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The story of the Austin 7 – the little car that hooked Britain on motoring

6 February 2023

Every country has its cars of the people – the first models that really got the populous moving. For America it was the Model T, Germany the Beetle, Italy the Cinquecento… the list goes on and on. Here, in good ol’ Blighty, our proletariat popped to the next parish courtesy of the humble Austin 7.

Celebrating its centenary last year, one of the most numerous machines on UK roads from its early ’20s introduction right up until the 1950s, the unlikely little Austin 7 spawned more kit cars and sports specials than pretty much any other platform in motoring. But where did it all begin and what’s behind this model’s perpetual popularity?

Austin 7 in sunny green field - Vintage Car Insurance

Classic Car Loan Project Austin 7 – Image by Liam Murphy

The Launch of the Austin 7

If you’re a car maker, war is something of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, you’re kept busy making munitions, but on the other, you haven’t the time or resources to develop your core business. For Herbert Austin, the First World War was particularly painful, not only had he lost his only son, but the firm that bore his name came off the back of that conflict facing financial ruin. The lowest ebb came in 1921 when the Austin Motor Company was forced into receivership.

Living with business failure and personal tragedy, anyone would have forgiven Herbert for throwing in the towel, but instead, he did something remarkable. Completely ignoring his near-sighted receivers, he grabbed young draftsman Stanley Edge from the Austin factory and set him up in the billiard room of Lickey Grange – Herbert’s stately home in Bromsgrove, near Birmingham.

Together with a few more covertly recruited staff, Herbert set about making a new, small and affordable motor car that would not only save the Austin Motor Company, but get Britain mobile to boot.

Barely a year after entering receivership, Herbert pulled a metaphorical rabbit from his hat – three actually – when he presented his prototype 7s to the Austin board. We can imagine many a misplaced monocle during his reveal, but nevertheless, Austin management gave Herbert its blessing, the little 7 entering production in 1923.

Although its first year wasn’t quite up to Herbert’s expectations, 2500 7s were sold. In no time at all, that figure was shattered, as sales broke through an expectation ceiling that even Herbert hadn’t considered possible.

The first Austin 7s

Unlike Ford’s much larger and less conventional Model T, the Austin 7 was given a pedal layout we’re all familiar with; clutch, brake and throttle (left-to-right) – the first mass produced car to do so. This, together with Austin’s ambition to make a big car in miniature, meant the 7 was remarkably user friendly.

Its tiny weight of 360kg also allowed its 7.5hp 696cc side-valve engine to release surprisingly adequate momentum – though it was certainly no sports car and slowing down often involved the driver to pray. In no time at all, power was upped to 10.5hp (RAC rated) and an electric starter was added – just two of a host of updates that would keep the 7 apace with its contemporaries, right up until the outbreak of WW2.

The Post War years

Post war, the 7 had an unlikely follow-up career as a sports car – well bits of it did anyway. By the end of production in 1939, Austin had sold nearly 300,000 7s, many of which could be found in newspaper classified ads as cheap secondhand cars or even as scrapyard parts donors.

These small and lightweight saloons were easily converted by ingenious engineers, many of whom would go on to greater things – both Bruce McLaren and Lotus founder Colin Chapman claimed some of their first motorsport scalps in machines they’d made from old Austin 7s. Even Sir William Lyons, of Jaguar fame, started his career making custom versions of the Austin 7 (called Swallows).

The Austin 7 Abroad

It wasn’t just the British motorist who got to sample the diminutive delights of the baby Austin. Licenced versions were sold as both BMWs and Nissans, the latter not entirely legally at first… Further licenced versions of the 7 were produced in America, France and even Australia. The legacy of the little Austin therefore extended well beyond helping to kick start two of today’s motoring titans.

Though many early owners will no longer be with us, enough cheap 7s were kicking around in the 1960s for the older motorist of today to still remember them – many a first car, driving lesson or early tinkering tale can still be traced to a 7.

Such was the cache of the name among UK car buyers that even in that era, both the Austin A30 and early Mini were given the ‘7’ moniker.

Vintage Car Ownership

As a vintage car ownership proposition – a century after its introduction – it’s surprisingly straightforward to own a 7. There are loads of clubs and specialists catering for these unique and charming machines. Parts are readily available and a home restoration is a doddle, if you’re mechanically minded.

There are a few bits of antiquated tech to get your head around, such as cable brakes and grease points, but getting to know these is all part of the fun. Then, when you’ve mastered the mechanics, few drives in motoring will prove as satisfying as trundling down to a local show on a sunny Sunday afternoon in your centenarian Austin.

You can even experience Austin 7 ownership with the Classic Car Loan Project, sponsored by Peter James. The project is a fantastic opportunity for young classic enthusiasts to experience classic car (and in this case vintage car!) ownership.

Austin 7 - Vintage Car Ownership experience and Vintage car insurance from the Classic Car Loan project and Peter James Insurance

Liam Murphy borrowed this Austin 7 as part of the PJI supported Classic Car Loan Project

Get a Quote Today – Vintage Car Insurance

They are easy and can be affordable to insure with Peter James as well, especially if you are a member of one of our partner clubs. Get in touch today or use our Quick Quote system to get an insurance quote by answering just six questions! Remember, all of our quotes include as standard:

✔️ Legal Protection

✔️ UK & European Breakdown Cover

✔️ Insurance Premium Tax

Call our expert team on 0121 274 5400.

Or if you’re a member of a classic Austin 7 club, you’re able to get a quote by answering just 6 questions – click here.

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