Over a quarter of a million motorists would have had to face 1920’s public transport if Austin’s little world-beater hadn’t arrived.
One Man’s Seventh Heaven
Herbert Austin could not have anticipated the transformation his creation would bring to the world of transportation but even from the earliest sketches he could well have realised he was on to a winner. From its 1922 Motor-show introduction the Austin Seven would go on for 16 years with production across the globe, whilst restricting Henry Ford’s world dominance and signalling the end of the cycle-car era. The Seven put Britain at the forefront of small, affordable and reliable transport whilst production in America and Australia added to the numbers. BMW produced their first motor car in 1928 called the Dixi; this was a Seven produced under licence, as did Rosengart in France whilst Nissan copied the Seven in Japan. The same year saw a dozen specialist coachbuilders purchasing the Longbridge made chassis, creating more bespoke motor cars, one of which was Mulliners Ltd of Birmingham. The Mulliner name has been associated with coachbuilding from the 1800s, alongside supplying the military with heavy ordinance through several decades. From their factory in Bordesley Green Road they would produce various versions of fabric bodied ‘Sevens’, a fashion that was very much in vogue during the era. Records show 2868 fabric saloons left Mulliners in 1928 and 2549 the following year. As the fashion became less popular and the Great Depression began to influence the market, 1269 were built in 1930 and the following year production ceased after just 424 left the plant. At £150 the Mulliner Saloon was at the more affordable end of coach built Austin’s but with limited survivors their values are significantly higher in today’s classic car marketplace.
Classic Monogamy a Single 7
‘I was not really interested in classic cars, my passion was stationary engines and I had never thought of restoring such a thing until I visited a local show’ Fred Carter told me. He and a friend Wally Dew were admiring the machines on display and the Austin Seven selection had an immediate impact. ‘I told Wally I fancied restoring a Seven, I didn’t know much about them but that was my plan’. So in 1979 an opportunity arose, when tucked away at the rear of a dealer’s showroom in Chichester, one tired looking Seven changed hands for £500. Fred remembers the car arriving on a trailer with the body wrapped in cotton sheets to stop bits falling off on the journey. ‘Once we untied the sheets my wife Jenny took one look and said what on earth have you bought there, to be honest I didn’t actually know’. Although the new owner knew it was a Seven he had no idea which or what type and it took a year to unravel the mystery. Many letters and drawings with measurements were posted to authorities within the Austin Seven world and finally he received confirmation ‘you have a very rare car there Mr Carter, it’s a Fabric Bodied Mulliner’. This car was registered 25th May 1929 and was one of very few short chassis versions produced, its rarity however would not help with the restoration as information was scarce. Rebuilding the Seven was going to be a challenge for an experienced campaigner but Fred was a car restoration virgin and without the luxury of detailed drawings or plans where to start presented his first conundrum. The Mulliners machine had metal floor pans supporting an ash frame, there are no body panels the fabric is stretched over the ash and if that sounds simple, it isn’t.
One Seven Restoration 5 Years
‘Once I knew what I had, the rest I had to learn as I went along’ Fred continued ‘templates from the remains were the answer’. The purchase of a large block of ash and some impressive wood working skills enabled the frame to be copied piece by piece. After cutting the shape as near as possible, Fred sanded and shaped the many separate parts before attaching together with adhesive and screws. Once the frame was completed, a layer of Hessian was attached on the inner edges of each area and the void between the frame filled with cotton waste. A fabric called Calico then sealed the area and allowed for the top surface ‘leatherette’ to be stretched as tight as possible and pinned into place with copper nails. This process required strong stretching tools and it certainly worked well as there are no signs of sagging or creases 30 years later. The sliding roof presented some unique problems as very little of the original sections remained and luckily Fred managed to pursued wife Jenny to take on the headlining; which she completed with amazing results. The roof sliding mechanism was of Fred’s own design and looks totally in period, as do the internal trim panels; ply board shaped to fit, then covered by Jenny, all of which show little sign of being fitted 3 decades ago. ‘Many parts were missing or just un-restorable, so auto jumbles like Beaulieu became compulsory, without them I would never have completed the car’ Fred remembered. The air vents behind the bulk head had to be round and not the normal letterbox style and the wheels fitted to the car were not of the type Mulliners fitted in 1929. Sourcing those kind of items took time and mechanical parts were also on the list as the 749cc engine faced a rebuild with new rings installed. Research turned out the car had an engine change just after WW2 and the documentation confirmed the replacement unit is still powering the ‘Seven’ today. Completed in 1986 Fred recollects the first journey undertaken covered 82 miles, a round trip that included the cars first show, taking a trophy home was a real bonus.
One Enjoys a Run
A chance to enjoy a drive in any Austin Seven should always be grabbed with both hands, so whilst Fred prepared the engine with fuel on and ignition before attacking the starter handle, I took a look inside. The dash enjoys an array of instruments which all still operated perfectly; oil pressure button, light switch and ignition alongside the Amp meter. This Seven benefits from a starter button but our driver prefers the ‘workout’ and the speedo shows 60mph but I am not sure will be achieving that on route. The steering wheel offers a horn button, hand throttle and advance-retard and after a couple of adjustments the engine fires into life and immediately settles very quietly. Surprisingly silent, as Fred confirms ‘ticks over like a sewing machine’ as he pulled the gear stick over and back to select 1st inside the three speed crash box. The Austin’s interior is snug and quiet at low speeds but once out on the open road the motor becomes audible as we are soon in top and I watched the wobbling speedo touch 50mph on the faster stretches. Apart from timing your gear changes correctly, the other important point when driving any machine of this vintage is breaking distance. ‘You have to feel the car’ Fred explained ‘but once you understand it, the rest is just great fun’ which I couldn’t have put better myself. The original Austin handbook advises the way to a long and happy relationship with you Seven by following a few simple ‘Don’ts’.
Don’t forget the ignition key when starting up
Don’t leave the car in gear with the handbrake off
Don’t run the engine in a closed garage
Don’t forget to remove the key when the engine is not running
And my favourite; Don’t be cruel to the starter if the engine will not fire.
View from the Seven’s Pilot
This Mulliner Seven currently covers around 600 miles a year to various local events. The longer journeys are not undertaken anymore, as Fred reminds me…. ‘the car is 88 and I am only a decade behind it, so we keep the mileage sensible but with Jenny alongside we still like to take in a few events every season. I am proud of our achievement re-building it, unusually we never gave the Seven a name. Every trip is looked forward too and luckily no serious breakdowns have occurred after all these years, just the odd hic-up; she always gets us home. We do use her around the village quite a bit, even to do some shopping plus the odd run out to visit family and friends’.
Long may that continue, as Fred’s story of his time with the brilliant Austin is often retold when on display at events, whilst I have also concluded it seems the older the car, the younger you feel.
On the highway of Britain’s failed motor industry, after the sign post for ‘What the hell were they thinking’ sits BL’s Montego, on life’s hard-shoulder
Flag Flying for Austin-Rover
I can hear my mother now, ‘if we all liked the same thing life would be a pretty boring place’, true enough but can any model boasting such achievements as the UK’s ‘most scrapped’ ever be considered a classic? In common with another predecessor the Allegro (now only slightly rarer on the todays roads) the Montego was another case of should have, would have and could have. British Leyland had struggled to gain a major stake in the fleet market and considering their contenders it was really no surprise company buyers opted for the Sierra or Cavalier options. The Ital and the Ambassador couldn’t prise the country’s ‘reps’ from their Ford’s and Vauxhall’s; being dated at launch, didn’t help their cause. ARG (Austin-Rover Group) needed something new and following some Government assistance plus the reasonable success of the Metro they launched an assault on the fairly new hatchback market. The Maestro (LC10) programme had begun in the late seventies alongside the LC11, a saloon version that would become Montego. ARG rushed the Maestro into production, first with the consequential calamities that occur when poor reliability and build quality combine. So, did they learn their lesson when it came to Montego, you bet they didn’t. Again ARG engineers pleaded for more time to get it right but management needed the car on the showroom floors and after six years in the planning time was up. Launched in April 1984 under the banner ‘the car that puts the driver first’, the Montego showed initial promise given Maestro appeared 12 months prior, surely some of its failings would not be repeated? The S Series engine led the 1.6 level and with a comfortable interior, spacious cabin plus ample boot space the Montego should have brought fleet buyers flocking to BL’s door. October’s motor show in 1984 also enjoyed the MG badged version, the Vanden Plas and what many believe to be the most promising model, the Montego Estate.
Ground Hog Day
Once again it would be build quality and poor reliability that hampered early production, causing a high level of customer dissatisfaction. ARG’s failure to find cures in a timely fashion left a stain on Montego’s character that would be everlasting and profound. Painted bumpers minus large areas of paint, the cars ability to consume wheel bearings at an alarming rate, weak front shock absorbers and trunks that filled with water. Doors that didn’t fit, head gasket failure, oil pumps that didn’t pump and the cold start auto choke that wanted to operate permanently, plus many more. Most of these faults weren’t addressed promptly and at factory level, so the models reputation suffered early and unnecessarily. The 1.6L two tone version aimed at the company reps enjoyed its own TV advert, the soft rock music included the lyrics ‘can a little bit of what you fancy do you harm?’ the company car buyers thought it could. Top end versions received the ‘state of the art’ instrument panel with synthesised voice instructions; firm and precise from the lady known as ‘Nicolette’ included constant door open warnings when they were shut and low fuel warnings once the car had already ceased, after running out of fuel. What history doesn’t report in such detail is that come the late 80s many issues had been resolved and by 1994 What Car was able to state ‘Austin Rover's once 'great white hope', Montego matured into a very decent car — but nobody noticed.
David Geere was one of the company car drivers that covered the miles daily, a circulation representative in the newspaper industry. The Montego offered several benefits David required, a 5 speed gearbox, plenty of space and home-grown. ‘I always try and buy British wherever possible, always have done and I have only ever owned one foreign car’ stated my host with pride. Registered by Henly’s of Ewell 24th November 1986, David found his 2.0HL at a Sussex dealer in 1991, the previous owner from Surrey had covered 28k and kept the maintenance records up to date. As a company representative David was used to being supplied transport that would have been a management decision, starting with a 100E’s onto every mark of Cortina. ‘When the Montego came out I thought ‘yes’ this car is the answer to Ford and Vauxhall’ David explained and admitted being hopeful his company would deviate from their normal car purchasing policy and buy Leyland, they didn’t. A career change allowed the purchase of the Montego which immediately required a new wheel bearing. The original faulty design had been superseded and 25 years and 62k additional miles travelled the infamous Montego humming noise has failed to return. No doubt this Austin Rover has enjoyed far more TLC than most; the figures of surviving Montego’s are shocking with just 56 showing (DVLA) as taxed currently. Six of those are 2.0 HL examples, incredible considering 571,457 Montego’s were built overall. Hopefully a few more survived abroad as Montego was retailed under the name Sipani Automobiles in India whilst the French enjoyed the Estate versions. Some were shipped to the far east and the first MG badged estate car in Montego form was sold exclusively in New Zealand.
Retirement allowed David to indulge in another passion, classic car shows and although his 2.0 HL is showing 80k miles it barely looks 8k. ‘It’s my passport to the classic show scene and therefore has to be right, so in 2012 a company called Body Care performed a lovely respray. Everything else is original and the attention the car receives is amazing mainly because many folks can remember travelling in one’ David pointed out. Certainly the superb condition of this 30-year-old ‘rep mobile’ draws interest, inside and out the presentation is showroom quality and one should remember the HL enjoyed those extras the base model drivers could only dream off. Seating was finished in a softer crush velour which matched the door cards and thicker pile carpets completed the more luxurious feel. Radio-cassette with front to rear balance plus electric door mirrors with heated glass and light adjustable instrument panel for the interior. Whilst outside the addition of chrome door handles, side mouldings and bronze tinted windows allowed this model to stand out from the L version. Door opening and closing are minus the ‘tinny’ rattles and the seats, are as I remembered, really comfortable. Transported back to a time of ‘Top Gun’ the movie, fuel at £1.86 per gallon and the World Cup in Mexico, 1986 was a busy year for Austin Rover with plans to sell the group to Ford cancelled in February. The announcement of plans to loose Austin and rename Rover Group came in June, prior to the joint venture with Honda being signed in July. My chance of a run-out in the Montego was gratefully accepted but proved some things don’t change, the carburettor fuelled engine loses its lumpy idle once warmed up and on the move the four cylinder is smooth and quiet. Clutch is firm but not heavy as is the steering and the gear change is slick and precise and it is a nice way to travel. So, as with the visual appearance the driving experience belies this ‘Midlander’s age’. If, and it’s a big if, you can find a nice example, most 80s cars from British Leyland still represent good value for money, across the range from Metro to Rover Sterling bargains are still available. Survivors from the period have earnt their classic status and examples the quality of David’s Montego can surely only increase in desirability and value.
View from the Pilot…….
David Geere shares his thoughts on preserving and enjoying the Montego.
Why do we elect to support one particular make and indeed model as our classic choice, is not always evident? For me, the Montego was BLs great hope at the time back 30 plus years ago. 25 years of ownership has not in any way disappointed. It runs sweetly today as it did when it was first acquired and never left me stranded. It is quiet, comfortable and reasonable fuel consumption, a classic car that can keep up with the traffic. The rust is easily kept at bay with an annual squirt of an anti-rust fluid (and not allowed out in the rain!). Monty is kept mainly for the car shows and as Grant’s research reveals, is only one of 56 examples on the road thus is a surprising sight to many who thought they had all gone. I also have a 1993 LXi 2.0 litre saloon with only 1,800 miles on the clock and the development put into this model is significant. Improved built quality, fuel injection and other developments transformed it into a car that indeed matured into a thoroughly decent motor. Long may these examples live on.
Austin Montego 2.0 HL 1986 Specification
Four door/five seat saloon/FWD
Engine: Four cylinder 1994cc, 103bhp with 121ft lbs torque
Gearbox: Five speed
Fuel: 50 litres
Length: 14ft 6in Width:6ft 3in (inc mirrors)
Kerb Weight: 2295lbs/1040kgm