MGA TWIN CAM AT 60

60 years after the MGA Twin Cam was first shown to the press, C&SC joined the en­thu­si­asts re-en­act­ing the launch

Classic Sports Car - - Contents - WORDS SI­MON CHARLESWORTH PHO­TOG­RA­PHY JOHN BRAD­SHAW/MG

En­thu­si­asts gather to cel­e­brate by recre­at­ing the sparkling model’s launch

An­niver­saries are sel­dom marked with such pre­ci­sion, but 60 years ago to the day, this very place wit­nessed the launch of the new MGA Twin Cam. To­day hap­pens to be 14 July, and we’re at the Longcross Prov­ing Ground – for­merly the Fight­ing Ve­hi­cles Re­search & De­vel­op­ment Es­tab­lish­ment – at Chob­ham in Sur­rey, for a Re-en­act­ment Event or­gan­ised by the MGA Twin Cam Group of the MG Car Club.

“It was my idea to recre­ate this 10 years ago,” says Mark Hester. “When I be­came TC Group chair­man, this event was one of my first goals. Ed­ward Vandyk touted it as a mini Good­wood, com­plete with tweed jack­ets and ev­ery­thing! Once I knew we were aim­ing for that stan­dard we had to up our game, and I think we’ve done in­cred­i­bly well; we’ve got nearly 60 cars here – the largest-ever gath­er­ing of Twin Cams.”

The Twin Cam story be­gan when MG of­fi­cially en­tered the 1955 Ul­ster TT with three MGAS. Two had ex­per­i­men­tal twin-cam en­gines: one was a clean-sheet de­sign by Austin (which was a no-show); the other was based on the B-se­ries block de­vel­oped by Jimmy Thomp­son and Ed­die Ma­her at Mor­ris En­gines (ini­tially un­der BMC’S chief de­signer, Ger­ald Palmer). It was the Mor­ris de­sign that would be pur­sued, via the EX179 record car, in the name of of­fer­ing su­pe­rior per­for­mance to the 68bhp 1489cc pushrod car. The plan was to make the MGA a bet­ter ri­val for Con­ti­nen­tal sports cars and more ap­peal­ing for com­pe­ti­tion use.

MG’S first pro­duc­tion twin-cam engine had orig­i­nally been en­vis­aged as a 1489cc unit, but changes to com­pe­ti­tion classifications led to a ca­pac­ity in­crease to 1588cc. Its chain-driven twin camshafts were housed in an alu­mini­u­mal­loy cross­flow head. Run­ning on twin SU H6 car­bu­ret­tors and with a 9.9:1 com­pres­sion ra­tio, the Twin Cam had forged H-sec­tion con­rods and a stiff­ened three-bear­ing crankshaft in a B-se­ries block bored out to 75.4mm, un­der­pinned by a finned al­loy sump. The new engine was 60lb heav­ier than the 1489cc B-se­ries.

The MGA Twin Cam fea­tured Dun­lop knock-on wheels, ‘Twin Cam’ badg­ing, a leather-trimmed fas­cia and four-wheel disc brakes. Priced at £1265 17s (in­clud­ing Pur­chase Tax), the new 108bhp MG was ca­pa­ble of 115mph (against the stan­dard A’s 99mph), and trimmed 1.7 secs off the 1500’s 0-60mph time (the Twin Cam com­pleted the sprint in 13.3 secs). It was faster from 0-90mph by 15 secs, too (the Twin Cam took 30 secs). Yet the price pre­mium for all that ex­tra pace was just £180.

Ul­ti­mately, just 2111 of the planned 2500 Twin Cams were built, as the model de­vel­oped a no­to­ri­ety for a lack of smooth run­ning, plus noise and re­li­a­bil­ity is­sues. It was easy for a pis­ton to hit a valve due to the engine’s ea­ger­ness to rev. (Van­dervell tested its new Tri-metal crank bear­ings in this engine be­cause it was one of few ca­pa­ble of run­ning above 7500rpm.) At the very least, 95RON fuel and N5 spark-plugs were rec­om­mended for road use, 100RON with N58RS for com­pe­ti­tion. A pis­ton-ring is­sue ini­tially led to fouled spark-plugs, but per­haps the most in­fa­mous prob­lem was that it gained a rep­u­ta­tion for melt­ing pis­tons, which led to a low­er­ing of the com­pres­sion ra­tio to 8.3:1, but was even­tu­ally traced to the 1¾in SUS run­ning lean due to engine vi­bra­tion at cer­tain revs. The model was axed in 1960. Left­over Twin Cam parts would find a home in the De Luxe and De Luxe MKII, pow­ered by the 1622cc B-se­ries.

The 1958 launch we’re cel­e­brat­ing here was or­gan­ised by Nuffield Public­ity and de­scribed as a ‘Nuffield Com­pe­ti­tion Day’. In ad­di­tion to six Twin Cams and the record car EX181, Ri­leys and Mag­nettes were present, too. How­ever, not one Austin-healey at­tended, un­der­lin­ing the par­ti­san dis­ar­ray at BMC.

Just four Twin Cams were avail­able to drive (PMO 326, 325 and 946), with one car (VLP 500) be­ing bor­rowed from Univer­sity Mo­tors. In ad­di­tion, two pro­to­types were used for demon­stra­tion: the first ex­am­ple (ORX 855) and static dis­play (PJB 147). Why? Mor­ris En­gines’ Court­house Green fac­tory didn’t have a large enough ma­chine to balance the crankshaft, fly­wheel and clutch as a sin­gle as­sem­bly, so they bal­anced them sep­a­rately with mixed re­sults – half of the en­gines suf­fered from vi­bra­tion at high rpm when run in. To en­sure that it only had

“The pushrod MGA is a gen­tle, easy-go­ing sort of car; the Twin Cam has ex­cel­lent per­for­mance, but it’s quite de­mand­ing”

good spec­i­mens for the launch, MG had run a se­lec­tion of cars for 24 hours at Grove air­field.

In charge of the day’s pro­ceed­ings was 29-year-old Ge­of­frey Iley, for gen­eral man­ager John Thorn­ley was in New York on busi­ness. Iron­i­cally, when Iley started at MG, Thorn­ley had said: “Your job is to get the cars out the door. I’ll deal with de­sign, de­vel­op­ment, the press and ev­ery­thing else.” De­spite this, in 1958, he was here, over­see­ing 42 staff, hospi­tal­ity, en­ter­tain­ment, the cars and the guests.

To­day, as Iley ap­proaches his 90th birth­day, he re­mem­bers: “On the day, we had the beer tent be­cause that was for the press. If you re­mem­ber in those days, mo­tor­ing jour­nal­ism ran on al­co­hol, methanol and fags – and to hell with health and safety. All went tol­er­a­bly well dur­ing the morn­ing. The mo­tor­ing press was there in droves, with the likes of John Bol­ster and Gre­gor Grant of Au­tosport, Bill Boddy of Mo­tor Sport, peo­ple from The Mo­tor, The Au­to­car and from around the world. There we all were, liq­uid flowed in the beer tent, the Mor­ris Mo­tors band was there and when they went out, most of the time it was fairly well dis­ci­plined.

“Dur­ing the af­ter­noon, some­body – I’m not sure who – sug­gested a fastest lap of the day com­pe­ti­tion. After that, it was all hub­caps and doorhan­dles… The fastest lap was set by Paul Frère, with John Bol­ster sec­ond fastest of the day, and I blush to ad­mit that I was third fastest. A long way down the field and the slow­est of the day was Bill Boddy of Mo­tor Sport. All went well after that. We fi­nally man­aged to get rid of every­body, and when we were sweep­ing up the

bro­ken bot­tles and clear­ing up the site, we counted the cars and found we had one fewer than we started with. Panic!

“A trip around the cir­cuit re­vealed one of the Twin Cams wrapped around a con­crete bol­lard with two peo­ple not look­ing very well. It was driven by a ju­nior me­chanic and his pas­sen­ger was a cor­net player from the band who sus­tained a bro­ken pelvis. As a re­sult, we had a ma­jor row with the mu­si­cians’ union, which was one of the more en­ter­tain­ing in­dus­trial re­la­tions prob­lems with which we had to deal!”

At last, Hester gives me the keys to PJB 147, one of the pro­to­types that was here in 1958, with a few words of ad­vice: “The valves bounce at 7200rpm!” The engine is vo­cal, you can hear the rasp of the chain-driven cams. It isn’t as sweet as some twin-cam con­tem­po­raries, but this lin­ear yet perky lump doesn’t half shift when prompted. In­deed, given that this engine was a start­ing point, its un­ful­filled po­ten­tial is lam­en­ta­ble.

The low-slung driv­ing po­si­tion – back­side placed be­tween its chunky perime­ter chas­sis and prop­shaft – sets the sport­ing mood. The con­trols feel pre­cise and alive. The slim gate of the me­chan­i­cally slick, re­mote-change four-speeder, the twin-cam’s en­thu­si­asm, the steer­ing’s deft­ness, gear­ing, feel and re­sponses are all un­der­pinned by the chas­sis’ im­mense so­lid­ity, its am­i­ca­ble han­dling and com­posed ride.

To­day it’s too hot to tease this 60-year-old’s red­line and, given its im­por­tance, I’d like to re­turn it be­fore there’s a dan­ger of step­ping into the scenery – one in­ci­dent from 1958 which should def­i­nitely not be re-en­acted.

Thanks to the MG Car Club’s MGA Twin Cam Group (www.mgcc.co.uk/mga-twin-cam-group), and to Mark Hester and Ed­ward Vandyk

Clock­wise from top: the or­gan­is­ers’ work paid off with five orig­i­nal launch cars; Baron’s Us-sourced MGA; grainy photo from the Nuffield Or­gan­i­sa­tion shows the 1958 event in full swing; map of the test track given to par­tic­i­pants

Bin­ning­ton cares for this spe­cial, one-off, Le Man­sclass-win­ning Twin Cam. Above: 1588cc dohc ‘four’ has 108bhp and 104lb ft of torque as stan­dard

From top: snug, beau­ti­fully fin­ished cabin – steer­ing wheel is a stylish pe­riod ac­ces­sory; Twin Cam own­ers keenly take to the Chob­ham test track; Mark Daniell and son Ge­orge with their two rac­ers

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