[Ed. note: This wonderful Austin Seven was driven by Matthew Harvey.]
It’s the last day in May, just a few weeks from Midsummer’s Day, but here in the wilds of Cumbria the weather is typically British. Summer is officially on strike. The sun is picketed by remorseless grey lumps hogging its warmth like stubborn trades unionists clustered round a brazier, unyielding and unrelenting.
The clouds may not be waving placards but the persistent drizzle is circumventing our collars. It’s dripping down our necks and sending shivers down our spines as Shop Stewards crying “All out!” must have done to British Leyland’s management in the 1970s.
Compounding the problem is my steed for the day, a direct ancestor of those Allegros and Princesses that left the line as unfinished as the sandwiches legend has it could often be found growing mouldy behind their door cards.
It’s an elderly Austin Seven Sports Tourer, the Smart Cabrio of its day, probably. It has wheels, an engine and gearbox, a fuel tank, a steering wheel, a windscreen and there is even a rumour of brakes but other than that just a rudimentary hood which offers little protection from rain that might soon be horizontal. Creature comforts you could count on a eunuch’s unit.
Do I care? Not right now. I dug out my skiwear in preparation for this experience, so while I might resemble a hipster Michelin man, I’m reasonably warm and mainly dry. And eager to get cracking. The Austin Seven might have been the first British car to use the pedal layout that has since become standard across the world, but I’m pretty certain that’s where the similarity is going to end.
I’ve driven enough different stuff to be able to get into most modern cars and conduct them in a fair fashion, but this thing is way back down the automotive evolutionary ladder. Driving it is going to be like trying to start a brand new species by seducing a trilobite. Especially as it’s owner and my “instructor”, Andrew, looks like he is barely out of short pants and more used to Pokemon and Lego than crash gearboxes and leaf springs. He says he’s 22; I’m considering asking for ID…
We chew the fat for a while in the garage, hoping for a break in the weather as things are looking a little brighter out to the West. Make no mistake, this isn’t some worthy restoration project destined one day hence for concours honours. It’s a mongrel, a waif and stray of dubious lineage, bought to compete in vintage trials. 1933 engine, ’33 gearbox, ’34 axle (all Austin Seven), ’28 radiator surround, 50s body homemade in the style of a ‘Cambridge’ special, 1960s Citroen 2CV headlamps, 80s trailer tail lamps, 1950s MGA rev counter, 1950s shelving brackets supporting the body to the floor. Vintage car by Bodgit and Scarper, so to speak.
Suddenly the breeze dies away, the rain shrugs its shoulders – then follows suit and the sun breaks through a gap in the lightening cloud scattering Jacob’s ladders hither and yon with carefree abandon. Don’t like the weather here? Wait ten minutes.
I hop into Andrew’s Mondeo and ease it out onto the lane to clear a path for the tiny Austin which emerges from cover like a small wiry dog that’s just spotted a rabbit in the distance, desperate to slip its leash and give chase. Andrew applies the handbrake then leaves it to warm up a little while I return the modern Ford to its spot on the drive and he shuts the garage. The Seven sits at the side of the lane, burbling contentedly as if sniffing the air for new things to pursue into the undergrowth.
Time to head off. I clamber over the ridiculously low doors, currently latched shut, and ease myself down into the passenger seat. Well I say seat; essentially it’s some plywood covered with a layer of 1/8″ packing foam, then some cast off black leather from a scrapyard. Andrew is about six foot and the original offerings were simply too thick to give him a chance of fitting into this sparse, cramped cockpit. My bony backside starts offering skyward pleas that the tired looking leaf springs have a modicum of give in them.
Andrew eases into first with ease I’m sure will take me a while to master, checks over his shoulder and off we go. Instantly I’m whisked back to a bygone era, empty roads (they are here), few speed restrictions bar in town and a time when “motoring” was a pastime mainly for a gentleman or lady with standing. Of course Herbert Austin’s little Seven was to change all that being as it was the first British car mass produced with the average working family man in mind.
I feel comforted and privileged to be experiencing what, other than Ford’s Model T, might lay claim to being the first, true, people’s car. I use the word comforted very loosely of course as a barber’s shop quartet of varying vibrations works its way into my pelvis, up my spine and threatens to match the resonant frequency of my back teeth! We joined the main road just briefly at the end of the lane but veered off almost immediately onto a gravelled, potholed farm track, the Seven skittering between the larger bumps, skinny tyres scrabbling like claws on concrete. Andrew is grinning and I realise via my aching cheek muscles that even after a few hundred years so am I. Lots.
We come to a locked gate but with practised ease my chauffeur spins his dinky charge within its own axis and crutches to a halt with a deft combo of hand and foot brake. “Thought you’d want to start away from the road,” he smirks. Not a bad shout. He eases long limbs over the side and I slide across, slip my feet into the tiny well to feel for pedals the size of bottle tops and run my hands around the skinny black wheel before reaching for the alien gear-lever and handbrake. Weird and familiar in one odd moment. With Mein Host beside me it’s time to grab this wee puppy by the scuff of its neck and show it I’m not scared.
Clutch in, manhandle the lever into what I think might be first, a little gas, clutch out and we are off. Revs climb and it’s time for the dreaded first change. Left foot down, into neutral, foot up and down again, into second and foot back up. I’ve done it, minimal graunching and barely a hint of a grimace on Andrew’s face. I grip the wheel that bucks in my hands over the uneven surface, inputting corrections that seem to reach the front wheels by semaphore, each one arriving with a satellite delay before they react. It’s unnerving at first, used as I am to the crisp response of modern kit built to miniscule tolerances but surprisingly easy to attune to. Into third, the speedometer climbing to 25, or is it 20, or 30? The needle wavers like a drunk trying to choose between the glass in front of him.
Barely a minute passes and the track starts to drop back towards the road. Back into second then hand on the handbrake for full stopping power if required. “Think you’ll be OK on the road?” I nod and grin before jinking back onto asphalt in the direction of Pooley Bridge and Ullswater beyond. I’m surprised at how quickly I’m at ease with this thing and into third once more I mash my foot hard onto the throttle too see how close I can get to this thing’s claimed 50mph top end. An incline ahead and our acceleration diminishes. “You can go faster,” says Andrew. “I know but this is all its got!” I reply. Andrew motions me to pull over into the verge then hops out and lifts one side of the hood. A plug wire has worked loose. Reattached things start to sound better but to be on the safe side Andrew takes over.
The car is pulling much better but now Andy is yelling things about the clutch over the din of wind and engine. We will carry on for now, forking left towards the village of Askham passing ramblers and cyclists who greet us with smiles and cheery waves. It’s infectious, this little car. As we chug along Andy fills me in on our next stop, Lowther Castle, former seat of the Earls of Lonsdale, the 5th one, Hugh, being one of the original Petrolheads of Great Britain. He had all his cars painted in yellow, his favourite hue (sic!) and became the first President of the Automobile Association whose colour remains thus to this day. Every day’s a school day.
Down a hill then over a cattle grid and we are into the grounds proper, sheep grazing freely on the lush lawns bordering the road, heads rising with intrigued looks. Even the livestock aren’t immune to this tiny car’s rough and ready charm. Andrew pulls over opposite the drive to the castle itself and we jump out so I can deploy the Canon and grab some context shots. Sheep now nonplussed.
We feel a few spots of rain once more so back in the saddle and my first vintage three point turn. Reverse requires two hands and some choice words questioning the Seven’s parentage but I manage. Back down the hill I can feel what Andy means about the clutch; any harder with my left hoof and I’ll be pedalling home to Bedrock and Wilma! Oddly though my years on the road come into their own and I forget the double declutch as we chat away about the car until it dawns on me I’m rev matching quite happily up and down the primitive box without a care.
Through Pooley Bridge and along the side of Ullswater, one of the prettier and less spoiled bodies of water in the English Lake District, I’m delighted to spot the Zafira in my mirrors, unable to pass on this narrow, twisty road and stifled to a mere 25 mph. Revenge is indeed a dish best served cold, with drizzle of drizzle and a side of flies; we are both tall enough to look over the low windscreen.
Suddenly power is dropping off again and Andy remembers this is about where the timing gear grenaded about six months ago leaving him with a long walk home to grab a trailer and recover the Austin back home. I pull over again for him to have another rummage in the car’s innards. Time to head back. He takes the wheel once again and I snap some rolling shots as he gives the car it’s head through the bends and it clings on gamely with remarkably skinny rubber.
Suddenly even in a car more than 80 years old we are being held up by a pensioner in a brown Honda Jazz, 27mph tops! You couldn’t make it up…
I sit back and enjoy my last moments with this charming, Frankensteined piece of our driving heritage, my senses assaulted as much as my tailbone.
Back at base and with the sun shining again it’s time for a few close up photos before we ease the game little Austin back into its bunk and close the garage door. I swear it gives me a little wink with one headlight.
[Photos: Matthew Harvey]