First class honours from Oxford

Three untried MG K3s set out on the 1933 Mille Miglia to beat the Maseratis. it was a tall order, says Gordon Cruickshank

“Tiny MGs beat giants of three nations!” “British Drivers Smile at Death for 1000 Miles And Win!” To British newspaper readers in 1933, it sounded like outright victory in the toughest open road-race of all the Mille Miglia. It wasn’t quite that sensational, but it was a magnificent reward for the unproven cars of a semi-private team.

Had it not been for the enthusiasm of Earl Howe, that most dedicated of amateur racers in the early ’30s, MG might never have sent an entry to the Italian classic. Cecil Kimber was interested, for sure, but the expense would have been enormous. Howe, though, was very wealthy, and the topic of the race had often predominated during visits to Count Johnny Lurani’s Milan home. He wanted deeply to contest this high-profile race, but though he had a stable of continental racing cars himself, he felt that a British entry must involve a British car. Inspired by the remarkable performance in 1932 of Lord de Clifford’s supercharged 750cc MG, until its cam-drive sheared, he persuaded Sir William Morris to make available three of the new Magnettes, pledging to fund the exercise himself.

The car could hardly have been less proven: the Magnette was a new model, the supercharged K3 version was experimental, and its preselector gearbox was a novelty. But the strong single overhead cam six, stiff chassis, underslung springs and large brakes made for a strong machine, while knock-off hubs, Elektron alloy parts and 23-gallon fuel tank confirmed its racing intent.

Abingdon had built only one example, with a dramatically sloped nose, when Howe set out for Milan on January 19 1933, ready for a snow harrassed reconnaissance trip. His lordship provided the back-up vehicles as well; his 2.3 Alfa Romeo the same in which he had won Le Mans two years earlier and his Mercedes SS, a TT winner in the hands of Caracciola. These two priceless “hacks” met up at Dieppe with the tight new racer, and Howe, his mechanic “Tommy” Thomas and MG race mechanic Jacko” Jackson pointed the three cars south. By the time the party reached Lucerne the little MG had loosened enough to reach 98mph.

In Milan Howe’s team assembled. His reputation as well as his charm meant that he could call on the cream of amateur drivers, in an era when ‘amateur’ was an indicator of position, not skill. Howe’s co-pilot, gentleman racer Hugh Hamilton, was unable to attend the winter recce but soon Sir Henry Birkin and Bernard Rubin arrived, Le Mans winners both, to be joined by Capt George Eyston and Count Lurani. Eyston’s mild appearance and round glasses belied much experience, including speed records with the “Magic Midget” MG, while Lurani, though young, was already an Italian racing hero. It was a glamorous group, guaranteeing publicity with its society presence and indisputable racing credentials.

Lurani brought his own closed Alfa Romeo to augment the exploratory fleet and, in three-and a-half couples, they began their recce. Howe’s plan was to tackle the entire route, but snow on the Raticosa Pass caused them to return to Bologna. Even so, they were learning about their experimental mount; although the MG was overheating and oiling up, with the rear wheels showing signs of stress, Eyston was able to outpace Howe’s much larger Alfa on the sinuous Radicofani Pass.

Having taken an alternative route to Rome, the aristocratic party, whose progress was being followed in the press, enjoyed a social interlude when they met the King of Italy and an up-and-coming political figure, Benito Mussolini. They had also passed the time of day with Enzo Ferrari and his Alfa Romeo team. With the weather still bad, the team abandoned the last section of the eponymous 1000 miles and set course for Monte Carlo. Arriving here just after the rally, they found C Penn-Hughes, disconsolate after blowing up his rally entry and eager to be involved with Howe’s bold proposal. The result was equally bold: Howe would enter his huge Mercedes as a competitor in the race instead of a mere tender, and Penn-Hughes would drive it the same principle so popular in today’s long distance raids like the Paris-Dakar.

Back at Abingdon, the practice lessons were fed into the controlled panic of building three team cars in just six weeks. Mechanical improvements centred on better cooling (by removing the streamlined radiator cowling), stronger supercharger mounts and stainless head-gaskets, while the chassis gained enlarged fuel tanks, a higher second gear, and more lock. For the crew’s comfort there was a higher scuttle and body sides, and improved instruments.

It was an act of faith to dispatch the little two-seaters, all green except for a stripe on Howe’s carrying his silver and blue race colours, with almost no testing. In the shop the blown sixes were showing 76bhp, but them was only time for the briefest of trials before the unsilenced trio sprinted for Fowey, Cornwall, to be winched on board the only ship which would reach Genoa in time.

Once again the team assembled in Milan, ensconced in the Hotel Continental in time for pre-event practice. It was a life-saving move. During the winter testing, the brakes of the rapid K3s had been used only gently; now trials at Monza and on the Brescia autostrada showed cracking of the iron-lined drums. Worse, as the teams repeatedly drove over the road sections, the cornering of the new cars proved to be unpredictable, and it took Birkin, the handsome engineering baronet with his trademark blue polka-dotted scarf, to reroute the brake-torque cables which were compromising front axle movement. New drums sent out from Abingdon sorted out the brake worry but it then transpired that silenced exhausts were, in fact, mandatory; so the straight-through systems were cut and dainty little silencers welded in.

Thus the privately run team approached the off. They intended three replenishment stops, at Siena, Perugia and Bologna, the cross-over in the figure-of-eight route, and “Tommy” Thomas set off to prepare these in Howe’s Commer lorry. This was one of the first dedicated race-car transporters, and was the idea of Thomas, who had it fitted up with workshop facilities and room for one of Howe’s Bugatti, Alfa or Delage racing cars, plus a tow-bar for one more on a trailer. With His Lordship’s name discreetly painted on its side, this machine, combined with the Mercedes SS, surely the most exotic tender ever, elevated the Howe equipe far above the usual scruffy trailer or truck.

And prestige counted at Brescia, the medieval city which was, and remains, the traditional home of the Mille Miglia, the pivot from which the 1000 miles sprang. National prestige hung on the event, dominated by Alfa Romeo in five of its seven years so far. The Italians expected to win, especially with the dashing Tazio Nuvolari driving an 8C 2.3 Alfa from the Scucleria Ferrari but they applauded the little vetture inglese which had made the long trip to join in their yearly frenzy of motoring passion.

Howe’s sights, though, were set more realistically on victory in the 1100cc class. To achieve this the green MGs, proudly bearing Union flags on their scuttles (plus an Italian tricolore on Lurani’s machine) would have to defeat the rapid 1100cc Maseratis supercharged factory racers with last year’s class win already chalked on their flanks.

As always, the smaller-engined cars were flagged off first, streaking at minute intervals through the corridor of cheering fans, controlled by blackshirted Fascist officials, under the tall chestnut trees flanking the Verona road. Then came the unlimited class the popular heroes fighting for victory: Nuvolari (reported as embracing his mascot, a hunchback, for luck), Borzacchini, the previous year’s winner, and von Brauchitsch, aiming to repeat Mercedes’ victory of 1931.

Over the early, long, flat roads Borzacchini in the leading Alfa averaged 100mph, not far short of the flat-out pace of the MGs but at Bologna Birkin was leading the 1100 class; and as he cracked on over the relentless twists of the Raticosa Pass he was over-stressing the fastest of the Maseratis. The Italian car’s gearbox broke soon after on the Futa Pass. Birkin’s machine lasted little longer, a broken valve side-lining him at Siena, but he had already negated the Maserati threat, the second car running well back after a crash.

At Rome, 380 miles in and the southern tip of the route, Howe trailed Eyston and Lurani by some 20 minutes; but as the race turned north again to cross the Appenines a second time gremlins began to close the gap.

Birkin’s sacrifice had left the Eyston/Lurani and Howe/Hamilton MGs ahead of the class, but not without opposition, or problems. Eyston’s dynamo failed on the descent to the Adriatic coast, from where the fastest sections led back to Bologna, and to preserve spark-power he was reduced to switching off one headlamp on the straights. Inevitably this took the edge off his pace and threatened his class lead, but luckily the main threat was from Howe, whose performance had first worsened and then recovered with intermittent plug troubles. Not so far behind, though, and surprising the English, were the little Fiats, the pocket-sized Ballilas. These dainty two-seaters with their elegant tails and sweeping wings were averaging highly improbable speeds for unblown side-valve fours.

At Bologna the MGs pulled up in a chaos of mid-evening crowds determined to be part of the pit-stop. The crew gave Eyston a new battery and fixed Howe’s flapping headlamp with parts from the practice car, and the four weary men set off for Ferrara, 12 minutes apart. With minimal lighting, the last hills around Feltre must have been a terrible drain on Eyston, loose-surfaced, twisting, and like the rest of the course, only nominally closed to other traffic. Worse, Italian enthusiasts had, then as now, an alarming tendency to get as close as possible; yet this too proved a blessing when Eyston’s car stopped with a puncture. Willing hands lifted the MG bodily as Lurani hammered the spare onto the hub; then they streaked off down to the last flat miles over the Veneto plain.

As the first cars approached Brescia to finish the gruelling competition, it was almost two in the morning. Since the long line of machines had departed the previous morning, the excited crowds waiting under the street-lamps had enjoyed a relaxing lunch and a convivial evening of wine and impassioned debate, whereas the crews of the smaller cars had been driving solidly for nearly 18 hours, snatching a gulp of water and a mouthful of food at controls and fuel stops. Telegraphed bulletins meant that the crowd knew Nuvolari was well ahead of the field; Borzacchini’s Alfa had retired with a cracked cylinder head at Rome, and the only foreign rival, Von Brauchitsch’s Mercedes SS, had torn up so many racing tyres that he too was out. The tension lay in the identity of the first car to reach Brescia, and in the dark all the crowd could see was the glare of its headlamps. Suddenly they recognised the MG of Eyston and Lurani, joined 90 seconds later by Howe and Hamilton to enjoy the cheers and confirm the team prize. Penn Hughes and Thomas finished without undue drama in the great blue Mercedes loaded with tyres and spares, and not so far behind, even though gasket trouble prevented them from using the blower.

Alfa Romeos had utterly dominated, taking the first nine places overall, as well as the saloon and 1500cc awards, but the untried British cars had performed superbly in an event with no parallel at home, averaging over 56mph for the 1000 miles where Nuvolari had managed 67.45mph. Without the many stops to change plugs the gap would have been smaller still; but to the excitable British press such details mattered little, nor did Nuvolari. Headlines shouting “Tiny MGs Beat Giants of Three Nations!” and “First Home in Big Race” may have been over-egging the pudding a little but they were understandable at a time when, despite speed records and Le Mans feats, Britain lacked a top-level presence in international motorracing events. MG was never going to frighten Alfa Romeo, but the team’s Mille Miglia achievement was a sterling one, and it conferred a gutsy reputation on the eager, willing little cars from Abingdon.