Veteran cars have never held much appeal for me, despite the fact that the very first automotive book I owned, a gift from my grandfather, was all about cars of this era. While they are the forerunners of the cars we have today, they have always felt rather remote, resembling more the carriages they evolved from than anything in the last sixty or seventy years. In my mind, they were just slow and finicky, rattly and uncomfortable, and happily consigned to the pages of history.
When I moved a year ago, however, I met someone who has been a part of the veteran car scene for decades, and gained a lot of new insight into and appreciation of that era of the automobile. He owns several veteran cars himself, including a 1912 Renault AX, and his most recent purchase, a 1925 Austin 7 ‘Chummy’. Today, he brought the Chummy round, and took me for a spin through town.
The Austin 7 was produced here in the United Kingdom from 1922-1939, and became one of the most popular British cars, chalking up sales of nearly 300,000 by the end of its run. It took its place in the British market in much the same way the Model T did in the American market, opening up the possibility of car ownership for many families with its affordability and simplicity. It is a small car, with a wheelbase of only 1905mm, and weighs in at a mere 360kg. This 1925 model came with a 696cc engine producing 7.2bhp, mated to a three-speed gearbox. It was said of the 7 that it did 40 miles to the gallon and 40 miles per hour, making it a very sensible and efficient choice for its time.
Having just purchased the car a couple of weeks ago, Stewart, the car’s owner, has been keen to get it out as much as possible before it goes into storage for the winter. A crisp and beautiful, sunny day here in North Yorkshire was just the ticket, and he brought it into town, where I bumped into him. He offered me a ride, which I couldn’t resist.
Just stepping into the car is quite an event, especially when the car barely weighs three times more than you do; it leans significantly to the side as you put your foot on the running board. The seats are spartan, and clearly built for someone of much smaller stature. For its size, space is decent, but if you’re over six feet tall, leg room will run out quickly. You rub shoulders with the driver, and the only place to really put your other arm is on the door sill, which is thin and hard. There is very little separating you from the engine – in fact, the gearbox protrudes into the cabin through a hole in the firewall, as you can see below – so you hear and feel everything operate in an intimate way. Vibrations abound, and with no synchros in the gearbox, you feel each delightfully mechanical gear change from the reverse-pattern box through the seat. On such thin tyres, mounted to a rather rudimentary suspension, there is no sense of gliding over imperfections in the road. The timing can be advanced or retarded with a lever on the steering wheel, and to keep everything running smoothly requires you to be tuned into what the engine is telling you at all times.
However, once up to cruising speed (about 35mph is ideal for the 7), everything comes together to make for a surprisingly relaxing driving experience. The engine settles down and thrums along contentedly, the vibrations smooth out to become almost cathartic, and with clear blue skies above and a nice breeze ruffling through your hair, you start to understand why people love this so much. It involves all of your senses, it invites a connection between you and the machine that modern cars do not. It is not hard to imagine spending an afternoon lazily touring the English countryside, gently winding your way across empty B-roads.
My first taste of vintage motoring may have only been a few miles through town, but it was a great experience. I’ve been invited back to enjoy a proper run through the country at some point, and I can’t wait.