The truth is, classics are past their best.
The world has moved on to plastic push-on bumpers and hybrid technology.
so When wolf labeij opened the doors on his Austin Seven for the first time, we instantly took our hats off…
It took a second or two for the skinny wheels to settle after the car was pushed gingerly out of its wooden lockup. Then began the process of coaxing life into the engine. The car was built in 1932, the last year in which the fuel tank was in the front. It’s actually a gravity fed system, there’s no fuel pump. It chortled and gasped for air. We sheepishly indulged in the vintage clatter of the tiny four-pot as it proceeded to run smooth as ever. Starting the car requires the traditional starter handle.
Compromise is sensible when choosing a first time classic. You have to take into account all sort of things like: garage space, practicality, if it has a roof, whether it’s expensive to run and repair. Taking a pre-war car to school its a sure-fire way of keeping things interesting. Why would such an old car, that wasn’t built for fun, be the source of so much motoring purity and pleasure? What kind of will does it take to own a car like this and use it every day?
“Its a marmite car, some of my friends love it and think its the coolest car you could own, loving the quirkiness and that it’s so different. Others don’t get it or want me to restore it, but I love it… so I don’t mind what people think of it. I’m going to keep it the way it is and just use the car for what it’s meant to do.”
Wolf’s workshop shines a light on the technical brilliance and patience required to keep the car going through day-to-day use. A trip down to the end of the garden reveals a cabin full of projects, parts, tools and most stunningly, a complete scooter restored by Wolf himself. Wolf also reveals a Motorcycle dolly he built at College.
We take the Austin for a drive. Progress is relaxed and slow as we make our way down the little lanes through the dappled sunlight. The opening roof and pop-forward windscreen makes the car feel airy and open. Wolf told us how “The ignition timing can be controlled on the steering wheel […] to help get the car up the hills and start easier”. The car feels incredibly boxy inside, it’s nice not to have overbearing A-pillars cocooning you into an aerodynamic tube of metal cleverness, but an upright classic view of a bonnet with two little lights at the front. I say lights, more tea-lights covered inside smeary jam jars. Wolf told us that when the car was acquired it actually came with covers for the blackout in the war.
Wolf and his family don’t want the car restored because it would take too much of the history away. “My plans are to keep the car as original as possible while trying to use it as my daily driver”. The seats and the handsome arches have all seen better days, but it’s better to remember those days than obliterate their memory from the car. It looks better anyway, the special anti oxidising agent on the metal gives a golden-black tone to the potted body work (applied once a year). There are no vulgar modifications or additions to the original body and interior, just some minor engine and wiring improvements to keep things easier to manage. “The greasing points are very important and are done once or twice a week, this is to allow the suspension, and steering to move freely.” It’s no ‘time-warp’ car but you get a true sense for what it must have been like driving it new. Wolf knows he is a part of that car’s history, the most recent chapter in its life.
Classic cars are not reserved for the retired and not just for those with money. They are for those with a heart, a heart to give something what most would consider as ‘interesting junk’ a home. When there are bad moments, when things break down and fail to comply with the persuasions of the toolbox, hope is not always lost:
Once when this Austin Seven broke down, a van pulled up (it was after a show) the driver, an Austin specialist, offered the parts needed to get the car going again. Having fixed the car, Wolf asked the man how much the parts were. He said 'not to worry' and continued on his way. It’s this kind of noble gesture that makes the simple pleasure and intimacy of running a car like the Seven worth every knuckle chafing breakdown.
If you see Wolf with Biggles (Wolf's dog) on his travels, give him a nod and a wave because he’s doing you a favour. He’s keeping the evolution of motoring alive and reminding you that you don’t have to risk breaking your arm just to fetch some groceries.
Words - Tom Aiton // Photography - Tom Duke