The 1000-mile dare

It was a bold decision to pit MG’s diminutive K3 against the gruelling roads of the Mille Miglia, but Earl Howe believed in backing Britain…
By Andrew Frankel

Listening to the MG K3 Magnette start for the first time is a little like watching your toddler have his first tantrum. There you are, shocked to a standstill, struck dumb and unable to compute how so much noise could possibly be coming out of something so small.

Just as well, then, that unlike the toddler, the noise coming from the K3 is so worth listening to, as is the story of its creation. In racing terms the K3 is the most successful car MG ever made, and the very car you’re looking at (and which is making that extraordinary noise) is one of the most important of just 33 K3s. Not only is it the first production K3, not only is it one of the team of three K3s that entered and so distinguished themselves during the 1933 Mille Miglia, this is also Earl Howe’s car. As we shall see, if one man can be said to have put the K3 on the map, Francis Curzon, the fifth Earl Howe, was that man.

Its legend was born out of frustration – largely Howe’s frustration that, after the demise of Bentley Motors, Britain possessed no sports racing cars capable of squaring up to the opposition. It was he who persuaded both Cecil Kimber and Lord Morris of the wisdom of entering an MG sports car into the Mille Miglia, and he who took on the cost and risk of first doing a full recce of the route and then entering a three-car team into the event.

The K3 can properly be seen as a racing version of the K1 and K2 road cars that were being produced at the time. Using the shorter K2 wheelbase as the starting point, the specification handed by Kimber to the works racing team was for a two-seat open sports car, with a supercharged version of the Wolseley Hornet-derived 1087cc single-cam straight-six motor fed by a 27-gallon slab tank with twin fillers at the back. Unusually the K3 was also fitted with a Wilson ENV75 four-speed pre-selector gearbox.

Some indication of the K3’s state of tune is provided by the fact that the road-going K2 using a normally aspirated version of the same engine developed around 41bhp. With a Powerplus supercharger jutting between its front dumb irons, the K3 developed up to 120bhp – that’s over 100bhp per litre in a car designed for long-distance racing back in 1933.

That’s probably one reason why the K3 is so damn noisy. It’s sitting in the car park of the Cat and Fiddle Inn on the eponymously named pass in the Derbyshire Peak District, with early MG guru Andy King warming it through. The noise is a weird and wonderful confection of six tiny pistons competing with the gnashing wail of the monstrous supercharger. It’s like the sweetest motor you’ve ever heard, moments after becoming possessed by the forces of darkness.

Quite what the Italians must have made of the racket when one of two K3 prototypes landed in Italy to recce the Mille Miglia is not recalled. But guided by Anglophile racer Count Johnny Lurani, the team was received by, among others, the King of Italy and Benito Mussolini, having already garnered advice in Molsheim on the way down from Ettore Bugatti (who suggested the front axle was strengthened). Large chunks of the 1000-mile route were evaluated prior to the event proper, and many changes made to the gearbox, hubs and brakes, allowing the team the best possible chance of giving a good account of itself.

The three cars that were to race were the first three production cars; this car (chassis K3001) for Howe and his co-driver Hugh Hamilton, K3002 for Tim Birkin and Bernard Rubin (both of whom had won Le Mans in Bentleys), and K3003 for Lurani and soon-to-be Land Speed Record holder George Eyston. By any standards it was an impressive line-up.

And so it would need to be: they were competing in the 1100cc class against the cream of home-grown Maserati opposition, which had won the class the previous two years and now had a new model, the 4CTR, also with a blown 1100cc engine. The K3s would need to be strong, reliable and fast. According to Mike Lawrence’s The Mille Miglia, it was the first time a pre-selector ’box had been used in road racing.

Howe was sufficiently worried and imaginative to enter his own Mercedes SSK officially as a competitor, but in fact laden with spares to fix the K3s at the side of the road. In the event, however, its services were never called upon and, with Clifton Penn Hughes at the wheel, it rumbled round to come home 24th out of 85 starters.

The good lord also felt the need to assign the role of hare to one of the K3s, and with Birkin on the strength it didn’t take long to figure out who would be best for the job. Three years earlier at Le Mans it was Birkin’s stupendous drive in his supercharged Bentley that wore down the works Mercedes SSK of Caracciola (he overtook the German at 125mph, on the grass, with a tyre in tatters) and paved the way for Bentley’s fifth and most famous victory in the race.

So the start duly arrived and after a team talk from Howe (‘Remember you are racing for England…’) Birkin set off, averaging a frankly preposterous 88mph, arriving in Bologna 130 miles away having overtaken 35 competitors and knocked 13 minutes off the class record. Who knows how hard he pushed the poor little K3, but it made it to Florence before dropping a valve at Siena. By then its job was done and the Maserati threat extinguished.

That left the Eyston/Lurani and Howe/Hamilton cars, and some idea of the impression the race left on its competitors is provided by the fact that Captain Eyston dedicated an entire chapter of his wonderfully evocative autobiography Flat Out to its description. But suffice to say here that despite problems with oiled-up plugs (which remain with K3s to this day) and punctures on the often appalling surfaces, the two survivors crossed the line with Eyston a single minute ahead of Howe to claim not just first and second in class, but also the coveted team prize – the first time it had been awarded to an overseas entrant.

Nor was this the end of the K3’s giant-killing ways. At Le Mans in 1934 one K3 ran as high as second overall while another finished fourth to win its class. But it is its performance in the 1933 Tourist Trophy race at Ards that really ensured its reputation as one of the greats: driving K3003 (now fitted with a lightweight body), none other than Tazio Nuvolari came to Northern Ireland, obliterated the opposition, smashed the class and course records and left again, trophy in the bag.

K3001 is warm now and it’s time to find out more. The car has had an interesting time since its Mille Miglia exploits. Howe raced it at Brooklands, and both Eyston and Lurani hillclimbed it at Shelsley Walsh before it was sold in 1934 to a German called Bobby Kohlrausch, wearing K3003’s lightweight body. He raced and hillclimbed it in Europe before it came back to the UK in 1935 and, in the hands of H?P?J?Williams, was raced at Donington and on Southport Sands. But by the time war broke out it was no longer running and out of action it would stay until restored to the form you see now in 1993. Sadly the lightweight body had gone and its original engine block is lost, but save the fitment of a later Centric supercharger, the car is essentially complete: you can even see the pittings on the chassis and axles caused by being informally sandblasted at Southport three- quarters of a century ago. Today it is owned and raced enthusiastically by Brandon Smith-Hilliard both in club meetings and at major events such as the Monaco Historics, Le Mans Classic and Goodwood Revival.

Brandon asks only that I’m very gentle with it in first gear to save damaging the ’box and that I keep the revs to around 5500rpm. Given that Eyston considered 5800rpm more than enough for the Mille Miglia that should be fine, even though these engines have been thrashed up to 7500rpm without falling apart.

Like most racing cars, it’s not easy to drive slowly. The clutch is a little sharp, the engine as rev-happy as they come and the flywheel almost non-existent. It’s easy to stall and difficult to manoeuvre in tight spaces. I also had to think constantly about the transmission: I should have been thanking my lucky stars that the gearbox was not the reversed non-syncromesh affair fitted to other MGs of the same era, but in the end I’d have preferred that to the pre-selector. In theory it should make your life easier because you simply choose which gear you’re next going to need on the selector and, when that time comes, bang the clutch home to engage it. But at first I was mentally beaten by the requirement always to have the selector in the ‘wrong’ gear, i.e. not the one you wanted now, but the one you were going to want in a few moments time.

It took time to feel normal, time in which I discovered you can use it like a racing sequential gearbox if you choose, but it never felt right on the public road: its preferred environment is a race track where you always know what gear you’re going to need.

Still, it didn’t stop me enjoying the K3. The road we were on is officially listed as the most dangerous in Britain, and with its blind brows, tightening radii, and surface and camber changes you can see why. But it’s also a near-perfect test for the K3 as these conditions would have been very similar to the challenges faced by Howe and his team in Italy 77 years ago.

The only time I’ve enjoyed myself more in a pre-war car on the public road was when some kindly loon once agreed to let me do part of a lap of the Targa Florio course in his Bugatti Type 35T.

At first it is the engine that grabs most powerfully at your attention. K3s have been criticised for being too heavy, but this one weighs only around 850kg, giving it a power-to-weight ratio not far shy of a Lotus Elise. And with your backside remarkably close to the ground and that magnificent racket from the side exhaust, you feel you’re going faster even than you are. There’s no speedometer in here despite Jaeger dials peppering the dash – including two for the supercharger recording both its oil and boost pressure – but your eyes are drawn to the huge tachometer, the very same instrument that would have claimed Howe’s attention all those years ago. The engine pulls hard from around 3000rpm and thereafter flicks round towards the red zone with extraordinary alacrity.

But as the miles accrue and confidence grows, one’s interest in the engine recedes, replaced by a fascination for the way it handles. I thought that, with the supercharger slung out in front, it would be unwilling to turn into corners. But Brandon had warned me it was actually the back end that needed watching, sufficiently so for him to race with slightly wider back tyres than it would have had in period, just to calm it down a little.

All I can say is, if that’s what it’s like when it’s been tamed, it must have been a rare riot beforehand. For this is a car you steer with the throttle and through the back axle. Unless you’re being ridiculous with it, you can take it as given that the front will go where you point it, leaving all the fun to be had at the back. Even on racing rubber, grip levels are modest and combine with the fabulous throttle response of the supercharged motor to allow you to slither through corners accompanied by a series of staccato barks as you jab at the accelerator to adjust its angle of attack.

As Brandon will tell you, having had to wait rather longer than planned for me to return, the K3 is a dangerously addictive drug.

But the most surprising single aspect of the car is the sense of robustness that comes with it. Looking at its age, its size and the screaming state of tune of its engine, I’d presumed it would feel fragile, a car in need of careful mechanical management. In the event, it has a robustness that defies entirely its diminutive stature and holds the key to its successes in England, France, Northern Ireland and Italy.

Indeed, the only sadness of the K3 story is that it ended so soon. It could so easily have signalled the start of something great, but it was not to be. Within 18 months of its competition debut both Birkin and Hamilton were dead, and the K3’s best days were behind it. The works never attempted a successor and, although Lagonda managed a perhaps fortunate Le Mans win in 1935, it would be the ’50s before Britain finally started to produce racing cars capable of winning consistently at the top level. MG had shown what was possible with British engineering talent, but it took a Jaguar and another 18 years to make good on that promise.

Our sincere thanks to Brandon Smith-Hilliard, Andy King and Hagerty Classic Car Insurance for helping to make this feature happen.

Experiments in speed
What started off as a humble MG quickly became a record-breaker

Probably the most famous of all the K3s didn’t look like a K3 at all. Chassis K3023 is better known by its experimental code EX135 and was one of the most prolific record-breakers produced by this or any other country. It started capturing class records in the hands of George Eyston in 1934, but it was only when it passed into the hands of Goldie Gardner in 1937 and was fitted with a stunning Reid Railton-designed streamlined body (above) that it really captured the public’s attention.

In November 1938 it reached 187mph along the Frankfurt-Darmstadt autobahn – where Bernd Rosemeyer had been killed earlier in the year – and the following spring it raised the bar to 203.5mph, all but dammit the same speed that Segrave’s ‘1000hp’ Sunbeam reached in 1926, but on less than 1.1 litres instead of rather more than 44.

After the war Gardner continued to smash records with it, blanking off cylinders to go for records in classes requiring smaller engines. He managed 155mph on three cylinders and 121mph on just two. Its last laugh came in 1951-52 when it was fitted with a 1250cc supercharged engine from an MG TD and ran at Bonneville at speeds of up to 190mph. Only Gardner’s deteriorating health called its career to a close.