IT WAS Hodgetts, a blokeish friend of my stepfather, who resolved the mystery of why the smallest Austins had "Seven" writ large upon their noses and the largest bore the legend "Six". Hodgetts knew all about cars and was, after World War II, to take me hill-climbing in his AC, but this was 10 years earlier, in my Wind in the Willows days. "Seven", he said, "is the horsepower, six the number of cylinders."
As six was the number of cylinders that Rolls and Royce thought perfect, Herbert Austin decided that his 16, 18 and 20hp models should share that mark of engineering status rather than declare their size. The Seven, however, had only four cylinders and was, in horsepower terms, about as small as it could be; quite how so slow a car, so futilely incapable on hills, could be a match for seven horses, Hodgetts allowed to remain a mystery.
Not even as a child did I want an Austin Seven; as a schoolboy I regarded them with amused contempt; and as a National Serviceman I refused to join the ranks of impecunious subalterns who drove them legendary distances on weekend leaves. Now, in my dotage, the overheated world crumbling about me, I realise how sensible they were - 50mph and 50mpg in their final incarnation, the four-seater Ruby saloon with which Baron Austin of Longbridge ended the car's 17- year run in March 1939, allowing it to be usurped by an imposter, the "Big Seven", damned for its four doors and 900cc engine. This, an infelicitous attempt to introduce an "Eight" to compete with the slightly larger smallest cars of Ford and Morris, is not counted a true Seven by aficionados.
The real thing began as a sheet of paper on Herbert's billiard table and had a 747cc engine that remained in production until 1962 as the power plant of the three-wheel Reliant (since 1935). Truth to tell, in the earliest models of late 1922 the engine was of 696cc, but within six months the bore was increased to give another 51cc and 10bhp at 2,600rpm. With some uncertainty in terms of date, power rose to 23 bhp in the standard models, but weight rose too and even with the comparatively powerful last Ruby, the recommended cruising speed was only 35-40mph, much the same as the first Seven.
The car was always intended to seat four, but a body only inches longer than the current basic Smart and many inches narrower scarcely made for comfort. The model called the Chummy was exactly that - occupants overflowed the sides, and rear passengers had a bumpy ride perched behind the rear axle. It was hellish for the driver too, with a clutch that was either in or out (its useful pedal movement perhaps 5mm), uncoupled brakes operated by foot at the rear and hand at the front, direct steering easily thrown off- course, and suspension that skipped a beat and jittered sideways over every drain.