Inspired by watching his grandfather restore barn find lorries in Burma [Myanmar], taking care of motor cars helps Nathan (Naing Oo) take care of his mental health.
Ahead of the 90th birthday of his Austin Seven, he tells Charlotte Vowden how his pre-war vehicle has become an essential companion through the bad times and good.
Launched at £165 in 1922, the Austin Seven was Britain’s first ‘people’s car.’ With bodies made of wood, fabric, steel or aluminium, variants included open tourers, sports versions, full-works racing cars and a pretty model known as the Grasshopper suited for off-road trials. Austin owner and self-taught amateur restorer Nathan (Naing Oo) is readying his Seven for some intrepid and restorative UK touring…
“I enjoy driving my Austin Seven on my own and fighting my demons; it’s really helped with my mental health. For me, classic cars are a kind of coping mechanism, fixing them is a healthy kind of stress and I can be myself with them. They represent happiness and also rebellion.
I am originally from Burma [Myanmar] which at the moment is in political chaos with a military coup and civil war, so you can’t plan ahead very much. You don’t know when you will be able to meet your loved ones again. I don’t own a modern car at the moment, life is too short to worry and wait to buy a classic car when you retire. I am doing what I love to do with whatever I have in the present time.
When I was young I followed my grandfather around his workshop, he ran a small haulage company. At the time you couldn’t buy new trucks because of import laws so part of what my grandfather did was rebuild barn find lorries. It was exciting for me to watch big trucks being pulled out, restored and put back into service. He did this with cars too.
During the summer holidays, I would pack my lunch box and visit with my siblings to play in the old vehicles at my grandad’s garage. By today’s standard there was no health and safety but the garage manager let me watch vehicle restorations, so I could see how they were changing tyres and getting engines out etc. He always reminded me to keep a safe distance especially when they were welding and patiently answered my many questions about the work. You could say the car thing is in my blood.
When I was 16 my granny gave me the money to buy a VW Beetle but my father said it was no good and I should focus on going to study abroad instead. He didn’t let me buy it.
I moved to the UK on my own in 2009 to study electronics at university in Newcastle upon Tyne. The following year I came out about my sexuality but it didn’t go down well with my family. It was about 13 years before I met them again and [during that time] classic cars became a way to cope. Working on them kept me focused.
I’ve bought and restored a VW bay window camper, a Morris Minor and a Reliant Robin three-wheeler, which I drove regularly when I lived and worked in Edinburgh. At the moment I’ve still got the Morris Minor, which I use a lot for road trips, and an Austin Seven. A 2CV and a classic Mini are on my list for the future.
I blame watching YouTube for the Austin Seven; it’s where I found out about pre-war cars and VSCC events. One day I’d love to own a 6½ litre pre-war Bentley and drive around the world doing rallies but for now I can do short road trips within UK and go camping in the Seven. I am planning to drive my Austin from John O’Groats to Lands’ End, and do the North Coast 500.
The Austin I bought was the first one I had seen and I paid just over £4,000, a little bit more than it’s worth at that time, but I needed a project to help with my mental health and knew it needed some work. I call it healthy stress. It didn’t even start at first, but I was between jobs and spent about six months fixing it up. I was living on my savings and it kept me in the moment rather than worrying about things that I couldn’t control.
There’s not a lot of information out there about the car, especially on YouTube, but the Austin Seven Club have been helpful with information and advice, especially the club chairman Nick Turley who did some repairs on my Austin. I’ve found old manuals and even though the writing style is old-fashioned and progress can be slow I used one to help me re-wire the whole car. The mechanics is simple and straightforward compared with modern cars but when you manage to sort something out it’s satisfying and feels rewarding.
Austin Seven parts are expensive because they’re old stock and people hoard them, which can be a problem because I’m a little bit OCD. I like to do things by the book but it will take years to find the right parts so I have to make do with what I can find. I’m alwayslooking out for parts on the internet. There were a few things missing on the dash panel when I got the Austin and I don’t think I can rely on the speedometer which I refurbished, it’s all over the place, but I can barely make 30mph so I don’t worry too much about breaking speed limits.
I do keep an eye on the oil pressure because that will tell me if the side-valve engine – which is a little bit smoky – is in trouble. Unfortunately, it is worn out, but you can’t just buy a second hand working engine easily, so at some point it’s going to be an ambitious project for me to rebuild. It’s old technology but it’s still got to be done with precision and there will be issues. For example, the casting process was not advanced at the time of design so the original crank shaft was manufactured with a weakness. I also need to sort out the front suspension king pins.
By 1933, when the car was made, the pedal arrangement in cars had been standardised, but it took a while to master double de-clutching. The first time I drove I almost head-butted the windscreen because the clutch spring is so different, I was like a frog jumping along the road. I still fight with the gears. As far as I know, the car had never left Glasgow until I bought it, the previous owner had it for 55 years. Even a three-mile drive is adventurous, and yes I might stall at every single junction, but people are kind and help push the car. I’ve never had to call the AA or RAC, I’ve always managed to get back home.
There’s not a lot of comfort in the Austin. There’s the noise and vibration, but you can almost make it a convertible during the summertime by sliding back the roof and popping out the windscreen – it’s a genius design and it works. I’m OK driving without seat belts but my friends are quite scared by that. I think it makes me a better and more alert driver because I’m fully focused on what’s behind me, what is ahead of me and what other drivers are doing.
I call the Seven a wardrobe on wheels because it’s mostly made of wood, but its name is Maggie after Maggie Smith; it has a kind of cheeky charm like she does. It’s like an old lady on the road and people respect it, they treat it like a grandmother, and when I’m driving I feel like I’m with my grandmother in some way, she passed away during lockdown within a week of my aunt dying of cancer in Myanmar. I hadn’t had a chance to see either of them. Working on the Austin and keeping busy driving helped me to move on over time.
Austin Seven prices are not cheap and they are more of a cherished retirement restoration car that gets put under a cover and not used a lot, but, the number of young owners is growing and with a little bit of help from the older generation I think there will always be someone to keep these cars out of museums. I’m kind of an introvert so the Austin Seven has helped me to make friends. I enjoy it when people come and talk to me whenever I stop.
My mum and sister are happy for me now, they accept my sexuality, and we had a reunion last November in Singapore – that’s when I told them about my classic cars! When I was a teenager I was told I can’t have them so classic cars are a rebellious thing for me so I went and got many of them. I still don’t think my dad knows about my cars.
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