Campbell drives his first ‘proper classic’ – an Austin Seven

7

Author: Russell CampbellPublished:

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.

And see the video that accompanies this blog here.

Comments

Chris Martin

So, has the bug bit? Yes a lack of brakes is scary, and they do wander a bit, but remember everybody drove vintage or veteran before 1930 so there should be no magic or mystery to it. Sevens are still excellent value, but for the larger chap I would recommend you now try a Model T Ford before deciding.

 

PaulJ

Bet the Seven was a monster following on from your 'underpowered modern'!  I appreciate that most modern cars have little or no character, but you do know that it would take some searching to find a new hot hatch that wouldn't crucify an E-type (for example), on a B-road or long straight?  I don't know what your modern was, but I'm fairly confident it has a better power and torque to weight ratio than the Seven.  Before anyone thinks I strayed onto this website by accident, I love old cars and have subscribed to Cand SC for many years, however, I'm very aware of how efficient modern cars have become.

Look forward to any indignant comments!

 

PaulJ

Russell Campbell

Hi Paul,

I wasn't comparing the modern - a 1.4-litre Seat Ibiza - to the Austin, it was simply underpowered given what its chassis could cope with. My comment was more a nod to the misery of having to drive it.

I think the power to weight output would be the least of the Seven's worries, but you touch on an interesting point. Unlike some colleagues, I have no beef with modern cars, but I do like to be kept interested and that's something that's sorely lacking in many of the models produced today.

I'm sure the Seat would have done surprisingly well against your benchmark E-type but, if i had to pick between the two, I'd rather have lost the race and been in the Seven.

I left my 'indignation setting' in mild :-)

PaulJ

A nicely balanced response Russell.  As I said, I do come from a background of loving, admiring and being rather sentimemtal about the old sports cars I used to run on a shoestring in my late teens and twenty's, but the last time I had what I considered to be and old car was 1986 (and the car was a 1969 Marcos 3-litre); though I did run a Westfield Eleven in the early 1990s.

I currently run a Cayman R and my partner Alison an Abarth 500, which is why I feel that some modern cars are capable stimulation, turning heads and raising smiles, but I'll finish by conceding that seeing an old Austin 7 on the road is guaranteed to raise the spirits of petrol-heads and civilians alike.  On behalf of those of us who wimp out in new cars I propose a toast to all those who run vintage and classic cars and enhance our quality of life whenver we come accross one.  May your sparks never extinguish!

Russell Campbell

Well, hats off to you Paul, I've had a shot in a Cayman R and it was one of the most memorable rides I've ever had - that engine is a masterpiece. The door pulls less so...

Thanks for reading!

Bloggins

Like you my first 'proper' (if 'proper' means pre-war) classic drive was in an Austin 7.  In my case it was a friend's authentic 1930 'Blown' Ulster.  Even with it's original Cozette supercharger puffing up a storm it couldn't be termed a fast car, but there are pleasures to be had from driving other than speed and power.. And pleasure there was aplenty from the little Austin.  Whisking along country roads, practically devoid of traffic, in that little sportster ranks as one of my greatest driving experiences ever.

MiltonKer

I have checked it....These are really amazing would like to try them...Check 'em body kit

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