Classic Car: Baby, can I drive your truck?
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If you were in the Port Waikato area last Saturday you might have been fooled into thinking time travel is possible, for the roads were clogged with more than 40 pre-World War II Austins.
The National Vintage Austin Register Rally drew nearly 90 aficionados of the now-defunct Brit brand, from as far afield as Christchurch and the Far North, to meet like-minded Austinistas.
And among them was this quirky 1929 Austin 7 truck, trailered from Nelson behind their motorhome by John Baillie and Jan Byers.
They have driven it as far as Invercargill and Cape Reinga since they got it running 14 years ago, but this time they felt a bit of comfort was in order.
John restored the ute from scratch. He’s had Austin 7s since he learned to drive and now owns four — this ute, a Gordon Routledge-bodied 1928 Special, a 1928 Top Hat and a trials car — alongside Jan’s Morris Minor.
The ute began when he acquired a Swallow chassis in 2000 — the Swallow being a Jaguar-bodied Austin 7 — intending to build a ute in honour of the late Routledge, “He had a truck, and I wanted one better!”
The body was built from scratch, but the mechanicals, the instruments and radiator, the lights and ancillaries are all original Austin 7 parts, albeit many with a chequered past — the motor was rescued from a merry-go-round, and restored to car condition with two modifications, a free-flow exhaust and an SU carburettor.
Fortunately, John’s not short of spares, says Jan, “He’s got 12 blocks to search through for the best one, and our basement is full of Austin parts.”
There are a few quirks to the resulting ute, including running lights made of wood, and a plastic rear bumper that cost $4 and now displays some of the vehicle’s many rally badges.
The tiny tray carries a surprising amount of luggage, enough for two weeks, said Jan, adding that they’ve driven it from Nelson to Napier’s Art Deco weekend nine times. This is the first trip they’ve towed it.
But surprisingly few of the cars at the rally were towed in, though some were borrowed — Frank Milligan’s family flew up from Christchurch and piled into a 1926 12/4 Clifton — but others drove long distances in their wee cars, several from Palmerston North, including Steven Crafts, whose Ruby sported a roof rack and vintage suitcases.
As for the cars, they ranged in flavour from creaky old tourers to racey Sports Specials, and in age from a 1924 12/4 Clifton, to a 1947 HB driven from Napier by Neil and Jill Hammond, whose 15-year-old daughter Sophie navigated for this writer, and has rejected her parents’ Austin passion to restore a 1950s Bedford van.
Needless to say, she can’t wait to get her driving licence.
Photo / Jacqui Madelin
Nowadays it’s hard for kids Sophie’s age to believe that Austin was a major player, revolutionising the UK motoring scene — and it almost didn’t happen.
Herbert Austin was born into farming stock in England in 1866 and emigrated to Australia, aged 18, with an uncle.
By 1887 he was managing a workshop developing sheep shearing equipment, and when the Wolseley Sheep Shearing Machine Company assembly returned to England in 1893, Austin went too.
He became interested in cars, and designed a three-wheeler, but Wolseley saw no future in motoring, so Austin resigned. He raised some capital, bought an old print works, and started building cars.
Originally he focused on a single, large luxury model, but the climate changed during World War I so he developed the cheaper 12/4 to go on sale from 1921. It helped introduce new buyers, but not enough — so he planned a smaller car.
The board of directors dismissed the idea, but Herbert stole a young draughtsman from the drawing office to work at his home, where they designed the tiny Austin 7, which launched in 1922, and saved the company.
It was a huge seller, and formed the basis of most of the cars on the event. BMW built a variant under licence, Nissan had its own version, and they even sold in the US for a while.
But the 7’s biggest claim to fame today is the Specials. Kiwi Bruce McLaren got his start in one, before building a Formula 1 empire, and even now Austin 7 underpinnings get hand-built bodies and are raced regularly.