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Old Cars

Open your horizons...

by Julian Edgar

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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

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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 conversation further.

"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!

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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...

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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

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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?

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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 shit.”

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.”

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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 registration!

‘Ossy’ could now legally hit the road again!

Design

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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.

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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 forever.

Specs

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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 moment.

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 today.

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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 made.

On the Road

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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 composed.

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.

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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 position.

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 spacious cabin.

The Money

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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 spent.

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 concourse condition.

But is it worth having? You betcha!

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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.

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