Across the Alps in a Vintage Austin Seven
After reading of Mr. Leapman’s adventures and those of his friends in an M-type M.G. Midget, you will have no excuse for not taking a Continental holiday this year, however old or weary your car. And “Baladeur’s” gyro-car driver’s adventures (see “Sideslips” in this issue) have nothing on those of our contributor. Seriously, his article emphasises how far you can get, as well as how much fun you can have, with the most humble of cars if you try, while Mr. Leapman’s mechanical adventures will be sympathetically received by all who know their Austin Seven.—Ed.
It was nearly the summer of 1948 when, being the proud owner of a 1928 Austin Seven in very dilapidated condition, I was attracted by the plentiful petrol available in Europe. Finding a neighbour with a 1932 M-type M.G. Midget, we arranged to make an attempt to reach the South of France in the two weeks available to us. Bookings were speedily arranged and with great trepidation we set off, four of us in the two cars, taking five gallons of oil and as many spares as we could carry.
From London to Dover was the test run neither of the cars having been trusted to any distance of over 30 miles previously and no mechanical preparations having been made for this trip. The Austin gave trouble immediately, coughing and choking with what we all knew to be combined carburetter and ignition faults. We reached Dover in just over four hours the night before we were due to sail; this we had arranged in e
case of any trouble developing on the road, as in fact it did.
The following day we embarked on the car ferry to Boulogne, to the amusement of other travellers, who doubted if two such ancient and disreputable cars would ever reach Paris. But this was not our destination, for we planned to by-pass that town and travel south via Amiens and Troyes. In our ignorance we did not realise that we had chosen the worst roads possible, but we were to find that out, to our discomfort.
Leaving Boulogne around midday we encountered our first cobbles and a stop was made to secure our luggage. By the time we reached Abbeville, some 40 miles inland, we had almost had enough. The M.G. was suffering from binding brakes and the Austin had oiled-up its plugs, although French petrol seemed to have cured its carburetter troubles [or the jolting of the cobbles?—Ed.] We pulled in at a roadside garage for the M.G.’s brakes to be adjusted and had our first mishap. My friend had forgotten how the load was dragging down his wasp-like tail and, mounting the pavement, it caught the spare wheel, ripping it from its moorings and pulling a large piece of canvas and wood front the body with it. Willing French hands were soon at work, cigarettes were passed round, and after an hour-and-a-half we were ready for the road again; a metal patch had been cut and beaten, fitted and sprayed, brakes adjusted, and new plugs put in the Austin. The cost? A matter of some 200 francs for the M.G. (under 5s.) and 400 francs for the Austin.
We decided to go back for a 10s. rebore some day, and resumed our journey at a rousing 40 m.p.h., singing the praises of French garages in general! The delay had altered our schedule somewhat and we stayed the night in Amiens, where we arrived late and had to put up at the best hotel. There we mourned the large hole in our limited resources; remember the £35-days?
The next day was uneventful and we reached Troyes, where we went from the sublime to the ridiculous and stayed in a hotel which would pass for a second-rate “doss-house” here at home. Next day we left for Lyons and it was here trouble came to light, which was to annoy us throughout the trip. Our cars, both having gravity feed petrol systems, suffered due to the silt in the petrol, and a constant cleaning of jets was required. This was an easy job on the M.G., but on the Austin it was an arduous task, the whole carburetter having to be stripped whilst it was hot. Tempers were very frayed that day; for when the Austin behaved the M.G. gave trouble, and vice versa. Progress was slow and the four of us were tired and dejected when we entered Lyons. We were soon cheered, however, when we met several other cars which had been on the boat with us and received the congratulations of the occupants on our good time in reaching that far. Four very happy tourists got inebriated that night and slept long and deeply, so much so that our start was delayed over two hours the next morning.
More trouble with dirty petrol during the next day and by nightfall we were nowhere near our destination, Toulon. We decided to carry on, driving all night if possible, to make up for delays, and thus we drove through the Alpes Maritimes cramped in our little cars, hungry and tired, until we could continue no further, and there, with the lights of Toulon below us and the sea air in our lungs, we pulled the cars off the road, curled up in our coats beneath them, and snatched a few hours’ sleep before the dawn. Then an early start and off again, the Mediterranean—bluer than we had imagined—welcoming us to the Riviera.
Along the coastal roads we were cheered on by English tourists, and wherever we stopped received compliments on our travelling so far. By this time the cars were looking even worse than they did when we started; string and rope were evident on wings and doors, whilst the Austin had developed an alarming list at the rear. The body seemed to be sagging over to the near side, a gap of about an inch appearing between the door and the scuttle, which required more rope to keep the door from flying open. The weather being hot, the engine was inclined to overheat, so we had removed the bonnet completely and strapped it on the rear with the luggage. We had been washing our socks and shirts on the road, and these were hanging to dry over the hood frame, from which the canvas had been removed, the frame then being raised; the total result must have been an amazing sight to the owners of the shiny new and almost-new cars which were already on the coast, whilst to the owners of the many cars we encountered broken down along the road the sight must have caused even more chagrin.
At midday we arrived at Juan les Pins; the weather was perfect, the sea inviting, so we had a council of war and arranged to stay for a few days at that delightful resort. The journey of approximately 750 miles had taken us just four days from Boulogne, which, was considered by those who knew quite an average time. Our first move on settling in was to ask an “expert” to look at the Austin, to rectify the list, and it was found that the body was splitting across the floorboards behind the front seats and where the chassis ends.
First-aid repairs only were possible; the springs were set up and a block inserted above the end of the chassis members to keep the rear wing off the tyre. Emboldened by the apparent success of this measure we decided to have a look at Italy and the Alps, so once again we set off on our travels, along the coast road to Monte Carlo and across the frontier at Menton into Italy.
Once in Italy we struck north at Alassio and headed for Alba. This was the most gruelling part of the journey. The road was composed of some type of grey dust surface which arose in clouds, and very soon the cars and ourselves were coated with this dust, and the Austin had its first puncture. Whilst changing to the spare we noticed that the wheel we had removed had several broken spokes, doubtless due to the cobbles; we examined the other wheels and found they, too, had suffered the same way. However, it was hopeless to do anything but go on, so we put aside this worry and continued.
Both cars were behaving well for once and the surface, although dusty, was good for speeding, so we set our hand-throttles to 45 m.p.h. and proceeded, until the Austin shed a front wheel. The sensation was not pleasant as she spun around with the wheel rolling on ahead, yet no damage was caused. We retrieved the wheel and, lifting the car bodily without the jack, it was soon refitted. The cause was simple—worried as we were by the broken spokes we had neglected to do more than tighten the wheel nuts by hand. We resolved to be more careful in the future, after that experience.
The road seemed endless but at last we reached Alba. Here we were accorded a most enthusiastic welcome by the populace when we pulled up in the square for food and a wash. People came from all directions to look at the cars. At one time we counted over a hundred inquisitive Italians and it was with difficulty we restrained them from taking the cars to pieces! One of our party, speaking the language, found that the curiosity we aroused was due to the fact that it was obvious to the local people that we had collected our coating of dust on a road which was not considered usable by motors generally, and that we had taken the wrong turning somewhere. They were more than amazed, considering the antiquity of our vehicles. We were extended the utmost hospitality in Alba, enjoying free baths in the hotel and large bowls of coffee, the puncture was repaired without charge, and we were escorted on to the best road to Turin by a convoy of auto-scooters, which seemed the most popular form of transport in that locality and were certainly very nippy little machines.
On the Turin road the Austin developed a nasty tendency to slew when the brakes were applied and we were continually adjusting the cable tighteners, which hung on the cables like clothes pegs on a Monday washing-line, but to no avail. Reaching Turin we headed for the main F.I.A.T. depot and left the car for expert attention before attempting the tough climb to the summit of Mont Cenisio (altitude 6,000 ft.).
Leaving soon after lunch, it was discovered that the trouble was not cured, and more stops for adjustment were made. Almost immediately we started to climb and we knew that the worst part of our trip had started. The Austin was faster on hills than the M.G. so we decided to split up, and off we went, feeling we were attempting a little too much but determined to “have a go.”
It was first-gear work most of the way and the radiator was boiling in no time. Stopping for water from a mountain stream, we found ourselves unable to take off again, the clutch merely smoking and the wheels stubbornly refusing to turn. A fanner of some sort gave us the necessary push from the rear, however, but it was apparent that future stops were going to cause more of the same trouble.
A system was therefore evolved to obviate the necessity of a push-start. When the car boiled my passenger would lean over the bonnet, remove the radiator cap, and pass it back to me. I would hand him a funnel, with which we were equipped, and a can of water (ex-oil), he would then fill up, and at the next hairpin, when my speed was around 3 m.p.h., he would jump out, fill the can from the stream beside the road, cut across country and catch up with the car, jumping in with his booty without our having to stop; very good exercise as he weighed nearly 14 stone!
We reached the customs at the summit eventually, and caused great amusement as we had to wait there nearly three-quarters-of-an-hour for the M.G. and traffic was frequent. It will be noticed that I have not mentioned any of our overnight stops in Italy. This is because there were none. On leaving France we had nearly exhausted our travellers’ cheques and between us had only five pounds we could change into lira. This we budgeted out to buy petrol and food only, and our beds were provided free by the authority responsible for the roads. We were once again in France now and we had francs left to pay for a hotel. How strange a bed felt after our previous couches, and it was a very early night for the four of us before setting out for Bourg, which was to be our next stop.
It was cold next morning when we hit the road again, and we were thankful for the foresight with which we had equipped ourselves with blankets. Chambery was some 70 miles ahead of us and we had to be there by midday to cash some more cheques and get some petrol coupons if possible. The brakes on the Austin were useless by now, but the long downhill stretch was negotiated by keeping in low gear, and, on the hairpins, when we were still too fast for safety, we would both lean out of the car and somehow balance it like a sidecar outfit.
At last we reached the level safely, but time was slipping by, so once again we separated, the M.G. going ahead at its superior speed to reach the bank before it was too late. We in the Austin were happy, if brakeless, when a large lorry came out of a side road ahead of us. Instinctively I applied my useless footbrake hard, the car slewed violently to the right, and we mounted the pavement, finishing-up against the wall of a house. Taking stock of our position we found the reason for our braking trouble. The bolt holding the steering-box to the chassis had become loose, and the brake, when applied, was pushing the whole steering gear over and, on taking the last strain, had snapped the bolt completely. We were therefore stuck with no money, a steering-box swinging loose on the end of the column, and, to make matters worse, neither of us could speak a word of French.
A builder working nearby came to our assistance with his van and we explained our troubles in signs, whilst he made reassuring gestures.
Willing hands lifted the front of our little car into the back of his van, where it was secured with ropes, while the inevitable cigarettes were passed round, then off we went to a garage some miles down the road. Here we rewarded our good Samaritan and the repair was speedily effected. We went our way breathing prayers of thankfulness that the bolt had not snapped on those mountain roads, when going over the pavement meant a drop of some thousands of feet.
We reached Chambery, where we joined our two very worried comrades for the journey to Bourg, passed the night in that town, and left next morning for Paris. The day was uneventful until at Fontainebleau the Austin suddenly lost its clutch, the pedal being depressed but nothing happening. I was forced to crash-change the gears, a noisy and cruel method. Nearer Paris the M.G. began to cough and splutter and speed dropped to a mere crawl. In this way we entered Paris, heading for the left bank and a cheap hotel which we had been recommended.
Next morning we inquired for the agents for M.G. and Austin cars, and separated to attend to our wounds. The M.G was found to have broken the coupling between the vertical dynamo and the o.h.v. camshaft. How it managed even a crawl was a miracle, but a spare coupling was available and the car was soon as good as ever. The Austin was not so fortunate. The engine would have to be removed and no spares were stocked. Time was pressing and we were due at Boulogne, so we had perforce to continue to maltreat the gears and so commenced the race for the boat.
We left Paris at 6 a.m. and immediately ran into the worst gale for years. The wind reached 100 m.p.h., and we were lucky to reach 25 m.p.h. Telegraph posts and trees were blown down over the road and it rained hard. A gust of wind got under the hood of the Austin and, with a crack like a whip, it burst asunder. Our luggage, which had been strapped on the wings since the body had started splitting, was soaked through and we were in the same state, with no dry clothes to look forward to. Very miserably indeed we crept into Boulogne, to find that the boat was held up by the storm and that sailing was doubtful that day. Our finances were down to under 200 francs and our position looked hopeless. Once again, though, we were lucky. The boat sailed eventually and we were soon in England again, thankful to be home safely but sorry the adventure was over.
Plans were made to attempt to reach Rome the next year but they did not mature. The M.G. was involved in a crash and totally wrecked; its pieces are now part of a trials car which is meeting with a fair measure of success.
The Austin was considered worthy of a new body, which was duly built, when my family, hearing of its adventures from my comrades, insisted on its being sold before it killed me, and it is now believed to be in use somewhere near Slough. To whoever owns YX 8839 I would like to say: Hang on to it; it’s the gamest ‘Baby’ ever made.