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Old 20th August 2009, 22:00   #1
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Default Swami and friends, Travels in a baby Austin

If I were to compile my list of ten favourite cars, the Austin Seven would rank pretty high on it. The Austin Seven was to the UK what the Ford T was to the US, the Volkswagen to Germany, the Topolino to Italy and the Citroen 2CV to France. For seventeen years from 1922 to 1939, more than 280,000 Austin Sevens were manufactured. While the tiny size of the Austin was the butt of several music hall jokes, the car boasted quite a few features that more expensive marques didn’t possess. Though by contemporary standards they are a bit of a joke, the Seven featured four wheel brakes, much before Rolls Royce did. While the Seven was always built down to a price, workmanship was of a high standard and it provided economical and proper motoring for two reasonably sized adults and two children. The car’s reputation as a go anywhere one was enhanced by its export to the colonies and even today the car has an enthusiastic following throughout the world.

I have always had a weakness for the Seven, and I was beside myself with envy when a friend and I drove down from Hassan to Bangalore in his 1933 AJ Tourer in 1991. It was a lovely rainless day during the height of the monsoon and as we drove down the hills and valleys with clouds scudding overhead, I decided that I must have one. I extracted a promise of first refusal from him, in case he decided to sell, though I little expected that he would.

My friend had rescued his car from the kerb in Richmond town and had done most of the engine work himself. The car was mechanically in very good condition and its high point was its starring in Shankar Nag’s evocative serial, Malgudi Days, based on R.K. Narayan’s stories about am impish little boy, Swami and his adventures. My friend drove the car all the way to Agumbe for the shoot, only to have the car pushed across the screen for the very first shot of the first episode of the serial! Unfortunately a few years later, the Austin had an argument with a taxi on a vintage car rally which resulted in a crumpled left front wing. The car was stashed away to be restored after this unfortunate accident, but like many restorations, it began to slip. Finally, I got my chance in 1996 when my friend decided to sell and I fulfilled my dream of owning a Seven. Swami, as I named him is from a driver’s point of view the ideal Seven to own. One of the last of the chrome radiatored Sevens, it has a synchro gearbox, coil ignition and interconnected front and rear brakes, unlike its predecessors. This makes the car a far more practical proposition to drive, as compared to the cuter Chummies of earlier years. Though Swami did look a bit shabby when I picked him up, he had not deteriorated mechanically and oozed vintage charm. I used him as he was for a few months, but the brakes were dreadful and the experience terrifying. In late 2000, I decided to undertake a rolling restoration. Since the car was mechanically complete, my work was essentially cosmetic. The car was finished in Royal Blue, with black wings and a black coach line offsetting the brightness of its body. We trimmed him in the correct black rexine.

Now that the restoration was over, we should normally have cossetted our pride and joy and tried to win prizes at infrequent Vintage car rallies. How did we ever think of doing such a foolhardy thing as taking a sixty eight year old car on an arduous journey of nearly 1700 kilometres? Put it down to plenty of passion and insanity. I’ve always believed that vintage cars deserved to be driven as much as any other car. Our opportunity to test the Austin over a long distance arose when a niece decided to get married – and she and her fiance took one look at the car and fell in love with it. We suggested that we would drive down to Trivandrum for their wedding and they would get their first ride home in it. Little did I realise that the wedding would be in the middle of May, not really the best time to make a trip in any car in any part of India. But a promise is a promise, and uncles have reputations to keep. So from Bangalore to Trivandrum it was to be, come May 2001. Three of us, my wife, son and I, and Swami, of course!


Day one: 4th May 2001: 205 kilometres covered in 6 hours 45 minutes.
There was a feeling of nervous anticipation and trepidation, as we woke up a couple of hours before dawn and made the final preparations. Swami was packed to the seams, and our son Ishaan shoehorned into a snug nook in the rear seat. Bangalore’s familiar roads looked quite different from the open cockpit of the Austin. While Ishaan curled up and made up for the early wake-up call, we proceeded at a relatively sedate pace.
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Old 20th August 2009, 22:02   #2
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Dawn is the best time to be travelling in a convertible. The breeze is cool, and the tree branches overhanging the road echo the flat beat of the engine. We crossed the Hosur border into Tamilnadu just when dawn was breaking. The road looks a lot different from what it is now!
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Old 20th August 2009, 22:07   #3
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[FONT=&quot]We escaped the traffic of Hosur in the dawn. After a couple of hours on the road I could feel the tiny engine shed its stiffness. It seemed propelled by a will of its own, as it mumbled to itself in a reassuring Austinian tongue. 71 kilometers from Bangalore, the pleasures of driving in an open topped tourer diminished somewhat and we stopped for raising the hood. The Austin looked purposeful with its hood up, and the sagging rear springs gave it an amusing low slung profile. In the meantime, my wife whipped up a delicious breakfast in the back seat. We called it her Chaat Bhandar.[/FONT]
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Old 20th August 2009, 22:09   #4
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A few kilometres from Dharmapuri the car faced its first test – the ghat section at Thoppur. Road widening work slowed down our progress but we managed to make it through the gaggle of struggling trucks. At Thoppur, we created a minor sensation at the bunk – a scene that would be repeated often throughout the journey.
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Old 20th August 2009, 22:13   #5
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We made good time on the quiet Mettur road, slowing down only for the three hairpin bends on the ghat road within sight of the Stanley reservoir. This was another test for the Austin; would its brakes be tested on the descent? They held, but it required all my effort to hold them down, along with shifting to the low geared second gear to ease the pressure on them. At Mettur, we took a well earned rest. Swami was given a bath and bedded down for the night. Mechanically, all he required was a check of the front off side brake, which was easily achieved with Ishaan the grease monkey in attendance!

I'll continue the story tomorrow.
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Old 20th August 2009, 22:15   #6
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You call it minor sensation, looks like people of Thoppur love baby austin or maybe they hadnt seen any.

Nice pics and narration, keep them coming

cheers
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Old 20th August 2009, 22:52   #7
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Now this is going to be interesting
I am hooked
keep going
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Old 20th August 2009, 23:04   #8
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Thats really interesting. Pls post some more pics specially of the older NH7 near Bangalore, Dharmapuri etc..

Abhi
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Old 21st August 2009, 14:27   #9
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Wow, what a journey! You are a brave man

What did you carry with you in terms of spares for the car?

There is a lady in Pune with a near identical car (even colour), she's been driving it since 1960, attending rallies all over India, often even driving the little Austin to far off destinations.

Keep the stories coming. And full marks to the missus for joining you on this escapade.
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Old 21st August 2009, 15:31   #10
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@tonrag, Lovely narration & nice pics too (Wish they were Digital pics :-) ).
Certainly fantastic name too SWAMI.
Waiting for the next set of stories to arrive
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Old 21st August 2009, 16:41   #11
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Very interesting naration of Austin and your journey, will waiting for your next post more pictures and interesting stuff. You reminded me of our Austin days, in our family we grow with Austins all around us, all shapes of Austins, Austin-7 was very remembering one. We drove this Austin in fields, water, mud, but it never stops any time. Once axle rod was broken it was towed to home by bullock cart. Sadly we did not have much photos of it.

Look forward to hear more about your Austins, Morris and other old cars.

Cheers!
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Old 21st August 2009, 17:46   #12
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Wow!! Really well written piece. These vintage cars have their own charm. Would really love to drive one. This little beauty can cause a minor stampede anywhere let alone Dharmapuri. Thanks for the pics.
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Old 21st August 2009, 18:55   #13
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Quote:
Pls post some more pics specially of the older NH7 near Bangalore, Dharmapuri etc..
I have more pictures of the Dharmapuri road, which were taken on the return journey, so a little patience and you’ll soon see them.


Quote:
nice pics too (Wish they were Digital pics :-) ).
I apologise for the quality of the photos; these were the pre digital camera days and I had a rather basic camera.


Quote:
What did you carry with you in terms of spares for the car?
I didn’t carry much; a couple of radiator hoses, a brand new six volt coil, spare bulbs and a spare condenser. I also carried a battery charger, a set of spanners, screwdrivers and other sundry tools, a powerful torch, a towing rope and a jack.

Quote:
There is a lady in Pune with a near identical car (even colour), she's been driving it since 1960, attending rallies all over India, often even driving the little Austin to far off destinations.
Wow! I’d love to meet her. Maybe I'll drive down to Pune for one of your local rallies. I also heard recently of a 22 year old girl who drove solo from Beijing to London in an Austin Seven. When asked why she chose one, she said it was very simple to fix!

Quote:
full marks to the missus for joining you on this escapade.
Actually, I was the chicken guy. I had arranged for my other car, a 1964 Amby to follow as the back up car and got my office driver to come home the evening before to make the arrangements. My wife saw him and a short and sweet conversation ensued, which went something like this:

Wife, ‘Why has Nair(the driver) come?’
Self, ‘Um, aah, he’ll follow us, in case something goes wrong.’
Wife, ‘Whatever for? I thought you were the world’s greatest adventurer, mechanic and restorer rolled into one. (menacingly) I don’t want him to chaperone us.’
Self, ‘Gulp! OK.’
Wife, ‘(Wickedly) Moreover, how can we romance each other if Nair is going to breathe down our necks? (to Nair), you can go home.’
And so it was just the three of us, and Swami, of course.

Quote:
We drove this Austin in fields, water, mud, but it never stops any time.
Yes, the Austin is simplicity personified. There is no water pump; the water circulates because of the thermosyphon principle. The earlier models (though not my car) had a gravity feed petrol tank behind the dash, so there was no fuel pump. The carburetor can be disassembled and fixed in half an hour. The springs give a very comfortable ride. If something goes wrong, a child can push the car to the side of the road. The only problems are the brakes, which are dreadful and the electrical system, which justifies why Lucas was called the Prince of darkness.

Back to the journey, in my next post.

Last edited by tonrag : 21st August 2009 at 19:09.
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Old 21st August 2009, 18:57   #14
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Day 2: 5th May, 2001: 376 kilometres covered in 13 hours 15 minutes;
‘Daddy, there’s a butterfly chasing us’, Ishaan announced. ‘Its now overtaken us; its gone zzoop!’ We were on the Mettur Bhavani road, slowed down to a crawling pace on the potholed surface. Our virtually useless six-volt headlamps performed no other function other than to dimly announce our presence to other vehicles on the road. Yet, there was magic in the air. The hills around Stanley reservoir, now receding behind us, were flecked with the golden hues of sunrise. To our left we felt the presence of the Cauvery river and the cool breeze from it was welcome. With the top down, we were no longer a witness to the unfolding dawn, but a part of it. Frogs croaking in little pools by the roadside seemed unusually loud. Insomniac dogs were startled by the strange apparition of the Austin. Some turned tail and ran while others gave chase, their barks spurred by Ishaan’s replies in doggy language. Though the bad road gave us a few anxious moments, there were no mechanical mishaps, except the glass in the left headlamp working loose, cured by stuffing a few face tissues between the rim and the glass.
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Old 21st August 2009, 18:59   #15
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A delicious hot breakfast of the days first fluffy idlis at Bhavani, fortified us for the hot day ahead. The Austin continued to pull crowds. The heat again rapidly descended on us, but the car didn’t ever seem to flag. We stopped mainly for checks on the radiator and at Perundurai to see another car, a temple car! If anybody wants to see an impossible tyre size, here is the place. The Wooden wheel of the chariot was exactly double the size of the Austin.
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