The day began as it does on any occasion that I’m released from the office, feasting on a breakfast of disorganisation before haring down the motorway in an underpowered modern driven by a cocktail of excitement and I’m-going-to-be-late panic. The latter could explain my large – and much discussed – fuel bills...
I had plenty of reasons to be upbeat, though, because I was about to drive my first ‘proper’ classic – an Austin Seven. Not just any old Seven either, this car had ferried its owners more than 18,000 miles around the Americas.
Like all the best things at Classic & Sports Car, the chance came via a shared sense of enthusiasm that burst over the phone line from the car’s keeper – Guy Butcher. Guy was a man who I had already sensed was slightly unhinged, even before he told me that I should drive his car.
The lock-up where he does much of his work is quite an HQ, a man cave brimming with tools, equipment and projects – the kind of place all of us like to spend time in.
I’d already seen the Seven parked outside, awaiting its destiny and our resident fountain of knowledge, Al Clements, had filled me in on how to approach my quarry: “Drive it smoothly, remember it doesn’t have brakes, wear small shoes [I have size 11 feet...], and don’t crash it – but you probably won’t fit.”
So, having chatted with Guy over a cup of coffee and some biscuits, while also admiring the retired consultant’s 1933 Frazer Nash, I found myself behind the wheel of the Seven.
Guy’s relaxed pre-flight briefing had done a lot to calm the nerves, but to take to the road unaccompanied in a car that was nearly 100-years old – when my exposure to classics ran only to a Vauxhall Chevette – was quite daunting. I can only hazard a guess as to how its owner was feeling as zero-hour approached.
As Clements had alluded to, space was at a premium for my ample frame. Getting my left leg in was simple enough, but I had to pick my right peg up and position it in by hand. And even then, whether my feet were on the correct pedals – or any pedals at all – seemed to be a case of luck rather than judgment.
Starting the beastie involved much of the theatre of a racer: flicking the safety switch and firing up the fuel pump, before pushing the starter button.
Releasing the handbrake – I soon found – gave my left foot access to the clutch and, as I hurtled down the road, Guy slammed the driver’s door shut, and I was off.
The next 10 minutes or so were probably the most exciting, terrifying and focused of my entire life, but there was a lot to get my head around at first. Turning, steering and stopping all required a level of concentration that I hadn’t needed in a long time.
But a few roundabouts later, all the worry had been forgotten and I was basking in the delights of what a wonderful little car the Seven is.
Yes, the steering was heavier than I was used to – although nothing like the Frazer Nash that I had a cheeky drive in later – but it was also positive, and my gearchanges became smoother the longer I was with the car, double-declutching and matching the revs when conditions allowed.
The engine, in the ‘fast road’ 25bhp specification of Butcher’s car, was delightfully torquey, which was much appreciated when faced with the prospect of a momentum-losing uphill downchange.
It was the beaded-edge tyres that took the most getting used to with the venerable Austin, it tending to wander on the straights and squirm in the corners in a way that I never became completely accustomed to.
Other people’s reactions were illuminating, too, as they beckoned me out of junctions, apologised for getting in the way and even stopped to share memories of learning to drive theirs. It is quite clearly a feelgood car.
So it was a shame to hand back the keys, but it was an experience that I will always remember and I now understand why the Seven means so much to so many. Practicality dictates that one could never be my only car but, someday, it just might be my second.
Read our news story to find out more about this incredible Austin.