Bringing up baby

Herbert Austin’s baby was a risky venture which might have sunk the ailing firm. Bill Boddy asserts it was the sevens racing exploits which finally convinced a dubious public

There is no doubt about the popularity of the Austin Seven baby car. Between 1923 and 1939 the Longbridge Company sold over 300,000 of them, and today it is a little car conspicuously prominent in VSCC and other sporting trials, races and hillclimbs, etc. Indeed, it has the established and influential 750 MC and many other clubs to support its vast concourse of keen owners worldwide. But why was such a tiny motor car, an unusual product when it made its debut in 1922, so readily accepted, with ever-improving sales? I maintain that its other successes, in racing and competition events of all kinds, had a strong influence on this somewhat surprising occurrence.

It was a bold step on Sir Herbert Austin’s part to decide to embark on the Seven’s birth. It was designed in the billiard room of his house at Lickey Grange, in secrecy from the vast factory in which his post-war Austin 20/4 and later disc-wheeled Austin 12/4 cars were in production.

One has to ask why the ingenious but very diminutive A7 sold so well, almost from the time of its public release. The first intimation of what Sir Herbert had in mind and what might emerge from his Birmingham factory if he pursued it, came when, as one of the guest speakers at a Birmingham MCC dinner, he said that he thought the light car would eventually be produced as cheaply as the motorcycle combination and that then the sidecar would die a natural death. It was, the great man implied, a matter of price; while the sidecar outfit was less expensive than the light car there would be a market for both. It was a fact that Sir Herbert very much disliked motorcycles and sidecars; he had described those who manufactured them as “little better than producers of perambulators”. “I cannot,” he concluded, “imagine anyone riding in a sidecar who can afford a car.”

Sir Herbert’s contempt for the sidecar outfit enraged a correspondent of the Irish Cyclist, who retorted that “it seemed to indicate a frame of mind of a person who thinks that everyone should like what he likes,” so Sir Herbert Austin and Mr Blair have that in common… There were a great number of cycle-cars available at the time and almost every motorcycle-maker listed a sidecar model. Early in 1922 the prototype A7 had been built in Longbridge’s Experimental Department, and another was running by July, when Sir Hobert gave the news of his new baby to the Press at a lunch at Claridges, with the second Seven on show.

It was seen to be a pram-like tourer (the now famous Chummy) with 6ft 3m wheelbase, intended to be a four-seater but more acceptable for two adults and two brats in the back, where they would have more room and comfort than in the tail of a Family Morgan three-wheeler, with its narrower seat divided by the prop-shaft tunnel. But the A7 had the rare distinction then of four-wheel brakes, (although of the most diminutive drum diameter and only the hand lever bringing on the front pair) four water-cooled cylinders, those four seats, and full weather protection. It was just 8ft 8in long, weighed only 6.1/2 cwt, had a track of a mere 3ft 4in and its 696cc engine gave 10.1/2 bhp at 2000rpm, and pulled a 4.5:1 axle ratio, but it was a car in miniature all right. The price was £225.

On first sight the tiny car was the butt of jokes and cartoons, and it had its critics. An early nonbeliever was Edgar Duffield, the amusing correspondent of The Auto, who later changed his opinion — it is typical of those days that his first test was from Austin’s London premises, the A7 lent by their Edgar Wren. He drove it for only an hour, mostly in London, before returning it to Oxford Street. Duffield thought it should have been at the Motorcycle Show, not at the Motor Show! “It is too small for four adults,” he mused, as he walked to his office, comparing it with his own early Austin 20.

But generally the road tests were favourable. It wasn’t long before the engine size was increased to just over 747cc, perhaps to get a whiff more power, or to meet the new racing/record class of up to 750cc. Later babycars like the Morris Minor, Singer Junior and Triumph Super Seven had around 850cc; but their makers were not interested in racing, although the overhead-camshaft Morris engine was used for the M-type MG Midget from which the racing 746cc C-type, J4, Q-type and the R-type evolved, and Triumph introduced the 750cc sportscar Super Seven, in supercharged form.

By the end of 1922 the baby had been cleaned up, the price reduced to £165, and orders taken. Delivery was scheduled for the Spring of 1923. So why did people buy the little car? It was a true baby, even after the wheelbase was increased to 6ft 9in. But those who bought cars around this time usually had a garage or outhouse in which to house them; if not, the roads were suitable then for parking. So did the small size matter? A longer wheelbase gave better road holding. The original £7 a year tax, due to a bore of just over 2in, had become £8, and as petrol was very inexpensive, the claim of 50mpg, with 52mph, was not necessarily the answer. Some prospective buyers probably relied on Austin prestige, unaware that the company was about to go bankrupt. The Austin 20 was a good car but sold too slowly, and the Austin 12 was not much help. It was the Seven which saved the financial situation, until later Austin models began to sell.

But Sir Herbert had been careful to make the new infant look like his cars of known reputation. The radiator shell, central open gear gate, even the ‘ignition’ and ‘gas’ controls above the steering wheel, were scaled down from the 20. Another clever feature was the ease of changing a wheel, which must have appealed to wives and daughters who were taking up motoring.

The A7 made Olympia in 1922, the price still £225. It pulled the crowds, but there were rivals to be inspected. The Peugeot Quad cost £230 as a side-by-side two-seater with back-axle gearbox and 668cc four-cylinder engine, and like the A7, a transverse front spring. Then there was the 750cc Benjamin at under £205, the 628cc Mathis, a winner with slightly larger engine at Brooldands, and Wolseley had a 7hp water-cooled, rather pedestrian but smooth running flat-twin, for £225. The Stoneleigh seated three adults under its hood, at a mere £185, and there was the well established air-cooled Rover 8 at £180.

The acceptable and stylish 855cc Citroen and the 893cc £300 EHP were at the show, along with the long established 8.3hp Renault and the two-stroke, two-speed chain-drive Trojan with its slogan “A car for those who cannot afford a car,” claiming it was less costly than walking. Sir Herbert had made a brave stand, and his new Seven was soon to prosper and save Austin from bankruptcy, against all this opposition. Indeed, the ‘big car in miniature’ theme produced the Singer Junior and Triumph Super 7 by 1927, the Morris Minor in 1928 and the Swift Cadet by 1930. But the pram-like Seven had outsold them all by the end of its first decade.

There were even shots at a £100 car, tried by Morris with a basic version of the sidevalve Minor two-seater (advertised with a racing version meant to do 100mph and 100mpg, supposedly to the 1,100 idiom) and by Ford with a much cheapened Ford Eight saloon, with Waverley and Gillette also making unsuccessful attempts. Wise Sir H never quite reduced his prices to that level.

So why was the seemingly improbable Seven from Longbridge, Birmingham, so soon to achieve fame? I suggest that it was due to competition successes. Sir H had liked racing since his drive in the Paris-Madrid in 1903 and his building of the racing Wolseley ‘Beetles’ and the 1908 GP Austins before WW1. By July 1922 he sent his top test driver, Lou Kings, to Shelsley Walsh with the first prototype 696cc Chummy. It clocked 89.8sec and was third on Formula (a sports Austin 20 was 19.6s quicker). But the public had seen the A7 in action…

Gordon England, noted glider pilot, soon called on Sir H suggesting that his baby was not entirely accepted and that racing it would help sales. He was given a car to experiment with. This may have prompted Sir H to build the works racers, his sonin-law Captain Arthur Waite to drive them. Except for the 747cc engine, fabric two-seater body, a Cox-Atmos carburettor, a 4.4 axle and Hartford shock absorbers, they were virtually standard. At Easter 1923 Waite won the Brooklands Small Car Handicap from a Bleriot-Whippet cyclecar and an Eric London light car, at 56.64mph, with a lap at 62.4mph. He then drove the little racer back to Bromsgrove.

Encouraged, Austin contested the Italian Cyclecar GP, and Waite won at almost 57mph for the 2501cm, beating Ordorici’s Anzani. Back at Brooklands England’s single-seater barrel-bodied Seven was ready. Both A7s started from the same mark in the Small Car Handicap, England’s car winning, with laps at 59.58 and 70.05mph. Waite opened at 54.99mph, then retired. They met next in the 75mph Short Handicap, England re-handicapped five seconds. He lapped at 71.15mph and finished third behind Waite, whose 15sec advantage gave him second place. Waite non-started in the ’75 Long’ race and England, re-handicapped again, found a 71.05 mph lap unavailing. That a 1% inch crank and jet-lubricated big ends stood up to all this should encourage today’s exponents. For the rest of 1923 neither was placed in the BARC races, although Waite had two A7s, but newcomer Dingle in ‘Dingo’ got two thirds, his best lap 75.46mph.

More ambitious was the three-car entry for Boulogne, with Waite, Kings and Cutler as drivers; Sir Herbert with them. Two Cox-Atmos carburettors on long riser-pipes permitted a three-branch exhaust system, a high-lift camshaft was used, an 11-gallon fuel tank fitted, and the dynamo removed. Oil was pressure-fed into the nose of the crankshaft, forerunner of the later method on TT and Ulster A7s, but the No4 big ends were starved at what was said to be a remarkable 5000rpm, and all retired. But England was busy with class records, doing 5 miles at 79.62mph and over 73.5 miles in the hour. He then had the audacity to enter the 1100cc section of the JCC 200-Mile Race, with a 201b two-seater body replacing the single-seater one. Against 90mph but unreliable Salmsons he finished second non-stop at 76.84mph, winning himself 134 for his 1,1 bet… The JCC introduced a 750cc class thereafter, which Gordon England won three times.

Competition successes were now in full spate — so many that even to list a year’s is impossible here (at least 200 awards in 1924 alone). Surely these promoted the new Baby? Up to the end of 1930 so many more — race domination at Montlhery, 92mph from Waite’s s/c 43bhp single seater (51b boost through a Rootes blower and 33mm Cox-Atmos carbs), many wins by Spero’s ‘Mrs Jo-Jo’ and other amateur Brooklands drivers, a class win in the Ulster TT, culminating in an 83.42mph victory with two pit stops, at a sustained 5000 rpm in the BRDC 500 Mile Race, and so much more. How did the s/c Ulster do the ‘500’ and then break records of up to 12 hours at 81.71mph? A target for today’s Ulsters, most of which are replica orientated…

Later babycars undoubtedly bettered the A7 — half-elliptic springs and longer wheelbases gave better handling and comfort, ohc engines were used by Morris and Singer, Lockheed hydraulic 4WBs by Triumph, and Austin and Triumph used superchargers to get more from sidevalve engines. Yet somehow the Austin 7, as thousands still know, was and still is more cheeky, more fun, and easier to maintain. Sir Herbert said he used a transverse front spring (as did the Peugeot Quad) to resist braking torque, but the reality was that one spring instead of two and two attachment points instead of four, was cheaper, as Henry Ford knew with his Model T.

SF Edge, pioneer driver and renowned publicist for Napier, AC and Cubitt cars, said he would rather have given the world the Austin Seven than have given England the Gordon Bennett Cup in 1902. Hearing this, Sir Herbert said, “How nice…”