by Bill Vance
The Model T Ford, Volkswagen Beetle, and original Austin Seven were simple, sturdy designs that were affordable by the masses. All were so popular they were built in several countries. The Austin was the smallest.
Herbert Austin resigned as general manager of the Wolseley Tool and Motor Car Co., Birmingham, in 1905 to set up his own car company in nearby Longbridge.
He entered production in 1906, building a variety of models prior to the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. Most had four-cylinder engines, although sixes were produced, including a giant with 9.7 litres and 60 horsepower.
After the war Austin settled on one model, the Twenty, powered by a 3.6 litre side-valve four. It appeared in 1919 but poor sales soon forced Austin into receivership.
The one-model practice was abandoned, and the 1.6 litre Twelve, a scaled-down Twenty, was added. Its good sales turned Austin’s financial fortunes around, but Herbert Austin saw the need for an even lighter car that would be reliable, economical and affordable.
He was aware of the phenomenal sales of Ford’s Model T, and could look across the channel to France to the success of Peugeot’s tiny Quadrilette.
Because of opposition to such a small car among his company colleagues, Austin worked on the project away from the office. Legend has it that he did the design layout for the Austin Seven on his billiard table.
After Austin completed the concept, Stanley Edge, an 18-year-old draughtsman, prepared the final design drawings during the winter of 1921-22. Austin wanted his new car to occupy the same space as the then popular motorcycle-sidecar combination, and the vehicle that emerged looked tiny, even to British eyes.
The Seven had a diminutive 1905 mm (75 inch) wheelbase, and an over-all length of only 2692 mm (106 in.). To give this a more modern perspective, the BMC Mini announced in 1959 had a 2032 mm (80 inch) wheelbase, and was 3048 mm (120 in.) long.
Suspension was by a transverse leaf spring in front and two quarter-elliptic springs at the rear. It was advanced for the time in that it had four-wheel mechanical brakes, the front ones operated by the brake pedal and the rears through a lever (they all became pedal-operated in the 1930s). Weight was a mere 454 kg (1,000 lb).
The 696 cc (soon enlarged to 747) four-cylinder, side-valve, water-cooled, 10.5 horsepower engine had a two-bearing crankshaft. Austin had originally wanted a two-cylinder, air-cooled design, but Edge convinced him that he could design a four that would be smoother, quieter, and no more costly than the twin.
In spite of opposition, Austin brought his tiny car to market. Some in the motoring press called it a toy car, and there was even derision among some Austin company people. But that was before English aviation pioneer Gordon England was captivated by it.
England was convalescing in hospital with a broken leg when the Seven was announced. He studied its specifications closely, and decided it would make an excellent weapon to attack the 750 cc speed records.
He wrote to Herbert Austin with his idea and an agreement was soon reached. In due course a new Austin Seven arrived at England’s home. With the help of Sammy Davis, editor of The Auto-Car magazine, and the Brooklands race track, England broke several 750 cc records with his modified Seven. The baby Austin was building its reputation.
The Austin Seven proved popular with buyers, getting Austin through the worst of the Depression. It largely replaced the motorcycle-sidecar combination, and effectively killed off the cyclecar.
The Seven, Austin’s best selling model until 1932, was built until 1939. While remaining faithful to its original purpose, it got improvements along the way. An electric starter came in 1923. In the ’30s the wheelbase was increased 152 millimetres (6 in.), a 4-speed transmission replaced the original 3-speed, and bumpers were added.
The popular Seven was also built abroad. BMW made Sevens, which it called the Dixi, under licence in Eisenach, East Germany, and it was produced in France by Rosengart, and in Japan by Datsun.
The American Austin Car Co. Inc., incorporated in 1929, built Austin Sevens in Butler, Penn., but American Austin production never reached expectations.
The Austin Seven, and cars like the Ford Model T and Volkswagen Beetle, helped put the world on wheels. Although its total production of around 300,000 cars fell far short of 15 million Model Ts, or 22 million Beetles, it did carve its own little niche in automotive history.
The name was revived after the Second World War as a tiny unit-construction rear-drive car, and again in the front-drive Mini, but to long-time enthusiasts, the original Seven was the only “real” one.