With an estimated 291,000 cars produced over 16 years the Seven hardly sounds like it deserves to sit alongside million-sellers like the Ford Model T and VW Beetle, but as with these two Herbert Austin’s goal for his baby car was to provide motoring for the masses, as well as to rescue his eponymous Midlands-based company (which had been in receivership the previous year).
It’s significant too that its reputation as Britain’s first ‘world car’ depends not so much on the cars he build back here in the UK but on the fact that the Seven was also built under licence in France, Germany, even the USA (where after the war thousands of them were rebuilt as highly-tuned, lightweight racing specials by a new generation of sports-car enthusiasts).
It was also a genius little design, initially powered by just 696 cc (later enlarged to 747 cc) itself one of the smallest four-bearing engines ever designed. Deliberately simple mechanically – the head was detachable, and the crankcase and block separate items – it also used simple body construction techniques on an all-new A-frame chassis to keep the price down to just £165. Standard equipment was simple for the same reason, so that early models had only one instrument screwed to the dashboard, namely an ammeter. By 1935 an Opal two-seater could be bought new for as little as £100.
Today, as a result, Sevens tend to be cheap and relatively plentiful – for such an old lady, I mean – although there’s a wide diversity of bodystyles and types available (the last one ever built was a van) so the price range is also surprisingly wide. Of these the most sporting ones – such as the supercharged Ulster which, in the hands of Sammy Davis and Lord March, won the BRDC 500-mile race at Brooklands in 1930 – can cost anything up to 50 times as much as a standard ‘top hat’ saloon. But then perhaps that’s hardly surprising given that by the late 1930s these racing specials were producing up to 116 bhp compared to the 10 or so you could expect from a family four seater.
Their appeal, even these 35 mph shoppers, is not hard to discern, however, and depends on a lot more than their oh-so-English heritage and winning looks. From an enthusiast’s point of view Sevens – particularly pre-1931 cars – boast a simplicity which makes them easy to restore and maintain (many parts are still available, refurbished or remade) and a delight to drive. The small size is also helpful here, with at least one writer observing in 1966 that ‘more Austin Sevens have been restored in bed-sitters than any other model’.
Just as significantly Seven ownership means the chance to enjoy true vintage motoring at comparatively little cost – especially when a Chummy will frequently return up to 50 mpg – making them the perfect place to start for anyone interested in pre-war motor cars.
Their small size also means they are easy to manoeuvre and a delight even in town which is far from true with many older cars. Because they are so low powered, driving them is admittedly a matter of just pressing the pedal and going for it – as many Fiat 500 and Mini 850 owners will attest, this can be surprisingly good fun – although, as with any car, the somewhat feeble brakes require you to keep scanning ahead for possible hazards.
Unless you’re lucky enough to make a genuine barn-find, the chances are that any Sevens you view will have been restored at least once and hopefully well cared-for since. Corrosion can still be a problem, however, particular of the catalytic type where aluminium panels make contact with a steel floorpan. Wood frames are also liable to rot, whilst fabric-bodied cars naturally have a shorter lifespan and more potential problems than later steel-bodied ones.
Mechanically, however, one has little to worry about providing the car is fundamentally sound which by now most are. Many parts are readily available new, whilst scores of others turn up by the tonne at autojumbles and owners-club meets. Unfortunately, however, at least for seekers after originality, the sheer number of Austin Seven derivatives and the excellence of parts supply means many cars are now a mosaic of original and later parts, many of which have been fitted with convenience in mind rather than historical correctness.
The huge variety of cars sold under the Seven banner also means prospective buyers really have to do their homework, particularly if they’re buying from the mid-list, which is to say something other than a basic basket case or a less than concours Ulster with a competition history. Here the best advice, given that condition is usually reckoned to account for around 90 per cent of the car’s value, is to see as many different cars as you can before deciding where to take the plunge.
Nor should you assume that if you have deep pockets you’ve nothing to worry about. Ulsters are irresistible, and there are any number of coachbuilt Nippys and Speedys out there which look almost as inviting. But even here it is vital to get an expert’s opinion before reaching for the chequebook since replicas abound, cars which, whilst they certainly look the part and can sprint along very nicely, deserve a lower pricetag to reflect their non-original nature.