My Austin Seven and Me.(circa 1960)
In the nineteen fifties and sixties I prided myself, as most boys did, in recognizing the many individual makes and models of cars on the road. Today it is all but impossible to tell one car from the next, they all look alike.
I get dizzy thinking about all the amazing changes that have taken place in the last fifty years. CD players, cup holders, ABS brakes, computerized engines, three speed wipers, back up cameras and airbags are but a few .The Austin Seven had none of these accessories in fact it was probably one of the world’s most basic vehicles. The car came with a seven horsepower side valve engine, six-volt electrical system and one tiny vacuum operated wiper for the driver. It was fortunate the car was not fast, best speed was about thirty miles per hour with a favourable wind. The mechanical brakes left much to be desired.
The Austin was not large if you are familiar with Henry Ford’s Model T the Baby Austin was about a third the size. The petrol tank was in front just behind the engine. There was no fuel pump, fuel fed to the carburettor via gravity. It was a simple method and usually worked well. However, I did encounter a problem once when I was a bit low on petrol. These were the days when I could only afford to purchase one gallon at a time. I was urging the little car to climb a very steep hill one evening and failed. It stalled and seemed to have run out of petrol about half way up the hill. I couldn’t try to restart as I was holding the brake pedal on with all my might and losing. The car was slowly slipping backward down the hill. I carefully eased the pedal and let it coast to the bottom. Once on a flat I tried the engine again and it started right up. I was a bit surprised but put it down to a quirk in this strange little car. Once more I started up the hill and at about the same spot the car stalled a second time. It dawned on me the carburettor wasn’t getting fuel the steep hill was causing my meagre fuel supply to run to the back of the tank. The obvious solution was to turn the car around and reverse to the top. Once over the hill I turned the car in the right direction and continued on my way.
In the summer of 1960 I was doing my submarine training at HMS Dolphin in Gosport. The town of Gosport is on the opposite side and a short ferry ride to Portsmouth harbour.
One evening heading toward the ferry I came upon a little Austin Seven with a for sale sign on the windshield. Finding the owner I asked how much he wanted for the car. “Eight quid mate”, he said. This was beyond my meagre means taking into account I’d need insurance and a tax disc on top of the initial purchase price. He started the engine and it ran well, he offered to take me for a drive. He demonstrated the wiper working and flipped out each trafficator in turn. He switched on the lights and assured me the tires and brakes were good. I was very keen but simply could not afford the eight pounds. I explained that the car was just too expensive and I’d have to leave it. Disappointed I turned to continue my trip to the ferry. But before I got very far he called out to me “well how much can you pay then?” I was a bit embarrassed but managed to mumble five pounds was my limit. The owner muttered something under his breath, undoubtedly something unpleasant about me. “Okay”, he said, “I must be crazy but you can have it for a fiver”. It was a proud young sailor that drove back through the main gate of HMS Dolphin that evening.
It was a marvellous little car and fun to drive once I got used to the many quirks. I learned to be careful applying the brakes. Too heavy a foot and the car veered to port into oncoming traffic. Mechanical brakes tend to do that if not perfectly adjusted, and it is quite impossible to reach an adjustment even close to perfect on an Austin Seven.
A few weeks after buying the car I completed my submarine training and was ordered to join HM/SM Amphion. The Amphion was refitting in Portsmouth harbour so taking the Austin with me wasn’t a problem. However using the little car in the dockyard could often be hazardous. There were tram tracks everywhere in the yards and it was all too easy for my front wheel to become trapped in one. When this happened the car would veer off in the direction of the tracks taking me away from my intended destination. It was difficult and sometimes dangerous to flip the wheel out of a track too quickly. The car was lightweight and the whole body could easily flip over. But there were also advantages to its size and weight. One afternoon I drove three shipmates down to a pub in Old Portsmouth. The Coal Scuttle was a pub located out on the point at the entrance to the harbour. When we arrived parking spaces near the pub were scarce. We spotted one small space that the car would fit into, but it was without room to manoeuvre. I drove the nose into the space and my shipmates lifted the rear of the car and walked it into place. A perfect two point parking exercise.
Toward the end of the summer and the refit coming to an end I decided it was time to sell the Austin. Once the refit was over we would be sailing to Scotland to carry out trials and training. After trials Amphion was headed to Halifax, Nova Scotia to join the Sixth Canadian Submarine Squadron. I’d be away from home for the next two years. I decided to pay a visit to my brother in Bristol before selling the car.
I didn’t consider the 180 to 200 mile return journey to be beyond the Austin in fact I never worried about breakdowns or such. Ah! The joys of youth or was it perhaps the ignorance of all things mechanical.
I set off on a sunny Friday afternoon chugging along the main “A”road into Somerset. There were no motorways or fast highways back then which was probably an advantage for a 7hp engine. About an hour into the journey I found myself stuck behind a double-decker bus. The bus frequently stopped to pick up or let passengers off. Each time it stopped there was too much oncoming traffic for me to attempt to pass.
Finally we reach a long straight stretch of road that was free of traffic. This was my moment and I edged my brave little car out beside the bus. I estimated the bus was doing 29mph and I was maybe nearing 31mph as I drew up along side the rear of the bus. Slowly the Austin inched forward the front wheel of the bus was now visible and the road ahead still clear. It looked like I was finally going to get passed, my foot was to the floor and the Austin was giving its all. At that moment disaster struck. The radiator cap flew off and a coating of brown oily gooey water hit the windshield. I couldn’t see the road ahead and could only see the bus through the side window. It was gaining on me now and I realized my bid to pass had failed. I couldn’t see if there was any oncoming traffic and I was still on the wrong side of the road. This was the moment I learned a good lesson, when you really need something its usually when it lets you down. My wiper refused to work.
I survived and was able to pull over to the side of the road as the bus disappeared over the horizon. It took me all of thirty minutes to find my radiator cap and clean the gooey mess off the windshield. I eventually reached my brother’s home in Bristol. Before returning to Portsmouth on Sunday I tried to talk him into buying it. No luck he wasn’t interested telling me it didn’t have enough power for his likening.
I returned safely to Portsmouth without further bus incidents and a week or so before we sailed for Scotland sold my trusty Austin for four quid and half a tot (Tot being a naval issue of rum). I was sorry to see it go, I’d had a lot of fun and have never forgot this strange little motorcar. Thank you Mr Herbert Austin.
The End. God Bless and keep reading