The Austin Seven: Britain’s Model T

Why was it called the Austin Seven?

The 1923 Austin Seven was the most important car in British motoring history, bringing independent travel to the masses. The car was called Austin 7 because of its horsepower.

Early cars in Britain were taxed on a formula called RAC horsepower. It didn’t reflect the actual measured horsepower but was calculated by a formula including cylinder bore size, number of cylinders and notional efficiency.

Cars were commonly named for their taxable horsepower, such as the Austin Seven and the Riley Nine. The name “Rolls-Royce 40/50” referred firstly to the taxable horsepower: 40, and the actual measured horsepower: 50.

A picture of a yellow open Austin Seven tourer
An open Austin Seven tourer

How many Austin 7s are left?

There are only 17 Austin 7s left on the roads of Britain with a current MOT vehicle test. (

How many Austin 7s were made?

Between 1923 and 1939 over 290,000 Austin 7s had been made, transforming the British motoring scene.

How fast were Austin 7s?

The 1933 Austin 7 could just do 60 mph. Acceleration was brisk from a standstill, but 0 – 50 mph took 25 seconds.

A green 1934 Austin Seven Saloon
A 1934 Austin Seven Saloon

Technical Specification of the Austin 7

Engine: 747cc straight four-cylinder side valve.

Clutch: very abrupt, with a short travel. See below!

Gearbox: 3 speeds and reverse. Four speeds were available from 1932, with synchromesh added in 1933 to third and fourth gears, extending to second gear in 1934.

Chassis: an “A” Frame chassis, with a transverse front spring like the Ford Model T, and rear quarter elliptic springs.

Brakes: rod-operated drums: not very effective.

What’s an Austin 7 Chummy?

When production began in January 1923 the only version offered was the Austin 7 Chummy tourer, an open four-seater (source:

The word Chummy means “friendly” in British English. You’d have to be friendly to sit in this.

A yellow Austin Seven tourer would seat a family of four.
The tourer would seat a family of four.

What’s an Austin 7 Ruby?

As production increased, Saloon, fabric Saloon (where the panels were made of canvas), and coupe were added to the range. The 1934 Ruby was a two-door saloon with flowing lines, valanced wings and a taller radiator in a cowl.

It had self-cancelling flush-fitted indicators. The wheel size decreased (which would be an unusual development these days) from 19” to 17”, and it had synchromesh on second, third and fourth gears.

A light yellow Austin Seven two-door saloon
The Austin Seven two-door saloon

What’s an Austin 7 Ulster?

The lightweight Austin 7s were successful in competition, and when an Austin 7 Sports Model won its class at the 1929 RAC Tourist Trophy a very special Austin Ulster version was released. It was a two-seater with no doors but an aluminium body with a pointed tail and a modified chassis giving a 3” lower ride height.

The engine was special too, developing 24 horsepower, or 35 horsepower with a supercharger. An Austin Ulster won the Brooklands Five Hundred Mile Race with Sammy Davis driving (source

A red Austin Seven racer with two seats and no doors
Two seats, no doors

Austin Ulsters are worth around $70,000.

What’s an Austin 7 Special?

Austin 7 special is a generic term for the dozens of home-brewed special racing cars made from old Austin 7 chassis after the Second World War. The bodies were hand-made and very often there was just one seat.

What’s an Austin Seven Brooklands?

Six Austin Seven lightweight racers were built in 1928 – these were the Austin Seven Brooklands. They only weighed 875 pounds.

A red two-seater sports racer.
An Austin Seven Brooklands from 1928

Why was the Austin 7 so important to early motoring in Britain?

The First World War did more than anything else to convince soldiers that the motor car was a good thing.

Within a month of the start of the war, the German army was in sight of the Eiffel Tower, but 600 Paris 1905 Renault AG taxis were requisitioned to take half a division of infantry overnight to the front, and the Germans were repelled. Later on, Tommy might have marched past the armoured cars and the tanks which ended the deadly stalemate.

After the Great War soldiers who had seen the success of motorised transport wanted something for a run out into the country on Sundays. And so when he got back to the land fit for heroes the second thing the British Tommy did was to buy a motorcycle-and-sidecar combination.

If the missus objected, he might try to provide a bit of weather protection and so a horde of cyclecars arose, lightweight cars based on motorcycles, but only the Morgan Plus Four survives today. Most were horrible, and this gave Herbert Austin food for thought.

The Austin Motor Company had done well out of the war, manufacturing heavy artillery, generating sets, and building trucks and aircraft. The workforce had expanded from around 2,500 to 22,000.

After the war, though the order book was empty. An over-reliance on just one expensive model, the 3.6 litre 1919 Austin Twenty proved disastrous, and the company went into receivership.

In the teeth of opposition from the Board of Directors and creditors, Herbert Austin decided that a small affordable car was the way forward. It would be cheaper and better than the cyclecars and would mobilise Britain just as the Ford Model T had mobilised America.

The Austin Seven two-door saloon in light cream
The Austin Seven two-door saloon

A new horsepower tax, which penalised the Model T imports was imposed in 1921, and this decided him. Working secretly at home with a young draughtsman at Lickey Grange near Birmingham, Austin planned the tiny car in 1:1 scale in the billiard room.

Some claim the work was done on the table, certainly, it would have been big enough, as the tiny car was only ten feet long and five feet wide. Austin incorporated innovations patented by him and so he stood to make two guineas per car sold: a fortune.

The young draughtsman, Stanley Edge, persuaded Austin to use a proper four-cylindered engine instead of a twin-cylindered motorcycle engine. It was a wise suggestion as the Seven was thus a proper car, albeit a tiny one.

At 696cc the engine was a quarter of the size of the Model T’s engine, and the weight of the completed baby Austin was half that of the American car.

An Austin Seven saloon in green
An Austin Seven saloon

It was minimalist in design: the crankshaft had only two bearings, one at each end, and the big ends were lubricated by splash instead of pressure from an oil pump. There was no water pump: the coolant was circulated by thermo-siphon. But the crankcase was aluminium, and so was the clutch housing. This was meant to be lightweight.

The engine had an RAC tax rating of 7.2 hp, hence the name: Austin Seven  The whole car took up little more road space than a motorcycle-sidecar combination.

I had a couple of these engines to play around with at the age of 15 or so, and even then was struck by there only being one roller main bearing at either end of the four-throw crankshaft. It ought to have flexed like a skipping rope at high revs, but when a plain centre bearing was added later the new crankshafts proved less reliable, not more so.

By Easter 1922, Edge’s drawings of the car were ready, and work began immediately on the first prototype.  Then an elite group of Longbridge workers selected by Herbert Austin built the first three cars. The Seven was regarded with derision by the other workers, who called it a “bath on wheels”. Austin persisted with his design and managed to get it past the Board of Directors.

Soon after launch, in March 1923 the bore was increased to 2.2 inches (56mm) giving 747 cc and 10.5 hp. At first, there was no electric starter, the engine being started by hand with the usual handle at the front of the car. 

The dynamo was driven directly from the timing gears. The gearbox had only three forward speeds. The chassis was an A-frame, with solid axles back and front, suspended on simple leaf springs, with no dampers. But the brakes were poor, and the clutch was fierce.

The advertising emphasised the economy: “Where it costs shillings to take a taxi you may use the “Austin Seven” for pence…The “Austin Seven” makes a very snug coupé, and it’s really much nicer to have your own car.” Costing just £165 (£9,500 today) it was as cheap as a cyclecar.

At first, the bodywork was an open four-seater, and the weight was just 360 kgs (796 lbs), or half the weight of a Lotus Elise. Despite the minimalist nature of the Seven, it was still a real car, and in just a few years it had wiped out the cyclecar competition.

An Austin Seven open tourer in yellow
An Austin Seven open tourer

But it wasn’t ever a car for the masses, the years between 1929 and 1935 were the worst for working-class incomes.

My grandfather lived around the corner from Herbert Austin at Kentmere House on the Lickey Hills. He bought one of his neighbour’s baby Austins and toured North Wales with his wife and three children, so the car was clearly big enough for a family.

While undertaking a perilous three-point turn on a mountain track he instructed the family to get out for safety reasons.

As they watched he selected reverse, lifted the abrupt clutch too quickly, shot backwards, and toppled over a precipice. Leaping out just in time, grandfather watched as the tiny car cartwheeled into the abyss.

Family history tells us that they walked down into the nearest town and bought another Austin Seven.

My grandfather had another Austin Seven story. As a medical missionary in India, he befriended Gandhi. When the great independence fighter came to stay at our house in 1934 he was picked up at the railway station in the tiny Austin Seven, a familiar car in India.

A picture of Ghandi at Woodbrook, Birmingham in 1934, having just been picked up by his friend John Somervell Hoyland in an Austin Seven
Ghandi having just been picked up by Austin Seven by John Somervell Hoyland

Unlike the Ford Model T, which Henry Ford refused to change throughout the production run, the Austin Seven was constantly modernised and improved.

A closed saloon was introduced in 1926 and a two-seater was added in 1929. Coil ignition replaced the magneto in 1928. In 1930 the front and rear brakes, which had been operated separately by a hand lever and a foot pedal respectively, were connected.

The chassis was lengthened in 1931. A three-bearing crankshaft was introduced in 1936 (but proved no more reliable). And the gearbox became a four-speed unit in 1932, gaining synchromesh on third and fourth in 1933, and on second gear in 1934.

The Austin Seven was a success in Britain, where it mobilised the middle classes. The chassis cost £112 (£6,890 today). The Austin-made steel-panelled saloon was introduced in September 1926 at £165 (equivalent to £10,151 today)

A green Austin Seven with the Bristol Austin Seven Club badge on the radiator
An Austin Seven with a rare Bristol Austin Seven Club badge

Did you know? The car was also popular throughout the world: who would have thought that BMW would have built Austin 7s under licence?

Nissan made unlicensed copies of the Seven, laying the foundations for that company’s later success, and 7s were also built in France, America and Australia. In a strange way, the Austin Seven also influenced the Willys Jeep (read more on this site).

By 1939, over 290,000 Austin Sevens had been sold, transforming the British motoring scene.

What is an Austin Seven worth?

An Austin Seven today would cost you from $3,250 to $44, 200, with an average of $16,900 (

Austin Ulsters are worth around $70,000 today.