How to buy an Austin 20 HP without even having seen it?
We all, one day, have faced this situation : spent hundreds of hours on internet, analyzed thousands of pictures, finally found the perfect model, but realized the seller lives far away.
The most reasonable thing to do is to forgot it. Yes but no. According the pictures it really looks amazing, even better : it seems to be in perfect condition. And the price is correct. To sum up, this is the opportunity.
But, eventually, you are busy at work. You’re going to miss the deal. You cannot let down, so have to take a quick decision. The risk to burn all your savings is massive. So you need to do something clever, for once.
You call the owner. You realise it’s not so clever, because you don’t really know what to say. Confused, you ask him to confirm the bolide is as stated in the advert. Well, that’s not innovative. And suddenly, you have an idea. You tell to your interlocutor that you want it, you plan to collect it, but provided you can come back driving it. When you say “driving”… not the towing car with a trailer behind, but the fantastic machine you are calling for.
That’s how I contacted Chris, working for Vintage and Prestige, located in Crays, near Basildon, United Kingdom. I live in Paris, France, and I didn’t have the time to visit them. He answered me something like “Yes sir, the Austin 20 HP Clifton Tourer you are looking for is working all right, and I guarantee it will make the travel”. The car was ours.
More about the Austin 20 HP!
Since you’ve read “Austin”, you have in mind a Cooper. But the Austin 20 HP is rather the opposite of a Mini. It is heavy, large, tall. In fact, you can use all the adjectives you know to describe something big, it works. To make it simple, it is the double in length and width of the iconic British little kit car. It also has twice the age, as the model first appeared in 1919 whereas the second has been introduced in 1959.
The Longbridge plant, based in Birmingham, produced more than 15 000 of them. That was quite a success for prewar times. Dad and I new acquisition left the factory in 1925. First sold somewhere near Aberdeen, Scotland (as the “SV” on the number plate indicates), it then crossed the world to reach Australia, before to come back home in the 90’s.
Thanks to its standard 3.6 L, cast-iron 4 straight cylinders, delivering 45 bhp, the Austin was nearly the equal of the Bentley 3 liters, and other Rolls-Royce 20HP, even more affordable and reliable, as few of them passed the impressive 500 miles threshold.
We received an invitation to collect our new bolide at Vintage and Prestige. The showroom is located in the middle of an industrial estate. That’s important to say, as the contrast with the inside is improbable.
Talking about Bentley and Rolls-Royce…
Chris’s welcome is warm. The Austin 20 HP Clifton Tourer, immaculate, catches the eyes from every angle. The problem? It is hard to keep the eyes on it. Besides, a stunning bicolor Bugatti Type 57 Atalante waits for its future owner.
The place is full of exotic stuff. Have you ever heard about EMF 30 HP Rois des Belges 1910, Napier T64 Napier Gentleman’s carriage 1914, Talbot 4CY 15/20 1916 ? Personally, I didn’t know. Well, you better have a look on their website if you are interest by uncommon stuff. It is clearly a paradise for any prewar enthusiast. Back in the days, bodyworks were really different the one to the other, reflecting the glorious period of (nearly) totally free designers.
The house is renowned for its Rolls-Royce and Bentley selection. And talking about that, the display is just incredible. A point it is highly probable that even official dealers didn’t manage to reunite so much units back in the days. There are tens and tens of them, all more shinny the one to the other. At a point it is not possible to count them.
My preference goes to the Bentley 3 Liters, considering their Le Mans history and victories. Chris is happy to open their bonnet to let us inspect their engines made of steal, brass and copper, and appreciate their perfect condition. What a pleasure for the eyes!
Funnily, Chris’s favourite is French. A shinny Mors 1903, fitted with a 5 liters engine and all sorts of brass accessories and headlamps. Very quick, it is eligible to the London-Brighton veteran car run (only pre-1904 are allowed). The latter participated 20 times, without any single DNF! Its red leather looks like a candy. Tasty is definitely the word.
Time to wake up the beast!
Enough talked about cars we cannot afford! And time for us to wake up our Clifton Tourer. The operation requests a kind of a ritual: connect the magneto, prime the fuel, set the ignition on late, choke on, turn the key. When everything is set up, in half of a second, the engine turns.
Despite its 95 years old, the Austin is in perfect running condition. It revs at 2000 rpm, which is rather low compared to modern standards. Forget the power, and appreciate the torque. The feelings are closer to the combine harvester than to a proper car. With the Austin 20HP, you need to appreciate peaceful cruises, and enjoy the calm of a ride onboard a convertible prewar. Pleasures are definitively different from sport cars we are used to drive.
En route to Paris!
After a tour around the industrial park, in order to get use with the car, it’s time to leave Chris and Classic and Vintage. We have stars in the eyes. The first few miles accross the different towns allow us to realise the first ratio is not so useful (even the second one) which is more a manoeuvring gear. The unsynchronized gearbox cracks a bite, but it is normal considering its old conception.
The engine is torquey, so you can even start in third gear. We tried to replace oil by liquid grease in order to help the gear change, but it is more a way of passing ratios that the driver has to learn. It requests to play with the throttle and the brakes, and to split the different movements.
We join our hotel, based in Southend-on-Sea, and enjoy the seaside. The plan is to take the road early the next day, in order to avoid the Dartford Crossing traffic jam.
Early start, cold start
We start the Austin at 5:00 AM with no issue, despite the negative temperature. Lamps, indicators, wipers, everything is still working alright. (The car passed its french and english WOT with no issues). We are ready to go. The trip is quite long, around 450 kilometers.
The Austin is at ease on the english motorway, limited at 70 mph, which is more or less its top speed. In order to preserve it, we restrict ourselves to 60 mph. An overdrive placed at the exit of the gearbox would be a potential (and common) good evolution.
After the channel crossing, we join small roads in order to avoid french highway. The Austin 20 HP behaves perfectly, despite an heavy steering (which requests big muscles to park, or even turn at low speed). The acceleration is progressive, failing to be brutal. The same description can be also used for the four drum brakes.
The Austin is very comfortable, the leather pleasant to touch, and the removable windscreen protects the passenger sitting at the back. The red bodywork shines all around. I particularly appreciate the wing mounted headlights as well as the flared running board steps which are elements that give grace to the whole car.
The slow-motion trip offers us the possibility to progressively discover the car, and enjoy its fabulous little details, such as the original manometers on the dashboard.
We made it to Paris!
After 9 hours of road (including the train), punctuated by 3 pauses, we finally made it to Paris! The Austin 20 HP showed, once again, its reliability!
Since then, I participated to the Traversée de Paris, and drove few additional kilometers on french roads. It tends to modify my point of view about classic car motion. I generally appreciated only sport versions. On board the Austin, feelings are very different, the sportiveness is not even a far concept, it is completely absent. However, I have a lot of pleasure to drive it.
Maybe because, even at 50 mph / 80 Kmh, the sensation of freedom and speed is present. Also due to the fact, the car looks completely exotic in the modern traffic, fabulously out of time.