The Editor describes the M.G. Magnette Victory in the 1933 Mille Miglia.
It is well, sometimes, to recall some of the greater deeds which British motorcars have done in the face of unquestionably severe opposition. and no better example exists than the showing of the M.G. Magnette on the occasion of its first public appearance – the 1933 Mille Miglia. In the 1932 race of this classic series Lord Howe was a spectator. He saw Borzacchini win with an Alfa-Romeo at 68.2 m.p.h. and Lord de Clifford’s supercharged 746-c.c. M.G. average 52 m.p.h. for nearly three-quarters of the course before retiring with a sheared camshaft drive. Lord Howe had seen enough; he returned to England and to Abingdon and persuaded Cecil Kimber, of the M.G. Car Company, Ltd., to let him bear the expense of an M.G. team to compete in the 1933 race. The 1,087-c.c. M.G. Magnette had just gone into production and it was this new and unraced car which formed the basis of the Mille Miglia cars. A supercharged engine was produced, built up with extreme care from standard parts under the direction of H.N. Charles, Harry Robinson, and Cecil Cousins. Initial tests revealed an output of 100 b.h.p. and the future obviously held promise. This engine was assembled in a standard chassis in which was installed a pre-selector gearbox, which, apart from Sir Malcolm Campbell’s recently rebuilt 4-litre Sunbeam, was an innovation.
Thus was the “K3” M.G. Magnette born. The 57 x 71 mm. 6-cylinder engine followed accepted M.G. practice, and used 14-mm. plugs. The elektron sump contained 1 3/4-gallons of oil and was replenished from a dashboard tank holding just under 2 gallons and feeding via a float valve. The supercharger was a Powerplus No. 9 running at approximately three-quarter engine speed and drawing from an S.U. carburetter. The Wilson gearbox had a central control lever working in a positive gate on an extension of the gearbox cover and the half elliptic underslung springs gave a ground clearance of approximately 12″. The cable-operated brakes were made largely of elektron and had a drum diameter of 13″. The 23-gallon rear fuel tank fed by twin electric pump and the electrical system was 12 volt. Dunlop 19″ x 3 1/2″ rims and Hartford shock-absorbers were used. This specification really applies to the production version of the car, which sold at £795, so let us return to our story. While Abingdon prepared this first Magnette, Howe carefully selected his drivers. They had to be experienced and very fit, able to stand acting as passengers in the race, and possessed of plenty of spare time to enable the preliminary work before the race to be successfully completed. In the end his lordship secured the services of the late H.C. Hamilton, the late Sir Henry Birkin, Bernard Rubin, Capt. George Eyston and Count Giovaninno Lurani – certainly a splendid team, and one that requires no introduction. All these folk were to meet in Milan on January 19th, 1933, barely 12 weeks before the race, to try out the practice M.G., which would be followed round the course by Howe’s Alfa-Romeo and Mércèdes-Benz. Consequently, “Jacko” Jackson went off a week before that with the car, which he drove to Newhaven, where Howe and his mechanic Thomas were waiting with the Alfa and Mércèdes. Landing at. Dieppe they undertook a 200 mile run to Nancy, to enable Jackson to run-in the Magnette. Weather conditions were distinctly wintery and in spite of a cowled radiator the water temperature never rose above 60° C., but the M.G. cruised happily at 60-65 m.p.h. Incidentally, the excellent fuel consumption of 18 m.p.g. was recorded on this first day’s run.
The next day was easier, as Lord Howe wished to transact some business at the Bugatti works at Molsheim, but on the third day the party got as far as Lucerne. Howe now drove the M.G., touching 98 m.p.h., alongside the Rhine, although ice still persisted. It was during this run that Howe decided that the team cars would need a bigger steering lock – lesson No. 1. The next section of the journey, to Milan, proved difficult, as the cars had to be put on a train at Erstfelt, the further stretch of the St. Gotthard Pass being snow-bound. The loading was tricky, because no proper loading equipment existed and, although Howe remembered to telephone to Biasca for hot water to be available, arrived there the Mércèdes alone started up without needing a tow. The run into Milan was unpleasant, the cars lunging into snowdrifts, the M.G.’s lamps coming loose and Jackson and Thomas both experiencing hectic skids on the final autostrada, so that Howe got into the city with the Alfa-Romeo well ahead of them. The M.G. had now covered 700 miles, and in checking it over the day before the drivers were due to arrive, more valuable lessons were learnt. The oil filter had developed a leak, as the cold oil had bent the aluminium top, the gearbox needed half-a-pint of oil, due to a leaking oil seal, and Jackson decided that the body sides offered insufficient protection from rain and spray. It is significant that subsequent cars had the oil reservoir for the gearbox and higher body-sides. Eyston, Lurani, Birkin and Rubin duly arrived in Milan, but Hamilton had business ties and could not get away. Howe had hoped to go round the entire course, but wintry conditions were against him. Lurani lent an Alfa-Romeo saloon, and on the first practice day Howe’s Alfa, the Mércèdes, and the M.G, completed the 129-mile run to Brescia without incident. Rubin and Jackson taking the saloon Alfa direct to Bologna. Hereafter conditions became worse. The next day Howe set out alone in his Alfa for Florence, Eyston and Lurani sharing the Mércèdes, which carried the luggage and equipment, Birkin and Rubin the M.G., and Jackson and Thomas the closed Alfa-Romeo.
The M.G. began to boil on the Raticosa Pass and eventually became snow-bound, while Howe, far ahead, was stopped by a long column of Italian cavalry and tanks. The cars were obliged to return to Bologna and take an alternative route to Florence, but Lurani, Eyston and Birkin were able to handle the Magnette. Still more lessons were learnt – the plugs tended to oil up and Eyston decided that a slight modification to the inlet manifold would be necessary, while Birkin wanted a stronger front axle beam, which the team cars had. The following day the party went on to Rome, Eyston finding that be could leave Howe’s Alfa-Romeo over the difficult Radiofani Pass. When Rome was reached the M.G.’s rear wheels were found to be on the point of collapse, so George had obviously enjoyed his drive – and another lesson was recorded.
In Rome the drivers were given audience by H.M. the King of Italy and by Signor Mussolini (good boys, in those days!) and I love the photograph of our racing men in boiled shirts and coat-tails. Eyston now had to return to England, but before he left a conference was held at which it was decided that a higher second gear would be needed on the team cars, and that a gear gate would be preferable to a quadrant. Eyston asked for a rigid, as distinct from “spring,” steering wheel. All agreed that more steering-lock was essential and high oil temperatare was a cause for concern, although this subsequently proved curable by reducing the radiator and dumb-iron cowling. After Eyston’s departure Thomas and the luggage returned to Bologna in the saloon Alfa, and the others went on to Perugia, en route for which city they were met at Terni by Borzacchini, who escorted them in one of the Mille Miglia Balilla Fiats, with great verve. Weather conditions became worse thereafter, and as the objects of the expedition bad been achieved, it was decided to return to Bologna and leave out the north-east section of the course. Rubin got in his spell of fast driving on the M.G. on the last day’s run into Bologna and all four cars went on to Milan. Monte Carlo was reached the day after the Monte Carlo Rally had concluded, and the late Penn-Hughes, his car having blown up, was taken aboard and given a run home. He at once offered his help in connection with the coming race, and Lord Howe then decided to enter his Mércèdes-Benz and let it run round the course behind the M.G.s as a travelling tender. There was only one job, thereafter, for Penn – he would drive the Mércèdes.
When the practice car arrived back at Abingdon, barely six weeks remained in which to build the team cars and practise with them in Italy before the race. Work went ahead at full speed, and a lorry ran for days just collecting connecting rods from the forge, taking them to a machine shop and then rushing them to the M.G. works. The first team engine gave only 72 b.h.p. at 4,500 r.p.m. on test, a drop of 4 b.h.p. The run concluded at 10 o’clock at night, and as the engine was stripped it became evident that the bearing metal was at fault, apparently due to using counter-balanced crankshafts in the team cars made of a different metal less able to conduct heat. The people who supplied the bearing metal suggested slacker big-ends and more oil, and by the time the third engine was run all was well. Then came a spell of gasket trouble, because, although the heads were lapped to the blocks, the copper element of the gasket failed to contract as the engines cooled; H.N. Charles then specified stainless steel gaskets, which were used in the race, although subsequently a revision was made to mild steel, which Charles had just adopted for the 1932 T.T. While the engines were assembled Jackson, Tayler and Marney were preparing the chassis and coachwork. Modifications from the “prototype” included uncowled radiator, new blower mountings, full scuttle fairing, better instrument panel and roomier cockpit, larger fuel tank (range about 280 miles), etc. Howe’s M.G. carried his colours of blue and silver as a band down the great body and Eyston’s, which used a rigid steering wheel, had the Italian flag on the scuttle in honour of Lurani, all having Union Jacks on either side of the bonnet.
It was planned that Howe with the practice Penn-Hughes in the Mércèdes, Thomas in the Alfa-Romeo, and a mechanic with a lorry would go overland to Milan, while the team cars would be shipped from Fowey, in Cornwall, to Genoa, for economy. The mechanics worked continuously for the last three days and nights at Abingdon, and Marney put in 73 continuous hours devoid of sleep or rest. On March 12th, after very brief tests, the three M.G.s were driven, with open exhausts incidentally, to the railway station, and it is pleasing to record that quite a crowd gathered in the chilly darkness to see them entrain. Apparently no cars had ever before been shipped from Fowey, and there was some excitement stowing the Magnettes amongst the cargo of china clay and fish.
Lord Howe had another flash of genius just before he left for Italy – he asked the late Hugh P. McConnell to come out and attend to the thousand and one worrying details – a better man could not have been chosen. Troubles now came thick and fast. Jackson, Marney and Denby were obliged to leave the tools at Ventimiglia after a bout with the Customs, and no news was to hand of the S.S. Florentine on which the cars had sailed. Moreover, Howe had been unable to practise with the hack M.G. because it refused to exceed 60 m.p.h. However, Thomas found the technicians in Genoa and drove them rapidly to Milan in the Mércèdes, and the practice car’s trouble was traced to an elusive ignition short-circuit, after which it gave Denby an easy 106. Then the team cars were unshipped safely, although Customs wanted some £1,000 to release the spares, which the edits of Lurani, the Reale Automobile Club d’Italia and, they do say, Mussolini, reduced to about £40. The cars were accommodated in the basement of a Milan garage and things soon began to happen. Howe, Penn-Hughes and Lurani were all present and correct, Birkin and Rubin arrived the next day, and Eyston soon followed. Then came Hamilton and, when he was most needed, McConnell. Eyston chose Monza for his tests, the others the Brescia autostrada. Immediate worry! The brakes were found to be hopeless and cars uncontrollable on corners. Little Denby confirmed the latter trouble by nearly “losing the model” at some 110 m.p.h. It was found that now the brakes could be used to the full, which in winter on the practice car they could not, the dovetails of the cast-iron liners in the elektron drums had cracked on all three cars. A telephone call was promptly put through to England for new drums. Birkin then suggested that the brake torque-cables should run straight out to the king pins and not at an angle. He seized an oil tin, cut a pattern for new brackets which “Antonio,” who had automatically attached himself to the team, made up, and the steering trouble was a thing of the past. Finally, the warmer weather and 6.6 to 1 compression ratios calling for a new fuel mixture, an Italian expert came from Rome to mix anything required, while from England came Kesterton, of S.U.s, and Guest, of Wilson gearboxes, who worked on any jobs going apart from their own specialities.
As the race day drew near the cylinder heads were removed and replaced, the new brake drums fitted, and then a petrol consumption check was made, Eyston and Hamilton trying one sort of fuel on a run from Bologna via Vicenza to Brescia, while Howe drove over the first part of the course on another fuel, Birkin and Penn-Hughes following in the Mércèdes. Howe suffered repeated oiled plugs and at Florence he gave up and Thomas took the car back. A loose valve guide was discovered, which Thomas, aided by Newport, the Bristol Aeroplane representative at Alfas, was able to rectify. A lot of practice was ultimately accomplished, and Hamilton on one occasion missed a turn and actually took to a railway line – thereafter 75 watt bulbs in the off headlamp and 50-watt bulbs in the near-side lamps were specified. McConnell now discovered that silencers would be needed, but these Antonio produced most effectively from very rough drawings. The pits were to be at Siena, Perugia and Bologna, and three days before the race the lorry left with the replenishments, Denby and Guest going to Siena in the practice car a day later.
So came the start of the Coppa Mille Miglia. At 8 o’clock Eyston and Lurani moved off, followed three minutes later by Birkin and Rubin, then by Howe and Hamilton. Their rivals were Tufanelli and Tabarrelli with Maseratis and a whole group of special Fiats, of which Ambrosini’s was the fastest. Howe’s job was to break up Tufanelli. Eyston was soon doing 100 m.p.h., but two plugs gave trouble, and Birkin passed, though both cars were close together at Piadena. Howe hit the central hump of a wooden bridge over the Po at 70 m.p.h., but kept his car straight, and soon the Magnettes were seen to be really fast, overtaking the Fiats and Bianchis which had started before them. Birkin averaged 87.95 m.p.h. to Bologna, 130 miles from the start, where Eyston, a mere two minutes behind, handed over to Lurani. On the Raticosa Pass Birkin’s car stopped with plug trouble, and this also stopped Howe on two occasions.
In spite of his stop, Birkin was two minutes ahead of Lurani at Florence, but Howe was 11 minutes behind. The leading M.G. had broken all 1,100 c.c. records, averaging 61.7 m.p.h. over 228 very difficult miles. Alas, Birkin’s valiant drive now ended, as a valve had burnt out. However, before Siena Tufanelli retired also, with gearbox trouble, so Birkin had accomplished the task Howe would have done had not his plugs slowed him. The second Maserati was 40 minutes behind Howe at Siena.
The rest of the story is quickly told. Lurani went on at speed, somewhat troubled in overhauling the fast Balilla Fiats up the Radiofani Pass, while Howe was held back by dust-clouds between Viterbo and Rome. Lurani reached the Rome control after 6 h. 16 m. driving, or 58.2 m.p.h. for 365 miles, controls and all – this broke the existing class record by 25 minutes. Forty miles on, at Terni, the leading M.G. had actually raised its overall average to 58.7 m.p.h. Rain resulted in some hectic moments thereafter, and more plugs needed changing. Eyston took the wheel again at Perugia, after 483 miles racing. Howe had driven for 8 h. 36 m., and still did not give over to Hamilton, who was to drive after darkness fell. In the dark the M.G.s were, if anything, faster than before, and at Bologna Howe had averaged 56.9 m.p.h. against his 53.1 m.p.h. to Ancona, where night had closed in. He had exceeded 100 m.p.h. by the light of his headlamps after being at the wheel for some 12 hours, and was now only two minutes behind Eyston. Eyston took on a new battery to offset his dynamo’s failure to charge, and Howe’s car had a broken shock-absorber bracket needing replacement. As the M.G.s left Bologna the race, barring accidents, was clearly theirs. The nearest 1,100 c.c. car was Ambrosini’s Fiat and that was 40 minutes behind, while Tabarrelli’s Maserati did not appear for an hour after Howe had left. On the last stretches Hamilton closed on Eyston, until delayed by more plug changes and a puncture, while Eyston, too, had to make a wheel-change. Finally, Eyston crossed the line winner of the 1,100 c.c. class after 18 h. 1 m. 4 s., a record average of 56.89 m.p.h. for the 1,024 miles. Howe came in 90 seconds later, second in the class, and enabling M.G.s to win the Team Prize, as no complete teams finished. Penn-Hughes came in later in the Mércèdes, having had a difficult drive, yet averaging nearly as high a speed as the M.G.s, and not using the supercharger.
Thus a very brave experiment came to a successful conclusion. That British small cars, properly prepared and organised, could beat the best Continentals of like size was proved conclusively. When it is remembered, too, that this was the first racing appearance of the supercharged K3 M.G. Magnette, one’s admiration knows no bounds. Lord Howe, by his inspiration in picking on the M.G. Car Company, Ltd., to produce him a team of cars, by his willingness to meet the not inconsiderable expenses involved, and his splendid powers of organisation, enabled British prestige to be indisputably upheld in the world’s most exacting road-race. Let us, therefore, never forget the showing of these green Magnettes in Italy ten years ago.
Reviews, March 2005
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