It was on a bleak, cold night in October 1952
, that a tall youngster walked into a garage at Orange with a piston from a 1948 MG TC
in his hand . The piston was smashed as a result of the owner's amateur attempts at tuning. In the garage, mechanics were swarming over cars being prepared for the next mornings races - but one of them found time to fossick up a replacement piston, and the young man went on his way.
A few days later, back in his Sydney workshop, the mechanic who had provided the piston (Len Cummine (known as "Uncle Len" in racing circles) looked up from his work to see the same young man standing by. That man was Jim Johnson, and the two were to form a partnership that was to create Australia's fastest MG - a partnership which came to a sudden, tragic end when the same car crashed at Coonabarabran on September 28, 1957
Len Cummine later recalled that Johnson was a mate to everybody, and no one ever had a bad word to say about him. When Cummine first looked at Johnsons TC, he considered it "clapped cut." But before the year was out the motor had been given the Cummine touch, the rest of the car patched up, and the TC had earned a minor placing in its first race. The scene was Mt. Druitt, and winner of the event was another MG fanatic, Bruce Maher. Bruce later joined the Johnson-Cummine combine, and eventually went into business with Jimmy as a tuner and preparer of sports and racing cars.
Jimmy Johnson's first victory came early in 1953
- again at Druitt. Many others followed, in N.S.W. and in Queensland, the most important ones being the South Pacific Championship for sports, cars under 1500 c.c. (Orange, January 1956
), the N.S.W. Hillclimb Championship for sports cars (Newcastle, August 1956
), and the handicap section of the Bathurst 100-miler, Easter 1956
. At Newcastle Jimmy Johnson's car became the first MG to break the minute for the tough hillclimb - his time was 59.4 seconds. At sprint meetings Jimmy Johnson's TG repeatedly bettered times clocked by big, expensive racing cars. Its fastest standing quarter-mile was covered in 16.08 seconds - then recognised as the "ultimate" for an un-supercharged
The Clapped Out MG TC
When Johnson brought off that first win at Druitt, his car carried the number 103; though its engine and body, underwent many transformations afterwards, it bore the same number to the end. Jim Johnson had only one car in five years of racing. It was a very sick MG TC when he bought it, but he turned it into a potential record-breaker. The once "clapped-out" TC was among the first MG's in Australia to be bored out from; 1250 to 1500 c.c, Len Cummine did the job, boring right through to the water jackets, then sleeving the engine to give a capacity of 1487 c.c. The head was shaved and shaved - until compression was 13 to 1. Nuffield engineers said the engine would blow up- but it didn't.
A toolmaker by trade, Jim Johnson designed and made several of the bits and pieces which made "103" a winner. He worked for a while for Automotive Carburettors in Sydney, and learnt all there is to know about SU carbies. He had been known to listen to a car's engine, lift the bonnet, and synchronise carburettors in a matter of minutes - some claimed he had the "tuner's touch." He left Automotive Carburettors to go into partnership with Bruce Maher. They were supported in this venture by Sydney automotive engineer and fibreglass body-builder Nat Buchanan, and both worked on the now-famous Buchanan MG body. The first fibreglass shell, fitted to a Gee chassis belonging to Bruce Maher, turned it into a regular winner. Bruce usually drove the car himself, but Jimmy took over on occasions and was equally successful with it.
Mastering the fibreglass technique, Jim Johnson produced a simple streamlined body for his own "103" - its lightness helped him win the South Pacific 1500 c.c. title in 1956. Off the track Johnson and Maher were great mates, who worked and relaxed together, helping each other prepare their cars. On the track they battled hard. For a long time Maher was just a shade better - but Johnson gradually found his measure, and proceeded to prove that his was the fastest MG in the country. From the day he linked up with Len Cummine, Jim Johnson set out to learn all he could about fast engines. He was soon devising his own racing fuels and tuning methods, to get the most out of the "103".
Jim Johnson had only the one car in five years of racing - a slick MG TC.
Taking 103 To The Limit
Whatever knowledge he gained, he was always willing to pass on to others. Many drivers will tell you how Jim Johnson would leave his own car to tune theirs before a race, without caring that this unselfishness might lower his own chances of success. Knowing his machine perfectly, Johnson was able to relax from mechanical worries and concentrate on driving, once the race was on. His style has was, at the time, described as "intrepid," "determined," "eager" and even "lead-footed". Whatever it was, Johnson always drove his racing car as he tuned it - to the limit. There is little doubt that, if fate hadn't stepped in, the national speed record for the 1500 c.c. class would have gone to Jim Johnson and his "103."
During the Bathurst 100 he had been officially timed at 106 m.p.h., and unofficially (but with the same electronic equipment) at 109. The Australian record stood at 103 m.p.h. - and for the Coonabarabran attempt the TC had been equipped with a 3.9 to 1 ratio rear-end, giving a theoretical maximum of 118 m.p.h. On the morning of the speed attempt Jim Johnson went out alone at dawn, to make sure that everything was right with the car. He had completed his check-up runs and was returning to Coonabarabran when he came up behind a truck which turned right just as Johnson tried to pass it. Jimmy Johnson was 28, and was regarded as one of our most promising young drivers.
He was survived by his wife, Bett, and one son. During his five years of racing he had made many friends, and hundreds of sportsmen from all over Australia attended his funeral. Typical of the affection everyone had for Jim Johnson was the action of the Ampol service station owner at Caringbah, who organised a display of racing cars on his premises on Sunday, October 20, to draw the public, and forwarded the whole day's profits (£100) to Bett Johnson.