THE AUSTIN SEVEN - A WONDER OF THE WORLD
The Austin Seven proved popular across the globe and has remained so. The cars were exported as well as made under licence in Australia, Germany, France and Japan, with some of these manufacturers also exporting their models. In addition, about 1 in 5 cars produced at Longbridge were exported.
Chassis were exported to Australia from 1924, because the chassis only required payment of a minimal tax, whereas a complete car was heavily taxed to discourage imports and encourage Australian manufacturers. The Holden Motor Body Builders, and other coach builders, produced a range of bodies including the Ace in 1924, the Wasp in 1927, the Comet and the Meteor in 1928 which was completed by at least three coach builders. Coach building was carried out in Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide.
Holden had started in 1856 as a manufacturer of saddles. The company assembled the Austin Seven, Vauxhalls and Chevrolets, and in 1931 was taken over by General Motors. The business was very successful up until 1930, when 34,000 cars a year were produced, but the Great Depression in 1931 resulted in only 1,651 cars being sold. In 1948 Holden became the first mass producer of cars in Australia with the introduction of a model which was 92% Australian, but was actually a development of the 1938 compact Buick which was never produced in America. The car was a success, with four million cars sold, including exports to the Near East and Africa. The company became famous for its Utility, known affectionately as the Ute. In the 1950’s Holden was exporting to 17 countries. The share of the Australian car market gradually declined from 57.5% in the 1980’s, fluctuated in the 20% range in the 1990’s, and was 15% in the 2000’s.This decline was due to periods of relaxation of the import duties, the cost of reducing the work-force, and the strong Australian dollar adversely affecting exports. The company received substantial government and other funding at times, including in 2012, but despite this support production is due to end in 2017.
Fahrzeugfabrik Eisenach was started by Heinrich Ehrhardt, and was the third company in Germany to manufacture cars after Daimler and Benz. In 1898 they produced the Wartburg which was a licenced version of the French Decauville. When the Decauville licence was revoked the company suffered financial losses. In 1904 the company name changed to Dixi, which means I have spoken in latin, and colloquially means the last resort which is a reference to their desire for a high standard. Dixi produced a range of cars, which were also sold in Britain as Leanders and in France as Reginas. During the First World War they produced trucks and guns. In 1919 economic hardship forced a merger with Gothaer Waggonfabrik, who were builders of railway coaches, and the focus shifted to the manufacture of small cars. In 1927 they entered into a contract with the Austin Motor Company to manufacture the Austin Seven under licence. The first 50 cars were right-hand drive, assembled from parts provided by the Austin factory. They then began manufacturing the left-hand drive Dixi 3/16 PS DA-1. The 3/16 represented the taxable horsepower of 3PS, with an actual horsepower of approximately 15PS. DA1 stood for Deutshe Ausfuhrung, translating as German version. 9,307 of this model were produced between 1927 and 1929, BMW bought Fahrzeugfabrik Eisenach from the parent company Gothaer Waggonfabrik in October 1928, and in 1929 the model was re-named the BMW Dixi 3/16 DA-2, with four wheel brakes, larger tyres and a lower axle ratio. Probably 150 examples of the sporting version, the 3/16 DA-3 Wartburg, were built between 1930 and 1931, and was BMW’s first sports car. In 1931 the 3/16 DA-4 was introduced, which was heavier than preceding models. In total 18,976 examples of the BMW 3/16 were produced between 1929 and 1932, and this model was replaced by the non-Austin 7 BMW 3/10 before the licence from Austin had expired. The history of BMW is that the initial company was started in 1916 producing aero-engines. The company name changed in 1922 to Bayerische-Motoren-Werke (hence BMW) and produced engines for boats, lorries and motorcycles. Thus, the acquisition of Dixi enabled BMW to begin car production, which was based on the Austin Seven.
Lucien Rosengart was a keen inventor, and completed an apprenticeship in his father’s engineering business before starting his own business. He made railway parts, bicycles and a rocket which allowed artillery shells to be exploded whilst airborne. He received government funding during the First World War, and worked with Citroen who supplied the shells. After the war he helped Peugeot and Citroen avoid bankruptcy. He thought there was a gap in the market for a small car in France, and obtained a licence to produce the Austin Seven in France. The Rosengart LR2 appeared in 1928, and won 80 out of the 81 sporting events it participated in. It was followed by the LR4 in 1931 and the LR4 2N 4CV in 1938. It appears that they produced possibly 12 variants of the Austin 7, which may have been made until 1941. The company also produced a six cylinder 1100cc vehicle from 1932-1938, a 10 hp model in 1935, and the Supertraction from 1933-1940 which was a front-wheel drive car based on the Adler Trumpf and later the Citroen.
After the Second World War the company resumed with production of some of the pre-war models, including the Type LR4 PL in 1950 and the LR4 PL4 from 1952-53, and the Ariette, all with four cylinder 747.5cc engines. In 1954 the Sagaie with a 750cc air-cooled flat twin engine was introduced, but the company closed in 1955. Mr Rosengart had sold his business and the name in 1936 to Societe Industrielle de l’ Ouest Parisien (SIOP). It is estimated that about 11,000 Rosengart cars based on the Austin Seven were sold. There are 28 cars on the UK Rosengart register and more within the French Rosengart club (which has suddenly become unavailable on the internet), and in Germany there is a museum dedicated to the Rosengart., which is run by the enthusiastic collector of the marque Karl-Heinz Bonk.
In January 1929 Sir Herbert and Lady Austin took four Austin Sevens to America to gain interest for their production in the USA. The car was 16 inches narrower and 28 inches shorter than any other car in America. Funds were raised and an agreement reached for production by the American Austin Car Company. There were great hopes for this venture, but the Great Depression led to poor sales for the Austin and other cars, whether they were luxury or austerity models. By the end of 1930 8,558 cars had been sold, in 1931 only 1,279 cars were sold, and in 1932 3,846 cars were sold. In 1933 4,726 cars were sold, and in 1934 probably 1,300 cars were sold before the company filed for bankruptcy in June 1934.
The 1500 unfinished cars from the American Austin Car Company were bought by Roy Evans who had been the main salesman for the cars. He re-organised the company under the name American Bantam, possibly in recognition of the car’s small size and as a reference to the name for small poultry. Production resumed in 1937 and continued until 1941. In 1938 about 10,000 cars were sold through 400 dealers covering 46 countries throughout the World. Right-hand drive cars were envisaged for export and also for domestic use as rural mail delivery. In 1939 sales had reduced to 1,227 cars, with the Bantam chassis and engine also being exported to Australia for Car Production Pty Ltd in Sydney to fit Australian bodies. In 1940 800 cars were sold, and there was no capital left, and so in 1941 138 cars were assembled from available parts, and this marked the end of the Bantam.
The company went on to develop the prototype of the Jeep, and made 2,765 of them, with half going to the British Army and also to the Soviet Army. The contract for their continued production was awarded to Willys-Overland who made 361,349 Jeeps and to Ford who produced 277,896 Jeeps, with American Bantam left to produce trailers for the Jeep.
In the late 1920’s Austin introduced the car to Japan, but no formal licence was established to manufacture an Austin in Japan. In the early 1930’s the Datson, which was re-named Datsun, bore a striking resemblance to the Austin seven!
DAT Motors, was formed in 1926 and was an acronym of the three names of the partners of this Japanese car and truck manufacturer. The company has had a number of name changes but can trace its roots to 1912 when it began car manufacture, which continued until 1926. From 1926 until 1930 only trucks were manufactured.
In 1930 the Government of Japan allowed cars up to 500cc to be driven without a licence, and DAT produced small cars called DATSON (son of DAT in recognition of their small size). The Type10 was produced in 1931, with possibly 10 sold. In 1932 the Type11 achieved sales of 150. The name was changed to DATSUN in 1933 probably because son also means loss, whereas sun is a patriotic reference to the Japanese flag. The name Nissan was added from 1934 onwards, and both names have been used at various times since then.
In 1933 the Government permitted 750cc engines to be produced and so the Type12 vehicle matched this limit. In 1935 a production line was established.
Japan went to war with China in 1937, and production concentrated on trucks for the Army and car production was restricted. Car production did not resume until 1947, and was focussed on the Austin Devon and Somerset, together with the first indigenous design, the 110 saloon and 120 pickup. A licence was obtained for the production of these Austin A40 and A50 models from 1953-1960.
The name Datsun was eventually changed to Nissan in the early 1980’s, but the Datsun name was re-launched in 2012, with the Datsun Go and its variants which have a three cylinder 1.2 litre engine. Thus, the era of small car manufacturing has returned.
The success of some major motor manufacturers can be traced to their association with the Austin 7, including of course William Lyons who built the Swallow, and his Swallow Sidecar and Coach-building Company went on to become Jaguar.
The internet provides a wealth of information, including a light-hearted look at the influence of Austin’s on the car industry entitled “Seven Degrees of Austin Seven” written by Thomas P. Cotrel . The history of the Bantam and the Jeep are well described and illustrated in the Automobile Quarterly 1976, volume 14, number 4. The Austin Seven Source Book by Bryan Purves is a scholarly chronology of the various models produced around the world.
The 750 Motor Club Rally at Beaulieu on Sunday 5th July 2015 invites entries of the cousins of our Austin Seven, and so hopefully there will be a good turnout of the above-mentioned vehicles. However, there are only 368 Dixi/BMWs, 23 Rosengarts and 8 Bantams on the UK register, out of 10,509 Austin Sevens, and so any sightings of these models will be greatly admired. Interest in Austin Sevens remains world-wide, with at least 19 clubs outside of the UK.
The information provided in this article is the result of “satisficing”, a term used to describe finding a sufficient outcome, without attempting to be the very best. I hope it whetted your appetite to explore more, provide corrections and additions, and leads to further articles on the fascinating history of the Austin 7.
Nick Moffat (DA7C)