Autocar origins: McLaren Senna vs Austin Seven road test

Perhaps the single most remarkable thing about The Autocar (as it was then) conducting and publishing the world’s first road test back in 1928 is that neither we, nor anyone else, didn’t do it a hell of a lot sooner than that.

By 1928, the car as we know it was more than 40 years old, for goodness’ sake.

The first cars were 19th-century horseless carriages built at colossal expense as amusing playthings for the rich and brave and fitted with solid tyres, tiller steering and total-loss lubrication where oil was essentially poured from tank to ground via the insides of the engine. Yet there was still enough interest in them that in 1895 Henry Sturmey deemed demand to be sufficient for “a journal published in the interests of the mechanically propelled road carriage”. Yet it still took The Autocar 33 years to get around to actually applying sufficient rigour to its assessments to call them ‘road tests’.

By that time, the cars had changed out of all proportion. To prove this point, join me in Herefordshire where my cooing over a very charming old Austin Seven is about to be rather rudely interrupted.

The Austin in question has a double connection to Autocar. Not only is it a 1928 model, as was our first road test car 90 years ago, but it’s also owned by one John Lilley, who was once our chief sub-editor. This Austin differs from that original test car only insofar as it lacks that car’s Gordon England saloon bodywork, but, to me at least, it is all the better for it. To me a Seven is an open two-door four-seater, headlights mounted at the side, not the front. While the notion of modifying Sevens spawned an entire industry, John’s car is completely standard and thus the perfect window on the motoring world of 90 years ago.

Then we hear it, snarling and snapping as it prowls up the road towards us. Even today it looks like something conceived in a dystopian, post-apocalyptic future, and that’s before it parks next to somethingas simple, small and pretty as the Austin. The Senna has arrived.

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Then again, we didn’t travel far. Ninety years ago, families would think little of piling into their Sevens (or Chummys, as they were known) and phutting down the road until their journey ended at the seaside or, far more rarely than you might think, at the side of the road with steam coming out of the radiator.

For the Austin Seven may not have been a fast car but it was a good one. It was the great enabler, the car that, more than any other, put Britain behind the wheel. The Senna’s contribution – quite incredibly tobe the third McLaren after the F1 and P1 to expand the ability envelope of road car performance – could hardly be more different.

And yet I loved driving them both. More importantly, my thoughts on leaving could not have been more different from those with which I arrived. Of course the gulf between these cars is immeasurable: I thought of listing all the things they had in common but when I had to pause after wheels at each corner and one with which to steer, I thought better of it. But that is not to say they share nothing. For the truth is that eventhe Austin will take you anywhere you need to go that doesn’t require getting wet, and by far the greatest limiting factor in the distance either car can travel is not the mechanical frailty of the machine but the concentration and fatigue levels of the person behind the wheel. If there is a weak link in the chain, it is us – and it already was 90 years ago. As our first truly affordable, reliable, mainstream motor car, the Austin Seven was probably the single most liberating invention to come from these shores. It enabled families to work, play and interact with friends, relatives and colleagues in ways never dreamt of before its creation.

Which is why, separated by 90 years and a technological chasm as they are, what I realised in our time together that day is that, somewhat to my astonishment, what sets these two apart is as nothing compared with what binds them together.

This article was originally published on 21 October 2018. We’re revisiting some of Autocar’s most popular features to provide engaging content in these challenging times.