Vintage-to-Classic: Austin Seven = Fun

The vintage Austin Seven is essentially a fun car, as Sandy Skinner reminded us in the piece he wrote about these little cars for the VSCC Golden Jubilee programme. Said Sandy, …”it’s perfectly clear that the A7 isn’t really a car at all, but more a state of mind — and a schizophrenic one at that. Which, happily, absolves us from any responsibility to take the things serious.” Moreover, Skinner concluded his article with the observation that his only consistent theme for thirty years of owning more cars than he could count has been an A7, somewhere in the stable. “And” he closed by saying, “when I decide to sell-up and retire to stud, I hope there will be still”.

That about sums up the affection and enthusiasm many of us feel for the odd little motorcar produced by the Austin Motor Co. of Longbridge, Birmingham in 1922, offering motoring to the masses. I have owned at least half a dozen different ones and having now definitely gone into second childhood, I felt recently a burning desire to add an open-bodied example to my 1931 box-saloon that is being, very slowly, restored. What I bought, unseen, was a 1930 Ulster Replica (or reproduction Ulster), which Jenks says should be called an Ulster Facsimile so as not to snub the Frazer Nash TT Replica which was referred to as a Replica when it was brand spanking new in the Isleworth showroom.

Be that as it may, or may not, this purchase set me thinking, not only of how vastly more expensive any kind of pre-war A7 is now than when they were new, but of the sports models as they were in those times. I find it rather amusing, pleasing in fact, that old Sir Herbert Austin, “Pa” Austin to his intimates, who is said to have objected to the saloon bodywork of his cars having straight-line rear-quarters, insisting on the curved panel styling of the Edwardian age throughout the nineteen-thirties and, indeed, right up to the outbreak of war, as a glance at any Ruby will confirm, was not adverse to having sporting versions of his ubiquitous Seven in his catalogues almost throughout the life of his Baby. And subsequently he was responsible for the 122.74 mph racing side valve A7 and the superb little twin-cam racing Austins.

In 1924 there was the sports two-seater, which was little more than a Chummy (or 2+ 2 tourer to those who cannot visualise one, but it is hard to believe that anyone lives who cannot!) with a pointed tail in lieu of the back platform on which so many 1920s children squirmed uncomfortably but which enabled Sir Herbert to advertise his Baby as the car for those with, or expecting, a family … This sports model A7 cost £170 and was good for perhaps 55 mph. Then there was the Brooklands Super Sports two-seater, with highly attractive streamlined, stagger-seat body, which in 1925 came with a guarantee of 75 mph at Brooklands when stripped of its road-legal clobber, a pretty staggering performance from a side-valve 747cc motorcar, which cocked a snoot at many far larger and more costly so-called sports cars. For it was priced at only £265; but although for a time it was advertised as available from the parent cornpany at Longbridge, to their specification No. 433a, it was really the product of that very capable A7 tuner and racing driver E. C. Gordon England, who also sold sportsmen the less-expensive Le Mans pedigree GE Cup Model.

The next sports car from Birmingham was the Super Sports, or Ulster, two-seater of 1928, selling for £225 in supercharged form, £185 in non-blown guise. As I have said, my latest toy is an Ulster Replica, a description which covers a multitude of good things or sins, depending on your personal viewpoint. For instance, let me say, sotto voce, that my car has a body which is a very reasonable copy of the true Ulster but is made of fibreglass. As we have admitted that the A7 need not be taken too seriously, I do not think this really matters a hoot, and maybe it is lighter than an aluminium or steel bodyshell — and on an A7 chassis, lightness is all … Come to think of it, Sandy Skinner himself has built a rather charming sporting A7 of which the body is of wood. and apart from the framework of fabric, steel or alloy-panelled bodies, I don’t think any production Seven ever had an all-wood body; yet Sandy’s looks well and is eminently practical; Jane Arnold-Forster campaigned it in VSCC competition events happily enough, until she succumbed to the old adage that ‘There is no substitute for litres” and bought a 12/50 Alvis.

This raises the “chicken-and-egg” question, which is better, a body of the correct shape but the wrong material, or one of the right material but the wrong shape?

Anyway, being in possession of something which looks outwardly like an Ulster has made me think about the genuine ones. I remembered that, in keeping with its sporting pretensions, this A7 model had a chassis lowered by means of a dropped front axle, with the transverse spring and 1/4-elliptic back springs flattened, that the gearbox had close ratios, of 12.0, 7.0 and 4.9 to 1, that the engine was tuned by using a big updraught Solex carburettor on the non-blown cars, an outside three-branch exhaust manifold, a special camshaft and h.c. cylinder head (producing a claimed 24 bhp at 5,000 rpm) and pressure-fed big ends replacing the “spit-and-hope” jet lubrication of lesser A7 power units. I knew that a doorless two-seater body was used, with the spare wheel carried transversely in the pointed tail, under a strapped-down panel and that the steering column was raked. But I had forgotten that, apart from other subtle changes in engine internals, such as double valve springs, special pistons, and polished ports, etc., the clutch was cast iron, instead of fabric-lined. The dash carried a tachometer and a dial-type oil gauge to supplement speedometer and ammeter.

When new and in good nick an unblown Ulster Austin was capable of speeds in the gears of 30, 52 and 62 mph, or 28, 50 and 72 mph, depending on whether you read The Motor or The Light Car & Cyclecar, — or perhaps there was a difference between the 1930 and 1931 models. Those who wanted accuracy referred to the Motor Sport road test report, of course, and that for July 1930 quoted speeds of 50 mph in 2nd gear, 60 mph in top, from a car that had run only 100 miles. It was suggested that a lower axle-ratio would have improved top speed and the 72 mph attained by another journal was apparently done on a top gear of 5.2 to 1, although I was not aware of this being used in 1931 for the Ulster cars. We recorded 0 to 40 mph in 14 sec. compared to this time from 10 to 40 mph in 2nd, claimed by another journal, together with 0 to 50 mph through the gears in 24 sec, yet another report claiming 10 to 40 mph in 2nd in about 12-1/2 sec and 15 to 50 mph in top (in this case, 4.9 to 1), in just under 25 sec. We got 37-1/2 mpg of petrol in overall running, and the Ulster A7 pulled up in 130 feet from 40 mph with the back brakes corning on before the front ones, the brakes being coupled on both hand-lever and pedal; but another journal’s tester managed this in only 80 feet. The un-blown Ulster weighed 8-1/2 cwt on its 6ft 3in wheelbase chassis.

It was the blown Ulster that was bought by those who could afford it and many since-famous personalities commenced their competition careers with them. For instance, Hugh Conway, the present Bugatti expert, had two while he was at Cambridge (where he became Secretary of the CUAC). His blown Ulster had a Cozette vane-type supercharger sucking from a carburettor of the same make, tulip-shaped valves with tappet adjustment by shims, and the aforesaid pressure lubrication with that not very clever oil bottle intended to be sealed by the starting-handle. Conway’s first blown Ulster was a standard 1931 A7 which he used for trials, its high-ratio constant-mesh cogs replaced with standard ones to give touring gear-ratios. Ground clearance was not adequate for the rough going involved and he recalls three bouts of blower trouble, crown-wheel failures, wheel-spokes too weak for rapid cornering, weak brakes which longer cam-levers would only partially cure, a body that split close to the seat, and a most horrific oil-thirst. But the little car is remembered with affection, as a thoroughbred in its own way. It lapped Brooklands at 71 mph during an MCC One Hour High Speed Trial, with full equipment in place.

Hugh Conway’s second Ulster was one of the genuine works orange TT cars, in 1932 form, bought from Cuthbert’s of Guildford for £45 with a damaged crankshaft nose-piece, and a manxed tail. It was the car which the Marquis de Belleroche had raced over the Brooklands’ Mountain circuit.

With a large Cozette blower and a high c.r., special fuel was needed, and when practising for the 1935 LCC Brooklands’ Relay Race, a copper plug came out of the crankcase, all oil-pressure was lost, and the car didn’t start. Conway sold it to Gordon Brettell, who converted into his well-known single-seater, as recounted in detail in Motor Sport  some time ago.

George Chaplin (he, of the 70 mph Chummy) had another of these works orange TT Ulsters, which Tom Lush acquired just before the war, and another who had a couple of Ulsters was R. G. Shattock, who used his first for MCC trials, also fitting standard gears to the three-speed box, and a Zenith downdraught carburettor. He then had the head copper-plated (c.r. 7 to 1), fitted a high-voltage coil, lightened the flywheel, and put in new racing pistons supplied by Austin’s, put back the close-ratio gearbox, and this eight-year-old 1931 Ulster did 0 to 50 mph in 13.6 sec, gave 39 mpg in fast touring, and at Darlington set a Class-H lap record for the Manufacturers’ circuit of 54.46 mph. Shattock’s second Ulster was found in Cairo in 1941 and was left there, but not before it had done a cross-desert trip, ending up at the Mena House Hotel, built by H. F. Locke King before he built Brooklands and where Zborowski stayed when touring in Chitty II.  W E. Harker comes to mind as another of the many who started with an Ulster A7.

The works Ulsters performed very ably for the Austin Motor Co. It began when, after useful appearances with prototypes of the new Super Sports model at Shelsley Walsh (63.6 sec) with Stanley Baldwin, the Prime Minister among the spectators, the brothers J. D. and F. S. Barnes were given a non-supercharged car for the first Ulster TT, Sir Herbert himself going over to see what happened. Although leading on handicap for five laps, J. D. crashed and although the car continued, a lap speed of 48 mph was too slow. The Barnes then had a no-trouble run in the 1929 JCC “Double-Twelve”, which they repeated in the BARC Six-Hour race, which they led for the first four hours, For the Phoenix Park Irish GP, Gunner Poppe, Captain of the London Welsh Rugby team, in his first race, with a blown Ulster, built up a big lead in the Saorstat Cup race, ran out of fuel, crashed mildly, but won Class H at 61.7 mph, while Capt. Archie Frazer-Nash in an unblown A7 spent his time rebuilding his engine.

Sir Herbert appointed Gordon England as Team Manager for the 1929 TT. Two blown and two non-blown A7s were entered but when it was found that a blower was worth a ten mph increase in speed the other two cars were converted to forced induction with parts sent from England — an advantage amateur drivers can seldom encompass! These were handicap races but this in no way detracts from the merit ot winning and although first Camparai’s 1750 Alfa Romeo and then Caracciola’s winning 38/250 hp Mercedes-Benz hauled in the little bright orange A7s — the colour they had worn at Phoenix Park — they finished 3rd, 4th, 16th and 19th, in the order Frazer-Nash (59.6 mph). Holbrook (59.49 mph), Barnes (56.65 mph) and Caldicutt (55.77 mph), Nash having set a class lap record of over 63 mph. They say Caracciola was most impressed! 

The works team was entered for the 1929 BRDC 500 Mile Race, controlled by Poppe, who drove, his team mates being Holbrook, Caldicutt and Barnes. Barnes’ car broke a con rod and Caldicutt’s cracked its head, a replacement being taken from Barnes’ retired car, enabling him to finish 6th, at 80.25 mph, winner of the 1100cc class. For the 1930 “Double-Twelve”, watched by Sir Herbert, Waite, Austin’s son-in-law, and the Earl of March and Nash/Poppe had the two orange works cars, the Barnes brothers a non-blown A7. Frazer-Nash was delayed by various problems but the Waite/March car was 7th, at 64.97 mph for more than 1,559 miles, the Barnes, who had a trouble-free trip, 10th at 57.2 mph.  But the Team Prize was lost to the MG Midgets. For the Irish GP Nash and Poppe had blown Ulsters, Waite an unblown car to take advantage of the easier handicap, the team being managed by Stewart Frazer. The blown cars lapped at nearly 70 mph in practice, Waite at 61.6 mph. In the race Poppe retired with blower trouble but Waite was robbed of 2nd place to Gillow’s Riley by being flagged-in a lap too soon, being given 5th place, and Nash was 3rd, the Barnes’ own blown A7 14th, other non-works A7s being 8th and 16th. Sir Herbert was reluctant to attend the 1930 TT but was persuaded to do so, with Waite’s wife. The orange Ulster team comprised Waite, Poppe and Nash. Waite crashed badly at Ballystockart fracturing his jaw, his mechanic, the veteran Depper, being thrown out also, but Poppe took 5th place. at 61.46 mph, winning Class H, after Nash had retired after nine laps with engine trouble.

The Ulster’s greatest race success came in the 1930 BRDC 500 Mile race at Brooklands. The works stripped Ulsters were driven by the Earl of March/S. C. H. Davis, Poppe/Goodacre, and Crabtree/J. D. Barnes. The first-named won outright at 83.41 mph in a new car carefully prepared for Waite, who managed the team, by the young mechanic Len Brochas. Poppe had retired with a seized piston, Crabtree with ignition trouble. To show that this outer-circuit victory was no fluke, Davis and Goodacre took the same Ulster to Brooklands again eleven days afterwards and broke Class-H records from 50 km to 12 hours, at speeds of over 85 mph, averaging 81.71 mph for the twelve hours.

By 1931 the ageing A7 was beginning to feel the challenge of the MG Midget’s overhead camshaft technology, fourteen of the 746cc C types running in the Double Twelve, to nine Sevens. The works A7 team of Nash/Driscoll, Poppe/J. D. Barnes and F. S. Barnes/Green, finished 9th (Poppe), 11th (Barnes), and 21st (Nash), Poppe setting fastest class lap, at 72.44 mph: but MGs gained the day. It was the same at Phoenix Park, where ten non-supercharged MGs met six A7s, the blown works cars handled by Nash, Cushman and J. D. Barnes. Nash split the MGs in the race, with 8th place, but Cushman’s had to follow the Midgets home, in 14th position. When Cecil Kimber supercharged his MG Midgets the game was up for Austin, in sports-car racing.

Nevertheless, the Ulster A7 had left its mark on the racing scene and while it was in production, from 1928 to 1932, many drivers ran them at Brooklands, and elsewhere, and continued to do so in the years ahead, at the Track, at Donington and at other venues. The works Ulster, with their somewhat narrower bodies, radiator stoneguards, short bonnets to accommodate an 11-1/2-gallon fuel tank in the scuttle, with other tanks for blower oil and an extra gallon of sump oil, were exciting-looking little sports-racing cars. The blown Ulsters had the supercharger gear-driven on the exhaust side of the engine, pump-cooling, and magneto ignition. That they gave the Austin Motor Co good publicity is reflected in a full-page advertisement in Motor Sport in 1931 proclaiming that an Ulster had smashed the Sydney-Melbourne record for 2-litre class cars by covering the 560 miles in 12h. 34 min. That year, too, Goodacre took one to Italy and won a 1,000 mile race at 46.8 mph. So those who ran production versions had much to please them; incidentally, these engines gave 27 bhp at 4,500 rpm, later increased to 33 bhp. After the Ulsters came the 1933 65 or Nippy (£148) and the 75 or Speedy sports A7s, but I am concerned here with the vintage years.

As the years roll on, genuine Ulsters are becoming less in numbers and difficult to find, so inevitably Ulster Replicas (which should perhaps be called A7 Specials?) have been constructed, with facsimile bodywork, power increased perhaps by the use of downdraught carburation, etc. and not always with the dropped front-axle. Incidentally, these “facsimile” Ulster, bodies are commendably accurate, that on my car, make unknown, being within half-an-inch of the cockpit dimensions of the original, which were a body width of 36 in, a seat-squab depth of 23 in and a windscreen-to-seat squab distance of 31 in.

But these “imitation” cars continue the fun owners of the genuine article enjoyed in contemporary times, spares are plentiful. A7s are easy to house, and the tyre problem is non-existent, with the availability of those excellent 3.50 x 19 Avon Triple Duty Mk II sidecar-tyres. Long may the fun continue … W. B.

N.B. It is difficult to obtain production figures for the Ulster A7; one source suggests a total of 170, of which perhaps 50 would have been blown cars: but this contrasts oddly with 1,402 Gordon England Cup Models sold in two years. For identification of those mentioned, some of the Reg. No. are:   Press demonstrators (unblown). OG1845, GO6302: Barnes 1928 unblown TT car, ER3410: 1929 blown TT team cars, OF1857, OF3128, OF 3129, OF 3130:  Conway’s first blown car, OG9262,  R. G. Shattock’s first unblown Ulster, VB9331 — Ed.)