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History of British car manufacturing

Subject: History of British car manufacturing
From: Simon Matthews <>
Date: Thu, 15 Feb 96 17:42:36 -0800
For all MG (and other LBC enthusiasts), I have cut this out of The 
Electronic Telegraph. This is part 4, previous parts are still available. 

Registration is free.


> The Electronic Telegraph  Thursday 15 February l996        Motoring
>  [Motoring]
> The secret History of the British Motor Car: Part 4
> Happy breed at home on the hairpins
> The rolling English drunkard made the great British sports car, says
> David Burgess-Wise
> Part 3: Cowley gets its big break
> IT WAS A far-fetched plot that would have delighted the editor of
> the Wizard: noted Harley Street bacteriologist and amateur racing
> driver enters his extremely second-hand sports car for the Le Mans
> 24-hour race.
> (
> co-driver, a pipe-smoking journalist with a talent for cartooning,
> rams into a pile of crashed cars in the small hours, extricates the
> damaged car from the wreckage, lashes it together with wire - and
> goes on to win the race.
> That was exactly what happened in 1927 when the 3-litre Bentley
> driven by Dr Dudley Benjafield and Sammy Davis won the second of the
> marque's five victories at Le Mans. Afterwards, Dr Benjafield
> continued to use the car for his daily patient rounds. It was a very
> British achievement. . .
> In this land of uncertain climate and strictly enforced speed
> limits, we have always made superlatively good open sports cars. The
> rolling English drunkard may have made the rolling English road, but
> the rolling English road calls for cars with pin-sharp handling and
> rapid acceleration. Indeed, there is a strong argument that the
> sports car is a British invention, and certainly some of our oldest
> motor manufacturers - Morgan, Aston Martin, AC - have been making
> them for more than eight decades.
> One can also argue that such companies owe their survival more to
> the enthusiasm of their owners, customers and staff than to
> conventional commercial rationale. It was a lack of business acumen
> that cost the original Bentley company its independence in 1931.
> Overheads are not something which ever seem to have bothered Morgan,
> whose 75-year-old factory in Malvern has been described as "the
> ultimate working museum".
> Certainly the company owed its survival between the wars to the
> parsimonious nature of its founder, H. F. S. Morgan. He was also a
> good businessman. He realised in the mid-Thirties that the days of
> the brilliantly engineered Morgan three-wheeler, whose phenomenal
> power-to-weight ratio gave it acceleration to match the most
> expensive sporting four-wheelers, were numbered, and a four-wheeled
> Morgan appeared in December 1935.
> He considered making his own power units in-house and even had a
> prototype overhead camshaft four-cylinder engine built by leading
> motorcycle designer Ike Hatch. But the production costs would have
> ruined the little company, so engines were bought first from
> Coventry-Climax and then Standard.
> Morgan's financial acumen was unusual, however: most small car
> makers ran their business on an increasingly frayed shoestring in
> the hope that something would turn up.
> "We have never had sufficient working capital," lamented the
> managing director of the long-forgotten Mercury company in 1920. "I
> have supported the company myself to the extent of some 32,000 but.
> . . we must have new money in. . ."
> Lack of finance didn't stop some of the smaller companies from
> producing technically advanced cars or pursuing ambitious racing
> programmes: Alvis, for instance, pioneered high-performance
> front-wheel drive cars in the late Twenties, while Aston Martin
> achieved international racing fame on a prewar production of 680
> cars and several changes of ownership without ever showing a profit.
> More certain was the extrapolation of sports cars from popular
> family models: this was easy, for the fitting of a lightweight body
> boosted performance quite remarkably without the need for expensive
> tuning. Many companies listed sports versions of their best-selling
> models, but these usually had dull side valve engines.
> One exception was Wolseley - part of the machine-guns-to-battleships
> Vickers group which operated under the aegis of that shadowy figure
> Sir Basil Zaharoff - which had licence-built overhead camshaft V8
> Hispano-Suiza aero engines during the Great War.
> After the Armistice Wolseley translated that overhead camshaft
> technology into engines for its popular - but unprofitable - cars.
> By 1927, the Vickers group was in turmoil; Zaharoff pulled out after
> 50 years and Wolseley - declared bankrupt - was bought by William
> Morris for 730,000 to keep his rival, Austin, from getting it.
> Under development at Wolseley was an OHC four-cylinder engine of
> just 850cc, which Morris took for his new Minor car. But this lively
> little engine also attracted Cecil Kimber, head of Morris Garages,
> an independent venture owned by William Morris. In 1924 "MG" had
> started making special sports bodywork for Morris cars and developed
> into a separate marque, its distinctive octagonal badge inspired by
> Kimber's dining-room table.
> MG production was small and the cars exclusive and expensive, but by
> the autumn of 1927 output was sufficient to justify a proper MG
> factory, which was outgrown within two years. A new home was found
> at Abingdon-on-Thames, where output was dominated by the "Midget"
> sports car based on the Morris Minor. In 1930, its first full year
> of production, 1,628 Midgets were sold - more than the total of all
> the MGs built in the six previous years.
> In 1930 Wolseley launched an 1,100cc six-cylinder version of the
> Morris Minor as the "Hornet": it was a good engine in an
> underdeveloped chassis, and though a sports version of the Hornet
> became available, Kimber wisely took the power unit only when he
> created a bigger Midget under the name "Magna".
> Kimber had a style all his own: his office in the grimly utilitarian
> administration block at Abingdon was a black-and-white Tudor fantasy
> with an elegant oriel window from which he could count the Midgets
> pouring out of the factory.
> He well understood the psychology of his customers and publicised
> the marque by building successful competition cars which were
> sufficiently like the production model to foster the
> "same-as-you-can-buy" feeling. Lessons learnt on the track were fed
> back into production, and the shapely little MG sports cars of the
> Thirties became dreams on wheels for would-be racing drivers.
> The archetypal MG of the Thirties was the T-Type, which concealed a
> prosaic overhead-valve power unit beneath a liberally louvred
> bonnet. It continued after the war and became a hero of the national
> export drive.
> But by then Kimber was gone. In 1941 he had been brutally sacked
> from the company he had created by corporate man Miles Thomas, who
> was nettled by Kimber's "acute individualism".
> His death in February 1945 was ironic: while travelling on business
> for a firm of piston ring makers, the man whose motto had been
> "Safety Fast" was killed in a freak low-speed railway accident in
> King's Cross tunnel.

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