The MG Story: Before Nuffield

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The MG Story: Before Nuffield

MG M-Type Midget
The MG Marque is one of the best known in the motoring world. And yet there is a great deal of confusion and contradiction over the history of MG. There has been some difference of opinion about when the first MG was built. In 1980 British Leyland announced that production of MGs was to be discontinued so that the MG factory at Abingdon could be used to make components for other BL cars, and later be used to buiId the new BL-Honda car. But then the TF would rise like the phoenix. Leyland Australia had decided to cut Australian sales in 1973 so the local market was starved of MG’s long before they stopped production - although a small number were privately imported.

William Morris

William Morris was always interested in mechanical things. Around the turn of the previous century he began repairing bicycles and later motorbikes. In 1911 he began to sell various makes of cars and in 1913 began to build his own Morris cars. The premises in Oxford from which the cars were sold was known as The Morris Garage, and later when additional premises were bought the business became The Morris Garages. By 1923 William Morris was so deeply involved in designing his latest car that he appointed as manager of Morris Garages the man who had joined the company as sales manager the previous year, Cecil Kimber.

In the Twenties it was quite common for rich young men to have specially-bodied cars built for themselves on production chassis and in 1923 Kimber arranged to have six Raworth two-seater bodies bought in and fitted on Morris Cowley chassis. It is probable that these two-seaters were called MGs - after Morris Garages - although another special, built in 1925 for competition use was for a long time regarded as the first MG, and is today preserved and known as "Old Number One '. Rebodied Morrises were now being sold as MGs and were eagerly snapped up by enthusiastic drivers, so great was the demand that the old premises at Morris Garages were not large enough. A factory at Abingdon in Berkshire was bought and in 1929 the MG Car Company moved into the premises which it has occupied ever since.

Before Nuffield

In the halcyon days "before Nuffield", the blood lines of racing and touring MG's ran inseparably together. Back then you could have won your class in the Mille-Miglia with a K-series straight off the production line, or even have a go at the Brooklands handicapper with a touring four­seater Magna. At Abingdon new combinations were always being concocted and most results had merit, they would usually build a few for the “peasants” who had a yen for the latest in small­engined racing and touring equipment.

As a result, the range of catalogued MG models from No. 1 in 1923 to the 1939 TB probably encompassed more gross and subtle variations than that of any firm with the possible exception of Bugatti. At one extreme were tense, wiry, louvered single-seaters, super­charged to the verge of their reliability. These were the weapons which the talented young rich of the day, drivers such as Seamans, Straights, and Biras, would hurl to victory in curtain-raisers all across the British Continent.

Through the same doors at MG rolled cars which today might be mistaken for Rileys, Jaguars, and even Bentleys of that period. Sedate, yet sleek and sporting, with close-coupled four-seater sedan or convertible bodies towed by a long hood covering up to 2561cc, these MG's were as far from the original concept of the make as the racing cars mentioned above. Naturally, however, they displayed the fine breeding and good road manners characteristic of every car that carried the brown and yellow octagon.

What lay between these two poles? A wide range of sports and touring cars made to a magic formula: fast and cheap for their specification. Probably no MG combined this quality with a split sports/racing personality any more than old FC 7900, Cecil Kimber's original Morris Oxford special. After some trial successes, the demand for duplicates of this "bitsa" were so great that William R. Morris' Morris Garages picked up the tab for production, the initials giving the newborn MG Sports its name. A similar later decision was Austin Motors' tooling up to build Donald Healey's "Hundred," originally an Austin A90 special.

The 1925 production "Super Sports" version of FE 7900, with such luxuries as a windshield, sold in England for AU$2,500 - not cut rate but reasonable for the day. Kimber worked variations on this theme for awhile, and then hit on the concept that eventually made the MG the best-known sports car in the world. At that time there were many English enthusiasts who liked machinery that would step out and run but who couldn't finance anything more formal than a motorcycle. To cater for this group in addition to their regular clientele, Kimber and Morns saw the possibilities of building a very small low-priced sports car through extensive use of production parts. From this seed the first MG Midget grew.

Record Breaking

During the Thirties, MGs had a great deal of competition success and set some speed records which were remarkable in their day. On 16th February 1931, George Eyston drove a car of less than 750cc to a speed in excess of 100 mph (161 km/h) for the first time when he drove an MG Midget at an average of 166.04 km/h over five kilometres at the Montlhery track in France. Later in the year - October 17th - he raised the record to 177.55 km/h and in February 1932, with a streamlined body fitted, the car was measured at 190.59 km/h at Pendine Sands.

At the end of the Thirties, on 31st May 1939 - only three months before Britain declared war on Germany - there was apparently Iittle hostility between the motoring enthusiasts of the two countries because a speed attempt in a specially built streamlined 1100cc six-cylinder MG (based on the Magnette racing car) was made on a closed section of German autobahn near Dessau. Actually two records were set. The first, for under 1100cc supercharged engines, was done with the standard MG capacity of 1086 cc and the car covered the flying kilometre first inonedirectionthen in the other at an average speed of 327.69 km/h - incredible!

Not happy with just one record the driver, Major "Goldie" Gardner, had the engine capacity increased from 1086 cc to 1106 cc the very next day and so put it into the 1100 to 1500 cc category. He then raised the average speed to 328.89 km/h. And all this on a public highway!

Magnette Number One

In their early days MGs were very popular with ordinary drivers who used them in car club competitions. But MGs also took part in some top line racing in the Thirties - and enjoyed a great deal of success. The first Magnette racing sports car was designed and built in a rush to compete in the 1933 Mille-Miglia road race and travelled to Italy in the hold of a storm-tossed ship. Although the brand-new car could not by rights even be expected to finish the tough 1600-kilometre race, George Eyston drove it to victory in its class and shattered the 1100cc class records.

A few months later the same car was driven by one of the women racing drivers of the period, Mrs T.H. Wisdom, in the International Trophy on the giant speed bowl at Brooklands. At speeds of up to 175 km/h the little car finished in third place against much larger competitors. After several more successful races the Magnette was put out to grass and was used as a hack by the MG team mechanics, mainly running around to pick up parts for later racing machines. Then not long before the Ulster Tourist Trophy race was due to begin, Eyston heard that Tazio Nuvolari - regarded by many people even today as the greatest racing driver of all time - was looking for a car for the race.

So Magnette "Number One" was hastily prepared and Nuvolari, who had never driven a Magnette and had never used a preselector gearbox (as was fitted in the Magnette) in a race, won easily after breaking the lap record an amazing 11 times. The car was timed at 185 km/h on the straight — not bad for an 1100 cc car almost 50 years ago!

Also see: MG Heritage | MG Performance Chart
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