Cecil Kimber (1888 - 1945)

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Cecil Kimber

Cecil Kimber
Cecil Kimber
Cecil Kimber was born in 1888 and, after leaving school, became a salesman for his father's printing ink business, He was an early motorcycle enthusiast, and he used damages from a crash which shattered his right leg to buy a light car. That crash left one leg 50 mm shorter than the other, he was unable to serve in World War 1. Instead, during the war years, he moved into the motor business, and worked for the Sheffield Simplex and AC companies. He was involved in an early unsuccessful attempt to build a mass-produced car, and also worked on the design of the original Aston Martin.

After the war Kimber became sales manager of Morris Garages. This group of retail garages was built up by William Morris as a side issue, at the same time as he was building his car manufacturing empire. Within a year the Morris Garages general manager resigned, and Kimber took over as manager under Morris. This was Kimber's lucky break. He could organise well and was good with figures, and he soon had the garage business under control. He began to occupy himself with a side issue, designing special bodywork for Morris chassis.

The Bullnose Morris

The 11.9 hp bullnose Morris in its Oxford and Cowley versions was the Model T Ford of England. Both versions were plain and uninspiring to look at, with the same stubby radiator, short bonnet, high flat windscreen and big box-shaped body. That styling was outdated even then. Kimber saw plenty of room for improvement. He was in a fine position to experiment, with standard models to work on, a ready supply of parts, firms of specialist body makers on call and the backing of the profitable retail garages. He arranged to buy the Cowley from Morris in chassis form and fit bodywork to his own design.

The Morris Garages Chummy

The first Kimber model was the Morris Garages Chummy four-seater, a cleaned-up Cowley, fitted with more elegant bodywork and with the handling improved. Kimber drove his own Chummy in the 1923 London to Land's End Trial, and qualified for a gold medal. The next model was a two-seater with a raked windscreen and a long flat tail. Only a few of them were built, and they took a long time to sell. In the meantime the parent firm updated its cars. Kimber found his cars competing with cheaper Morris models, and selling Chummies suddenly called for a lot of time and trouble.

But when production of Chummies slowed in 1924 and 1925, Kimber was able to design and build a number of specials for individual buyers. These were still made from Morris parts with a few suspension and steering improvements, but they were getting farther away from Morris in looks, with discs over the ugly artillery wheels, raked windscreens and plenty of polished aluminium. Another landmark came in 1924, when a nickname was turned into a trademark. In the May issue of "Morris Owner", an advertisement for one of the Morris Garages two-seaters showed the initials MG fitted in an octagon. Presently the device started to appear on the cars, flat cut-out letters on the radiator grilles.

Old Number One

The car Kimber later said he regarded as the first real MG was an 11.9 hp model registered as FC 7900 in March, 1925. This was Kimber's first real try at a car for use in a sporting event. It was built from Morris parts again, but it was the greatest deviation from standard yet. Kimber lowered the chassis, fitted a special Hotchkiss ohv engine and designed a stark, narrow two-seated body with no provision for roof, tonneau or windscreen. The car cracked its chassis frame on a test run, but otherwise it proved fast and roadworthy. At Easter, 1925, Kimber took it on the Land's End Trial and qualified for another gold medal.

Cecil Kimber and William Morris
A group of MG company staff, taken at the inaugral luncheon in 1930. Cecil Kimber is pictured in the front row, third from left, and Sir William Morris is standing to his left.

Cecil Kimber's Magnette
Cecil Kimber's personal transport was a drophead coupe on a supercharged Magnette chassis. The bodywork was by Corsica.

Kimber climbs Bulehills Mine during the 1925 Land's End trial
Kimber climbs Bulehills Mine during the 1925 Land's End trial with his specially built overhead valve car, often wrongly referred to as "MG Number One". He won a "First Class Award".

MG Mews Garage, Alfred Lane, Oxford
A picture of the old mews garage in Alfred Lane, Oxford, where most of the early MGs were built.

Strangely, from the get-go Kimber was unsentimental about the car. After the race he sold it to a friend in Lancashire, and it passed through other hands in the next few years. But in 1932 it was bought back by the MG Car Company, fully restored, and hailed as "Old Number One", the first of the MG line. Demand for MGs rose sharply in 1925. Kimber made a distinction between MG specials, on unmodified Morris chassis, and MG sporting models on modified chassis. More sports car features were creeping into the range of bullnose MG designs. One 1926 catalogue told of "the deep mellow note increasing to a dull boom when the throttle is opened".

Flat Radiator Morris

By 1926 Morris headquarters had to admit that their bullnose cars looked painfully out of date. In September that year the first Morris models with flat radiators came out. Because of the parts tie-in MG had to follow suit, and redesign all their models for the shorter, wider and heavier chassis they were getting. One early MG driver described his bullnose four-seater as "the prettiest motor-car I had ever seen, a scaled-down three-litre Bentley at one-third the price". The flat-radiator 14/40 models were a bit of a comedown. They were large, rather high, slabsided cars with Rolls-Royce shape radiators and octagon badges in front of the filler caps.

The same early MG man changed his bullnose for a 14/40 in 1928, although he was put off by its ugliness at first. "Closer examination..." he wrote, "...made me forget all about looks. Here ... was every improvement I had ever wanted on my earlier MG, and at a price a few pounds lower than the 1925 figure." Meanwhile, in 1928 news came of the first MG race victory, in Argentina. A 14/40 tourer led the finishers home at 100 km/h (62 mph) on the San Martin track in Buenos Aires. This gave Kimber's thinking another push toward competition cars.

Demand Grows

Demand for MGs was increasing, and Kimber planned to build 10 a week. The garage premises were short on space, and he persuaded Morris to build MG a new £16,000 factory at Cowley. At the same time, Kimber's branch of the Morris empire was changing from colonial to dominion status. In 1928 the MG Car Company was founded. By now Kimber was decorating his cars all over the MG octagon badge. An octagonal instrument panel replaced the oval one, hubcaps with MG badges were made, and little octagons appeared on engine parts and the accelerator pedal. Kimber hated hearing his cars called "re-bodied Morrises", and he was ready to go to any length to show the difference. People later joked that he would have fitted octagonal pistons if he could.

MG was still only on the fringe of the sports car world. But in 1927 events in other parts of the Morris domains were opening the way ahead. Morris was envious of the success his rival, Herbert Austin, was having with the tiny Austin Seven. He decided to produce a baby car too, and when he took over the Wolseley company he found they had already designed the right engine. The 847cm3 Wolseley engine, based on Hispano-Suiza aero engines, had to be detuned for use in a family car. But Kimber learned of it and took over one experimental Minor chassis and original engine, and fitted a light two-seater sports chassis. This was the first MG Midget.

Very few changes to the chassis were needed. The suspension was lowered, the steering rake was increased and the gear-change and pedal layout was changed a little. The body was very simple, fabric-covered plywood panels on an ash frame with a pointed boat-tail for luggage and the spare wheel. The Midget's windscreen was fixed and pointed with a centre strut. The roof was basic. The wheels under the fixed cycle guards were standard Minor wire ones, with MG hubcaps. The whole thing weighed just over 10 hundredweight (506 kg).

The Midget first appeared at the 1928 Olympia Motor Show, the first where MG had a separate stand, beside the new 18/80 MG Six. The Six was a large sporting model with a heavily redesigned 2468cm3 six-cylinder engine, twin carburettors, and knock-on wire wheels. It could approach 130 km/h, and out-accelerate a three-litre Lagonda Six. The Midget and the 18/80 were the first MGs to carry the classic MG radiator shell, low-peaked, tapering slightly to the bottom, with a fine centre rib.


In the year after it appeared, the Midget accounted for about 60 percent of MG's sales. Production, which had peaked at about 400 in 1927 and dropped to just over 300 in 1928, tripled to 900 in 1929 and doubled to more than 1800 the year after. The company had outgrown its new factory already, and Morris found it a new home at Abingdon-on-Thames, where it has been since. Kimber sent 18/80 Sixes and Midgets to race at Brooklands in 1929, in the Double 12-Hour event. He may have hoped the big MG would lead to heavyweight sports success in the Bentley style, but its engine failed after two hours.

The M-Type Midget

The original M-type Midget was followed by the smaller-engined C-type for sports racing, the D-type, based on the C-type with the M's 847cm3 engine, and the long-wheelbase F-type Magna. In the 1931 Double 12, a C-type won outright at 105.5 km/h (65.62 mph), and six finished behind it to take the team prize again. For the next several years the MG story is complicated. There were too many models and too many victories. The J-type, appearing in 1932, had cutaway doors, cycle guards all round, headlamps squeezed in between the guards and radiator shell in front, and a cut-off tail with a big external tank and the spare wheel strapped on behind. The windscreen folded flat over the twin-humped scuttle.

This car was the MG archetype. It was based on the Montlhery Midget record-breaker and the racing C-type, it cost only £15 more than the old M-type, it was capable of nearly 130 km/h (80 mph), it looked beautiful and it set a pattern for design which MG only gave up in the 1950s. From this point on you can only make lists. There were the "super sports" J.3 and racing J.4, several series of sports-racing K-types made between 1932 and 1934, 576 L-type Magnas, mostly closed four-seaters, about 2500 PA and PB Midgets, mostly open two-seaters, the handfuls of Q-type Midget sports racers and R-type single-seater midget Grand Prix racers, a few other letters of the alphabet and then the neat, fast, efficient TA of 1936 which started a long line of development lasting beyond World War 2 and into living memory.

Race Victories

There were countless race victories, such as a first and second in class and team prize in the 1933 Mille Miglia that went to George Eyston and Lord Howe in K3 Magnettes, first in class in the 1934 Le Mans race, first in the 1934 Grand Prix of America, first, second, third and fourth in the 1935 Australian Grand Prix, two class wins in the 1936 Brooklands 500, dozens of class victories in hill-climbs. "By the mid-thirties," one MG historian wrote, "the name MG had become as much a synonym for sports car as Kodak was for camera or Hoover was for domestic vacuum-cleaner”. On one of Morris' many trips abroad, shortly after he became Baron Nuffield in 1934, he was introduced to an assembly as the man who made Morris Cars.

This was greeted blankly; Morris cars had never made much impact overseas, but broad smiles broke out when someone chanced to mention that he also owned MG. Nuffield made up his mind next year. Kimber had too much independence and too much power. As part of an internal financial deal in the empire, Nuffield installed a new managing director of the MG Car Company. Kimber was demoted to director and general manager. Lord lasted only a year before Kimber took charge again, but by then the damage was done. Kimber's influence on design was limited. Morris headquarters made sure all MGs used more standard Morris parts, and Kimber was left responsible for bodywork.

Private owners still raced MGs, but their cars became uncompetitive and there were no new ones to replace them. Kimber stayed with MG for some years more and saw out all MG's pre-war production. He left the company, and the Morris empire, in 1941. During the war Kimber kept in touch with British sports car design, but he disapproved of its future. There were positions open to him, but he talked about retirement. He died in a railway accident at Kings Cross station in February 1942, before he could decide. The golden age of MG was over by then.

Kimber was killed in the King's Cross railway accident on Sunday 4 February 1945, having boarded the 6pm express to Leeds. Shortly after leaving the station, the train wheels started slipping on a newly replaced section of rail inside Gasworks Tunnel. However, in the darkness, the driver failed to realise that the train was no longer moving forward and had in fact started to slip back down the hill at a speed of some 6 or 7 mph. A signalman, attempting to avert a collision with another train, switched the points, but unfortunately the train had already slid too far back down the track. The only effect was to derail the final carriage, forcing it onto its side and crushing it against the steel support of the main signal gantry, entirely demolishing the first-class compartment where Kimber had been sitting. He was one of only two casualties.

Cecil Kimber married twice, first to Irene (Rene) Hunt with whom he had two daughters, Lisa and Jean, and after Irene died in 1938 to Muriel Dewar. He was elected as President of the Automobile Division of the Institute of Mechanical Engineers.

Also see: MG Car Reviews | The History of MG | The MG Story
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