The day I built my own Austin 7 Special
In this article: One of the IMI’s longest standing members Jack Vye, recounts his life in the motor industry, how he passed his driving test and built his first car, an Austin 7 Special
The world has changed a lot over the past century. Just ask Jack Vye. At 101, he’s one of the IMI’s oldest members. Born in 1918, Vye spent all of his working life in the motor industry, running garages in Sussex. Over the years, he has worked on almost every kind of vehicle imaginable.
But his own route to driving was a little different from what most of us experience today. He didn’t take any driving lessons, and even though his family worked in the industry, he didn’t have a car to practice in. He even had to borrow a car to take his driving test in. Compulsory tests had been introduced in 1935, the year before he got behind the wheel.
“I taught myself to drive in customers’ cars,” says Vye. “The police stopped me several times, but they were different then, usually just saying ‘Don’t let me catch you again’ and clipping you around the ear.”
When it was time to take his test in 1936, Vye had to dash around trying to find a car first. “I found a car dealer and asked if they had a taxed car I could borrow. The only one they had was a £100 Ford Popular [Model Y] with rod brakes. They loaned it to me, so I put L plates on and went to report for my driving test,” says Vye.
The minute he arrived for the test, he was subjected to a grilling from the examiner. “This big, strong fellow came out and I gave him my papers. I asked him if something was wrong and he asked where my companion was,” Vye recalls. “You were supposed to have a companion, otherwise it was against the law.”
Vye must have been feeling a little bold, as he opted to tell the examiner that he was an experienced driver. “He said, ‘I don’t want your bloody cheek’, but he took me around and at the end of the test he said I could take the L plates off. And that was that,” says Vye.
Jack's first car
With a fresh driving licence in his hand, Vye wanted to get to work on his first car – a 1924 Austin 7. “I don’t know why we acquired it, but it cost £4, ten shillings. I sat down one evening and drew what I wanted it to look like,” he explains. “I said to my brothers and father, ‘I think I’d like this altered’, and they made the radiator cowling, the radiator grill, the long bonnet, the small scuttle, cut-down doors, the sloping back, you name it.”
Vye also wanted his dream car to have a drop-down windscreen, so he took the windscreen from an MG and had the fittings cast, chrome-plated and attached to the Austin.
Pulling the car together also helped Vye to learn new skills that he perhaps wouldn’t have picked up otherwise, especially when it came to the engine. “We’d taken the engine out for some reason – I think somebody was going to decarbonise it while we were building the body. I tried to get someone else to do it, but in the end I had to do it myself. I found out how to grind the valves in and everything else, and then I put it together again,” says Vye. Even then, he hadn’t finished tinkering with the Austin, as he still had a few things he wanted to do. One was painting it metallic pink – not a colour you see very often today, let alone in the 1930s – as well as also changing the vehicle’s sound. “We added a two-inch copper pipe from the manifold, right out to the back, no silencer,” Vye explains.
Inside, he retrimmed the cabin and found solutions to a couple of outstanding problems. For example, having altered the fascia, the steering column was too low and the rake was wrong, so he fixed that up with a heavy bit of angle iron.
Then came the challenge of where he was going to sit. “Because of the steering, it was a job to get the seats to fit, but I had some gas piping and made some hoops, making up a little chair with legs,” he says. It still needed a cushion, so he had to use a bit more ingenuity to give himself a comfortable perch behind the steering wheel. “I had a brainwave and got a commercial inner tube off a lorry and cut it into strips. I looped them around the frame and put a bit through the middle. It fitted a treat. I taxed it and the car was ready,” he says.
Vye travelled quite a few miles in his unusual Austin. Not every journey was a success, but every mishap added to his memories of his first car. “We went to Peacehaven [in East Sussex] one evening.
The road went up and down and then, all of a sudden, a flame shot under the bonnet. There were some banging noises and the car came to a standstill. It had a magneto coupling, but it had sheared. We had to push the car into Rottingdean, so four of us had to jump out and start pushing. An on-duty policeman waved us on, and there was a lot of laughing,” says Vye.
The industry has changed beyond recognition since Vye first started out, but the joy of passing your test and getting behind the wheel remains… although there probably aren’t many people who’d paint their first car metallic pink