Veteran to classic: Syd Beer

MG chat

MG specialist Syd Beer and I had a chit-chat recently about his long association with the Abingdon make. That he drove from Cambridgeshire to mid-Wales and back in a day in an MGB GT, at the age of 70, endorses his enthusiasm for motoring, which began before he had a driving licence, at the age of 17 in 1935.

His father had a garage, so messing about with cars came naturally. Syd remembers how he and his brother took a 1905 Daimler out on trade-plates one Sunday, and were stopped by the police because only one person should have been aboard — they got out of that one by claiming the passenger was needed to pump up fuel-pressure. It was fortunate that the police did not ask to see a driving licence, for Syd was too young to have one. They later elected to take the old Daimler to Exeter, using the garage Austin 12/4 as a tow-car, but the Daimler ended up towing the much younger Austin!

The garage did private hire, and Syd would volunteer as the driver to gain experience; he much preferred the Austin Sixteens to the Rolls-Royce, as they had nicer steering. His father’s first car had been an 11.9hp Lagonda, which refused to climb Porlock Hill.

Syd used to build the inevitable cut-and-shut A7s, and the like, but the war caught up with him and he became a WD chemist, posted to Woolwich Arsenal and then to Manchester. His work introduced him to many important people in industry, and he used an old Ford 8 in which he got home to London over the weekends. After the war, married and living in a mews-flat in South Kensington, Syd Beer’s first car was a 61/2-litre Bentley Weymann saloon, which cost £50 and was converted into an open tourer. When tired of its heavy handling he gave it to his wife, who eventually sold it for £150. He knew Dr Joseph Bayley and his brother, when they had the T37 Bugatti, an open HE and a 14/40 MG.

His next car was a “very nice” open 10-litre Invicta, followed by an Alvis Speed-25 Mayfair fixed-head coupe. By this time, the mid-1950s, he was farming at Heighton in Hertfordshire and had an early Land Rover, which nearly came to grief down a steep hill when a propshaft broke, severing the brake-pipes and putting the transmission-brake out of action …

Syd got into MGs almost by accident. He now had two sons, who inherited their father’s enthusiasm for cars and after playing with a Jowett van demanded something faster. So Syd bought them an MG J2 for £8. This was stripped-down and renovated, and it prompted the purchase of the garage which was to eventually specialise in selling MGs. Through this the Beers got to know John Thornley and the Abingdon personnel very well indeed as they were selling lots of MGs to America. They were sometimes able to forewarn the works of troubles before the Service Department got to know of them, as when the back springs on MGBs bent along their length and offset the axles.

Bruce, the elder son, ran a TF-type MG at the time, and Syd went down to Bournemouth and bought himself a rough NE Magnette, which was rebuilt and found to be a very nice example of the famous marque.

Space precludes detailing all the subsequent exploits of this one-make enthusiast and his sons, but their extent is clear from the fact that his younger son, Malcolm, took his driving test on his seventeenth birthday and (a competition licence having been obtained for him) won his first race at Brands Hatch two days later!

Malcolm Beer went on to race Metros for a short time, but became disillusioned with this “contact sport”. He now races V8s very successfully, and almost certainly has more wins to his name in MGs of all types than anyone else. In the early Seventies he was the first driver to use slicks on the hills.

Syd himself has raced all kinds of MGs, including the V8, the ex-Harvey Noble Q-type MG (bought for £350) and the ex-Kaye Don K3 single-seater. The latter was fast round Silverstone, after he had cured oil-leaks from the front main bearings caused by the engines having been rigidly mounted after they had been moved back in the chassis (the works designer having provided a flexible mounting). At Snetterton the Q-type could just hold Frank Lockhart’s Rover Special (before Frank put the 3-litre engine into it) round the corners, but the oil-temperature soon soared. The Beers also raced ex-Dick Jacobs Midgets.

Syd remembers running an MGC into the ground on test at MIRA, accompanied by Dunlop with 300 wheels and tyres. Brake pads lasted no time at all, and tyre pressures had to be put up to 36/30, front/rear, but when the journalists tried the C-type lower pressures were used, which got this model a reputation for excessive understeer.

Another fond memory is of becoming involved in 1977 on a run to China from Europe, as a publicity run for the intended Peking-Paris marathon, using an open MG Y-type tourer towing a trailer very heavily laden with spares. Little trouble was experienced with the MG apart from a broken oil-pipe to the filter, which was replaced by buying a complete Morris Ten in Istanbul and using the pipe from that!

When MG was threatened with closure in 1979, it was Syd Beer who brought John Thornley to his home in Houghton, where 450 protest letters were signed and dispatched to American dealers via an unofficial flight from a nearby United States Air Force base for posting in the USA. It caused an outcry like the demonstrations MG enthusiasts staged in this country, but to no avail of course.

The garage is now equally well-known for rebuilding MGBs, bodies being re-panelled on proper jigs. “We do not use Heritage shells,” says Beer, “because they spoil the identity of the car. Due to the number of body changes during the life of the MGB, they do not fit any one year correctly.”

Having collected MGs over the years, the family now has one of almost every model, including no fewer than four R-type single-seaters. Malcolm Beer now runs the specialist garage business, where the name of the game is clearly MG. WB