Little wonder

The definitive pre-war sports car? The MG J2 certainly everything going for it

When in the late summer of 1932 helmsmen William Morris and Cecil Kimber dropped the D-type from their fledgling MG Car Company’s bewildering range of cars and replaced it with the J2, they quite unwittingly created a milestone in the history of British sports cars.

Quite simply the J2, along with its four-seater sister the J1, were the definitive pre-war sporting motor cars, whose classic and seductive lines were so absolutely right that their genes shaped future models all the way down to the last of the IF models in’ 1955.

Conceived and created against a gloomy global economic depression — remember, this was an era in which Bentley went into liquidation and Dr Ferdinand Porsche was struggling to pay his secretary’s wages — the J2 wasn’t just a pretty face. At a whisker under £200, it was also eminently affordable.

Of course, competition from other manufacturers was strong. The Singer Le Mans cost £15 more, but its performance was no better than the Abingdon product, and at £185 the standard Austin 7 Ulster fairly struggled to a maximum speed of 65mph.

The J2 would easily reach 75mph, but no more than that; the car tested by The Autocar, which was timed at a genuine 80mph, had been specially tuned for the occasion, and broke its two-bearing crankshaft in protest shortly afterwards.

Based on the D-type’s 7ft 2in chassis, the 12’s mechanical specification belied its remarkable performance. With a bore and stroke of 57 x 83mm, the cubic capacity works out at a diminutive 847cc. Both the cylinder block and head were fashioned from traditional cast iron, but the shaft-driven single overhead camshaft was shrouded with a beautifully cast alloy cover.

Fuel is directed to the bores via a brace of 1in SU carburettors, which were changed from horizontal units to more modern semi-sidedraught carbs from engine number 551. Initially, the power output was quoted at a fairly feeble 30.4bhp, but increased to a healthy and perfectly respectable 36bhp when the compression ratio was raised from 5.4:1 to 6.2:1.

You’re not impressed? Remember, this was 36bhp from eight hundred and forty seven cubic centimetres, and we are talking about 63 years ago. Of course, there were a few motoring folk who weren’t impressed then either. And to quench their thirst for more power, more speed, they bought the racing J3 version which, in effect, was a 12 with a 746cc engine supercharged to give a maximum 70bhp, and a top speed well in excess of 100mph. With a price tag of getting on for £500, though, the J3 was everything but cheap. Unlike the J2, the J3 didn’t return 35mpg either.

But, but, but! To return to that magnificent styling. Even to those for whom the ultimate motoring fantasy is sitting behind the wheel of a lime-green Austin Allegro, dressed in a back-to-front baseball cap, driving flat-out on the outside lane of the M25 in rush hour (and yes, they do exist), would have to admit without condition that this impish sculpture of steel, iron and aluminium-alloy is a true icon of a golden era, which embraces everything that was good and great about the carefree motoring days of yesteryear.

There was the fold-flat windscreen, the evocative scuttle fairings, quick-release fuel filler cap, the spare wheel fitted to the Le Mans-style petrol tank, and ‘knock-off’ wheel nuts; and if all that weren’t enough, there was also the engine-turned alloy dashboard, beautiful octagon motifs almost everywhere and a rev-counter for the driver to watch over, just in case that two-bearing got too excited.

This was the style in an age that was trying to be stylish. This was cheek in an era which demanded cheek — the General Strike of 1930 proved that; it was clever design from people who were genuinely clever, and above all, the J2 was a thing of beauty forever. Many others had failed where Morris and Kimber had clearly succeeded.

Driving impressions

Film buffs will doubtless recognise Brian Rhead’s immaculate 1933 example as the car driven by Peter Ustinov, Mia Farrow and David Niven in the film version of Agatha Christie’s book Death on the Nile. For that epic it was painted light blue so as not to clash with Ms Farrow’s wardrobe and red hair…

Now liveried in its original two-tone Carmine/Saratoga red, Brian Rhead bought his J2 25 years ago for 30 quid, and over the ensuing five years hat restored it to original condition — well, as near as dammit, anyway. It has since covered many thousands of miles in his hands, including long trips to Scotland and continental Europe, and has proved 100 per cent reliable.

Our photographic session over, during which time I was bitten on the ankle by a horrid little dog who clearly didn’t share my enthusiasm for the MG, and yelled at by its owner for shouting ‘ouch’, it was Oscar Wilde who sprang to mind. He confessed: ‘The only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it. I can resist everything but temptation.’ I couldn’t agree more.

You’ve just got to drive a J2. I just had to drive this J2. Not because I wanted to see ‘what she’ll do mister’ — it isn’t that kind of car — but because sometimes it is important to yield to temptation. And I don’t like cream cakes. (‘Cream Crackers’ are a different matter…)

Both doors are topped with genuine Derrington-made alloy cappings. The passenger door is a mere token, but, because of the large diameter three-spoke steering wheel, it is essential to open the driver’s door before effecting a dignified entry into the cockpit. Leather seats: what else? Supremely comfortable… expect nothing less.

Kick the floor-mounted starter button above the pedal cluster, and listen for the familiar pre-war rasping from the exhaust system. So, let’s get straight to the point. The pint-size engine fires, not coughs or bursts, into life first time. Rev it hard, just for fun, and it sounds harsh: throttle back and it sounds and feels as sweet as a fresh, ripe nut.

Select bottom gear, wellie the pedal, double declutch into second (neither gear has synchromesh), and away up through the other two cogs, remembering all the time that the gate holds some nasty surprises if you forget that first and second are located where one would normally expect to find fourth and third, and third and top are where modern cars have second and bottom. It’s a touch confusing at first, but quickly mastered — if you know what’s good for you.

At last, a nice long stretch of road without another vehicle in sight; bang the throttle pedal to the floorboards (yes, they are made of wood), and the speed gathers, slowly, but it’s exciting, real and exhilarating. Why? Because, even with the windscreen up, there’s no protection from the hot, dry wind that doesn’t just blow your hair about, it crashes hard into every part of your head, neck and upper body.

Now, call me an old cynic, I don’t care, but I spotted those 4.00x19in crossplies before climbing aboard — and pay homage to the wonderful people at Pirelli, Michelin and others who, during the mid-1950s, slogged and slogged to perfect the radial tyre.

Even in a straight line, the original-style rubber bands are utterly horrible, even disconcerting. They make for interesting cornering, though, to say the least. The chassis is wonderful, the ride quality surprisingly comfortable, the ‘chuckability’ factor very high, but those crossplies… They certainly make an impression.

This car always wants to lull you into a bushel or two of oversteer, so again I succumbed to temptation. Catch it with the bendy steering wheel and away… scruffily. It’s hardly well-mannered, but as Evelyn Waugh noted “good manners are especially the need of the plain: the pretty can get aay with anything”. And the J2 gets away with everything.

Settle down to a comfortable cruising speed of 50mph and this small wonder babbles on a bit, covering the ground as quickly as almost anything else. In short, the MG goes as well as it looks. The gear change is so wonderful — precise, firm and slick through the gate — that it’s not difficult to overwork it, but it never complains.

Surprisingly for an old ‘un, scuttle-shake is minimal, although the body flexes over the potholes sufficiently to allow the doors to move up and down a little. Out on the roads of West Sussex, car and driver were in their element. Buying a Tardis and travelling back 60 years would be the only way to better this motoring experience.

And then, just a couple of miles short of our destination, the engine died and the car trickled to a halt. A gentle tap with a well-aimed spanner on the body of the fuel pump — one of the joys of post-vintage motoring, I fear — and we were off again. But not before an idiot in an ‘ecobox’, travelling well in excess of the limit, expressed his discontent of our forced parking space with his horn. There we were, bonnet up, obviously broken down, and ‘paaaaarp’…

Before production ended in 1934, MG had built and sold 2,080 J2s and 380 J1 four-seaters. Although it’s not possible to be entirely sure, it is thought that around a quarter of that total have survived. Their current owners are very lucky people indeed.

I would love to be able to buy a J2, but because of my resolute refusal to suffer the indignity of joining a long, grubby queue to purchase a National Lottery ticket, that little dream is one of many that will doubtless never come true. But, on the other hand, I shall always be grateful to Brian Rhead for giving me the opportunity to discover exactly what I’ve been missing.