Many Americans believe that Henry Ford invented the motor car. He didn’t, of course – that honour goes to Karl Benz, who filed the first patent for such a vehicle in 1886, a full 22 years before the Model T arrived on the scene. But their confusion is understandable, as it was the Model T that really made the car a mass-market proposition in the USA.
A few years later, on this side of the pond, there was another vehicle that had a similar impact, hugely outselling its rivals and bringing the motor car within reach of the proverbial Man On The Clapham Omnibus. Dear reader, we give you: the Austin 7.
Born into a Buckinghamshire farming family in 1866, Herbert Austin trained as an engineer and, at the age of 18, emigrated to Australia, where he found employment with the Wolseley Sheep Shearing Machine Company. By the age of 30 he’d spearheaded Wolseley’s diversification into motor cars, but by 1901 Wolseley had sold its car business to Vickers and in 1905 Herbert left to set up his own Austin Motor Company.
By 1908 the Austin plant in Longbridge, Birmingham was already making 17 different models of car, but all of these were large luxury vehicles. During the First World War, the Longbridge plant was turned over to munitions production, but once the war had ended, Austin looked at the Model T’s huge US sales and wanted to come up with an affordable small car that could replicate its success in the UK.
Other directors and shareholders were less convinced, so Austin took the car on as a personal side-project, aided by a young draughtsman called Stanley Edge, then still in his teens. They spent several years working on a number of radical designs – one even included a diamond-shaped frame with front, rear, left and right wheels, as opposed to the standard two-front, two-rear combination!
The Austin 7 that finally emerged in 1922 wasn’t quite as revolutionary as all that, and at first glance, the car bore more than a passing resemblance to the Ford Model T that had inspired it. But the small, wallet-friendly vehicle proved a revelation, almost single-handedly wiping out the cycle-car sector and putting Austin on the UK motoring map for good.
The first Austin 7 was an open tourer, but Austin would go on to make the car in a wide array of configurations, including a two-door tourer, saloon, cabriolet and coupé, and a three-door van. All shared the same basic A-frame chassis, though this too was modified over time, with three different, progressively larger versions being used during the Austin 7’s 1922-1939 production run. The four-cylinder, side-valve engine originally had a capacity of 696cc, but this increased to 747cc in 1923.
A total of around 290,000 Austin 7s were built and sold during its 17-year lifetime, including special editions such as the Brooklands Super Sport (a 1924 replica of the heavily modified 7 in which Gordon England had won the 200-mile race at Brooklands in 1923) and the Austin Seven Swallow, which had an Austin 7 frame and a body by the Swallow Sidecar Company.
Perhaps more importantly, Austin also licensed the 7 to various manufacturers overseas – indeed, the first-ever cars made by both BMW and Datsun (later Nissan) were rebadged Austin 7s. Thus, the Austin 7 can be said to have helped kickstart the car industry not just in the UK, but worldwide.
For more detail on the Austin 7’s history, see this superbly in-depth write-up on Silodrome, or watch this 1984 documentary, which features an interview with the car’s original designer, Stanley Edge.
With so much history behind it, you might expect the Austin 7 to be worth a small fortune – but you’d be surprised. With 10,000 of the original 290,000 cars still in existence, Austin 7s are actually quite easy to get hold of, and relatively inexpensive.
At the time of writing, we could find numerous 7s being offered online, with prices ranging from an absolute steal at £4,200 to a more considerable £27,350 – with most priced somewhere in the mid-teens. And for an iconic vehicle that’s nearly 100 years old, that has to be a bargain!
At Autoshippers, we’ve been lucky enough to ship a number of Austin 7s over the years. Here are a few of them: