Jesmond Zahra is an extremely busy man. By day, he works as a purchasing manager with a leading local company – he is behind a desk and in front of a computer for a lot of the time, dealing with paperwork and phone calls. But in his spare time, he will be found as much as possible seeking refuge tinkering with the passion of his life: a 1934 Austin Seven.

“My grandfather Joseph had a bus – number 7401 – that plied the Żejtun route,” Zahra says.

“He also had a Simca Aronde. My father Alfred, a carpenter by trade, also had a number of vehicles, including another two Simca models, the Ariane and the Vedette, as well as a Hillman Imp. It was only natural that I would have a natural affinity with my influential male role models, and I spent a lot of my early childhood with both of them.”

Zahra went for a technical education, first at the Marsa Technical School, and later at the Malta Shipbuilding. At the former, he studied and qualified in welding, although on the side, when the main work was done, instructors would also show students the ropes of panel beating and spray painting. Equipped with this knowledge as well as his natural aptitude, at the age of 14 he was able to build a fully-functional go-kart from a Peugeot 125cc scooter.

Before he got his driving licence, Zahra had already bought a second hand 1962 Ford Anglia that he restored to the best of his ability in order to keep it on the road. This vehicle was kept for five years and then moved out when he got married, to be replaced by a modern car. With the priority now being house making and family building, classic cars disappeared from his screen for some years.   

As fate would have it, a close friend of his for many years as well as a neighbour, Anthony Camilleri, had purchased two old vehicles, a 1927 Chevrolet and a 1977 Mercedes. In 2016 Camilleri started to invite Zahra and his family to accompany him on activities organised by the Malta Old Motors Club, something they started enjoying. Once, when Camilleri was in Spain, he called Zahra to check out for him two old vehicles that he had heard were for sale in Fgura, a pre-war Morris Minor and a Jaguar Mk II. After a thorough inspection, he told his friend to go ahead and buy them, and later helped him to service them.

This close proximity to old cars reignited in Zahra his former enthusiasm in such vehicles, and he was soon searching for something nearest and dearest to his heart – a pre-war motor.

By sheer coincidence, an old school friend from Mqabba had two Austin Seven models available, one dating from 1932 and the other from 1934. Zahra fell in love with the latter, and after consulting his friend Camilleri, bought it. Taking it home to Attard the next day, he opted to drive it all the way instead of using a loader, experiencing no hiccups along the route. In his enthusiasm to buy the vehicle, he still did not have a garage prepared for it, but once again Camilleri saved the day, until some months later Zahra could give it its own roof.

It was in a very roadworthy condition when he bought it

The Austin Seven was produced by Austin in the UK between 1922 and 1937. It was one of the most popular models in England, edging out the competition, as well as selling in significant numbers abroad.

Many considered it as the British version of the American Ford Model T, but on a smaller scale – in fact it was known as the Baby Austin. The underlying concept was to realise the dream of many young families who wanted to own an affordable car. 

Zahra says that his model is an Austin Seven 749cc RP saloon deluxe with sunroof, and that it was in a very roadworthy condition when he bought it.

“I was given the original logbook and all other relevant documentation. Obviously, it needed some tender loving care, and some tweaking, like replacing the wiring near the engine and changing the brakes.

“Although in its original condition, some authentic parts like the toolset, trafficators, mirrors, fuel pump and horn, had been replaced with modern ones. I have spent the last couple of years searching high and low for such parts, which are not easy to dig out, for example the Ritz horn, but at the end of the day, I got what I was looking for. I have now put it down in the UK Austin Seven Vehicle Surviving Registry with its former and present number plates.”

Zahra is proud that he does all the mechanical and engineering work himself, adding that whenever possible, one should try one’s hands at it, as outsourcing tasks to others does not always give the desired results. At the moment, he is helping Camilleri in a nut-and-bolt restoration project on a 1952 Jaguar XK 120.

At home, his wife Mariella has also become a classic car enthusiast, and is a constant companion on drives and events, together with their 13-year-old daughter, Corinne, who loves old cars. In fact, the three are just back from an extensive tour of British classic car oasis, including the Brooklands Museum, Cotswolds Motoring Museum, British Heritage Museum, and Goodwood Revival. His son Gabriel, 18, shows no interest in the four-wheeler, be it old or new.

As to the local old motors scene, Zahra says he has heard some complaints from people who have found it difficult to register their car as a classic. He also laments the abuse of old cars being used for commercial purposes without being registered to do so, and thus insists that the classic car number colour, presently available in three types, should be one compulsory not optional colour.

He is a strong believer that an old car is there to be harnessed as much as possible, and true to his principles, he makes it a point that he enjoys his Austin Seven at least every weekend. The Zahra clan is frequently seen at OMC activities, FMVA events, as well as occasions like the Malta Classic and the Valletta Concours d’Elegance. 

What about the future?

Zahra admits that although the Austin Seven has taken, and can still take, a lot of wear and tear, he feels he cannot confidently venture overland with it. He is of the opinion that for such an adventure, one needs to strike a healthy balance between an old vehicle and a reliable classic.

Consequently he is closely eyeing a 1972 Mercedes W115 which is in his extended family, and which he may acquire for such toiling trips overseas which a small pre-war vehicle would find hard to handle.

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