What’s a collective of Austins?
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This week’s Austin 7 wide-door saloon popped out of the woodwork after we covered a similar one earlier this year.
That one had been restored and parked up.
This one is used — a contrast neatly illustrating the breadth of attitudes to what were once unexceptional daily drivers — the Toyota Corolla of their day.
Wanaka-based George Wallis owns several trucks after a life spent in the business. He also has “about” six Austins of various eras.
“I saved up enough to buy an Austin 7 in 1953,” he says. “It was a Chummy [a four-seat drop-top]. Then my dad found one in Greymouth with a van body on it, so I had that as it was a better car, until I could afford a motorbike.”
Wallis snr wasn’t keen on his son riding his two-stroke Francis Barnett on gravel roads and so the first Ford Prefect in Greymouth was purchased, in 1956.
“I didn’t have that for long, I bought a red Zephyr convertible,” says George.
That meant he was driving in style when he met his future wife.
By the sound of it, George was once a bit of a boy racer.
His friends campaigned a variety of machinery — and one with a Jaguar E-Type said, “George, you’ve been racing all your life, why don’t you race legally?
And he did, buying a 1929 Austin Special, in about 1990, in which to street race.
“My first was at Queenstown, time trials, and then real races, vintage classes in Lyttelton, and Ruapuna and at the Dunedin Festival of Speed,” he says. “I had very special engines, they had pressure-fed carbs. Grant Cowie built my Special, he had the Rubber Duck car” — an Austin works racer, one of three, with a top speed of 169km/h – on a 1930s Austin 7 chassis.
“It was one of the fastest cars in New Zealand. Grant took it to Australia and it’s now returned to England.”
In 1994 George bought an Austin 7 Ulster, a lower, sports model named for the Irish Tourist Trophy race, with a retuned engine and a more aerodynamic body.
At the time he was importing commercial vehicles, so the Ulster was loaded onto the back of a truck in the UK, to travel to New Zealand.
George’s shed walls are covered with photos — including ones featuring him on the track.
“The Jowett Javelins could beat us on the straights, but we could corner much better and we’d just about roll the tyres off the rims.”
But street races slowly died out, age caught up with George and, when George could no longer easily get out of the Ulster, he sold it to a son-in-law.
But he still had the wide-door. It had been quietly bopping around while its racier stablemates hit the track.
“I took four hours, 20 minutes on the gravel in the Austin, from Nelson to Greymouth.”
That’s only 40 minutes more than Google maps reckons for a modern car on tarmac.
Perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise that things sometimes went wrong.
“We had one up at Haast. We toured up the river on it. The big battery shorted and it nearly went up in flames. I said, ‘quick, best
get there before it burns completely’.”
Another time his Austin broke down on the Buller Gorge road between Murchison and Inangahua, when he’d forgotten to tighten a vital nut.
Those gravel roads were luckily quiet back then, as he had to take the entire engine out on the road, make the repair and rebuild it.
This car was restored in the 1970s — and since then has collected an impressive array of rally badges.
George and wife Jo drove it more than 2000km from Cape Reinga to Bluff for one rally.
“Old people would come out of hotels and talk about having an Austin in England, during the war,” he said.
The mechanicals and body look in fine condition, but the velour seat trim isn’t original and the two tones came about after rats got in, and some covers had to be renewed.
The couple don’t often use them now. But this much-loved car remains ready to go, out in the shed, although a stablemate is in Wanaka’s Warbirds and Wheels museum.
“The other cars there are all too special for visitors to sit in or touch.”
But he has no such qualms about any wee Austin.