J. H. T. Smith’s K3 Magnette
The K3 MG Magnette burst upon the sporting world in 1933 with an impressive debut; the first prototype took part in the Monte Carlo Rally and made fastest time in the Mont des Mules hill-climb, which formed part of the event. A second prototype went on a prolonged test and reconnaissance run in Italy, in preparation for the Mille Miglia, and the first three production cars competed in the 1,000 miles race. They finished first and second in the 1,100-c.c class, with the third car retiring with engine trouble.
The K3 was 8 six-cylinder of 57 x 71 mm. bore and stroke, giving a capacity of 1,086 c.c. with a single overhead camshaft, a supercharger mounted ahead of the radiator, and the power was transmitted through an ENV pre-selector gearbox. After the success of the cars in the Mille Miglia, where they had trounced the 1,300-c.c. Maserati opposition, there were plenty of customers for these sports/racing cars, which could also be used as pure racing cars thanks to all the road equipment such as lamps, mudguards, screens, etc., being easily detachable. In road-racing, track-racing, record-breaking, hill-climbs and any other form of competition the K3 was very successful, while some were even sold for touring purposes. During 1933 a total of 14 production K3 cars were built and in 1934 the first three off the line were earmarked for Lord Howe’s Mille Miglia team again. These were numbers 15, 16 and 17 and it is the first of these with which we are directly concerned. K3015 was registered in February 1934 by the MG Car Co. Ltd. of Abingdon, Berkshire, and given the registration number JB 3180. It was the standard sports/racing two-seater with squared-off body behind the seats, a full width “slab” petrol tank and spare wheel on the back. It was driven by Count Lurani and Clifton Penn-Hughes and they finished tenth overall and second in the 1,100-c.c. class, a long way behind the class-winning Maserati; thus the Italians overcame their defeat of 1933. After the race JB 3180 was returned to the Abingdon factory and as the K3 was now standardised with a pointed-tail two-seater body, it was rebodied into this form and all the road equipment was removed as it was destined to become a pure racing car. The Mille Miglia had been held on April 8th and when the car re-appeared on May 21st at the Whit-Monday Brooklands meeting it was in its new guise and had a cowl over the traditional MG radiator. It was loaned to Major “Goldie” Gardner, who was making a return to racing after a bad crash in the Ulster TT of 1932, in which he had been driving an MG Midget. In view of his leg and hip injuries, Gardner was restricting his racing to the Brooklands Outer Circuit, which was a flat-out blind round the banked track. He took part in two races with K3015 but was unplaced. However, the potential of the K3 Magnetic was shown by R. T. Horton with a similar car, though better streamlined, who set a Class G lap record at 123.58 m.p.h. at this meeting.
At the Brooklands August Bank Holiday meeting Gardner again drove K3015 and gained a third place in the Esher Senior Short Handicap on the Outer Circuit, and the following month he took part in the BRDC 500-Mile race at Brooklands. For this event he was joined by Dr. Benjafield and they gained a very worthwhile third place. In his autobiography entitled “Magic MPH” Major Gardner says” For the BRDC 500-Mile race at Brooklands in 1934 Kim (Cecil Kimber of the MG Company) lent me a standard K3 supercharged two-seater Magnette…”
Around this time one John Henry Tomson Smith, who was in partnership with Martin Soames in a motor business in London, was looking for something to replace his MG Midget. In passing, this MG Midget was the one which had won the 1931 Ulster Tr driven by Norman Black, which Smith was using as an everyday sports car. He had it tuned by W. E Wilkinson of the Bellevue Garage in South London and asked “Wilkie” to keep an eye open bra K3 MG suitable for racing. At the end of the season “Wilkie” took J.H.T. down to Brooklands as he had found him a good K3. It was K301 5 which arrived from Abingdon in the MG works van, in racing trim with space for a passenger but no seat cushions, and “Wilkie” took Smith sitting on the floor for ten laps and pronounced the car “a good ‘un”, so J.H.T. agreed to buy it. It was a good one, for at the final BARC meeting of the season Gardner had gained third place in the First Kingston Senior Long Handicap and had won the Second Kingston Senior Long Handicap, at an average speed of 104.58 m.p.h. Smith took delivery of the car in racing trim, and was given the log-book which contained the information Registration number JB 3180, chassis number K3015, engine number 1170K and the MG Car Company Ltd. as the only previous owner. As Smith bought it purely for racing, with no intention of using it on the public roads, he never taxed the car or changed the ownership, so to this day the log-book contains but one entry, that of the MG Car Company Ltd., Abingdon.
During 1935 Smith raced the car “as bought” and as it was his first supercharged racing car he and as it was his first supercharged racing car he let “Wilkie” look after it for him. He was only interested in road racing, the fiat-out stuff on the Brooklands Outer Circuit not appealing to him, and competed at Donington Park and on the triangular “Mountain” course at Brooklands. By the end of the season he had learnt a lot about the car and had gained a third place at a Donington Park meeting and a second at the closing Brooklands meeting. At the July Donington Park meeting Motor Sport said in its report that Smith lay third for a while in a 25-mile Handicap event, ” … until he was passed by Esplen (MG). … ” A photograph accompanying this article now shows why Smith was passed by Esplen he spun!
For the 1936 season K3015 underwent a “face-lift” at the Tomson Smith & Soames workshops, which was more in the nature of a “face-drop”, for the standard K3 bodywork was lowered 4 1/2 inches, as was the radiator and cowl. The standard K3 fuel tank, with its twin fillers, was discarded and a new one made, which was in alloy and had a central filler, but still followed the lines of the standard K3, with the tail ending in a point. “Wilkie” attended to the engine as always, and the season started with K3105 being lighter and lower than the normal road-racing K3. Smith now took part in the longer races, like the Nuffield Trophy over 59 laps of Dortington Park, in which he finished seventh, and the International Trophy at Brooklands as well as the regular short races. At the postponed (because of rain!) Easter meeting at Brooklands, Smith won the Third Heat of the British Mountain Circuit Championship at 70.67 m.p.h., and at the Whit.-Monday meeting he lent the car to “Wilkie” who won the Fifth Mountain Handicap at 71.15 m.p.h.
The car had proved really satisfactory throughout the 1936 season and in the autumn Smith and Soames reviewed the situation, By this time the ERA was a very desirable racing car, and there were some intriguing 1,100-c.c. Maseratis about the place. The ERA was an expensive proposition and the Maserati would be all right until it blew up, when spares from Italy would stretch the budget. The two young men looked at K3015, reluctant to part with it for it had served well, and decided they would convert it into a proper single-seater, with central driving seat. By this time the MG Company had officially given up racing and were not building or servicing any racing cars, but the enthusiasm of the management was undiminished. Smith and Spastics went to see Kimber, Enever and Jackson, the leading lights of the firm, and outlined their plans for the single-seater. They received a lot of unofficial support and came away with a brand new chassis frame, a new block and crankshaft, a new front axle beam and a bronze cylinder head all for “a token sum”. With this support all thoughts of an ERA or a Maserati were banished and the winter of 1936/37 saw them hard at work. The complete body, tank, radiator and cowl were removed from K3015 and sold to another MG owner and the new chassis frame was put up on trestles alongside the existing chassis. The engine was given to “Wilkie” for its winter overhaul, and all the bits were removed from K3015 and fitted to the new chassis frame, and wherever possible bits were lightened. The K3 front-axle beam was one of the weak parts of the car, which was why Smith took the opportunity to get a new one, as thcoriginal one had done a lot of work. Springs, gearbox, rear axle, steering, brakes, shock-absorbers and so on were all transferred and the stripped chassis was stood up against the wall when it was all finished, along with sundry other bits and bobs that had been replaced. The rebuilt engine, with its new cylinder block, crankshaft and bronze head had been fitted with a Zoller supercharger in place of the original Roots-Marshall supercharger, and when everything was installed and a new bulkhead made, the original specification plate from K3015 was attached to this new car. The long steering column had been pivoted across to the left to give a central steering wheel position, though the wheel sat at an angle; a new fuel tank and seat were made and then the whole thing was encased in it new aluminium body, with a pointed tail and fully cowled radiator. Although on the face of it, Smith had rebuilt K3015 into a single-seater, he had in fact built almost an entirely new car. What might be termed K3015 Mark 2.
Smith’s interests really lay in proper road-racing, and he used to go to events like the Swiss GP or the French GP to spectate on his summer holidays. The nearest thing to European road racing in England was Donington Park, and in 1937 the Crystal Palace road circuit was opened, but none of this quite compared with racing on public roads, so for his first event for 1937 with the rebuilt K3015 Smith went to Ireland for the Cork GP. Not surprisingly the rebuild was not finished when the time for departure arrived, so the car was shipped with the new body just resting on the chassis and the attachments were made up in Ireland. Everything went well and Smith finished fourth at 71.88 m.p.h. At Brooklands the Campbell Circuit had been opened, which was part road-circuit and part banked track, and in the International Trophy the Zoller blower on the MG gave trouble. In this race Billy Cotton and “Wilkie” were driving MG Magnette K3004, which the Dance Band Leader had bought from Jock Manby-Colegrave and to which “Wilkie” had fitted the lowered body and alloy fuel tank that Smith had sold when he embarked on his single-seater project. While he and his partner Soames were ruefully removing bronze supercharger-rotor bits from the inlet manifold of the single-seater, they watched their old 1936 bodywork being driven into third place!
At the end a the season Smith took part in the Imperial Trophy meeting at Crystal Palace and finished eighth, while Soames netted a second place in the First Campbell Circuit Handicap event at the BARC October meeting at Brooklands. As the single-seater project had proved satisfactory the car was retained for the 1938 season, thc winter rebuild being more an overhaul than anything else, though the Zoller supercharger was discarded and the original Marshall was replaced.
While J.H.T. was in Ireland he met up with A. P. MacArthur who raced a K3 MG, and this car was prepared by W. E. Wilkinson. When MacArthur was in England, taking the car to “Wilkie” for its winter overhaul, he called on Smith to ask if he wanted to sell the single-seater. Smith didn’t want to sell it, but he did sell MacArthur the old original chassis frame from K3015 and various surplus spare parts and they were shipped back to Ireland, but without any actual identification, for the documents of JB 3180/K3015 remained with the single-seater.
The 1938 season was a good one for the single-seater, for after a third place at the Easter Brooklands Meeting, in a Campbell Circuit Handicap, it ran fourth in its Heat at the Crystal Palace Coronation Trophy meeting, and ninth in the Final. In the JCC International Trophy at Brooklands it netted a good fourth place overall at 78.96 m.p.h., finishing in a cloud of steam as the radiator had split a few laps from the end and Smith drove with his fingers crossed and a rapidly rising engine temperature. It was part of “Uncle Willy” Parnell’s team, along with W. G. Everitt driving Reg Parnell’s special K3 MG and Percy Maclure’s Riley, which won the race. With 1st, 4th and 13th places they won the Team Prize.
Two weeks later, on May 21st, at a mixed car and motorcycle event at Crystal Palace, Smith led the Sydenham Trophy race for cars, from start to finish, the 1,100-c.c. having a start over the 1,500-c.c. cars, and in the 15 laps B. Bira was unable to catch the MG with his ERA. The single-seater MG Special ran at all the Crystal Palace meetings that year and at all the Brooklands meetings, including the JCC 200-Mile race, where it finished 10th, and it established a Class G (1,100 c.c.) lap record for the Campbell Circuit at 70.60 m.p.h.
During the season Reg Parnell had modified his K3 MG by fitting the independent front suspension assembly from a Lancia Augusta in place of the normal half-elliptic leaf springs and forged beam axle. The axle beam he removed was not a standard MG one, but a special one-off he had made the previous year to replace the rather flimsy MG one. Seeing Parnell’s car with its i.f.s. layout Smith enquired about the special axle beam and soon did a deal with Reg and had the extra strong beam on his own car. At the Crystal Palace Cup meeting in August the 1,100-c.c. class saw a scrap between three special MG K3 cars that had started life as production models. Aubrey Cuddon-Fletcher was driving Parnell’s special single-seater with the Lancia Smith was driving his single-seater with the specially made front axle beam off Parnell’s car, and Stuart-Wilton was driving the ex-Billy Cotton car that carried the modified original bodywork of Smith’s car!
When the season was over and J.H.T. was contemplating his next rebuild of K3015 Mark II, MacArthur called in again, once more trying to buy the car. It was still not for sale, but Smith sold him the complete bodywork, as he had new ideas for his own car. Once more MacArthur returned to Ireland, this time with the body off Smith’s car, but not the one that had been born with the original chassis. During the winter of 1938/39 Smith’s car underwent its third major rebuild. One of the short-comings of making a K3 MG into a single-seater was that it became nose-heavy or, conversely, “tail-light”, so in this rebuild the engine was moved back in the chassis, the prop-shaft being shortened, and the supercharger was moved from its standard position in front of the radiator to a new position behind the radiator. It was attached to the front of the cylinder block and driven by a chain enclosed in a special casing. With the ever in creasing power of the engine it was becoming difficult to keep head gaskets intact and the weak points were the water passages between head and block. A new joint was made with no water passages at all, and the water was transferred from block to head by external pipes. (In the 1960s Ford used this dodge to cure trouble on the GT40 and it was known as “dry-deck” – in 1938 it did not have a name!) Another limitation on the K3 Special were the brakes, which were still 1934 standard cable-operated ones.
Smith’s tuning shop was looking after various customers’ competition cars, including a Type 37A Bugatti which Soames raced, belonging to one Cleveland-Harmer. One day, quite by chance, Smith had been to see Harmer and on his way home called in at the White Mouse Garage in Hammersmith where Stan Holgate was working on Prince Chula’s cars. He saw some new brakes for the ex-Seaman Delage which Chula was trying to run. There was an enormous pile of new drums, back-plates, shoes, etc., for these large-diameter hydraulic brakes, for someone had made an error in ordering and they had far too many. While J.H.T. was eyeing these, Prince Chula arrived and when Smith left he had a nice set of new brakes in the back of his car, bought for a very reasonable price. These were grafted onto the MG hubs and all the mechanical linkage of the old MG brakes was replaced by hydraulic lines. During 1938 Smith had raced against a very pretty little I ,too-c.c. Maserati owned by Count Lurani, and had been really smitten by its lines, so when it came to clothe the third generation of K3o15, with its Parnell axle, Chula brakes, re-positioned and modified engine and new supercharger drive and mounting, a copy of the 1,100-c.c. Maserati was made and it was painted red, as had been the previous body. Other work done during the 1938/39 rebuild included light alloy shockabsorbers, new leaf springs with forged clips, and a lower mounting of the rear axle, on alloy blocks instead of the MG malleable iron ones.
This major rebuild took longer than planned and the car was not ready for the first meetings at Brooklands, but it appeared at the Crystal Palace at the end of May, and contemporary reports merely described it as “… J. H. T Smith’s rebodied MG … “. The 1939 season was cut short by the war so Smith’s Mark III Special MG did not get a lot of use, though it ran at the last Crystal Palace meeting on August 26th, one week before war broke out, finishing fifth in the second Heat, but not completing the final.
Smith joined the Army and the MG was stored out of London, and during the war he sold it to Chris Shorrock, of supercharger fame. During the nineteen-fifties it appeared in the “Small Ads” in The Motor and was described as having ERA axles and brakes, a fact we now know as being completely false. It was used in VSCC Historic racing until it blew-up rather comprehensively and was then offered for sate in bits. By this time J. H. T. Smith had dropped out of the racing scene and was concentrating on his motor business in South London, but when a friend told him his old MG was for sale he bought it and spent two years rebuilding back to its 1939 condition. There was no thought of racing it and it stood in the showrooms among modern MGs until Smith’s son decided he wanted to go Club Racing with a Lotus Seven, so the K3 MG Special was sold to “raise the wind”, though with regrets for the second time. It passed through various hands until Dudley Gahagan acquired it and had the idea of getting J.H.T. to drive it at a Brooklands Re-union. When he saw the car again Smith kicked himself for selling it the second time and eventually persuaded Gahagan to sell him a half a share in it. Back to Smith’s workshop in Mitcham it went yet again and he and his son stripped it right down and rebuilt it yet again.
As it stands today it is, as near as makes no odds, as it was in 1939, though the 1937 crankshaft was very tired and was replaced by a new one made by Allen Crankshafts, and a new cylinder block and head was needed, but the Marshall blower layout, and everything else, is unchanged. In no way can one say that the car is JB 3180 which finished loth in the 1934 Mille Miglia, or even K3015, but it certainly is the car that J. H. T. Smith conceived from those honourable beginnings during 1936, 1937, 1938 and 1939. No doubt someone, somewhere, has a bare K3 MG chassis frame stamped K3015, but that is all they do have, and if a 1934 K3 MG Magnette ever appears carrying the registration JB 3180, then it will be a complete phoney; not a rebuild or a replica, but a genuine phoney! That original Mille Miglia K3 Magnette can never be recreated, even John Smith wouldn’t try to do it, but the end product of K3015 is still fit and well and living in England. -D.S.J.
Footnote: ‘The Manby-Colwave, Billy Cotton, Stuart-Wilton car K3004, which carried the Smith-modified two-seater pointed-tail body in 1939 was dismantled and, as far as is known, the body was destroyed. The 1937 single-seater body which Smith sold to MacArthur was fitted to K3006 and appeared as late as 1948, driven by Hector Graham, and was then absorbed into W. R. Baird’s activities in Belfast.
Grateful thanks are extended to John Smith, Dudley Gahagan, Wilson McComb and members of the MMM Register for heir help in unravelling this fascinating story. –D.S.J.