Monday, 5 December 2011

Failed restoration of a 1938 Austin Big 7

This is a letter sent to me by a fellow Morgan enthusiast and friend.

It is a sorry but amusing tale of misdirected endeavour that will find sympathy amongst the many of us whose dreams of restoring a vehicle far outweigh our expertise and the financial means to achieve the desired end result!
It will certainly be of interest to members of the Austin Seven Owners Club, of which Dennis was once a member Club,

He writes:-

"Here is the sorry tale of 1938 Austin Big 7, EXP 880. After 38 years the full details are a bit hazy, but the story is basically correct.

Back in 1973 I was 26 years old, and living with my parents, brother and sister, just outside Leicester. I was rather late flying the nest!

Although I had no mechanical knowledge whatsoever I had long dreamed of restoring an old motor. In my mind's eye I saw myself in a warm, spotlessly clean, bright, well-equipped double-garage. Spanners and other tools hung neatly on the walls. Trolley jacks, lathes, spray guns, tool chests, a welding machine and other assorted hardware were dotted around. I wore a blue boiler suit, and in the garage was a part-dismantled classic car. No specific type of car, but I was bringing it back to life with love and skill.

Of course the reality was somewhat different, though we did have a double-garage. However this held my parents Fiat 128 and my Wolseley 1300, plus the piles of junk which always end up in a garage. My brother also had a car, I think it was a Fiat 850, which lived outside.

In short, the garage was not, and never would be, the pristine workshop of my fertile imagination. Of course my dad had some tools which I was welcome to use, but only the miscellaneous assortment accumulated by everyone else. Nor did he have any specialist knowledge or skills, and my brother didn't either.

None of this put me off, and to cut a long story short we (the Whole Family) went to see the above mentioned Big 7 at a farm just south of Melton Mowbray. It was dark blue, complete, and everything worked at least after a fashion. The bodywork didn't look half-bad, and the the interior was OK. The farmer said it needed attention to the exhaust and the brakes, plus a bit of welding on one of the sills, to pass the MOT but then it would be perfectly usable.

Money changed hands, £100 in fact, and as part of the deal the farmer agreed to bring it to our house on a trailer at no extra cost.

There was a car port at the side of the garage, and the Austin was pushed under it. The enormity of what I had done then struck home. I simply didn't know where to start. How could I obtain a new exhaust, what exactly needed doing to repair the braking system? I didn't even have a handbook or a workshop manual. In any case I had very little money, even less tools and equipment, and most important of all - no idea what I was doing.

Now, you might say go and buy a workshop manual, that at least should tell you how to deal with the braking system. No hydraulics to worry about, just rods, cables, brake drums and brake shoes. How hard could it be?

But no, I began by stripping the interior of the seats and rubber floor covering. Simple to do, and I was able to convince myself I was making progress. The seats and mats were dumped in the garage. What should I do next?

What I should have done, as soon as the car was delivered, was to get the car to the local garage and ask them to repair the exhaust system, sort out the brakes and weld the sill. It would not have cost a fortune and I would have a nice interesting little car to use. Bear in mind that in 1973 the Austin was 'only' 35 years old, which is the equivalent of a 1976 car today.

I can't say why I didn't do that. Instead I began to remove the rear wings. These were bolted on, the nuts and bolts rusted solid, and the task involved much effort and time. But like removal of the interior I was able to show that I was doing something. But it was something pointless. There was no need to remove the wings in the first place.

Next to go was the bonnet, which joined the wings and seats in the shed. Fortunately I could not see how to remove the front wings, so they stayed in place.

What about the exhaust? I did manage some sort of temporary repair, so what possessed me to remove it from the engine manifold? Not only did I now require a new gasket, the thread on one of the studs stripped.

The car had a flat back, but there was a small boot which opened to form a platform for a trunk, suitcases etc. Inside the boot there were some holes where rot had set in, and I judged the area was not a structural part of the car. Of course a proper welding job was out of the question, but a root in the garage and shed revealed a large stock of empty Marvel milk tins. No idea why they had been saved, but cut down they made ideal patches, which I pop-rivetted in place.. It looked a right mess, but a thick coat of black underseal went a long way towards disguising the abomination.

Things were not looking good, winter was approaching, too cold to work outside so the project ground to a halt. But not before I had employed a mobile welder to come and repair the sill, at least that was a step in the right direction and something positive, but it cost money I could ill-afford.

Come the Spring I set to again. I needed to convince myself that things were moving forward, so I ordered a new wiring loom (by this time I had joined the Owners' Club, so knew where to obtain some parts) and began to rip out the perfectly serviceable original. Not too difficult, and strangely satisfying.
The new loom duly arrived, but my pathetic skills were nowhere near up to understanding how to fit it. Despair set in as I finally realised I was out of my depth. To make matters worse my parents had begun to make disapproving noises about the pile of scrap in the back garden (for that is basically what the poor car had become).

There was no bonnet, no exhaust, the interior was gutted, the instrument panel was hanging out, bits of the wiring system were unconnected (part of the original loom had gone down the 'B' pillar, and I could not see how to get the new section of the loom down there) I might even have removed the doors, can't be sure now. The rear wings were off, the exhaust was disconnected, the boot had been bodged. In short, a perfectly good little car had been reduced to a wreck.

Nothing for it, an ad was placed in the local paper. For Sale, 1938 Austin Big 7, unfinished project, £75.. It received one response, from a young chap who came round for a look. He was very interested, but said that he could afford only £60. What could I do but accept?

We got the car onto his trailer, along with the parts I had removed. 'As soon as I get it finished I'll pop round and take you for a ride', was his parting shot. 'Yeah, right,' I thought, but at least the problem was no longer mine, and I had £60 in my pocket.

So imagine my surprise when only a couple of weeks later, a Sunday morning, there was a knock on the door and there was the purchaser standing on the step. He gestured to a dark blue Austin Big 7 parked outside. 'Coming for a spin,' asked the youngster.

Bloody hell, I was gobsmacked I can tell you. We went for a little ride, and the car ran like a sewing machine. 'Didn't take me long to put things right,' said the modest mechanical genius.

I was so pleased that all the damage I had inflicted on the innocent piece of machinery had been put right, and the car had found a loving owner. Never heard any more, wonder what happened to it?

Hope you find this of interest, obviously I have invented the conversations but the gist is there."

Dennis Duggan

1 comment:

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