RF & RK Survival

Moving to wider doors: the survival of the non-steel Saloons

Gordon England Fabric saloon copyright Austin Harris archive of images at austinharris.co.uk

The success of the first 1923 Austin 7 – an open tourer – spawned the contract-built Gordon England fabric/‘rag body’ saloon in early 1926, with Austin’s first R aluminium saloon and Factory RF fabric following in May 1926. They satisfied a growing demand for closed bodies for the modern family wishing to travel in more comfort.

Factory records show a changing demand. Austin tourers only just outnumbered closed bodies in 1928, with fabric saloon production over double that of aluminium saloons. 

In 1929 the fabric production proportion grew further and the closed body production was over double that of open tourers.

By 1930 the saloon production was quadruple that of tourers, yet the metal cars now accounted for double the sales of the ‘rag’ bodies, which Herbert Austin had said ‘would have very little future in them’. (Wyatt, p.61)

The late R Saloon: still narrow doored

The late R aluminium saloon

There were no body stamp prefixes before the advent of the RL saloon in May 1930 and the factory R designation referred to what we now see as two distinct body forms. R Saloons were all R Saloons. For convenience we note them as ‘R’ and ‘Late R’.

The final R Saloons continued to be made whilst Factory wide door cars began production. Manufactured for a short time from Sept-Nov ‘28, (Source Book, page 187), this had many features of the RK which was selling alongside it; a taller radiator, RK type windscreen, flat steering wheel, dash pockets and scuttle ventilators. The new door profile is unique, as is the lack of beading; completely different from earlier Rs. Whilst still narrow door, the radii at the base are different which means body profile was also altered from early cars. Additionally above the rear wheel arch, the body panels are joined by what might best be described as a “ clasp joint “ as opposed to being butt-welded.

Chris Garner is developing the R Saloon Register after research into his own late car. He comments: the late bodied R Saloon is a real mystery. I can understand the logic in a natural progression towards the RK but to redesign the door profile and thus the mating area of the body for such a short production period is most odd. There are around five examples known in the UK and around ten in New Zealand. It is surmised that, as they were building and presumably marketing this particular model alongside the RK, the latter was better accepted by the buying public leaving a quantity of these Rs unsold. Shipping them out to New Zealand seems an obvious solution to reducing final stock.

First Fabrics: the dawning of the wide door

The fabled first variant of the RF; obviously a factory photo, but was it a one off or a production model?

A first factory Austin 7 fabric saloon was available during the run of the R and with a similar form; a factory photo exists but there are presently no known survivors. It is noted in the Factory Index Cards from February 1926 as ‘RF’, for which dedicated rear wings were used. This confirms “RF” means a fabric saloon, but the Change Register formally lists the first saloon as May 1926 and we can only surmise: might an experimental Factory fabric have been produced before the aluminium saloon?

Granville Motors advert from 1928

Wyatt accounts for a first wide-doored saloon design in September 1927 being the fabricoid “Wydoor” (note: spelt wrongly with single ‘o’ in his book) produced by Granville Motors, London SW2. This appears identical to the Wylder design pictured. Further research is needed but we may hypothesise that G. Wylder & Co. of Kew – a coachbuilder of note and accredited for Weymann construction – made a body which Granville marketed. See the Wydoor image in both Purves’ sourcebook and Wyatt. 

1927 Wylder Austin Harris
The car is shown at Middle Temple, with this image confirming the location by the ‘To Essex Street’ sign, as well as the Middle Temple building detail on the upper right also shown below.

Middle Temple.]

Could the Wylder/Wydoor coachwork have influenced Austin into the earliest possible introduction of this design feature that we see in the second ‘transition’ fabric saloon? Former Fabric Registrar Dave Martin’s theory for making a body with doors that overlapped the rear wheel arches was as a preventative solution against the fabric on the door aperture getting quickly damaged by people getting into the rear seats. 

This “RF(2)” emerged early in 1928 and there are about 30 known survivors. It introduced the wide door form, thus easing passenger access. As Garner notes, with the wide door introduced why did Austin persist with further development of the narrow door saloon design until September ’28, well after the new RK and RF were being sold? The RK design must have been in development in the early months of ’28 if not before. Perhaps it gave them slight extra coverage in the small car market when the new Morris Minor, a direct competitor, was about to be introduced.

The RK and RF (late 28-May ’30) 

We must remember that the factory RF designation referred to all of what we now see as three distinct – but yet still varying – body forms prior to the RG. The RF we most commonly see and refer to today is the third form, which we should refer to for correctness as, say, the RF(3) when considering the date range above.

 Austin Motor Co.’s RK and RF models responded to the continued demand for closed cars and the complete transition to these wider-doored cars in 1928 was perhaps due to customer response to the better ergonomics of what was a small car to climb into the back of. Whilst tourers could maximise entry headroom in good weather, saloons were restricted through the permanent roof and door aperture.

The shape of the RF and RK models is characterised by the same radiator cowl form as the Ulster and Nippy/65, slightly taller than that of the AD tourer and R saloon. The scuttle remains long, wheelbase short and the wide doors unify with the line for the rear wheel arch. They are particularly well proportioned and it is interesting that Morris adopted an identical wide door style for the 1932 Minor saloon.

The less expensive fabric RF was more numerous than the aluminium RK. The scuttle frontward and running chassis are also shared with the AE Tourer. RKs started at chassis c. 69000; RF(3)* from 67024. Last chassis numbers of these models were c. 112000 – around May 1930 – when the body form changed to steel RL and fabric RG respectively; with a longer, taller, louvred bonnet, and short scuttle before a 2” increase in scuttle length in the final RM and RH short wheelbase saloons.

new RF and RK outside the car despatch clients’ waiting room (De Havilland archive; copyright – Austin 7 Clubs Association)

Survival rates

A survival rate for the alloy RK and fabric RF(3) saloons over their two year manufacturing period, calculated from known cars and the original production figures, is a tad over 1% overall; 1.6% for the RK and a paltry 0.75% for the RF. Remaining tourers are now well over three times more common despite the production figures in 1929 being a half – and in 1930, a quarter – of the saloon totals.

For comparison, 1933-1937 Sports model production was about 1000 and extant cars nearing 33% for the alloy 65 and 38% for the steel Nippy. The numbers will increase as hidden cars continue to emerge. Documented in the 65/Nippy archive here.

Numbers will increase as hidden cars continue to emerge, but one might well ask why saloon numbers are so low? Firstly, cars which have deteriorated. In order to get them back on the road, they may have been reduced to a simpler tourer body. Any survivors’ register status may well lose original identity.

Secondly, a surviving chassis and derelict body forms the perfect basis for a fake Ulster Sports as the radiator shell was the same on these cars. The number of short wheelbase Ulster and Gordon England Replicas must undoubtedly pay homage to lost RF and RK which were rendered uneconomic restorations far more readily than the simpler and less elegantly furnished Chummy bodies.

That they cost more to restore due to the complexity of body construction, and that the tourer form was more popular and valuable because of it, meant that the RK and RF have become comparatively rare cars. The high attrition rate has been intensified when we consider the light, fabric construction is very prone to damage. In damper climates like ours, water-repellent properties of Rexine and roofing materials reduces over time as surfaces deteriorate and cracks appear. Moisture enters into the closed environment of the wadding layers beneath and the ash frame rots.

the beauty of 90 year old Rexine on Austin 7 RF; image Julian Parker Ltd.

This transition RF(2) has recently been found in Spain and is being conserved – rather than restored – by Julian Parker Conservation in East Sussex.

All images copyright Julian Parker Ltd.

The process stabilises the structure where necessary but retains the fine patina acquired through its life and will make this car one for restorers to seek out for original detail. The interior was protected by seat covers from new; a chalked script was found on the bare interior signifying that ‘Tapestry’ should be fitted in this car.

Ken Kimber recently took ownership of a very original unrestored 1929 “RF(3)” with some later additions which is also an important research car, particularly as BMIHT at Gaydon have confirmed that they hold the factory build record for this car.

Further research – and how you can help

The Survivors’ Register is starting to better document the various fabric forms of the RF (which could be practically referred to as RF(1), RF (2), RF(3) prior to the RG and RH). Ominously, an example of the rare RG body has recently been split, its chassis now underpinning a shiny fake coupe which has also destroyed an RK body. The RG body has fortunately been saved – but identity, coherence and integrity of former cars are harmed forever. There were 12 known RG survivors 30 years ago. Since then, with rebodies and dismantling, only 6 are now confirmed worldwide.

The sevenRK.wordpress.com website does not seek to replace the vital works of the Fabric Register or Association Registrar, but merely to provide a focus for owners to search for and lodge information on detail and originality. If you know of cars or have historic images or information which you’d like to be in the public domain, do send a picture if you think it will extend the knowledge of those trying to restore rather than conserve. It may be that through promoting ‘project’ cars which emerge, their restoration may be made more viable so the further loss of extant cars can be stemmed.

Further reading

1976C; 77C: Barrie Argent – Early Saloons; Intermediate Saloons – mainly derived from Wyatt’s information. Much more has been discovered in the last 40 years and some of his theories are now known to be incorrect.

2000B: The four initial forms of the fabric saloon are defined in detail by former Fabric Registrar Dave Martin (who, in 2018, hopes that with an original 1927 Gordon England Silent fabric saloon known to exist, perhaps a 1927 RF(1) fabric is still out there waiting to be discovered.)

Jon Edgar (with thanks to Chris Garner and Dave Martin)

Written for The Austin Seven Clubs’ Association 2018D Edition and archived here with a few more images.