The best thing about advice is that you don’t have
to take it. So, keep that in mind when I say to you: if you have enough money to
pay for registration and third party insurance, and you have the space to store
it, buy another car... and make it an old one.
I’ve owned a number of old cars – a Rover 2000, a
Volvo 142, and my current oldie, an Austin 1800. And I bloody love the Austin.
Setting the Scene
The prelude to its purchase started a very long
time ago. It must be 22 or 23 years ago (I’m now 44) when I drove a Mini for the
first time. I think it was a wagon; despite even then being a quite old car, it
impressed the hell out of me with its packaging and its go-kart feel around
corners. In fact, I well remember describing it to a much more experienced
automotive engineering acquaintance, a man with no preconceptions about what
made a car good or bad.
He listened to my glowing report on the Mini ("Of
course, I’m sure that you’ve driven them before: but isn’t the Mini bloody
fantastic on the road?" I said) before agreeing with me, then taking the
"And have you driven the big ones?" he said. "The
Morris 1100 and the Austin 1800? They’re great as well."
I hadn’t, but I filed the info away for later
reference. Then, more than 15 years later, I got a chance to drive an Austin
1800. Ironically, despite being auctioned through Australian eBay, it proved to
be for sale just a few blocks way. That car was a tired automatic, and it felt
incredibly gutless. In addition, it had apparently experienced an engine bay
fire – the fusebox seemed rather melted.... It could barely stagger up hills,
but what it did have was incredible interior space efficiency – inside, it was
like a car 50 per cent bigger than its exterior dimensions!
Time passed. Then one evening, half-way through
driving a new Commodore wagon to Sydney and back on a road test, I was bored
with the prospect of spending a bookless evening in the hotel room with my
family. Why not venture across the road to the service station and pick up a
magazine? Such whims are the stuff of fate: there amongst all the pictures of
cars for sale was an Austin 1800. The location was described only as New South
Wales (and NSW is a big place!) but it was worth a call.
The car turned out to be at Bowral, just south of
Sydney. It was an ‘older restoration’, but had a rebuilt engine and 4-speed
manual gearbox, and new paint. The interior was described as ‘tidy’. Hmmm, at
$1950 that sounded like a bargain. Especially since it was registered and had
recently passed inspection to gain that registration...
But if I bought it, how would I get it home to the
Gold Coast, about 1000 kilometres away? Of course it could be trucked but that
might cost a quarter of the value of the car. So what about driving it? The
Commodore wagon could be the escort vehicle, shepherding the Austin along and
being available for emergency tows, or breakdown parts fetching. But before any
decision like this could be made, an inspection was needed: after all, the most
creative writers are those that author car classifieds!
But the car looked good; in fact, with the
exception of a few very small spots of rust, just as described. The retired
bloke selling it seemed honest and upfront, and suggested the car would have no
problems being driven home. A day later I bought the car; the next morning at
5.30 we were on the road.
By lunchtime the next day we were home, without a
single unscheduled stop.
Sitting Under the Covers
Most of that I wrote in late 2004 but for nearly
two years afterwards, the Austin sat in my yard under a cover – too many things
to do; not enough time.
Then one day, at least a year after it had last
been started, I pulled the covers back from over odd Austin curves and then went
down the hill to get a new battery. Battery installed, I pulled out the choke
and turned the key – and she started.
Just like that!
How could I reject a car that was still so
obviously holding the faith with its new owner? (I have always been a bit odd
about my cars.)
A week later I started investigating the process
of registration. I’d not bothered transferring the rego from the previous NSW
owner and so it had long since lapsed. Now how did I, in another state, get it
registered? I investigated – and it was a lot of work. Get a temporary rego
permit, get insurance, take it to a workshop for a roadworthy – but then what
happened if it failed the roadworthiness check? More temporary permits?
Then I had a brainwave – just park it out the
front of the house on the street and get a mobile roadworthy expert to come look
at it. But I live inland from the Gold Coast in the little hillside town of Mt
Tamborine – would any of the mobile roadworthy blokes be interested in coming
this far? The first few calls were fruitless - but then I found someone.
The conversation went like this.
“Hi – can you come and do a roadworthy? The car’s
unregistered and at Mount Tamborine.”
“Yeah, sure – what’s the car?”
“It’s a 1969 Austin 1800.”
Oh no, I thought, here’s the man who will seek out
every little oil leak, every spot of rust and every imagined imperfection.
But when he stepped from his ute his first words
were: “Gawd, that’s the best condition 1800 I’ve ever seen.”
And he was fair – very fair. When the (untested)
horn made just a faint peep, he generously said: “Yep, I can hear it.” When he
looked under the front of the car and saw the detritus adhering to the sump -
oil mixed with the lawn-clippings all ingrained from being so long in the yard -
he said: “OK, I won’t mark you down for that but buy three cans of cheap
degreaser and get the engine clean.”
So $85 later, the roadworthy certificate was mine.
A few hours later, with compulsory insurance and having successfully fought my
way through the ferals (the customers, not the staff) inhabiting the Southport
motor registration office, I had it all: insurance, new number plates and proper
‘Ossy’ could now legally hit the road again!
To state it mildly, the Austin 1800 is an odd car.
The brainchild of one of the most idiosyncratic car designers ever – the Briton,
Alec Issigonis – the car followed the outstanding success of the Mini and the
less unqualified success of the Morris 1100. These cars used transverse front
wheel drive arrangements (then unknown or at the very least, unusual) and had
incredible interior packaging prowess.
Issigonis was determined, artistic, dictatorial
and arrogant – but a man who also had a sense of fun and shyness and loved his
many friends. Someone capable of immense lateral thought – a trait which seems
completely lost from current car designers – he was equally at home designing
suspension systems (steel, rubber or fluid), engines (flat four, in-line six,
alloy V8), or bodies (monocoque, FWD, RWD).
Surely, he was one of the most versatile and
talented automotive designers ever.
The Mini – while quite slow to start in its
success – turned out to be an astonishingly ground-breaking car. It became
popular with the rich and famous (and, perhaps not coincidentally, just the same
thing happened in the US some 40 years later with another of the Edgar household
cars, the Toyota Prius) and yet still appealed to the frugal. A car for stars
and yet still a car for charladies. And, since the Mini had been conceived with
an absolutely uncompromising eye by Issigonis, what he wanted simply dominated
the design. Issigonis was the car designer: he always knew better than the mere
public. With the Mini, the public ended up agreeing with him.
And so everyone figured the same process could be
followed with the Austin 1800.
But the dynamic was different. What worked with
the public in small, cute, fun-handling and dimensionally tight package did not
work with a full-size family car. The bus-like steering wheel, odd styling and
utilitarian foundation to every feature were no doubt pure industrial design –
but people don’t buy cars on design, they buy cars on emotion...
The Austin 1800 was by no means a disaster but it
didn’t revolutionise family cars the way that the Mini changed small cars
So what is the mechanical make-up? As its name
suggests, the Austin 1800 uses a 1.8 litre engine.
Today that sounds terribly small for a full-sized
family car – but that perception is mostly the result of the incredible weight
growth of contemporary cars (The latest Corolla? – try 1300kg....) The four
cylinder pushrod ‘B’ series engine – much the same as used in the MGB sports car
but without twin carbs – developed 84 bhp (a metricated 63kW, but realistically
with the change in measurement criteria, perhaps 55kW) to pull along the 1150kg.
However, peak torque of 99 lb-ft (133Nm) was developed at just 2100 rpm. As was
always the case in those days, gearing was very low – in top gear
(4th) the engine revved at just 26 km/h per 1000 revs – the lowest of
any car I have driven in the last 15 years.
So, despite what would be regarded today as paltry
power, the abundant low rpm torque, short gearing and low vehicle mass gave an
outcome that even today isn’t awful in performance – but more on driving in a
The steering is rack and pinion – all these years
later, still the best system. But without power assistance, a low steering ratio
was a necessity if parking wasn’t to become a chore. And with a large 419mm
steering wheel (“huge” is more like it!), the required 3.8 turns lock to lock
makes the 1800 feel far more unwieldily than a power-steered equivalent would be
But it is in the suspension and body design that
the car is most progressive. Fluid pipes connect the front and rear suspensions
and the springing material comprises rubber cones. Damping valves are built-into
the suspension (“displacer”) units and the whole system is pressurised. Apart
from the other Issigonis cars of the same era, it’s like nothing else ever
On the Road
On the road the Austin is, these days, an odd
mixture of what is brilliant and what is pedestrian. The interior space is
simply phenomenal for the size of the car. And that’s more than just the
measurements of leg-room, headroom and the rest – in the 1800, the interior is
also airy and open. Unlike current cars, the dashboard doesn’t protrude
massively into the cabin and the short seat backs (no head restraints!) make the
rear feel even more spacious. Another body design characteristic which is unlike
most of today’s cars is in the use of a near flat floor – if the driver wishes
to, and their legs are long enough, they can rest their left foot in the
passenger side footwell! Even the boot is large. Step straight out of the EF
Falcon into the Austin and it’s the Austin that has better interior space.
The suspension is also brilliant. The hydraulic
system prevents pitching – hit a front bump and both ends of the car rise in
response. It makes for a peculiar gait – the Austin tends to flow along the road
rather than with the jolting that comes from today’s fashionably firm damping.
And, even with 75 series tyres, it’s not at all shabby about going around
corners. Perhaps because of its wide track, a cornering 1800 is stable and
But the engine? It’s from a truck – loud and
coarse. I made that observation to someone once, suggesting that it was a clear
weak link in the car’s make-up and that something like a Fiat or Alfa twin cam
would have been so much better under the bonnet. Quick as a flash, they pointed
out that I’d forgotten the Austin 1800’s original market – and its competition
in that market. The Austin was not an expensive car – despite its sophistication
in suspension and body. Something had to give – and it was the engine.
The steering is also rather odd. In terms of
precision, it is excellent. However as mentioned, it is heavy when parking and
has far too many turns lock to lock. (In the market at the time, power steering
was unknown in this class.) But the bus-like positioning of the steering wheel
is harder to forgive – it’s simply not in a natural, falls-easily-to-the-hand
But each time I drive the car (usually once or
twice a week) it puts a smile on my face. I like the feel of the rack and pinion
steering (that’s when the car is on the move), and the wheel-at-each-corner
stance. I especially like the uncannily good ride and the incredibly airy and
The Austin cost me $1700 (I bargained down the
asking price by $250). I bought a collection of front and rear indicators and
parkers lenses on eBay for about $100 and fitted those prior to the roadworthy
inspection. The car would have passed anyway but the improvement in looks (the
original lenses were faded) was considerable. Apart from the cost of a new
battery, and registration and compulsory insurance, nothing else has been
The 1800 is certainly no perfectly restored
classic car. There’s a bit of rust bubbling away under the paint in a few spots,
one of the seats has a small tear in it and the boot interior is chipped and
worn. I am sure an Austin 1800 aficionado could find many other defects, and I
think it’d be quite possible to spend a huge amount of money bringing it up top
But is it worth having? You betcha!
The Austin is a car with charm, fun and
capability. It’s idiosyncratic enough in its design to show how boring today’s
cars have come – cover the badges on many new cars and you’d be hard pressed to
even recognise them. Any mechanic over the age of 45 hates the Austin – to them
it represented a complex and difficult car. But of course that was in the local
context of Chyslers, Holdens and Fords – amongst the most mechanically primitive
cars in the world. In a modern frame of reference, the Austin is mechanically
simple and straightforward, yet is still different enough to provide an
automotive stimulus every time you sit behind the huge steering wheel.
Back to Advice...
Now my advice is not to necessarily purchase an Austin 1800,
but instead to buy a car from an era and with technology you admire. For some
Australian readers, that might be a Torana; for others a Peugeot 404 or even an
ELB CM-series Valiant. If you’re flush with cash, it might be something like a
Jaguar, or even a Lincoln. If I had enough money, I’d have a Porsche 356 for
solo drives and an old Roller, complete with its fold-down picnic tables, for
family outings. ....
But irrespective of budget, I really think that if
you love cars, you’re doing yourself out of a real pleasure if you don’t have
something old and idiosyncratic around the place.