An historic MG Midget
I availed myself of a pleasant run, one sunny Sunday, in the "Shelsley country", in Lewin Spittle's MG Midget. This little MG is different from the normal run of M-types, being, in fact, the car driven at Le Mans and in the Spa 24-hour race of 1930 by Sir Francis Samuelson. Soon after the introduction of the o.h.c. M-type this model began to make its appearance in competition events and, in particular, M-types did well in the 1930 JCC "Double-Twelve" race at Brooklands, winning the Team Prize from the Austin Sevens, the entry having been made at the suggestion of Edmondson and Randall, whose team of three Midgets was joined by two others, as well as by a privately-entered car. All except the last-named completed the course, the Randall/ Montgomery car coming in 14th, at an average speed for the 24 hours of 60.23 m.p.h.
The MG Midget had already been given better brakes than those of the early examples and, with modified valve timing that increased power from 20 to 27 b.h.p., bodywork complying with the "Double-Twelve" regulations, and a Brooklands' exhaust system, these Midgets were sold as the 12/12 model.
It may be that these early successes inspired the Abingdon factory as they prepared two cars for the 1930 Le Mans race. They were driven by Murton-Neale/Hicks and Sir Francis Samuelson/Fred Kindell, the last-named a works employee. Neither MG finished, Samuelson's losing its oil pressure. But he was sufficiently impressed to want to run the car in the Spa 24-hour race a fortnight later, to do which he removed the damaged engine, took it back to Abingdon in his old Talbot 1 1/2-litre for repairs, returned to Le Mans with it, and took the Midget to Spa, where it finished the race in spite of clutch slip.
This little car, with its distinctive body complying with the Le Mans requirements, disappeared for some years, until Lewin Spittle, riding his 16H Norton in Newmarket during the war in 1943, came upon a sporting MG and bought it for £17 10/-, complete with two gallons of fuel. Not realising it was the ex-Le Mans car, he later sold it to an Oxford Undergraduate who took it to Spain. In 1950 Spittle saw the MG again, in Piccadilly, and recognised its Reg. No. By this time he had studied pictures of the Samuelson car and a careful counting of the bonnet louvres convinced him that this was no ordinary Midget. It was then owned by a plastic surgeon living in Oxford, who also possessed a K3 MG. Mr. Spittle was eventually able to convince this gentleman that the K3 was a far more interesting car, and he again became the owner of the Le Mans Midget.
A previous owner intended to convert it to Montlhery Midget specification, with the supercharged 746-c.c, engine instead of the non-supercharged 847-c.c. power unit. Much of the original remained, however, such as the steering wheel, windscreen, fuel tank, fuel filler, etc. The special Laystall crankshaft and bronze cylinder head were removed but an 850-c.c, block, a normal head and the 850-c.c. Laystall crank were retained, Kindall of Hoffman & Burton's, brother-in-law of the Le Mans co-driver, doing some of the engine fitting. Otherwise, Mr. Spittle has done most of the reconstruction himself.
Drawings of the Le Mans body were obtained from Abingdon and an accurate replica made, of green leathercloth over a plywood frame. As can be seen from the photograph, the lines are exactly as those of the car as it was in 1930, with the humped scuttle, inside exhaust system to enable a spare wheel to be carried on the near-side, as the tail was now full of fuel tank (it holds 15 gallons), close-set headlamps with stone guards, a single-pane fold-flat windscreen ahead of two aero-screens, fixed cycle-type mudguards devoid of valances, doors each side, cowled dumb-irons, even the correctly-mounted horn and spot-lamp, although the horn is possibly a replacement Lucas Sparton.
The front axle is polished, the road springs are neatly taped, and there are Hartford shock-absorbers. As a concession to modern traffic, the brakes have been converted from rod to hydraulic operation.
It is very nice to know that this historic little car has survived, especially as the sister-car, driven at Le Mans by Murton-Neale, has been drastically altered, by someone who wanted to convert it into a blown single-seater, and the chassis thrown away, The performance of Spittle's MG must, naturally, be thought of in respect of its engine size and vintage. As has been said, these early sports/racing Midgets could average over 60 m.p.h. for a full 24 hours' racing on a Brooklands "road" circuit and Sir Francis Samuelson's car was still game at the end of 1930, when C. D. Berthon drove it at the MCC Brooklands Meeting. Certificates signed by "Jackie" Masters, of that Club, confirm that a flying lap was completed at 62.17 m.p.h, and that the MG did even better in the One Hour High Speed Trial, covering 22 laps at 62.87 m.p.h. (The Autocar report says 62.95 m.p.h.). Today, when on form, it will reach approximately 65 m.p.h. in third gear, being, like a Frazer Nash, rather faster in third than in top. Having rebuilt it, Mr. Spittle uses it regularly and has entered it for suitable competition events; it ran at Shelsley Walsh last year but a recalcitrant clutch finger locked-up the transmission and ruined the clutch thrust race—a modern Ford part provided a replacement.
Talking of replacements, the original exhaust manifold had expired, to be replaced by a fabricated, three-branch one; there is now a downdraught SU, carburetter above it, and the drilled rods that were with the Laystall crank have been retained. The plated radiator has the correct "expansion funnel" on its filler-cap and the central fuel-filler is the original, as sealed by the officials at Le Mans.
The day I had my run in this interesting MG Midget was sunny but cold, so I donned my Functional storm-coat and faithful flying helmet and the car's owner concentrated on getting the oil temperature down to 120 deg. You sit comfortably close to the 4-spoke Bluemel "Brooklands" sprung steering wheel and are confronted by a dashboard carrying the central Rotax panel with 120 m.p.h. Jaeger speedometer and ammeter (the little clock is missing and if anyone has for disposal a replacement, white digits on black dial, Mr. Spittle would be glad to hear from them). To the left of this panel are the vacuum gauge, an unwanted legacy from the one-time C-specification, and the air-pressure gauge, the latter encouraged to read 2 lb./sq. in. by a large air-pump to the left of the gear-lever. Further over on the facia there is a lidded cubby-hole, carrying a plaque telling of the car's racing days, with, above it, a tiny ignition switch.
To the right of the Rotax panel are the small oil temperature and pressure dials„ the latter normally showing 60 lb./sq. in., and one unconnected oil-gauge from the car's blower days. Further over there is a neat Jaeger tachometer going to 6,000 r.p.m., and the water temperature gauge, indicating 180 deg. Up under the scuttle on the passenger's side there is a brass handle for letting extra oil down into the sump from a one-gallon scuttle tank (where the fuel tank lived on standard M-types). A similar lever on the floor is for cutting-off the petrol feed.
My stint behind the wheel showed this Midget to handle well and to feel pleasantly taut. The steering is light, but there is scarcely any lock. The car now has a four-speed gearbox from a 12 MG, instead of the original 3-speed box. I found the change delightful; the stubby little central lever can be put into any of the gears with a minimum of revving-up for double-declutching, even from 2nd into bottom, needed up one steep gradient. This is the normal MG gear-change, with "back-to-front" gate, i.e., reverse, 1st and 2nd are nearer to the driver than 3rd and top. The clutch is positive without being fierce and I was never conscious of anything odd about the little knob of a horizontal accelerator being between the larger pedals.
Having the owner with me, naturally I was circumspect, not exceeding 4,500 r.p.m., which was the standard engine's peak speed. But Mr. Spittle goes to 5,500 r.p.m. The very nice gear-change suggests close ratios; I suspect they are the 1, 1.36, 2.14 and 3.58 of a 12, in conjunction with a 9/44 M-type axle ratio. The exhaust note is enjoyable without being a nuisance and it was exuding a pleasant smell, because Spittle had laced the normal detergent oil he uses, such as Castrol GTX, with some R40, "to help the engine's top end". And also, I imagine, because it reminds him of Brooklands. The tyres are Dunlop 3.50/400 x 19, on bolt-on MG wheels, of course. As the c.r. has been somewhat raised, Spittle uses 4-star or 5-star petrol, and gets around 40 m.p.g. Incidentally, those aforementioned bonnet louvres, by which he recognised the car when he saw it in Oxford, number ten pairs side-by-side along the top panel and others, with additional air-extractors, at the sides—cut with a chisel at Le Mans!
* * *
It is excellent that this historic Midget is in such sympathetic hands, for Lewin Spittle comes of "motoring stock", one might say ! His father lectured in engineering at Cambridge, and, incidentally, was up with Sir Francis Samuelson. He was the late Harry Bowler's Tutor—Michael Bowler's father, that is, whose interest in model cars and Specials was fostered at the University and who afterwards raced his 3-litre Bentley with success at Brooklands. Stationed at Farnborough during the First World War, Mr. Spittle, Senr., went to Brooklands in 1908 from Cambridge for the great Nazzaro/Newton, Fiat/Napier, Match Race and remained a keen habitue ever after. He took his son there for the first time in 1924, driving to Cambridge from the Lake District to fetch him in the family 1922 14-h.p. Sunbeam tourer. 1 asked Mr. Spittle what he remembered of that BARC Meeting. "It was the first time I had seen a bolster tank", he said, as much the hallmark of a racing car then, of course, as a streamlined tail . . . Thus commenced a long and happy association with the Track and other motor-sporting venues, enhanced because there were family associations with the Birkins. And when the Germans came to Donington, there was Spittle lying in the ditches, the better to film on 16 mm. the Auto-Unions and Mercedes-Benz.
There exists a photograph of his father's pupils with their fine array of motor cars 3-litre Bentley, Alfonso Hispano-Suiza, 14/ 40 Humber, Daimler, Buick, etc. Before the Sunbeam his father had a Calcott, driven to Filey for the holidays, which involved a precarious crossing of the Humber athwart a rowing-boat, after which came his Angus Sanderson, "a very poor car, which was always boiling", then the Sunbeam. This gave way, before the War, to a 16/50 Humber in 1929, their first saloon, then came a 15-h.p. Armstrong Siddeley, replaced, to please his mother, by a more powerful 20-h.p. car of this make, both we-radiator models. They were excellent for towing caravans and, to secure easy starting against the oil-drag of the Wilson gearboxes, Scintilla Vertex magnetos were fitted. These Armstrong Siddeleys were followed by a Humber Super Snipe. Second cars were an Austin 7 saloon, a Standard Big 9 and several Hillman Minxes.
Spittle's mother, before she married his father, was thought very dashing, incidentally, when she drove to Cambridge from Sheffield to see her fiance, before the First World War, alone, in a Model-T Ford tourer . . . It was used, afterwards, with lorry body, as a farm-hack in Yorkshire into the 1920s. There are memories of a grandmother's pre-1914 SCAT tourer, "a damn fine car", and of his grandfather's 1906 Beeston-Humber, bought new from the Humber factory.
Lewin Spittle went to Cambridge after leaving Rugby. He learned to fly, on DH Moths and Avro 504s, for 10/an hour, at an aerodrome near Sheffield in 1934-35, riding there on a long-stroke Sunbeam motorcycle. He next shared a 4i-litre Bentley with a friend. That was a few years before the war, as was his Minx DHC and 1929 Riley 9 tourer, since when his cars have been numerous and varied. He recalls a 14/40 MG, bought while shooting at Bisley, the axle of which gave out in Norfolk, one of the first Morgan 4/4s (21st birthday present, in 1937), an Austin 7 Special, a Ford 8 used for towing boats and well thought of, a 1934 Austin Ten two-seater, and a Renault 4 c.v., used in London. In fact, the list is a long one. It includes a TC MG, an early VW, a s.v. Morris 14-h.p. station wagon "with no steam at all", a later Morris ohv. Issigonis Minor, another MG, a nice 1952 Alvis d.h. coupe addicted to understeer, a "satisfactory" Austin-Healey 100, a Heinkel bubble-car to tide him over the Suez crisis, and, "the best ever", a hog-standard 3.4 d.h. Jaguar, administered to by Motorwork of Chalfont. These were followed by a 1600 Alfa Romeo Spyder that soon got rusty and went to Canada, a 2.3 Fiat "with a superb engine but a nasty steering-column gear-change", a nice 1935 Rover Sports-I4, a Renault 4 and a Land-Rover for use on the farms, and many others, including his daughter's cars, which I have no space to mention.
I told you the ex-Samuelson MG Midget, which literally emphasises what sweeping changes there have been at Ix Mans, is in very good hands!—W.B.