Former New Zealand Herald photographer Geoff Dale has two loves of his life: his wife, Marie, and an Austin 7 Ruby, his first car he bought 45 years ago while he was at school.
The Ruby is the saloon version of the Austin 7 and this more common sedan version of the little car almost single-handedly wiped out the cyclecar in the UK, as it provided affordable transport along with weather protection.
Geoff bought his when he was a teenager. “I was a schoolboy and didn’t have a car. I heard this one was for sale and Dad came up with the $90,” said Geoff.
The original owner was a World War I veteran, and bought the Austin new in 1937.
Geoff acquired it from his widow.
“It was running but it was a learning curve. To go to a rugby event I’d have to clean all the spark plugs, get the gaps right, put it together, go to the rugby and then do it all again.”
The Austin used to carry him and some mates to first XV rugby matches, and last year collected the same two mates in the car for an old-boys’ game.
After leaving school Geoff worked for the Herald as a photographer in Hamilton, where he met Marie.
“I repainted it before the wedding, I had it professionally painted and it hasn’t been done since,” he said.
When the paint was new, the car carried a top-hatted Geoff to his wedding, 40 years ago this February, and took the young couple on honeymoon to Kaitaia.
“We couldn’t afford much, but driving up there was a real pleasure, so it’s a part of our life,” said Geoff.
For a while he also owned an MGBGT which they traded to get into their first home. By 1985 it was no longer practical to keep the Austin on the road, so while the couple were raising a family, it went up on blocks in the garage.
Then one of the couple’s sons became engaged, and asked if the little Austin could carry him to his own wedding.
“I got stuck in and rebuilt the engine,” Geoff said, “And had much pleasure in dropping my son off at the church.”
Seems the car needed more than a bit of engine work.
“I redid the hood lining and some of the upholstery, the oil pump wasn’t working so I had to pull the engine down, and thanks to my mechanical inability I broke a piston.”
The car has a four-cylinder 747cc engine, so Geoff had to buy a $90 piston but in total spent $3000 getting it back on the road.
“There was nothing major, I’d rebuilt the engine twice before so I knew it would be pretty good, and replaced a head gasket recently.”
It helps that the ‘‘Austin bible’’ shows how to do everything.
“It’s simple, but there are tricks you learn. And I can lift the engine and gearbox out as the crankcase is aluminium.
“There’s always something [that needs doing], always little jobs, but that’s part of the fun, and you can enjoy the smells and sounds of the car.”
Geoff says nowadays he drives it whenever he gets the urge, pulling out the original tiny key and popping up the road for the milk, or whatever, a couple of days a week.
He puts me briefly in the pilot’s seat, and it’s certainly easy to drive. It takes longer than a modern car to get up to speed, but given the power-to-weight ratio is so good it’s surprisingly nippy, though the handling and brakes are clearly not modern.
“I’ve had 60mph [100km/h] over the Auckland Harbour Bridge with the wind behind me – on the flat I’d average around 40mph [64km/h], and it’ll keep up with traffic doing 80km/h.
“If I’m going anywhere in the Austin I add a quarter as much time, but I’m getting a quarter as much pleasure. It’s heaps of fun.”