The Austin Seven (1922-1939)
Arguably, the Austin Seven was the most important British car of the twentieth century. At its launch in 1922, motoring was predominantly the preserve of the wealthy with Britain’s car industry producing a preponderance of heavy and expensive vehicles. Aside from these mainly upmarket leviathans was a second group, classified as light cars that were, in the main, not ‘light’ at all. This group consisted of smaller, up to 1.5-litre vehicles that were almost as ponderous as their larger brethren and still remained financially out of the reach of all bar the wealthy middle and upper classes. The exceptions were generally the cyclecar types. Invariably produced in small quantities, cyclecars were lightweight one or two-seater vehicles powered by small single or twin cylinder engines which were totally unsuitable for comfortable travel over extended distances. In many instances, they were purchased as second vehicles for sport or leisure purposes by the very same wealthy individuals who owned the vehicles mentioned earlier.
The construction and finish of the new Austin Seven was a step-change from the Heath-Robinson methods employed by the cyclecar manufacturers in that it was clearly recognisable as a proper motor car, albeit significantly smaller than had been seen previously. The popular daily newspapers and the motoring press quickly adopted the term ‘baby car’ for the new Austin model, a name also applied to the many similar ‘pretenders’ from rival manufacturers that followed-along over the course of the next eighteen years.
The first Austin Seven model was an open four-seater that could comfortably accommodate two adults and two young children, in other words, a family. That was something a cyclecar could not hope to emulate. Despite a lack of models, just the Tourer (or ‘chummy’, an epithet that attached itself to this model) was made in the first two years of production. It sold extremely well, becoming the Austin Motor Company’s best-selling car almost immediately, remaining so until as late as 1935 after which that mantle was passed on to the Austin Ten.
In the six years between 1922 and 1928, the Austin Seven established itself in the nation’s psyche. It raced at Brooklands, broke speed records, was seen at garden parties, crossed continents and sold in thousands. It was very much a child of the frivolous Roaring Twenties and epitomised the nation’s desire to put the horrors of the Great War behind them. Throughout this period more models were added to the range including saloons and coupes, the factory cars being supplemented by an array of specials from the coachbuilding trade.
At the time of the Morris Minor’s launch in 1928, the Austin Seven was already an established model with a well-earned reputation for solidity and reliability at an affordable price. Along with these important worthy factors, the Seven also epitomised the lighter side of motoring, enabling a new breed of owner to have fun and enjoy using their cars to explore Britain’s expanding highways and byways network. It was also a catalyst for change in the British car industry. The model’s almost immediate success prompted other British car manufacturers to launch their own ‘baby’ models, in most cases, long before Morris Motors launched the Minor.
The Minor, in contrast, did not get off to a good start. It suffered numerous well-publicised teething issues not least of which was the loss of oil through the bevel gear housing at the front of the cylinder head, resulting in engine bays and radiators being liberally sprayed with a coating of oil. Worse was to follow as just 12 months after its launch the Wall Street Crash heralded a dramatic downturn in world trade which hit Britain’s motoring industry very hard indeed and the Minor was not immune from that impact.
By the time the new Morris Minor models were beginning to reach dealer showrooms in October 1928, there were already 74,500 Austin Sevens on Britain’s roads, the Seven’s popularity representing something of a handicap to the newcomer. During the period October 1928 through to August 1934, the years over which the Morris Minor and Austin Seven were matched one against the other, the Austin Seven sold 135,277 units while the Minor mustered sales of 86,343. By way of a comparison the Triumph Super Seven, a similar sized, albeit more expensive rival of both cars, sold approximately 17,000 units over the same period, while Singer’s Junior model found approximately 40,000 customers between 1926 and 1931.
The images to be seen below illustrate the wide variety of Austin Seven models that were available throughout the twenties and thirties. It was the model that introduced “motoring to the masses”, a legacy of which to be proud. A huge total of 314,458 Austin Sevens of all types left Longbridge between 1922 and 1939, over 10,000 of which survive across the globe. Today, the model is supported by numerous clubs and societies scattered all around the world, a fitting testament to the cars widespread appeal. To discover more about this phenomenon take the time to explore these popular websites by following the links to be found below. (Copyright PWMN November 2018)
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