5 January 2011

Amazing Austin collection housed in Oregon garages

Three lockup garages in Oregon City hold one of the strangest discoveries in this part of the world.

Since 1944, retired doctor John Cleland has amassed 15 Austin Sevens. Some are the 1929-35 American Austins, built in Butler, Pa.; a few are 1930-36 English Austin Seven “Chummy” and “Ruby” models; and a half dozen are American Bantams – the “Donald Duck” roadsters built between 1937-41. For good measure he also has two English Ford Model Y 4-doors, dating from 1933-35 and looking like miniature ’34 American Fords.

The Austin Seven was built in England from 1922-1939 and 315,000 were sold worldwide as sedans, coupes, tourers, delivery vans and roadsters. The cars were built under license as the BMW Dixi in Germany, Rosengart in France, American Austin in the U.S. and even by Datsun in Japan (though without a license).

The American Austins were redesigned from their boxy origins by Russian immigrant Alexis de Sakhnoffsky to look like little Chevrolets, and 8,000 were sold in their first year. Then the Depression hit and sales plummeted, though 20,000 had been sold by the time of the company’s bankruptcy in 1934. American Austin salesman Frank Bray bought the company for a meager $5,000, and renamed it American Bantam. He hired de Sakhnoffsky to redesign the cars (for $300!) and racing legend Harry Miller to beef up the engines with full-pressure lubrication. In all, the major redesign cost only $7,000.

The little Bantam, now looking like miniature American sedans, wagons and roadsters, still struggled to find a small place in a very big country; only 6,200 more cars had been sold when WWII started. At that point Bantam had designed a small off-road vehicle – the Jeep – though only 2,645 were built before Ford, Willys and GM hijacked the project and made another 600,000.

John Cleland’s cars are mostly under restoration, though there are enough parts to assemble probably 25 cars, with extra engines transmissions, wheels, tires, fenders, bodies– even spare chassis frames.

The 81-year-old Cleland blames his slow progress on being an obstetrician before his retirement “so I couldn’t get my hands dirty.” He decided instead to round up all the parts he could “while the going was good” and get to the dirty work later.

Cleland still has his first car; a red 1930 two-door sedan that he first saw for sale for $195 in 1944. He couldn’t afford it as he was in school, but a year later it had broken down and he got it for $90. “My dad paid half, I paid half. Then I got a crash course in being a mechanic.” He sold the car later to a couple of firemen, but when it broke down later he got to buy it back. Cleland also has an almost-finished green 1931 two door that has been painted and reupholstered. It also has a rebuilt engine “with a Phoenix (racing) crank,” he says proudly.

He has three English Austin “Ruby” saloons, the best of which he bought in Vancouver, British Columbia, years ago. “Somebody told me Johnny Lord had the best Austin Seven in B.C., so I bought it,” he said. Like most of Cleland’s cars it’s not finished but it’s clearly going to be nice.

Two of Cleland’s cars crossed the block at Bonham & Butterfield’s auction at the Peterson Museum in L.A. in November 2010. A very handsome olive and tan 1939 powered by an OHV, 4-cylinder 850cc Morris Minor engine sold for $19,890. His white 1940 roadster, one of just 800 Bantams built that year, sold for $16,380.

Cleland also has a 1931 American Austin van – one of two known to the club register – a 1933 pickup, several early 1930s roadsters and sedans and strangest of all, a 1940 roadster he has been modifying with the aim of achieving 100 mpg. “It’s got a Kubota turbocharged 4-cylinder diesel in it and a 5-speed Chevrolet transmission,” he said, “but I still have a lot of work to do.”

Of his 66-year obsession with Austin Sevens, Cleland says. “At the beginning I knew I didn’t have to be a genius, I just had to know my way around Austin Sevens. It all falls in line.”


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