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My First Car: Wheel came off my Austin Seven... and overtook me

09:02 25 September 2015

The 1932 Austin Seven Box Saloon restored by John Pitchers and similar to the 1934 model which was his first car.

The 1932 Austin Seven Box Saloon restored by John Pitchers and similar to the 1934 model which was his first car.

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John Pitchers tells of the time his Austin Seven turned into a three-wheeler and how some passers-by gave him a lift.

My first car was a 1934 Austin Seven Box Saloon, which was already 20 years old when I bought it for £25.

At that time I was living in London, working for Boulton & Paul at its office in Stanhope Gate.

I had learned to drive in my father’s Armstrong Siddeley which had a pre-selector gearbox with change quadrant on the steering column. Unusually, the gear the driver thought he would use next, usually third when in top, was pre-selected and then a dab on the clutch changed the gear.

As soon as I had passed the driving test I ditched the cycle and used the Austin to drive to work where you could park freely in Park Lane.

The windscreen had a vertical crack in it because it hinged open at the top – but not when it was stuck in place due to mastic all round the frame to keep the rain out! Like most inexpensive cars of this vintage, the windscreen wipers worked by suction from the inlet manifold, so they progressively slowed down to a stop when going up a hill. The interior handle came in handy though.

Again, commonly, the semaphore traffic indicators often needed a thump on the inside of the windscreen pillar to encourage them to extend. The leather seat cushions had rubber bladders inside them to, occasionally, give a more comfortable ride.

Even then it was difficult to keep up with modern traffic and Joan – now my wife – and I were pulled up by a policeman for passing a red light at Hyde Park Corner. Fortunately we had a friend in the police who persuaded the traffic cops that we passed the light on green and by the time we got to the other side it had gone to red.

One night we took two friends to Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club in Frith Street, Soho, where you could also park freely. I was worried about the car being stolen, so I took out the distributor rotor arm. When we came out, the car wouldn’t start. After much pushing by my passengers I remembered the rotor arm in my pocket!

Among the innovative features of the A7, the wheels were held on with three studs and nuts. The fixing holes were joined figures of eight. One side had the seating for the nut and the other side was large enough for the wheel nut to pass through it. The idea was that to remove the wheel you only needed to slacken off the nuts, turn the wheel a few degrees and take it off. I decided to replace the king-pins when my father persuaded me that I needed a device called a reamer so I lowered the jack and gave up.

Later that evening I set off to see Joan. As I turned right off Ladbroke Grove I saw the nearside front wheel overtake the car. It rolled towards the side window of a gents outfitters shop but fortunately hit the side brickwork. The car subsided on to the front brake drum. A couple of passers-by lifted up the front of the car, I put the wheel back and carried on.

I was born at Great Yarmouth and, at that time worked in London, but many of my family lived in Norfolk. My uncle and aunt lived in Unthank Road where my uncle was a director of Norwich City Football Club. My maternal grandmother had a couple of bungalows in the valley at Hemsby so we had several uneventful, but slow, journeys from north London to Norfolk.

Eventually we sold the saloon and bought a Cambridge Special, which looked like a small open-wheeled MG and was based on a 1928 Austin Seven. The engine and gearbox weren’t properly aligned so it ‘ate up’ the fabric gearbox couplings. So frequently did I have to change these that I didn’t bother to screw the metal prop-shaft tunnel back to the plywood floor. One memorable time on the A303 the carpet suddenly disappeared in a cloud of dust as it wound itself round the propshaft.

Many years later I bought a similar 1932 saloon and carried out a lengthy body-off, nut-and-bolt restoration. It took more than 10 years to complete and was sold a few years ago at a classic car auction in Norfolk.

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