Where are they now?Alwyn Brice, in the first of a new series started in 1995, tracked down some of the UK's
almost- forgotten vehicles, starting with the Super Accessories...
(from Issue 72, March '95).
THE SUPER ACCESSORIES
THE AFTERMATH OF the Second World War saw a Britain getting back on its feet, after what had been a debilitating six years. Rationing still affected many walks of life and indeed was to linger on into the 'fifties for some products. And for the young at heart but impecunious of pocket, motoring was not exactly at its apogee, industry only just beginning to think interms of production that wasn't solely directed towards the war effort.
Just about anything mechanical was in short supply - as was the power to make it go. Sports cars were very much the preserve of the well-heeled and it would have been a lucky young chap indeed who had access to something racy such as a MG, a Morgan or a Singer.
But in the face of adversity, ingenuity, as ever, triumphed. If showroom cars were in short supply and priced in extra-terrestial terms, there were plenty of old Fords and Austin 7s still about. A goodly number would have weathered the war years tucked away in garages, permitted the occasional sortie if petrol coupons and funds permitted. Imagine a car in your garage and you being unable to drive it.
So these venerable old workhorses, which had earlier brought motoring within the reach of millions, were once more dusted off and gradually returned to the King's highway. And our hard-up young bloods began to take a second look at these relics of the twenties and thirties. Admittedly, your bog-standard Ruby or Chummy wouldn't have done much for your street credibility inthe late 1940s - but then the term hadn't been invented, so perhaps it didn't matter that much. No, the Ford and Austin were just crying out for some modifying...
Enter the "Special". This type of car was to become for many the worthy alternative to those flashy low-slung convertibles that were occasionally glimpsed speeding down twilight country roads, usually occupied by some rake and a pretty female companion, scarves a-curling in the breeze. Whilst it would be hard to identify exactly when the Special came of age, what is certain is that the concept and philosophy had great appeal to more than a few. An old Ford or Austin could be had for a song - and by the mid-fifties, there were plenty to choose from. After all, the earliest were three decades old by then.
In much the same way as motor-racing was once a sport for the enthusiast with little cash but some mechanical knowledge, so it was with the construction of specials. Just how often and how competitively one raced at club level would have been dictated by funds - and the special constructor was faced with the very same set of perameters. From those early pioneers who "did it themselves the hard way" there followed waves of interest, so much so that some enterprising manufacturers sprang up to cater for the would-be car builder and thus make available useful engine ancillaries or body and mechanical parts. The names of Speedex, Cambridge Engineering, Dante and Super Accessories were just four such companies: and it is this latter company which is the focus of this article.
In 1956 one Les Montgomery, aged 36, shaped a wooden frame which was intended for fitting to an Austin 7 chassis. Using his cousin's car as a guide, this design exercise was loosely reminiscent of the Vale Special of 1934/35 and a Ford/Morgan three wheeler. The moment of truth came later in the year when he acquired an Austin 7 van: he fitted the ash framework and clothed it aluminium panels. From these humble beginnings was born the Super Accessories.
True to the spirit of those golden years, things were done in alarmingly simple fashion. The bodies were created from a single sheet of 20 gauge aluminium, approximately 8'x4' in size, and the template, a section of linoleum(!), served throughout the car's six year production life. Bonnet and spare wheel panels were cut from another sheet of the material. Bonnets on surviving Super Accessories are rarely the same: the company, cognisnant of the fact that the height of radiators on 7s varied, could supply a rough shape (in two pieces) for the buyer to trim and modify as desired. The dictates of pedal room and engine size, together with the possibility of a centrally- hinging bonnet were all factors to be considered.
The bodyshell proper tipped the scales at just 35lbs for the shorter wheelbase (6'3") Austin, with the later models, the 6'9" cars, needing a 40lb shell. As work got underway, two shells could be manufactured each week. The price of this bespoke engineering? Just £5. And if you couldn't make it to the workshop in Bromley, then it could be delivered by passenger train to anywhere within the UK for an extra 50 shillings.
But the shell and frame were just the beginning. Whilst the cars were nor intended for track use (their final weight was a limiting factor), the buyer would then have to modify a chassis. Those really into the special philosophy boxed-in the 7 chassis for extra strength and then set about lowering the suspension. A Bowdenex set-up was most desirable and naturally coil over spring shockers were looked upon with favour. A lowered and raked steering column was required; the windscreen could be ordered for 19s 6d and this included "Liftadot" fasteners in place, ready for a hood. The hood iteslf, with a simple frame which could be separated and stowed (just) behind the seats worked out at just a few pounds. And then came the cycle wings, seat cushions and front headlight stays... The list, rather like Topsy, could grow but the enthusiast could budget accordingly - or make do and modify. Instruments, engine, brakes and the like could all be sourced from the 7. Those opting for something quick would have to jettison the brakes - after all, the cable variety were only just able to stop a 7 in normal guise. Hydraulics were the ultimate for such a special.
Of course, having gone to all the trouble of sourcing a 7, discarding the bodywork, buying and modifying and attaching a new frame and body and decking out the car with the desirable options (yes, an outiside exhaust was the order of the day, very much a la Lotus 7), it would have been a crying shame not to have completed the exercise and gone to town on the engine. The beauty of Herbert Austin's little 747cc lump was that it could be tweaked and teased and the bhp upped. In its early days it gasped out 10bhp (by 1926 this had increased to a puny 24bhp) and supercharging could have added a further 9bhp. But as superchargers were not within most people's budget, so fiddling and the tuning came to be the avenue exploited.
A desirable special of the era would have boasted the company's aluminium Supaloy head which when fitted gave a 6.5 compression ratio; a large capacity alloy sump and four branch banana manifold completed the set-up. Carburettors were to choice: Zenith were popular, the downdraught being the one to go for, but 7s did accept SUs also. As the catalogue of the time reveals, fitting a Supaloy head "will even make your old saloon go like a Sputnik!". Where could you find such claims today? In actual fact the cylinder head was designed by Graham Broadley; his other cousin, Eric, is best remembered for his work on the Lola racing cars. Super Accessories offered plenty of desirable gubbins of this nature and would re-bore old blocks, oversize your inlet valves and carry out the myriad little jobs that would make your special something more than just a Chummy in a fancy dress.
Bringing in his father to help in the business, Les found that demand was soon outstripping supply and after just three months, Montgomery senior gave up his furniture trade and concentrated full time on his son's enterprise. Indeed, such was the demand for this winning formula that bodywork was eventually farmed out to local craftsmen, leaving the father and son free to explore other "special" possibilities and to reinforce the stock of spares. Final work on the shells was done in the Bromley workshops before collection or despatch.
The arrival of Brian Montgomery (Les's son) in 1959 brought fresh impetus to the company and he took over the administration side; in fact Brian still works at Super Accessories today, although sadly his father died just a couple of years back.
As the business became better known and its reputation grew, so Les and his father looked for ways to expand. A deal with Keith Bowden from Devon allowed the Bromley company to sell on independent front suspension units designed by Keith. A little later Les joined forces with Hamblin, a company in Dorset selling fibreglass shells, also designed to accept Austin 7 mechanicals. This pretty little convertible had the looks of a single seat racer of the era.
Keen to capitalise on whatever the public whim, Les realised that Austin 7s were only part of the equation so he began to experiment with the idea of a body that would accept Ford E93A parts: the 1172 cc engine was, in its turn, destined to become popular with specials builders. Thus the Super Two entered the arena and the body/chassis package retailed at 9. The larger body was built on a 2" box section chassis. More and more design work followed: the sumps and cylinder heads were to end up being cast by a concern in Coventry whilst Super Accessories also developed a close-ratio gearbox, successfully used in competition by Jack French, a noted 7 authority. In addition, close ratio gears were developed for the Ford sidevalve special.
Like so many other motoring phases, the mania for specials peaked and dwindled. One of the main reasons was the availablility of a more modern cars with sporting pretentions which were much more advanced in terms of comfort and mechanical engineering: by 1962 the Fairthorpe, the Midget and Frogeye Sprite were on the scene, and a new contender was taking the world by storm: the Mini. Records from the Bromley company are scant but it is reckoned that altogether some 220 Super Accessories bodies were manufactured over the six year period.
The car pictured here I bought from a vendor in the US who had emigrated with a small car collection in the sixties; following his death, the collection was disposed of. A non-runner, the donor car dated back to 1927 and probably started life as a 6'3" wheelbase Chummy. My car was consequently unknown to the club and became the 17th known survivor.
She was overhauled during the next year and refurbished where necessary. In many ways the car was an excellent example of what a special, and particularly a Super Accessories, was all about. Bristling with all the goodies (Bowdenex suspension, Supaloy head, Dante manifold, downdraught Zenith and coil over shockers all round), the Super Accessories looked the part. She retained her six volt electrics which were a mixed blessing: originality counts for much, of course, but practicality meant that unless the battery was fully charged, after a couple of churns on the starter, the thing would be dead. Consequently the starting handle was a boon. Yet another drawback to "half a battery" was nocturnal travelling: whereas decades ago one could bravely go down minor (and even major) roads with just sidelights ablaze, in 1990 this was not practical. And try as the dynamo might, ten minutes' worth of headlights would begin to sap those precious volts.
But after being re-upholstered (very basically) and equipped with a new dash and hood, she was a lovely looking vehicle. The last owner had obviously spent money on the car, so complete was the specification. True, the brakes were a mixture (hydraulic front with cable rears): with no compensator, it made slowing down an interesting practice. But she did have beautifully crafted front wings in the style of a Morgan, which I believe were unique to the car, and after I'd changed the usual Austin 7 willow wand gear lever for a Cambridge-type remote mechanism, the gearchanging improved immeasurably. Although synchromesh was weak on all gears, the simple "in or out" clutch with half an inch of play was soon learned, and double de-clutching became routine. The horrifying slop in the steering was also overcome: all 7s have it apparently!
Speed? Well, like so many things, it's all rather relative. The speedo did indicate 60 plus on many an occasion but at anything over 30, the needle would be swaying plus or minus 10 mph on the gauge anyhow. One got accustomed to taking an average. Around towns she was quite at ease in modern traffic: indeed, her cheeky looks often endeared her to other motorists. And power- sliding around bends on those skinny tyres was invariably a joy. Even the bugbear of the short chassis I lived with. But for readers around six foot, these older Austin 7s are best avoided if you want to get your legs into the footwell at all.
I wish I had been able to keep her but various factors conspired to render that impossible. Admired wherever we went, the car finally left these shores, to join the small collection of a 72-year-old German who was delighted with his purchase. Today, as far as is known, there are just a couple on the continent with the bulk residing in the UK, reminders of an era when motoring was fun - and relatively regulation-free.
(The author wishes to acknowledge the kind help of Tony Jeanes, a fellow owner, in the compilation of this article).
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