OOR NESSIE: My New Austin Seven Ulster

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Some people have fairies at the bottom of their garden; Billy and Mary Galbraith used to have an Austin Seven at the bottom of theirs. This little Austin Seven has a story to tell. It was born in 1929 as a saloon in England. It moved to Northern Ireland as a new baby Austin where it was given the good no-nonsense County Tyrone name of JI 4903.

We have no idea when the car became part of the Galbraith family but before Billy, the car was owned by Davy, one of his brothers, who lived in Comber. The car’s main claim to fame was that it transported Mary and Billy around the west coast of Ireland on honeymoon after their marriage on Maundy Thursday, 10th April 1952.

The car performed well, although after encountering one particularly deep pothole, the passenger window disappeared into the door, and refused to come out again for the rest of the journey, leaving Mary a bit chilly on the run home. Billy moved on to more exotic motoring of the Lancia, Delage and Riley kind. The little baby Austin lay forgotten for years in the long grass at the bottom of the garden.

Eventually Billy’s daughter Sheelagh Glover and her husband Denis felt sorry for the poor wee car and decided to revive him. They pulled it from its resting place and proceeded to make a thorough inventory of the condition of all the parts. Unfortunately, the saloon body was long past saving, so Denis commissioned a sporty Ulster body with racing mudguards from English coachbuilder Rod Yates.  In May 2003 Dennis collected the new bodyfrom Yates’s workshop, transporting it home in his Ford Granada Estate- a car within a car!

He got the chassis up and rolling again, and gathered up some very desirable goodies such as the 100mph speedo and matching rev counter. The Glovers then decided to concentrate on their 12/4 Riley and the project passed on to Paul McCulla who had the engine rebuilt with all the bells and whistles. One summer’s evening a small group arrived at Kircubbin to witness the car starting for the first time in decades.

Debra Wenlock was standing closest when Paul pulled the starter, the engine fired and the alloy flywheel cover (which hadn’t been bolted on) exploded into many bits, showering Debra in fragments of aluminium, although without any lasting ill effects.

Soon after, Paul emigrated to New Zealand (possibly out of the embarrassment caused by forgetting to bolt the flywheel cover on) leaving the car with his in-laws, Basil and Perry McCoy. Basil loosely assembled all the components and organised new upholstery, whilst Perry set the oily-rag tone for the rebuild by brush-painting the bodywork black. Good progress but with Paul many thousands of miles away, momentum faded and the project was again put up for sale.

I bought the car from Paul to add to my existing fleet of Austin Seven Chummies, both of which have Scottish names-Young Hamish and Wee Lassie. Given that the new Ulster project was old, wrinkly and black I decided to give him the pet name of Oor Nessie although it still says JI 4903 on his V5C birth certificate.

I entrusted all the remaining restoration work to Michael Henderson at MH Autocraft with the simple brief that ‘it must go well and look its age’ (90). Michael is more used to ‘as new’ finishes but, after a few Scots threats from me, he rose to the ‘oily rag’ challenge.  Michael went through the car from end to end making sure every mechanical detail was good as new. He wired the car and converted it to 12 volts adding indicators and hidden phone-charging sockets to make it more useable.

Perry had very kindly spent the last few years ‘running-in’ the lively engine in his Chummy, so all it required was a rebuilt SU carburettor before installation in the chassis. The underside of the body was sealed and painted to protect it from exposure to the elements. The mudguards and windscreen were bolted on and Oor Nessie was ready for the road.

Frank McNally found a set of the correct larger 19 inch wheels at Prescott in 2019 which give the car a more vintage look. Being painted a fetching shade of Tarmacadam, it was- felt that the car would benefit from a splash of colour on its derriere. Debra, having forgiven the car for its previous bad behaviour, dipped her brush into a tin of Erskine Tartan paint and now Oor Nessie has a tartan bum!

My nephew Mark Irvine and I plan to have a lot of fun competing in the car. Just what Billy Galbraith would have wanted for it. I’m sure that Mary will find amusement in the fact that, not only is her honeymoon car still missing a passenger window, now it doesn’t even have any doors!

Marion Erskine

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