The Austin 7

With Maggie Chaplin

A Tale of Two Austin Sevens: Gina and Minerva

Until the early 1900s the motor car was a rich man’s toy. Still in the early stages of development, automobiles were big – and expensive. Herbert Austin had set up a factory in a disused printing works on the outskirts of Birmingham at Longbridge manufacturing luxury vehicles and a four cylinder 20 horse power model would have set you back £650 – the equivalent of more than £71,000 today.

In 1909 Austin commissioned Swift of Coventry, a company mostly known for making cycles, to build him a single cylinder small car to sell. At 7 hp it had nothing like the power of the other Austin models but the Austin 7 was born – born but not nurtured. The company went back to producing big cars and it wasn’t until after WW1 that Herbert Austin again turned his attention to the idea of building a small car.

He thought there’d be a market amongst young families on a modest budget who aspired to own a car, but he was probably also influenced by the introduction of the Horsepower Tax in 1921. His board of directors didn’t approve his design concept so he decided to go it alone and it wasn’t until July 1922 that three prototypes, built in a special area of the Longbridge factory, were unveiled to the public. During the following year 2,500 Austin 7s were made.

Initially the idea had been to produce an affordable family car, but of course it didn’t stop there. People had been given a freedom that they hadn’t previously enjoyed. The Austin 7 became so popular that in addition to the saloon, other versions joined the range. Tourer, cabriolet, sports, coupe and van models were also developed and although in 1939 WW2 brought production to an end, by then 290,000 cars and vans had been made.

My association with the Austin 7 came early in life. My father had acquired a second hand 1935 Austin 7 Ruby model long before I was born, and so even as an infant I travelled in one. Rubies were four seaters and ours was maroon with matching leatherette upholstery. It had three forward gears and one reverse, an engine capacity of 17hp and was capable of – wait for it – a top speed of 40mph, although we usually trundled along at no more than 30mph.

In those days manufacturers didn’t give cars names that ended in “O” or “A” or include an “X” to indicate sportiness or power, so everyone christened their own vehicle. We called ours Minerva, because her previous owner had adorned her with a mascot that my father at first thought was the goddess Minerva. It later turned out that it was the art deco “Nymph of Speed” a design registered in 1917, but by then the name had stuck.

We didn’t have a garage, few people did then, so Minerva, or Minnie as she was nicknamed, long before the advent of the Mini, was kept in a former workshop near some allotments. My father was very protective of her – no way would she live outdoors, and non-essential trips were only planned when there was little prospect of rain. If she did happen to get wet, he’d spend a grumpy hour or so drying her off and polishing her paintwork.

Sometimes it was quite a performance to get her going. She had an electric starter, but occasionally the engine refused to fire and it needed a crank handle. This fitted into a socket at the front of the car under the radiator and it often took several energetic turns to get Minnie in the mood. Then, of course, you had to stow the handle, and jump into the car.

Journeys had to be planned with care. A 17hp engine is not very powerful – the smallest modern car packs four times that pulling power – so it could be a problem getting up steep hills. You had to either choose an itinerary that avoided them, or if you found yourself faced with a gradient you couldn’t climb, it was sometimes necessary to make an ignominious backward descent, turn round and try again in the lower reverse gear. Usually that worked, but sometimes you had to reroute or give up and go home.

Long, or for that matter even short, trips were often eventful. The engine was water-cooled, and liable to overheat (especially chugging uphill). Taking a supply of water with you on a journey to top up the radiator was an essential precaution, and it wasn’t always enough. Sometimes when out in the wilds we’d have to look for a stream, because we’d run out. We often had to stop because the engine got too hot and our noses were attuned to detecting the smell of burning oil.

On one journey we were all rather alarmed by a characteristic pungent odour wafting into the car, soon followed by a trickle of smoke coming from under the bonnet. We’d not long been on the road, so the radiator had to be full. What could it be? An urgent stop and a lifting of a hot bonnet lid, revealed the source of the trouble. My father, in his assiduous cleaning of the car – yes, everything under the bonnet as well – had left a dirty rag sitting on the engine, and it had started to smolder

There are so many aspects of driving today that we take for granted – like indicators for example. Minnie had mechanical direction indicators – called trafficators. These were little arms no more than a few inches long, that when activated popped out of the side of the car’s door pillar. They were based on a semaphore signal and had an illuminated triangular end. Trafficators were not highly visible and didn’t always work.

Punctures were also a challenge. The tyre had to be prized off the wheel rim to access the inner tube, which resembled a flabby orange lifebuoy. Time was spent searching for the damage, which wasn’t always obvious, and sometimes involved a bucket of soapy water to try to detect bubbles escaping from the rubber ring. This was then patched, replaced and laboriously re-inflated with a foot pump.

At that time there were few cars on the road and we had the countryside pretty much to ourselves. Minnie had a sun roof (always referred to as a sunshine roof) and in the pre-seatbelt days of slow, leisurely travel my biggest treat when the roof was off was to be allowed to stand on the front passenger seat with my head and shoulders out above the top of the car as we progressed at a sedate pace. An action that would be death-defying and illegal today

Minnie was a true family car: we visited relatives in her, went on picnics, and she gave us access to out of town areas that you couldn’t get to by bus. I can’t remember us ever using her to go shopping though, or to take me to school. That was all done on foot or by public transport.Gina was totally different in both appearance and lifestyle. Although she too bore the Austin 7 marque, she was definitely a sporty personality.  A two-seater, open top, she was built in 1928 to the specifications of racing driver Eric Gordon England – the Gordon England Cup Model body that had been introduced two years earlier.

Gordon England had been an aircraft designer with the Bristol Aeroplane Company and he translated his skills into car design. Although Herbert Austin’s original vision had been to create a small family car, it was inevitable that Austin 7s would be raced. The racing circuit of the time, Brooklands near Weybridge, Surrey was enjoying its heyday, and Gordon England persuaded Sir Herbert to provide him with a racing 7, in which he established new class records at Brooklands. His successes led him to design lightweight two-seater sport cars with fabric covered bodies. One such was the Cup Model.

Gina derives her name from her GE registration prefix and a perceived curvaceous similarity to the Italian actress of similar vintage, Gina Lollobrigida! A resident of the Oxfordshire village of Swerford bought her when he was a student in the 1950s from a teacher at Sibford School and regularly drove her between Swerford and London until he moved to Canada, leaving Gina behind. She languished in a Nissen hut in Swerford for half a century, her film star looks faded and she fell into disrepair. Another Swerford inhabitant came to the rescue. He and his father undertook a painstaking and extensive rebuilding project and Gina is once more roadworthy, and on fine days can be seen out on the country roads.

Gina rides again, but I have no idea what happened to Minnie – I expect she finished up in a scrap yard somewhere when my father traded her in for a Sunbeam Rapier (the aggressive, thrusting model names were making an appearance by then), but I still have her mascot, the Nymph of Speed. She’s a reminder of a time when many people got about mostly on foot, by bike or on public transport and 40mph was real speed!