The classic car world is rich, diverse and full of interesting stories. In the case of many, the story is perpetuated by an owner’s passion for a car. In others, it’s the car itself that provides the story. And that’s what we’re looking for here, the automotive heroes of the past, the cars that did something spectacular, that broke rules and set trends, that captured our passions and imaginations. And you might think that to be such a car, you need to have a V12, Italian heritage, or a cabinet full of motorsport trophies. But that’s not true. Even the most humble of cars can be a hero, as evidenced by this, the small but historically mighty Austin 7.
The thing is, we look at the Austin 7, or Baby Austin as it’s become known, and we assume that, like other cars, it was an idea that was quickly put into production. That wasn’t the case though. In fact, the board of directors at Austin were vehemently against the idea of this small, unrefined car. It went against the grain of what Austin had been known for before the First World War, namely large, luxury cars. This small car had, in their opinion, no place in the Austin range.
This was deeply frustrating for Herbert Austin. To be hamstrung by the board of your own company is one thing, to have your vision flat out denied was quite another. And what really grated was the fact that Austin had in fact already offered a small car in the form of the 1909 Austin 7hp, but as it was built by Swift of Coventry on behalf of Austin, it didn’t have enough clout as a case study to grease the wheels for Herbert’s own vision. Normally, this is where the story would end. Board says no, Herbert is angry, but eventually gets over it.
Except he didn’t get over it. Not even a little bit.
Herbert wasn’t a board man. He was more in tune with the people, and as such, he saw what was happening in post-war Britain and he identified that mobility is what young families sought. Aware of how Ford’s Model T was doing exactly that in America, Herbert was convinced the same methodology of building a cheap car for the masses would work in Britain. Board or not, he was going to at least see if it was viable.
It was 1920 when the Austin 7 project got underway, but not at the Longbridge factory. Instead, development and technical drawings were undertaken at Herbert’s house! The decision of the board to not pursue Herbert’s idea, and the fact the company was in receivership, gave him the impetus to take his work home with him. Quite literally.
Early Austin 7 with hand crank
It wasn’t long before the scale of the project meant it got away from Herbert, which led to him hiring 18 year-old Stanley Edge, a draughtsman from the Longbridge factory. Together, the pair continued to evolve and refine the design of what was, at that stage, Herbert’s passion project.
Stanley convinced Herbert to use a small four-cylinder engine. And we do mean small. At just 696cc, it was a baby, but given that the Austin 7 would tip the scales at a mere 360kg, the 7.2hp four-pot was substantial enough for the task at hand. It was also lightweight itself, thanks to its construction being of a cast cylinder block and cylinder head, all mounted on an aluminium crankcase. The crank itself was unusual in that it used one roller bearing and two ball bearings (upgraded to three in ‘36), while the big ends were splash lubricated by jets of oil. Cooling was taken care of by thermosiphon, which is a method of heat exchange that relies heavily on the principles of natural convection. This meant the 7 had no water pump. Very clever, but also only really something you can get away with on an engine this small.
The engine and three-speed transmission was bolted into an A-frame chassis, which rumour has it, was inspired by an American truck that was in use at the Longbridge plant. Herbert himself designed the body, which took influence from the Peugeot Quadrilette, another small, basic car designed for mobilising the masses.
An Austin 7 Special have a ‘moment’ on track!
The 7 was built to prototype stage by 1922, by which point Herbert had been allowed to utilise the Longbridge factory. However, the project was still very much his, and as such, a great deal of the innovations featured on the car were patented by him.
The car was revealed to the public in July of 1922, and the response was impressive. However, despite the board coming around to the idea, the 7 was still surrounded by doubt, thanks in no small part to the slower than anticipated uptake of just 2,500 units in the first year. However, things soon took off and within a few years the little Austin was dominating. In fact, it completely stole the cyclecar market. By 1939 some 290,000 had sold. Thanks to its price, its ease of use and its practicality (it was available as a van, for example), the Austin 7 found a home in the public marketplace.
But the story of the 7 isn’t just about numbers. This little car had a far greater impact on motoring than many realise. In the past, we have talked about how the Cadillac Type 53 was the first car to feature the now commonplace clutch, brake, accelerator pedal setup. The Austin 7 also adopted this arrangement, and due to the overwhelming popularity of the car itself, it became the norm. It was simple, it was easy to use and it was a great bit of space-saving design.
The impact of this pedal arrangement was also bolstered by BMW. It’s first car, known as the Dixi was essentially a 7 built under licence. The Japanese also took the design (though not under licence – they literally just copied it) and gave the world the 16.
The Dixi BMW incarnation of the Austin 7
In 1927, the Swallow Sidecar Company, upon observing the success of the 7, felt confident that there would be an appetite for a re-bodied 7. The Austin cars while versatile were not what one would call refined. Some were even built with fabric bodies rather than metal. William Lyons, who was the co-founder of the Swallow Sidecar Company went ahead and bought a number of 7 chassis and employed coachbuilder, Cyril Holland, to create a body. And that body was hugely successful for Lyons, who sold some 3,500 Austin Seven Swallow models. The success of which set in motion the successful start of the SS Cars, which would go on to become Jaguar Cars in 1945.
And the 7’s impact didn’t end there. Over the years, the car became a magnet for motorsport. In standard guise, it wasn’t an especially sporty car. However, when it was stripped down and built as a special (usually a one-off creation), its minimal weight and strong engine (once lubrication issues had been addressed) made it a formidable force on the track.
A Brooklands Austin 7 replica
The most notable racing 7 would have to be the Gordon England, a lightweight open-top racer that was so successful at Brooklands it was made available to buy, albeit branded as a replica. Each car came with a Brooklands certificate to confirm the then breakneck speed of 80mph, as per the 1925 record set by Gordon England.
The 7 was and still is a car people love to build for competition though, and there is very little the baby Austin hasn’t turned its hand to. Speed runs, hill climbs, rallies, circuit racing, it’s become a familiar face in all disciplines.
Austin 7 special
The Austin 7 was a remarkable car born from, what was to all intents and purposes, a deeply negative start by the board. Its genius managed to shine through and in the end, the car would be the one to secure the future of the company that so very nearly denied its existence. It was a demonstration of function over form, and because of that, its function was explored and expanded on the world over. It might have been no bigger than a loaf of bread, but there is no denying that the Austin 7 is one of the most significant cars to ever turn a wheel. Most definitely a motoring hero, that’s for sure.