Charming, nimble and resilient, the Austin Seven remains one of Britain’s most popular pre-war classics. With a thriving club scene and enviable heritage, here’s how to find your perfect slice of early ‘everyman’ motoring.
• Project: £1500-3500 • Good: £3500-11,000 • Concours: £11,000-19,500 •
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As the 1920s took hold, motoring remained a fledgling pursuit for all bar society’s wealthiest, the vast majority of motorcars priced well beyond the means of Britain’s average family. Many itched for the open road yet the majority could only dream – until the revolutionary Austin 7 landed on UK tarmac in 1922.
Weighing in at only 360kg and initially powered by a 696cc engine, the 7 was a surprisingly proficient and nimble car to drive. After 12 months of production the powertrain was upgraded to a 747cc sidevalve unit which delivered 10.5bhp – genuinely impressive for a budget vehicle of the day. Such was the little Austin’s popularity that it virtually replaced the commonplace cycle-cars and mopped the floor with other economy cars of the era.
Buy an Austin 7 today and you’ll own a classic that most would consider somewhat slow and incredibly simple. However, ask those participating in off-road trials and hillclimbs about the capabilities of their pre-war 7s and you’ll likely be surprised by how capable and rugged these little cars can be. Not only are they still affordable, they are also immensely easy to work on, are supported by enthusiastic owners clubs and there’s a plentiful supply of spares on hand. Add in a bucketload of charm, likely bigger than the car itself, and it’s hard to come up with a reason why you wouldn’t want one…
Your AutoClassics Austin Seven inspection checklist
Unless you are looking for an Austin 7 that has been specifically prepared for tackling hillclimbs and auto-tests, lengthy consideration as to which particular engine lies in front of you is generally not worthwhile. Whether 696cc or 747cc, you are buying into what would be considered by most as placid performance regardless of specification.
A popular choice due to strong and durable engines, offering reliability that would likely surprise newcomers to the pre-war scene, but don’t overlook the simple mechanicals. Apply the same common sense you would with a more modern car and aim to at least assure yourself that the engine is well lubricated and has received regular maintenance throughout its lifetime.
The crankshaft is splash lubricated and, depending on the age of the car, runs on either two or three main bearings. With pre-1936 models, it pays to carefully inspect the two-bearing configuration as these can suffer from counter-revolution stress if previous drivers have either revved in neutral or relied on engine braking to slow the car. Start the car from cold – if you hear a rumbling from within the engine, you may have a worn bearing or damaged crankshaft. If the noise stops when the clutch is pressed down, potential offenders could be the bearings or a loose flywheel. If the noise is persistent, whether the clutch is up or down, the crankshaft may be damaged and in need of expensive repair.
If your Austin was manufactured before 1928 the ignition employs a magneto, later cars a coil. Should you detect erratic running thereafter, your first port of call should be to check for worn or frayed wiring. This can also be a potential fire hazard, so even if the rest of the car is functioning well, it’s worth remedying for safety.
Ideally you want an engine bay that is as dirt-free as possible – giving you a clean slate from which to detect any new fluid and oil leaks. You want to avoid stray electrical sparks making contact with the engine oil, particularly around the starter motor, which can unhelpfully ignite.
Corroded contacts may suggest the car has either not received the care it needs or has sat unused for some time. It’s a straightforward job to clean or replace the offending points but bear in mind, should you find yourself having to do this, there could be bigger issues to contend with elsewhere.
Leave the engine running for a short while to check for overheating. Cooling is by thermosiphon rather than a water pump: should things get hot, check for a slipping fan, blocked radiator or overly retarded ignition timing – all simple fixes but equally able to prevent you driving your new set of wheels home on the day of purchase.
Finally, don’t be too surprised to find modern upgrades such as electronic ignition, headlight alterations and 12v conversions hidden amongst the vintage mechanicals. This is normally a previous owner having tried to make their 7 more practical for day-to-day use. Check these modifications have been done satisfactorily to get the best out of them as well as further minimising the risk of fire.
The Austin 7 gearbox has proven to be sturdy and reliable. The earliest 7s were fitted with a three-speed, non-synchromesh gearbox and single-plate clutch. These gate-change boxes have a ball joint at the base of the gearlever and, due to the mainshaft gears not rotating on the shaft, there will be no bush wear to look out for. On the three-speed gearboxes there tends to be a weak spot on the clutch thrust bearing but if this causes issues it can be replaced with an equivalent item from a later four-speed box.
A four-speed ‘crash’ gearbox, with double helical gears, briefly featured on models between 1933 and 1934. This is a particularly resilient unit and unless it is particularly noisy, it shouldn’t require any urgent maintenance. In the latter half of 1934, a gearbox with synchromesh on second, third and fourth was offered. All of the four-speed gearboxes are interchangeable which may appeal when considering that spares availability for later boxes is not as strong as one might hope. Some parts, including the coupling adaptor and synchro rings, are interchangeable with more contemporary post-7 Austin units from as late as 1954, whilst synchro drums can be purchased brand new.
The main issues to look out for on all Austin 7 gearboxes are general wear and tear to the teeth and jumping out of gear whilst on the move (most usually second), which is normally caused by faulty adjustment of the selector springs or incorrect positioning of the selector rods. Despite the obvious ease of driving that the synchromesh boxes can offer, be aware that they are more prone to jumping out of gear than those in the early 7s – the culprit normally a broken or weakened selector fork. Remember to also check the top of the gearbox, which is rather prone to wear due to a steel gear lever ball running directly in the alloy casting.
If all is in good order, it should be delightfully light work going through an Austin 7’s H-pattern slots. The main issue, even in good condition and more so with early models, is that there is often a notable whine from the indirect gears. This can be remedied by using a thicker oil than what is stated in the period literature, with use of non-EP SAE 90 gear oil and SAE 50 engine oil often recommended by modern day owners, although bear in mind that this can make upward changes more difficult in very cold weather.
Suspension and brakes
Begin by having a good look at the car as it sits parked on level ground – does it sit evenly all round? If not, you may have some suspension issues to investigate. Have a thorough look underneath to ensure the springs are free from cracks and remain strongly secured to the chassis.
Unless major problems have already been revealed, gently steer the car from side to side whilst out on a test drive. Ensure your 7 responds in a manner you’d consider predictable. If greeted by wayward handling, you’d be wise to inspect the shackles and rubber bushes at the end of the shock absorbers. They should fit snugly and will last a long time if they’ve been greased adequately.
Check there is plenty of material remaining on the friction pads of the shock absorbers and dampers. If you spot corrosion to any of the bronze bushes, this may be a sign that incorrect additives have been used in the past.
Noise through the transmission is fairly common on a car from this era of motoring. However, if you hear notable noise coming from the axles, check for lateral movement in the suspension kingpins, as a lack of lubricant could be to blame.
Early Austin 7s had braking split between the foot pedal operating the front cable brakes and the handbrake controlling those on the rear. A more conventional linkage came from 1930 onwards with both operated via the brake pedal. Get a friend to press on the brake pedal while you check all the steering joints and cables for operation. If the hubs twist or the joints flex under braking, there’s some play to be addressed. Whilst out on your test-drive, lightly hold the steering wheel and gently apply the brakes to see if the car slows in a straight line. Press the brake pedal several times over, slightly harder with each application. If at any point the car starts to veer to one side under braking, at least one of your brakes requires attention.
Sir Herbert Austin himself was largely responsible for the Seven’s outward design, with styling cues supposedly taken from the Peugeot Quadrilette – a similar rival selling in good numbers across the channel. Meanwhile, an American truck used in the Longbridge factory during the early 1920s inspired the A-frame chassis. The 7’s steel chassis is set in a triangular shape, providing three-point suspension to the engine and body of the car while a transverse spring carries the channel-section frame above its central point. This gives the undercarriage the flexibility it needs to resist distortion.
Depending on which model you choose, an Austin 7 body may be made of fabric, aluminium or steel – all of which have their unique issues to contend with. Tears in body fabric often require specialist help, whilst oxidisation in aluminium can be difficult to cure. Steel bodywork, although prone to rust, is normally the easiest to remedy as it can be tackled in much the same way as any other car. Steel body panels can be obtained with relative ease should conventional rustproofing fail you.
With all 7’s, ensure to check the floorpan and around the fuel tank as these seem to be the most vulnerable spots. If inspecting a Ruby, remove the spare wheel carrier and check for problems there too. Underneath the car you’ll likely find that the oil from the engine will have mostly kept the chassis rot-free but be sure to inspect around the front and rear crossmembers, as well as beneath the running boards, as corrosion can begin to run riot if mud has been kicked up and trapped damp on the underside.
Finally, a thorough inspection of the metal and wooden framing is recommended on any 7 categorised as a project or you could face time-consuming and costly repairs.
The inside of an Austin 7 is fundamentally basic but even so, it is also regarded as historically relevant being the first interior of a British car to resemble the same configuration as a modern day car. General checks include lifting some carpet to inspect the condition of the floor and checking all the electrics function as you would expect. When out on a test-drive, if you spot erratic behaviour in the gauges in front of you, the most likely cause will be some frayed wiring lurking behind the dashboard but otherwise you shouldn’t encounter too many difficulties. With two occupants in the front seats, the snug cockpit won’t have any room for trouble!
So long as you’re up for a little effort when it comes to obtaining replacement parts for your Austin’s interior, you should be able to source virtually every component found within a 7. Recommended sources include the various Austin 7 owner’s clubs, eBay and specialist autojumbles across the UK, particularly that of Beaulieu. Seat frames can often found at autojumbles and auctions, although you may require a classic car upholsterer to complete your seats for you.
- 1922: The new Austin 7 launches as ‘The Motor for the Million’
- 1923: Larger 747cc engine increases power output to 10.5 bhp
- 1930: Front and rear brakes now operated more conventionally via the foot pedal
- 1932: Four-speed ‘crash’ gearbox introduced
- 1934: Four-speed gearbox with synchromesh on 2nd, 3rd & 4th added
- 1939: The last Austin 7 leaves the factory, with a total of around 290,000 vehicles made
If you’re looking for an affordable way to experience all the fun and adventure of pre-war motoring, the Austin 7 is an ideal candidate. Don’t let the simple mechanicals and basic trim fool you – underneath is an astonishingly able little car that will likely surprise all who enter with just how durable and willing it is. As with all vehicles of this age, some knowledge of how to double declutch, paired with some good old fashioned mechanical sympathy, would prove highly beneficial. Otherwise an Austin 7 offers a driving experience not as unfamiliar as you might anticipate.
Expect the entry point for Austin 7 ownership to be around £3500 for a good model and anywhere up to £20,000 for a pristine, racing-prepared example. Granted some spares could prove a little tricky to source but given that some of these humble 7s are nearing 100 years old, you’ll find it hard to grumble about your charming chariot in miniature.
Picture courtesy of MagicCarPics
696 cc Austin 7