Project Austin 7
Client confidentiality is intrinsic to our work, but when we have the full permission of the owner of such a rare treasure, we are then able to tell the story, showcase the work and share some of the beauty and character retained in an old car.
The work we are undertaking on this gem of a 1928 Austin 7 embodies much of the ethos at Julian Parker Limited in that we seek to preserve the aesthetic, embracing the history and the hallmarks of time in the vehicles we conserve.
This beautiful fabric bodied ‘Baby Austin’, as they were known, has survived so well due to a particular set of circumstances, including both the climate of Southern Spain and the economic effects of the authoritarian regime of General Franco.
But first, before we tell its story – a bit of background information about these fantastically popular little cars:
How did the Austin 7 come to be so successful?
As early as 1920, the already successful vehicle manufacturer, Sir Herbert Austin started looking into the possibility of producing an affordable and reliable vehicle to meet the needs of a modern aspiring family. Prior to this, motor car ownership was solely the privilege of the most wealthy.
When, in 1922, Austin engaged the talent of a brilliant young engineering draughtsman, Stanley Edge (only 18 years old at the time), his plans were given a massive boost and the two men, based at Austin’s own home, designed what was to become one of the most important vehicles this country has ever made.
Production began in 1923, initially priced at £145 and within the grasp of many aspiring car owners, the company saw some 290,000 units being produced for the home and export markets. The extremely well-made and highly regarded Austin 7 later went on to be licensed and copied by companies all over the world.
Anyone involved in old cars will know of the Austin 7, some will have been lucky enough to own one. Talk to anyone who has ever worked on one and they will, undoubtedly, tell you of the car’s quality, simplicity and ingenuity.
It is for these reasons that almost a century later, they are so well respected and still prized among collectors. And to have an original fabric bodied model is a rare thing indeed.
Fabric Covered Coachworks: Why? How? And What Went Wrong?
Virtually all vehicles from the Austin Seven’s era were constructed with a rolling chassis, holding all the mechanical components. Onto this, a wooden framed body was fitted and the outer panels were attached to that frame. This was an expensive and lengthy process as the wooden frame must be both perfectly shaped and rigid enough to hold the metal panels in place. The outer panels were often hand made by highly skilled craftsmen.
In the 1920s the vehicle production industry embraced the opportunity to make savings by replacing the inflexible and heavy outer panel work, choosing instead to stretch ‘Rexine’, a cloth coated with a mixture of cellulose paint and castor oil and formerly used in the manufacturing of WW1 aircraft wings, over the wooden frame and nail it into position.
The economic gains were obvious, but this system also allowed for lighter bodywork that was flexible enough to absorb the movement of driving and eradicate the noisy rattling and movement commonly found on traditional aluminium or steel bodies.
At the same time there was a wave of modernism in design circles where the unnecessarily flamboyant and over-decorative designs of past vehicles were understandably being questioned. The new fabric covered saloon cars embraced the utilitarian ideals of simplicity and modernism.
However, this was a short lived phase; the limitations of Rexine material designs fell out of favour and by the early 1930s, fabric bodywork had all but disappeared.
The British Weather Strikes a Blow
Vehicles that had been constructed with fabric covered bodies suffered terribly at the hands of the British weather. The construction process made use of thick cotton padding stuffed between the wooden frame of the vehicle and the outer Rexine covering. As the Castor oil held within the painted layer hardened over time, all compliance in the material failed, resulting in small cracks appearing. These cracks naturally let rainwater in, so whenever it rained, the water not only passed through the surface cracks but was absorbed by the cotton padding like a sponge.
This moisture then sat within the fabric of the vehicle and was able to rot the wooden frames, having dire consequences for these vehicles.
As you can imagine, very few fabric bodied vehicles have survived intact, particularly the more modest cars which would not have led the sheltered existence of a luxury model. Therefore to find a totally original fabric bodied Austin 7 is extraordinarily rare.
General Franco and The Little Austin
We have both the sunny climate of Southern Spain and the authoritarian regime of General Franco to thank for the condition of this particular Austin 7.
Built in 1928, this Austin was immediately exported to Valencia in Eastern Spain and became a hard-working little vehicle owned by a young doctor there.
Little else is known of its early life except we do know that in 1948 it was owned by a gentleman living in nearby Alicante, where it seemed to stay until the early 1960s.
It is due to the severe economic austerity of post-civil war Spain under General Franco that the Austin 7 would not have been replaced. Despite becoming old and possibly unfashionable, the owner would have had no option but to service the Austin and hold onto it. Thank goodness then, that the simplicity and ingenuity of the original design meant that it was a car that could be kept going even under the most restrictive of circumstances.
This national economic difficulty, combined with the wonderfully dry climate, saved, what was even then, a very old vehicle.
By the mid 1960s though, the Austin really was tired and most things that could wear out, had worn out. However, it battled on and was kept going until a poor repair to the crown wheel and pinion within the rear axle stopped all forward motion.
Fortunately, the car was put into a dry farm outbuilding where it stood for over 40 years. It was discovered there in 2016 by a young Spanish enthusiast who understood the significance of such an original vehicle.
The Future For the Austin 7
In 2017, some 89 years after it rolled off the production line at Longbridge, the Austin 7 returned to the UK and is now undergoing full conservation by the team at Julian Parker Limited.
In our opinion, this particular little vehicle is probably one of the most important and complete vehicles we have ever had the privilege to work on. It is now 90 years old and carries all the hallmarks of life and wear that one would expect with a vehicle that has had to work for the majority of its life.
There is a wonderfully dignified yet melancholic element held within the character of this exceptional little car. An element that will, with careful and considered conservation, remain for future generations to enjoy and to study.
With the blessing of the current owner, we plan to showcase the conservation work undertaken on the car through a series of regular posts on our Facebook page. Please click on the link to follow its progress.