One Man’s Seventh Heaven
Over a quarter of a million motorists would have had to face 1920’s public transport if Austin’s little world-beater hadn’t arrived.
Herbert Austin could not have anticipated the transformation his creation would bring to the world of transportation but even from the earliest sketches he could well have realised he was on to a winner. From its 1922 Motor-show introduction the Austin Seven would go on for 16 years with production across the globe, whilst restricting Henry Ford’s world dominance and signalling the end of the cycle-car era. The Seven put Britain at the forefront of small, affordable and reliable transport whilst production in America and Australia added to the numbers. BMW produced their first motor car in 1928 called the Dixi; this was a Seven produced under licence, as did Rosengart in France whilst Nissan copied the Seven in Japan. The same year saw a dozen specialist coachbuilders purchasing the Longbridge made chassis, creating more bespoke motor cars, one of which was Mulliners Ltd of Birmingham. The Mulliner name has been associated with coachbuilding from the 1800s, alongside supplying the military with heavy ordinance through several decades. From their factory in Bordesley Green Road they would produce various versions of fabric bodied ‘Sevens’, a fashion that was very much in vogue during the era. Records show 2868 fabric saloons left Mulliners in 1928 and 2549 the following year. As the fashion became less popular and the Great Depression began to influence the market, 1269 were built in 1930 and the following year production ceased after just 424 left the plant. At £150 the Mulliner Saloon was at the more affordable end of
coach built Austin’s but with limited survivors their values are significantly higher in today’s classic car marketplace.
Classic Monogamy a Single 7
‘I was not really interested in classic cars, my passion was stationary engines and I had never thought of restoring such a thing until I visited a local show’ Fred Carter told me. He and a friend Wally Dew were admiring the machines on display and the Austin Seven selection had an immediate impact. ‘I told Wally I fancied restoring a Seven, I didn’t know much about them but that was my plan’. So in 1979 an opportunity arose, when tucked away at the rear of a
dealer’s showroom in Chichester, one tired looking Seven changed hands for £500. Fred remembers the car arriving on a trailer with the body wrapped in cotton sheets to stop bits falling off on the journey. ‘Once we untied the sheets my wife Jenny took one look and said what on earth have you bought there, to be honest I didn’t actually know’. Although the new owner knew it was a Seven he had no idea which or what type and it took a year to unravel the mystery. Many letters and drawings with measurements were posted to authorities within the Austin Seven world and finally he received confirmation ‘you have a very rare car there Mr Carter, it’s a Fabric Bodied Mulliner’. This car was registered 25th
May 1929 and was one of very few short chassis versions produced, its rarity however would not help with the restoration as information was scarce. Rebuilding the Seven was going to be a challenge for an experienced campaigner but Fred was a car restoration virgin and without the luxury of detailed drawings or plans where to start presented his first conundrum. The Mulliners machine had metal floor pans supporting an ash frame, there are no body panels the fabric is stretched over the ash and if that sounds simple, it isn’t.
One Seven Restoration 5 Years
‘Once I knew what I had, the rest I had to learn as I went along’ Fred continued ‘templates from the remains were the answer’. The purchase of a large block of ash and some impressive wood working skills enabled the frame to be copied piece by piece. After cutting the shape as near as possible, Fred sanded and shaped the many separate parts before attaching together with adhesive and screws. Once the frame was completed, a layer of Hessian was attached on the inner edges of each area and the void between the frame filled with cotton waste. A fabric called Calico then sealed the area and allowed for the top surface ‘leatherette’ to be stretched as tight as possible and pinned into place with copper nails. This process required strong stretching tools and it certainly worked well as there are no signs of sagging or creases 30 years later. The sliding roof presented some unique problems as very little of the original sections remained and luckily Fred managed to pursued wife Jenny to take on the headlining; which she completed with amazing results.
The roof sliding mechanism was of Fred’s own design and looks totally in period, as do the internal trim panels; ply board shaped to fit, then covered by Jenny, all of which show little sign of being fitted 3 decades ago. ‘Many parts were missing or just un-restorable, so auto jumbles like Beaulieu became compulsory, without them I would never have completed the car’ Fred remembered. The air vents behind the bulk head had to be round and not the normal letterbox style and the wheels fitted to the car were not of the type Mulliners fitted in 1929. Sourcing those kind of items took time and mechanical parts were also on the list as the 749cc engine faced a rebuild with new rings installed. Research turned out the car had an engine change just after WW2 and the documentation confirmed the replacement unit is still powering the ‘Seven’ today. Completed in 1986 Fred recollects the first journey undertaken covered 82 miles, a round trip that included the cars first show, taking a trophy home was a real bonus.One
Enjoys a Run
A chance to enjoy a drive in any Austin Seven should always be grabbed with both hands, so whilst Fred prepared the engine with fuel on and ignition before attacking the starter handle, I took a look inside. The dash enjoys an array of instruments which all still operated perfectly; oil pressure button, light switch and ignition alongside the Amp meter. This Seven benefits from a starter button but our driver prefers the ‘workout’ and the speedo shows 60mph but I am not sure will be achieving that on route. The steering wheel offers a horn button, hand throttle and advance-retard and after a couple of adjustments the engine fires into life and immediately settles very quietly. Surprisingly silent, as Fred confirms ‘ticks over like a sewing machine’ as he pulled the gear stick over and back to select 1st
inside the three speed crash box. The Austin’s interior is snug and quiet at low speeds but once out on the open road the motor becomes audible as we are soon in top and I watched the wobbling speedo touch 50mph on the faster stretches. Apart from timing your gear changes correctly, the other important point when driving any machine of this vintage is breaking distance. ‘You have to feel the car’ Fred explained ‘but once you understand it, the rest is just great fun’ which I couldn’t have put better myself. The original Austin handbook
advises the way to a long and happy relationship with you Seven by following a few simple ‘Don’ts’.
Don’t forget the ignition key when starting up
Don’t leave the car in gear with the handbrake off
Don’t run the engine in a closed garage
Don’t forget to remove the key when the engine is not running
And my favourite; Don’t be cruel to the starter if the engine will not fire.
View from the Seven’s Pilot
This Mulliner Seven currently covers around 600 miles a year to various local events. The longer journeys are not undertaken anymore, as Fred reminds me…. ‘the car is 88 and I am only a decade behind it, so we keep the mileage sensible but with Jenny alongside we still like to take in a few events every season. I am proud of our achievement re-building it, unusually we never gave the Seven a name. Every trip is looked forward too and luckily no serious breakdowns have occurred after all these years, just the odd hic-up; she always gets us home. We do use her around the village quite a bit, even to do some shopping plus the odd run out to visit family and friends’.
Long may that continue, as Fred’s story of his time with the brilliant Austin is often retold when on display at events, whilst I have also concluded it seems the older the car, the younger you feel.