The Austin Seven and Aviation - by Douglas Ormrod

The Austin 7 and Aviation

The initial success of the Austin Seven can be attributed to a lack of competitors in the field of genuine small cars. However, through the late twenties and early thirties there was real competition from Morris, Triumph, Standard and others so there must have been something about the overall design that maintained the edge. That 'something' was the engine. Other aspects of the car were on a par with most of the competition, but no other company in the period came close to producing an sub-1000cc engine which was as reliable, powerful and tuneable as the Austin Seven unit. Austin recognised the potential for alternative uses of the engine and produced a number of conversions for marine and light industrial use. One application never envisaged by the factory was in aviation, but believe it or not the Austin Seven engine did make at least two contributions to this field - one on the ground, one in the air.

On The Ground

The prototype jet engine was developed by Sir Frank Whittle in the1930's, and the first aircraft to be powered by his design was the Gloster E 28 which made its maiden flight in May 1941. Now, you don't start a modern jet with a swing on the turbine and the early ones were no different — an auxiliary power source was required.. You might think a program such as the development of the jet aeroplane would have full government backing, as the German competition did, but this was not the case. The W.1.X jet engine was built by Frank Whittle's own company Power Jets, and was only marginally funded. To save money,the Power Jet engineers bought a pair of magneto Austin Seven engines from a Luton scrap yard and built one from the two. This was then mounted on a trolley and used to wind up the Gloster's turbine through a connection reportedly known colloquially as "the elephants tool". It is a credit to Sir Herbert's design that the Austin Seven engine was already well out of production by the time it was used to start the latest in British aviation technology. Those who require further information are referred to "Jet Flight" by John Grierson, page 49.

Of course the British were not the first off the ground with a jet-powered plane, and the Germans had made it into the air in the Heinkel He-178 some 21 months earlier. It would have been fitting if they had used the Austin Seven-derived BMW Dixi engine to fire it up,but, with money no object, they opted for a Reidel 2-cyl, horizontally opposed, "pancake" petrol engine.

In the Air

So much for the Austin Seven engine as a starter motor, but did it actually fly? As with the bumble bee, it shouldn't have - but did. At least eight Austin Seven engines were fitted to the Henri Mignet designed "Flying Flea" - and there is firm evidence that two of these actually flew. Henri Mignet was a Frenchman with a passion for designing small aeroplanes and was unencumbered by a formal training in aeronautical engineering. Mignet's "suck it and see" strategy was possibly not the best approach to building aeroplanes, but he did managed to get his creations off the ground and progressed through a number of models -all designated HM - until he reached HM14 - the Pou du Ciel or Flying Flea. In terms of numbers built this was possibly his most successful model. In 1935 Mignet published a book, Le Sport de l'Air, which contained detailed plans for the HM14 and also espoused his philosophy of aviation. Mignet believed flying was for everyone and he envisioned a society where people moved from place to place in small inexpensive planes. The Flea was to be the forerunner of these and he designed it to be cheap and simple enough for the average handyman to build. In appearance the flea is not unlike a modern microlight - with a coffin slung below it. Perhaps the greatest similarity is the lack of control surfaces on the wings. The wing is pivoted for fore and aft movement and lift is controlled by altering the angle of attack. Direction is controlled by the finless rudder. Many hundreds of these planes were constructed - or at least started - and several flew. Unfortunately the design was marginal, and changes in weight distribution, caused by mistakes in translating from the metric system or using incorrect gauge of material, gave rise to unpredictable behaviour in the air Pilots were killed, and both French and British authorities pronounced the Flea unairworthy. Although the design fault could have been fixed, the craze waned, and most were broken up or abandoned unfinished.

Most French-built Fleas used Aubier et Dunne motorcycle engines, which were difficult to obtain outside of France. In the UK, Douglas and Scott engines were the most common power plants, but it is thought that at least eight were built with Austin Seven engines. Two of these gained registration G-AEEI and G-AERJ. The former was built by Charles Cooper, father of John Cooper the race car constructor. The engine was a modified water cooled Austin Seven unit which drove the propellor by chain reduction. It was flight tested at Shoreham. The engine was later swapped for a Henderson motor cycle unit and the Austin Seven plant was used in the construction of the Cooper No. 1 Special. The second Austin Seven-engined Flea was built by the Millichamp brothers and flew from Ely in Cambridgeshire.

Unfortunately no Austin-powered Fleas are known to survive with the original engines in place. However, the example built by Mr S.O. Whiteley of Rishworth and originally fitted with an air cooled Austin Seven unit does survive - albeit with a Scott engine.

So that's the story of the contribution of the Austin Seven to aviation - so far. Plans for the Mignet Flying Flea still exist as do many Austin Seven engines. Therefore, it would not be too difficult to reconstruct an Austin Seven-powered Flea to the original design - the problem might be finding a test pilot!!

For a more detailed discussion of the Austin Seven-powered Mignet Fleas see the Austin Seven Club Association Magazine 1984B.

Article by :

Dr Douglas Ormrod

Department of Medicine

University of Auckland, New Zealand

[email protected]

Phone (64 9) 3797440 x7647

FAX (64 9) 307 4983

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