A question of balance
If you can't make your mind up between a luxury car and a sports saloon,…
It is generally well-known that the now World-famous name of MG, with so many race victories and successful record-bids behind it, originated when the late Cecil Kimber saw the potential of making a marketable sports-car from Morris components. At first these chassis were not drastically changed, and the bullnose radiator was used, with a slightly modified badge. There is no need for me to repeat such history, because it has been well documented in numerous books and articles.
However, it is interesting that, from the beginnings of the soon-to-be-great MG marque, Motor Sport encouraged Kimber’s objectives. For instance, the first of our MG road-test reports appeared in October 1925, at the time when Kimber, full of optimism, offered the sporting motoring public the handsome bullnosed MG Super Sports four-seater, at a price of £375. The writer of the report was probably the then-Editor, Richard Twelvetrees, AMI Mech E, MSAE, M Soc. ING CTV (France). He explained that when the standard Morris Oxford engine arrived at Morris Garages, Kimber’s works in Oxford, it was stripped down, its moving components balanced, the ports cleaned and polished, and the reassembled engine benchtested. (I assume that, as the ports had to be cleaned as well as polished, these engines had been tested before delivery to Mr Kimber).
Chassis modifications consisted of flattening the springs to give a lower chassis-line, raking the steering-column, fitting the brake lever on the right instead of centrally, and providing Hartford shockabsorbers at the back, Gabriel Snubbers to damp movement of the front axle, the latter after considerable experiment. It was the practice to retain the Smith’s carburettor but on the car Motor Sport tested, (FC 8004) an SU had been substituted. This MG weighed 18cwt 2qtrs, and was capable of 65mph. Performance was not this MG’s only enticement. It had the eyecatching merits of flowing front mudguards and Ace wheel-discs, and the double-opening inclined windscreen possessed triangular sideextensions that excluded draughts. The weather protection was efficient, the bucket front seats comfortable, with plenty of legroom.
Out on the road, our tester found the MG Super Sports to be remarkably lively, and to accelerate from to 50 mph in just over 24 seconds. The first and second gear-ratios were well suited to a quick step-off but the exhaust note was criticised as attracting police attention, “though the ultra-sporting driver appears to be willing to risk the costs of a 100mph roar”. Other objections were that the rh hand-brake was inconvenient and should have been a couple of inches longer (was it an Oxford lever resited?), and that the lowered chassis caused the exhaust pipe to hit the ground at times. The speedometer was driven by a cable from gears on the n/s front wheel and should have been clipped to the chassis, as the long loop made it liable to damage. Then at low speeds the steering was at first thought too heavy and the effective four-wheel-brakes emitted the characteristic Morris squeal. It was explained that for 1926 a two-inch-wider body was proposed, to increase comfort and make the hand-brake more accessible.
Getting the MG into its stride, the driver decided that a vibration period or two were felt as maximum speed was approached but “very few cars, and none in its own class, make less fuss at speed”. The MG in question had been used for trials and had won a gold-medal on the MCC Land’s End, so its hill-ascending abilities were not in doubt. Nevertheless, Motor Sport had its own little incline, seldom attempted, as it was a remote cul-de-sac, rough and rising at 1-in-3 for 80 yards, with an awkward bend. Reversed down to start on the 1-in-6 starting slope, the car breasted the summit at nearly 20mph in first gear. It also took Reigate hill, four-up, at 38mph in second, surprising the Sunday sightseers who mistook it for a Morris — that they were watching is a nice flash-back to the free roads and interest in cars, of those 1920s.
Pushing along for 40 miles at a steady 55mph, with the speedometer showing well over 65 on good stretches, satisfied the driver that engine and body remained free of unseemly vibrations and that the MG possessed a degree of steadiness and comfort hardly expected from a normal chassis. Which should have warmed Kimber’s cockles. It was humourously suggested that “still greater scholastic honours will fall to cars which have matriculated in Mr Kimber’s Finishing School for Morrises, where the curriculum included courses in hotting-up, hill-climbing, and correct deportment in sporting events”! This was further endorsed by the 1926 MG’s ability to hold on to top gear in traffic and run down to six mph in that gear.
By May 1927 we were able to report on a flat-radiator MG Super Sports two-seater, finished in resplendent blue and silver (CA 9711). This entailed a visit to the Queen Street MG showrooms in Oxford, where the Summer Term was in full-swing. So well had Kimber’s MGs been received that a £10,000 works was being built in which to make them. The attractive lines of these cars were enhanced by offering a colour-scheme of blue, brown or crimson above the bead-line, curled and laquered aluminium below it, with wheels, mudgaurds and valances matching the chosen colour. The two-seater and four-seater MGs were finished in either saxe-blue or claret, to this form.
To the previously described mods from Morris specification were now noted plated cylinder-head nuts, enlarged ports, stronger valve-springs, a large Solex carburettor, special Lucas magneto, workmanlike underbonnet controls, Manes steering, a Rene Thomas spring-spoked steering wheel, and a revised brake cross-shaft with Dewandre vacuum-servo pedal-assistance. To mask a dashboard petrol tank a toolbox was slung between the rear dumbirons. Appreciated were the “jigged” mudguards, to give interchangability in the event of damage, and baize protection for the side-screens when stowed behind the front seats. There was a one-man dickey-seat. Foot-starter and central accelerator pedal were as expected and the clutch was “of the sweetest”. The engine was also described as one of the sweetest one could wish to drive behind, at from four mph to the top pace of 67mph (a speedometer reading, presumably).
Beyond Sutton Scotney, where the MG was photographed, Hinksey hill was taken at well over 40mph, where most cars had to climb it in a low gear. In the high 7.6 to 1 middle gear of the three-speed gearbox nearly 50mph came up, at some 4200rpm. enabling this smart two-seater to “flick past another car with sports intentions but staid performance” — which has a period ring about it! The safe cornering was praised. But the test was a brief one, as after more photography in Clifton Hampden, “England’s prettiest village”, they cruised at an effortless 50rnph back to Oxford. No price was quoted, but it would have been £340, the four-seater £350, the Saloonette £475.
The successful M-type MG Midget was introduced in 1928, but Motor Sport preferred to test it in the mildly-tuned and slightly modified “Double Twelve” form, in which it had won the Team Prize in that JCC 24-hour race in 1930 and completely dominated its class in the same race in 1931, to the chagrin of the Ulster Austins. Mr Randall, who had entered the triumphant team in 1930, and Mr Kimble of University Motors (then the sole London distributors for these £185 and other MG models) agreed to go with two of our staff to Waltham Cross to collect the team-cars and drive them to London. Only one of these had been started since the race in which Randall’s and Mont gomery’s MG had averaged 60.23mph inclusive of all stops, but all three started at once on the starters. Two were left at University Motors and Motor Sport took over Randall’s No. 76 MG (WL 9273).
Instead of a brief flip, the car was so enjoyable that it was soon well into the West Country, and by evening had done over 200 miles. Conclusions: the springing was a bit hard at low speeds, because the Hartfords were still adjusted for racing, while the engine, in spite of its long ordeal at Brooklands gave an effortless 60mph cruising-speed on about half-throttle, and a good 70mph maximum, 75 being held under favourable conditions. The gears needed. to be made good use of but the 850cc ohc engine didn’t object to low-pace running, and didn’t “pink” on ROP benzole-mixture. KLG 208 plugs were in use and No 1 only oiled-up because the car was left ticking over for too long. The brakes needed some adjustment. naturally, but “were adequate”, and on the day after this test-run the engine again started at once on the button, from cold.
Later in 1930 we tried another D12 MG Midget. the cream and brown one raced by Miss Victoria Worsley (who married the wellknown Brooklands time-keeper, Roland Kinglovv) and were again very impressed. The little 10cwt car “sat on the road like a heavyweight”. The car was unchanged since the “Double Twelve” race, still on five-bar Palmer tyres and with Brooklands’ exhaust system. In spite of extra springs, the clutch was light, and the steering column, with Rene Thomas wheel, raked just right, but the handbrake had to be groped for and the accelerator was awkward to use. The exhaust note was of the kind beloved by policemen seeking promotion but could be subdued by an additional Vortex Silencer.
The D12 specification embraced a special camshaft, stronger valve springs, special SU carburettor and inlet and exhaust manifolds, and thorough running-in before delivery. The body conformed to International racing regulations, with cut-aways on both sides, and had a fold-flat Triplex screen (a gauze screen was available), real leather upholstery, racing mud guards, a nine-gallon scuttle fuel tank, with quick-action filler-cap, stronger wheels, a bonnet strap, and a dynamo and coil suited to 6000rpm, and oil and water thermometers were fitted. All for £245, an undershield and wiring and pinning all nuts and bolts extra.
By now MG were into larger models, and Motor Sport went out in a Mk 1 MG Six Sportsman’s Saloonette (WL 6484). It was a well-used demonstrator, picked up from MG’s Pavlova works in Abingdon. From the outcome the controls were praised and in the lanes leading to the main Oxford road so silky was the engine that the driver was surprised to find he was doing 50 to 60mph — as I was to be this year. Opening-out, the speedometer showed 70. 75 and finally 80mph. The exhaust-note was unobtrusive. Indeed, the tester was unable to find anything to criticise in this 2 1/2-litre 17.7 RAC hp MG. The dash was part of the chassis and although it carried steering column, reserve petrol tank and one-gallon oil tank, it was free from the dither often experienced in other cars. The price in 1930 was £570.
That Motor Sport did not neglect the MG theme is evident from a road-test of an Abbey-bodied Magna in 1932. Loaned by Stearns of Fulham Road, this 1200cc sixcylinder ohc four-seater had run little more than SOO miles, but if still engine-stiff, it did 35, 50 and 66mph in the indirect gears, the eight-gallon fuel tank did not require petrol in a day’s 250-mile ruin, and 10 to 50 mph took 171/2 sec, 60mph corning up in 25 sec. But the brakes were weak. The price was £298.
Continuing just beyond the period now universally accepted as “vintage”, that same year Motor Sport tried the new £199.50 850cc MG Midget, with the new cross-flow, twin-SU head. We claimed a genuine 80mph from it, but many customers broke the crankshafts of their own J2s, trying to emulate this speed, also quoted by other testers! There was now a four-speed gearbox. ratios 19.2, 11.5, 7.32 and 5.37 to 1, and on this early car the shift from second into third was slow, but 5,800rprn was seen on several occasions, 60mph easily attained in third cog. Screen flat. the J2 cruised at an easy 60. Beyond Esher the excellent brakes saved a nasty incident when the MG was faced with a lorry overtaking a farm-wagon, and so to Brooklands, where against a strong head-wind 75mph was clocked over the 1/2-mile and 80mph under the lee of the Byfleet banking, a speed again achieved on the run back to town. As for acceleration, 10 to 50mph took 171/2 sec. 60mph just over 25sec. “80 mph in comfort for under £200 is motoring history indeed!” we said but those crankshafts . . . The slab-tank held eight gallons.
An excitement in 1933 was trying the supercharged J3 MG Midget. It was the actual car (JB 1047) used to break one-to 24-hour class records at Montlhery the previous year. The 746cc cross-flow ohc engine had 14mm plugs and a No 6A Powerplus supercharger. The axle-ratio was 4.89 to 1. On main-road down slopes 90mph was obtained. At Brooklands repairs to the Fork bridge restricted things to 88mph (The makers claim was 93mph). The engine was period-free, doing 45 in second, 70mph at 5500rprn in third gear. Instant starts from cold were the norm, with KLG 718 plugs. these being spared excessive oil-doses as the blower was sump-lubricated and its blades fed as putting oil in the petrol, which was 50/50 Ethyl petrol and benzole. The engine ran down to 500rpm. The crankshaft-driven supercharger meant that no starting handle could be fitted. The acceleration graph shows 10 to 50mph in 12 sec, to 60 in 161/2 sec, to 70 in 22 sec. The brakes pulled the J3 up smoothly in 55 to 57 feet from 40mph, whereas that Magna had needed 80 feet. The gear-shift from top to constant mesh third “was a joy” but the remote-control gate was “not very definite”, a quick drop into second tending to catch the reverse slot and reverse to be selected when bottom was wanted — I had the latter problems on the J2 described later. (The cure suggested in 1933 was to fit a gate from one of the larger MGs). But what fun this J3 must have been for £299.50.
Impartial, Motor Sport next tried an L-type MG Magna. conscious of the victories gathered by these MGs in the 1933 LCC Relay Race, the BRDC 500-Mile Race, and their Alpine Cup for best Team Performances in the tough Alpine Trial. This £285 two-seater earned all the >praise bestowed on the other MGs, and at the Track did a 1/2-mile in 38.8 sec two-up, and 75.6mph over the flying 1/2-mile. The engine had a very brief period at 3700rprn, would go to 6000rpm, and using 5000rprn, the speeds in the indirect gears were 20, 35 and 55mph. The non-servo 12in brakes achieved a stop from 40mph in 60 feet, and on acceleration 10 to 50mph took just under 20 sec, 10 to 60 coming up in 26 1/2 sec. Next day, on the road, our chap averaged 40mph going north out of S London, then packed 49mph into the first open-road hour, later covering 16 miles in 18 minutes (53mph). This 1086cc six-cylinder MG with a racing ancestry (it still wore a bonnet-strap) was regarded as excellent value in the climate of 1933/34.
I was fortunate in being able to round-off this discourse by driving two of the MGs owned by that enthusiastic and very knowledgeable MG enthusiast, Phil Jenning. Phil bought his first MG, a J2, the day after he was demobbed from the Royal Navy in 1957. For a very long time it was his everyday means of transport, yet it looks as immaculate now as if it were still in the showroom. I kept to the 3000/3200rpm limit which Phil observes, in deference to the two-bearing crankshaft. Even so, it is a delightfully willing little car. The clutch is somewhat eager, the engine happy to rev, so an undignified surge-forward is the product of careless manipulation. The brakes are fine if you use a firm prod but they had a mild liking for the off-side of the highway. The huge tachometer and a small speedometer are set directly before the driver, reminder of the speed-traps which were present even 60 years ago. I like MG remote-gear-levers but had some initial difficulty in finding the right lower-gear slots. The fly-off hand brake, as the testers before me had noted, is another MG feature. That enjoyable experience occupied part of the sunny February day chosen for this MG sampling.
I also drove the 1931 18/80 MG with Carbodies’ fabric four-door saloon, that Phil Jennings bought in 1968, as its second owner. The first owner used to drive the car every weekday from Sussex up to London’s Hyde Park garage, quite a feat in the 1930s. so that by the time Phil found it the car had done the astonishing mileage of 340,000. And do you know, it still had its original dolphin mascot, given to the owner by his brother, as he had served in HMS “Dolphin”, never stolen in all those years, including those daily berthings in a public garage!
As bought for £70, the 18/80 was very tatty and delapidated. But Phil, a fine and patient craftsman, has restored it to 100% original condition. The brake linings are standard, the cork-lined clutch, a legacy from Morris design is retained, and the leather upholstery looks like new — and of course that Dolphin mascot still lives above the radiator-cap. Driving this quite big saloon, like Motor Sport‘s tester in 1930, I thought I was getting along at 40 to 45mph. when Phil told me I was doing 57 to 60mph, so effortless is the engine. The present axle-ratio is 4.75 to 1 which gives a very useful top-gear performance, although Phil plans to raise this when he has time. As it was, I enjoyed the flexibility of the car. When a gear change is needed it is easily effected, with the substantial long central lever but as I did not get the double-declutch timing exactly right every time. I was glad of the forgiving, rugged, crunch-free gearbox. Driving someone else’s vintage car is even more of a liability in these inflation-prone days than once it was, so I appreciated the good brakes, with Clayton Dewandre vacuum-servo assistance. and light steering from the man-sized wheel. The seat is comfortable, the doors shut impeccably, there is a nice hum from the middle-gear of the three-speed box, but engine arid exhaust are as quiet as the purchasers of such big MGs would have wanted. And the clutch is delightfully smooth, once I had discovered that it needs careful engagement. Oil-pressure is over 401b/sq in and on a cold day water-heat is around 50-deg. I noted the very neat run of the ht-cables from distributor to plugs, liked the typical MG fly-off hand brake on the driver’s right and was told that the 18/80 gives about 22mpg, the tank holding 11 gallons. It has 4.70 x 19 NZ Firestone tyres. The instrument-panel is well-stocked, with seven dials all told, small, circular and neat and not an octagon among them, even the tachometer arid speedometer being unobtrusive, which is why I was not at first aware of our cruising-speed. Direction indicators, with a period control-lever on the steering-column, obviate hand-signalling, and as on the other MGs, the screwdown bonnetfasteners are easy to open.
These two MGs are not the only ones in Jennings’s stable. Awaiting attention is a 1927 14/28hp tourer, one of the first of the flat-rad MGs with Morris-type pressed steel bulkhead, and hub-caps, and octagon badge; whereas the 14/40s have a cast-aluminium bulkhead and MG hub-nuts. The older car’s log-book, incidentally, calls it an Oxford.
The next eye-catching car is Phil’s 1927 14/40, found in Fishguard as a complete wreck 13 years ago. Originally a fabric saloon, it has since been magnificently rebuilt, and given a handsome boat-tail, wood-decked two-seater body, by Tony Bareham of Biggleswade. It will soon be on the road, a welcome visitor to any MG gathering. So that was it — the fine 18/80, as original as Phil could make it, which means 100%, except for a heat-shield between the twin SUs and exhaust manifold, a concession to present-day petrol problems. the cheeky J2, again original apart from 12-inch brake drums, and P-type instruments fitted before originality became a cult, and the sporting 14/40. Driving such cars today is quite a responsibility, whereas once anything you might break could usually be easily replaced. Which reminds me of how, in 1947. I was returning a road-test TC MG and saw in the Morris showrooms in Oxford a very sporting car reputed to be the very first MG, dated 1923. In 1951 I was able to borrow it from the Dorking Motor Co and play with it for a few days before taking it to the Reading Morris agent, the Nuffield Organisation using it for publicity purposes. It was of racing-car starkness, starterless, and of minimal mudguarding and weather-protection. But enormous fun! Taking with me a girl-friend who had flown aeroplanes — she later went to Africa to study gorillas; I trust there was no association! — I tried the MG over one-time Surrey test hills, including the Box Hill zig-zag, and no-one minded. Later when I asked if I could borrow it again to compete in the vintage-section of a 1950s Land’s End, I was told that “it was far too valuable for an irresponsible person like the editor of Motor Sport to use in this manner! Anyway, a wellknown member of the Motor Trade is to be entrusted with it. . .“ So, at the start of the long night run the event entailed, I was amused to see that this valuable car had been so carefully prepared that its luckless driver had only its dim scuttle-mounted sidelamps to rely on. When he ran out of road, in daylight actually, I wasn’t surprised.
Then historians like Wilson McComb and Litton P Jarman got busy and discovered that this could not have been the first MG, but that it had been built for Cecil Kimber to drive in the 1925 Land’s End trial, with an overhead-valve Hotchkiss/Gilchrist engine (until the M-type MGs had s v engines) and that it should have been FC 7900, not FM0 842. In spite of last-minute snags, good old Kimber had gained a gold medal in that 1925 Land’s End. Since those times this MG has been re-registered FC 7900 and must today be valued at what an inelegant expression calls telephone numbers. Even if it is not exactly Old No 1. I guess that neither Bob nor Boddy nor anyone else would now be given permission to borrow it, especially for such a risky frolic as driving it in a trial, the very kind of competition for which it was built! So thank you. Phil for entrusting me with two of your immaculate MGs.
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