it’s a hopeless mower.
“The front spring shackles were reversed to make it lower and I love its character. I discovered it was being sold at Anglia Car Auctions and sent my wife to buy it with a strict reserve. The bidding passed my limit but she secretly bought it as a gift.”
Providing an extreme contrast to the sluggish lawnmower is a very racy special, christened ‘Scorcher’, which belongs to Wood’s daughter Georgina and son-in-law Ben.
“The body was created by Mike Harris in St Albans and I totally fell for the build quality.I remade the dash with new gauges as a surprise Christmas present for Ben.
“Next year we plan to fit a supercharger, but sitting out front just like a ‘Blower’ Bentley. It’s quick and Ben is keen to compete with it.”
The Seven bug has clearly rubbed off on his daughter, who also owns a 1928 Box saloon that she takes on local rallies.
Early indoctrination to ‘crash’ gearboxes driving the family Austins led to Georgina, now MD of the family business, being one of the few trusted to drive such legends as AX 201 and the Napier-Railton.
The collection displays the evolution of the sports models, with choice examples of the ‘55’, ‘65’ (also known as the Nippy), Gordon England and Speedy.
“As a kid I always wanted a Speedy, with its claimed 75mph maximum, but they were too expensive. The spec included a 23bhp engine with pressure-fed crank, close-ratio gears and a pointed tail.
“No match for MG, they failed to sell and fewer than 300 were made. I bought mine in Huddersfield and drove it back. I’ve always loved the challenge of sorting problems on the go.”
To complete the sporty set, Wood’s latest project is an Ulster: “Again I struggled to find an original so bought this replica five years ago.
“I love the one in the Brooklands Museum, which this is modelled on. I’m a perfectionist about bodywork so the fit, particularly the bonnet, has to be right. It came with cycle wings but I’ve found an original set of full wings, which look much better.”
He continues: “I enjoy the challenge of tracking down original bits and love autojumbles, particularly Beaulieu.
“Being dyslexic, computers give me headaches so I’ve never bothered with eBay. I work on the Sevens at home but take parts into work for painting – this will be Rolls-Royce Continental Grey.
“The target was to get it ready for spring, but COVID-19 disrupted that. It’ll definitely be finished for the centenary next year.
“I was recently invited to McLaren and it tickled me that the first car I saw in the classic collection was Bruce’s orange Ulster. So much, including Lotus, started with the Seven.”
The little Austin also has key connections with William Lyons and Jaguar, so Wood had to have a Swallow.
“It’s a new acquisition from a doctor in Epping. He found it in a dilapidated state and did all the work himself, including making a new ash body frame.
“They are much heavier than the standard cars and quite stodgy to drive but I love the style, particularly the scuttle vents and the famous mascot.”
As well as the Austins, Wood owns a Peugeot Quadrilette, the Edwardian light car that inspired the Seven’s designers: “It has similar features including a four-cylinder water-cooled engine, A-frame chassis with transverse-leaf front suspension and quarter-elliptics at the rear, but it doesn’t drive as well. It’s windy and noisy, and with tandem seating I can’t hear a word my wife is saying when she’s in the back.”
Top of Wood’s Seven dream list would be one of the works twin-cam single-seaters.
“Just three were built and two survive; they were beautifully engineered and highly prized. I’d be happy with one of the supercharged sidevalve racers, but only one remains so a good replica would do.”
Also on the wanted list is a Seven tractor. A few were made by the factory for market gardeners, featuring solid wheels with two three-speed gearboxes in series.
Various specialists also built them including Pattison and later Brockhouse for a military contract: “They have turned up at steam fairs but they are scarce. It would make a fun pair with the lawnmower.”
Images: Max Edleston
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