It might have been seeing FG Moore’s original-looking M-type MG Midget at the VSCC’s fiftieth anniversary Prescott Hill-Climb last month; or it might have been Rivers-Fletcher’s pronouncement that sports-car racing has lost its way, that unless such cars are road-legal they are not really sports-cars at all, and that they should be driven to all the races in which they compete. Whatever set it off, I got to thinking how versatile even the least expensive production sports-cars were in vintage times.
This is emphasised nicely by a series of events in which one of the first in the long line of popular MG Midgets took park, back in 1930.
There is little need to describe the M-type Midget itself, but it was the brainchild of Cecil Kimber, who had been making sports-cars based on contemporary Morris chassis. The first Morris Minor, Lord Nuffield’s 1928 answer to Lord Austin’s A7, used a 57mm x 83mm (847cc) engine whose valves were actuated by an overhead camshaft (driven via a vertically-mounted dynamo) and rockers. This power-unit looked useful for a smaller MG, and was duly installed in a chassis made almost entirely from Minor parts but with decreased road-spring camber (these springs were half elliptic all round) and modified steering gear; to give a sporting tone, the steering column was less steeply inclined and the lever for the three-speed non-synchromesh gearbox bent downwards.
Designed by someone entirely outside the influence of the Morris organisation (according to Kimber in a talk given to the IMT in 1945), the engine gave about 20 bhp at 4000 rpm as installed in the first M-type – a model which was in production for three years from 1929 during which time 3235 were built. The Morris Minor was later given a side-valve engine of the same size, but the ohc power-unit which had appealed to Cecil Kimber for his first Midget apparently had Wolseley origins.
The M-type MG had a pointed-tailed two-seater body (fabric-covered or metal-panelled according to the year) supplemented by a Sportsman’s coupé, and became the bitter racing and record-breaking rival of the A7 Ulster. MG beat Austin to become the first four-wheeled 750cc-class car to officially exceed 100 mph (a three-wheeled Morgan had reached that target first), first in class to do 100 miles in the hour, and then first in class to manage 120 mph; as an Austin enthusiast, I prefer not to debate which was more successful…
The production MG sold for £185 in two-seater form for most of its life, had a wheelbase of 6ft 6in (against the A7’s 6ft 3in at that time), weight 10-11 cwt, and could do 64 mph (42 mph in middle-gear before valve-bounce really took hold) and 0-50 in 25 seconds, with a thirst of 38-40 mpg. Tyre size was 4.00 x 19.
To demonstrate the M-type’s versatility, it was subjected in 1930 to a rather tough assignment (officially observed by the RAC) which comprised of one hundred ascents of Beggars’ Roost, the notorious 900-yard Devon trials hill with a loose surface, a maximum gradient of 1-in-3.58, and no run-in. Presumably to avoid interference with other road-users, the test was done between 2.15am and 10am, during which time the MG’s engine ran non-stop. Ascents were made in bottom and second gears, and no problems were experienced (although Beggars’ Roost stopped 60 cars in the following year’s Land’s End Trial, and 88 in 1932).
Then, with no mechanical attention, the same car (RX 6795) was lent to HS Linfield, a road-tester for The Autocar, for the MCC Edinburgh Trial. This involved many severe gradients, including the dreaded Park Rash with its 1:4½ section towards the summit, and by the time Linfield and his navigator Scutts had returned to London via the Lake District the little MG had done 930 trouble-free miles, the occupants still quite comfortable on the pneumatic upholstery. None of the MCC-observed sections had troubled the car, and it won a gold medal along with fourteen other Midgets.
RX 6795 was then used for another trial, before Linfield took it over again, this time to compete in the JCC High-Speed trial at Brooklands.
This ingenious event was run over a course consisting of the Byfleet banking and the Railway Straight in the reverse direction (that is, clockwise), the cars then taking the Paddock return road, but hairpinning left to go up the hill through the tunnel; they continued along the entrance-road (but in the exiting direction) and then turned to descend the Test Hill, thereby regaining the finishing straight. There was a “no overtaking” rule on the Test Hill section, but the rest of the “road” course was much enjoyed.
That was how it was, the entries divided into classes by capacity and having set-speeds to maintain to gain awards. For 20 laps the 750cc cars had to average 33 mph minimum, if a silver medal was to be earned; open cars which exceeded their targets by 20% and closed cars which exceeded them by 15% received gold medals. It was a popular event, the maximum entry of 50 soon running into the reserves. In 1930 eleven A7s in Class A met ten MG Midgets in Class B, the latter hampered by their engine capacity of 847cc.
Let loose in the much-travelled RX 6795 over the interesting course, Linfield found the speedometer would go easily to 70 mps, but preferred to hold to 64-66 mph in order to attain the 42 mph average required. He thought the course quite demanding, with its bends, steep ascent and two miles of open track. The MG had been fitted with a Brooklands exhaust system, so it now emitted a fierce crackle!
Some drivers liked a scrap, and before the end the M-type had been lapped by two “Double-Twelve” MG Midgets (three MGs had won the Team Prize in the JCC Double-Twelve Hours). But what mattered was that Linfield gained a gold, as did eight other Midgets, including those of club racers Miss Victoria Worsley and the Earl of March.
Before returning the car to Abingdon, Linfield took it up the infamous 1-in-3 Alms Hill near Henley, proving, as he said, that freak hill-climbs, long-distance trials, fast touring and Track speed events could all be achieved by this versatile MG, as well as plenty of pottering around in town and on byways.
Modern Caterham 7s, Morgans, Reliant Scimitars and fast hatchbacks would be capable of the same – or would they? Remember, I am writing of a 847cc £185 sports-car of 58 years ago; I order to show similar versatility, a modern counterpart would have to finish high up in a production sports-car race, and successfully compete in a round of one of the Hill-Climb championships, being used as a normal business car and taking top honours in at least one MCC trial in between.
How many would qualify? Or have sports-cars, the few which remain, become too specialised? WB