It is very easy to forget just how small the Austin 7, or Baby Austin as it is often called, really was when it was “born” in 1922 - and how much it changed the Austin Motor Company.
At 194cm, or 6’ 4” in the old scale, seeing John Bowring standing beside or sitting in his 1923 Austin 7 makes you realize just how small the Baby Austin is.
John bought the car in about 1997 and although it had been restored many years earlier, and looked as it does now, he still had a bit of work to do on it. “We spent a bit of time, fiddling around with it, getting it roadworthy, as it were. It was road worthy, but not that well. Eventually we got it like you see it now.”
Some time later, John was working on the car and noticed it leaking oil “I examined it closely and the crankcase was cracked around the front bearing – all the way around. So I went out and got another crankcase of that age…Fortunately, though there weren’t many crankcases out here, one or two were enough for me to find one that they could use again and make it look the right one. It didn’t leak oil, that’s the main thing. That was a bit of a drama.”
The car was finished in about 2006 and, as the oldest running example in Australia, was a hit at the 85th anniversary rally in 2007, and John intends for it to be in Adelaide for the 90th rally in October this year.
John has since bought another Austin 7, an EA Sports, more commonly known as the Ulster, but his association with the cars goes back 60 years, to when he was an apprentice in Melbourne at the age of 17. “It was all the rage to get an old Austin 7 and do it up and use it, which is what I did”, he explains.
John joined the Austin 7 club in about 1955 or ’56 and raced his car for a few years, before selling it to go overseas for a year. He regularly hillclimbed the car, but most fondly recalls his outing at Albert Park, for the Australian Grand Prix meeting in 1958.
He has been a member of the club since those days, served on the committee and was made a life member in 1977.
Although, these days, illness prevents him from driving the ’23 model, he enjoys owning it and having it at special events. “The only use I have for it is the pleasure of having it. But I’m not selling it.”, he declares.
John showed me over the car, pointing out all the bits unique to the AB model of 1923-’24: the simple but elegant chassis without shock absorbers, the unique tail shaft with its Hookes joints, the scooped scuttles on the front of the body, the three-piece bonnet, the pram-style hood, the sloping windscreen but vertical trailing edge of the doors, the simple door locks, the lack of instruments apart from an ammeter – a speedo was offered as an accessory in 1924 and not standard fitment until the following year – the external choke for hand-starting the engine (although John’s has an electric starter fitted), and numerous other minor but important features.
What is most remarkable, though, is the condition of the car and the attention to detail to get it so correct, when considering how it started out.
Although none of the car’s early history is known, it turned up in the 1980s, advertised for sale in Queensland as a 1924 model. It was bought by a retired engineer in Melbourne and eventually made its way to Austin 7 authority Bill Sheehan to be completely restored.
“It turned out that at some stage, and I would suggest around 1929, it was completely rebuilt with a different body altogether, a (two-seater) coupe body”, Bill recalls. “The only components of the body that I could use to make a new ’23 body were the doors. They had actually added extra bits over the doors, and I found the original doors underneath. Even the wings were ’28 or ’29 and I had to alter them to match up with what a ’23 looked like – not a lot of difference, but you’re talking to someone who’s a bit pedantic here”, he laughs.
While the chassis and engine were complete – the engine was restored by an engineer in Phillip Island – Bill had to completely reconstruct the body, but with nothing as early to compare it with in Australia, it was a huge task. “I had to make a new bonnet, floorpan, a new hood frame, just about everything on the body was new. I had to make the seats for it as well, come to think of it, and even the bracket for the spare wheel.”
One of the problems faced is that the “7” was constantly changing, growing up and getting more civilised from the very beginning, and getting the details right for such an early model required a fair bit of detective work. These days owners have the benefit of Rinsey Mills’ book, Original Austin 7, to refer to, but that was not published until 1996 so was too late for Bill on this occasion.
“When I built the body and the hood frames I had to do it from memory of looking at ’23 models in England”, Bill admits. “I had made rough measurements of one while I was there, and the rest of it was all done from scaling off photos. There was a chap who was involved with a ’23 in England, who came here to Australia…and he had a look at it. I asked if there was anything he could see that’s not accurate and he couldn’t, so it must be pretty close to the original.”
It beggars belief that anyone would want to make an Austin 7 even smaller, but that’s basically what had been done to the car, as Bill explains. “When they rebuilt this car, to put the coupe body on it, they made it narrower and they cut 1½” out of the windscreen frame. I had to add that back in to get it back to its proper dimensions.”
This early model is significant anywhere, but more so in Australia. 1923 was the first year the Austin 7 was available here, with all cars for the first twelve months or so being imported complete with factory-made bodies. From about mid-1924, though, import restrictions meant the cars were brought in as running chassis, which were then fitted with locally-made bodies.
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