They say you love a classic car because you associate it with good childhood memories. In which case this 1936 Austin 7 Opal should be mine, but Roy Cater acquired it almost by accident in 2010.
He wasn’t looking for one. He was happy with the ‘‘Knight Rider’’ 1984 Pontiac Trans Am he’s owned for 20 years.
“I was having a few beers with a mate and he said, ‘have I got the deal for you’. I was a mug.
“I must admit I do like it now. Well, the dog likes it.”
He was living in Auckland then. The Opal had a broken axle and sat around for 12 months. But Roy got a lot of spares off the original owner and he’s obviously mechanically minded. He’d started his vehicular life in cars of the era, learning to drive in a 1937 Hillman 10.
He sorted the axle, greased anything that needed it, adjusted the brakes and clutch.
The car is all but original, though the seats have been re-covered, most likely when it was rebuilt about 20 years ago. Roy fitted modern indicators to replace the trafficators — little stalks that flip up from the car’s side — “no one can see those”. He says it’s now his most reliable car, and it fired at first try without using the crank handle, fitted up front just in case.
If the photos suggest Roy’s a big chap, bear in mind this is a small car: 3.2m long and 1.3m wide, propelled by a 747cc four-cylinder engine putting just 12.6kW to the wheels via a four-speed transmission.
It managed a claimed top speed of 81km/h when new, and 0 to 80km/h in a leisurely 58 seconds. Roy says it tops out now at around 66km/h, which doesn’t put him off his regular weekend drive. Living between Whangamata and Waihi means any direction equals steep hills, but the Opal tackles them okay. “It’s a bit slow. If cars build up, I let them go.”
He drives with the hood down as it takes 10 minutes to erect, plus fitting the side windows, a separate device with two windows hinged on a rod that sits in a hole in the bodywork while he opens the two panes like a butterfly’s wings, and fastens them in place. “You might as well sit out in the rain.”
Generally he sticks to those Sunday drives, though he’s piloted it from Auckland to Whangarei, and Auckland to Tauranga, a distance of around 200km.
These wee cars have a reputation for everyday reliability. Produced in the UK from 1922-39, this was one of the most popular cars built for the British market.
Other companies built it under licence or copied it: the BMW Dixi and French Rosengart were Austin 7s, Nissan based its first car design on one, rolling chassis were exported to Australia to have local bodies fitted, and allegedly it formed the basis of the 1950 A30 and the first Mini, in 1959.
Many Austin 7s were reworked as racing specials after WWII. Bruce McLaren got his start in one.
This road car has six-volt electrics for the lights and wiper and electric start, and even a fair bit of luggage space behind the seats as well as a spare wheel-mounted rack.
I’m surprised Roy kept it, given his predilection for American muscle. “It’s prewar, it makes me realise the war wasn’t all that long ago. And it’s a dinky car, a Noddy car. You have to have a sense of humour. If you park it anywhere, older people come up, they always knew someone with one, and you get their life history.”
By now I’m fizzing at the idea I could own the car that stands out from my childhood — but not this one. “It’s not for sale,” but 13 or so are registered in New Zealand. He slots me into the driver seat. I feel right at home — this thing’s not made for big folk, and even less for big feet. First gear is so torquey you pull away in second, and you must allow for the ancient brakes. Other than that it’s remarkably modern to drive. You can even buy tyres for it and take it to the track.
“At Hampton Downs for the 90 years of Austin 7s we did circuits of the track. We started out dead slow, but ended up flat out — at 70km/h!”
I bet 70km/h round a few corners is more exhilarating in an 80-year-old Austin than the legal limit will ever be in a ‘‘modern’’.