There’s been very little to report on the fleet this week, so I thought I’d put finger to keyboard to talk about cars that have scared me silly.
While driving a 440bhp Lola T70 replica on a damp December morning rates as one of the driving experiences most able to loosen the bowels, even that doesn’t come close to how terrified I was doing 40mph in an elderly British classic.
I remember it well. The car appeared to be trying to drive in two directions at once, the clutch pedal had about a millimeter of travel and the brakes seemed not to exist. Never has a straight road been such a shoulder-tearing challenge. Changing gear was akin to waving a wand at a bucket of cogs. There were no brake lights, no indicators and the headlamps redefined the word dim.
Yes, the car in question is an Austin Seven. I’ve driven several of them and they’ve all been pretty scary. Look at that picture again and you can just see the front brakes in the middle of the wheels. I’ve seen larger flies. I once drove one with an SU carburettor which could apparently do 70mph! I had enough trouble stopping it from 20…
But there’s something absolutely magical about a Seven. You really, REALLY have to drive one. You don’t just hop in and set off. Just travelling to the end of the road can be an adventure. I have major respect for the members of the Austin Seven world who drove the entire length of Route 66 in America. That’s just incredible.
The Austin Seven was conceived and developed in secret by Herbert Austin and a 14-year old apprentice. The management board thought it was a really bad idea, so Austin took to designing the car at home. Thankfully, the board were convinced that it was a good idea once they saw an actual car, and the Seven hit the road in 1922. It really was a shrunken down proper car, with a tiny four-cylinder engine, three-speed gearbox and mechanical brakes – the handbrake operated the front wheels, the footbrake just the rears. In 1930, the front and rear were finally linked.
Sales were hugely strong, backing up Austin’s bravery in conceiving such a small design. The Seven was developed into the Ruby of 1934, which had a little more luxury. In fact, the Ruby is quite different to drive. Sure, it still fights all over the road, but the brakes are better and it steers with a little more accuracy. Still a shock to folk used to modern classics!
Really, everyone should be forced to learn how to drive an Austin Seven. You develop much more of an awareness of the world around you. Hills must be anticipated as must danger. You feel more like you’re wrestling a snake than driving, which keeps you awake! It isn’t a car that transports you with the minimum of fuss, it’s a car you must pilot with the care of an aeronaut.
Yes, they may be scary, but I still regard any opportunity to drive one as humbling and entertaining. It’s an experience to savour, all well within the speed limits of our time. If someone offers you the chance to try one, take it!