SMALL CARS, BIG AM­BI­TIONS

MG C-type Montl­héry Mid­get takes on Austin Seven Ul­ster TT in one of mo­tor­ing’s old­est bat­tles

Classic Sports Car - - Contents - WORDS SI­MON CHARLESWORTH PHO­TOG­RA­PHY TONY BAKER

Sub-1-litre tid­dlers from Austin and MG that bat­tled to crack the elu­sive ton

You might ex­pect that a ri­valry ig­nited in the 1930s would have per­haps calmed down by now. Yet, de­spite the pass­ing of decades – along with the peo­ple who orig­i­nally built and raced these cars – it’s clear that the age-old quar­rel be­tween Austin Seven and MG Mid­get own­ers is one that still holds plenty of breath in its lungs.

First launched in 1922 and raced in 1923, the 747cc Seven’s suc­cess on both road and track at­tracted com­peti­tors, and in 1928 Mor­ris launched its 847cc Mi­nor. Just as the Seven fa­thered sport­ing de­riv­a­tives, such as the su­per­charged £225 Ul­ster, the Mi­nor no­tably sired the 1929 MG M-type Mid­get. A three-car team of M-types en­tered the Ju­nior Car Club’s Dou­ble Twelve Hour Race at Brook­lands in 1930 – the very year that had re­sulted in a busy time for the Ul­ster’s tro­phy cab­i­net.

When the che­quered flag fell at the filthily wet Sur­rey cir­cuit, only two of the eight teams that started were still run­ning – Austin and MG. Ul­ti­mately, Ran­dall and Ed­mond­son’s Abing­don equipe would pip the su­per­charged Sev­ens – driven by the likes of Her­bert Austin’s son-in-law, Arthur Waite, and the Earl of March – to the cov­eted Team Prize. How­ever, the Ul­sters claimed first and sec­ond in class, and won The Au­to­car Tro­phy for per­for­mance based on price. As if to un­der­line the nascent ri­valry,

the race re­port in Mo­tor Sport was sand­wiched be­tween a pair of boast­ful man­u­fac­turer ad­verts.

This was merely the start of the ri­valry, be­cause apart from Austin and MG, other mar­ques scarcely got a look-in when it came to 1930s Class H (sub-750cc) rac­ing and record­break­ing. As speeds were ratch­eted up and com­pe­ti­tion in­ten­si­fied, the big prize was soon iden­ti­fied as be­ing the first to crack 100mph – a feat scarcely imag­in­able when most ‘baby’ cars could just about reach 50mph.

Waite, who es­tab­lished Austin’s rac­ing de­part­ment, had been de­ter­mined to take a Seven to 100mph since 1925 – when some su­per­charged ver­sions were ca­pa­ble of ex­ceed­ing 90mph – but the magic ton had so far eluded the model. The French had come clos­est at Montl­héry in 1928, when a Grazide clocked 96.57mph for the fivemile and 96.22mph for the 10-mile records, be­fore the money ran out. How­ever, with a new su­per­charged mono­posto Ul­ster, Waite saw the po­ten­tial to not just set a record, but also to write a new chap­ter in mo­tor­ing his­tory.

Although Austin in­sisted that a pro­duc­tion­based Seven with a side­valve en­gine would do its record-break­ing, the same at­ti­tude was not taken by MG. The M-type’s over­head-cam 847cc unit placed it at the un­com­pet­i­tive end of Class G (750-1100cc). Abing­don, though, was de­vel­op­ing a new rac­ing Mid­get that shared lit­tle with the M-type save its sus­pen­sion track; this be­came the £575, 88mph C-type or ‘Montl­héry Mid­get’. The pro­to­type, EX120, would be used by Ge­orge Eys­ton and Ernest Eldridge in MG’S quest to beat the Seven to 100mph (see p139).

Nearly 85 years since of­fi­cial works com­pe­ti­tion ceased be­tween Austin and MG, the own­ers of our two fea­tured cars, Andy Storer and Dun­can Pot­ter, are fir­ing vol­leys of chit-chat and mock­ery back and forth, a ten­nis rally of repar­tee – al­beit with the smiles and winks of bon­homie. Both cars’ his­to­ries fea­ture a healthy dose of com­pe­ti­tion. Storer’s su­per­charged Austin Seven Ul­ster TT was built in 1930 and reg­is­tered in 1931. “There are far fewer Ul­sters in blown TT spec than in un­blown form,” he says. “As a TT, this was a works-sup­ported car with a big fuel tank. It was ex­actly this spec that was used for the 1930 TT and 1931 Mille Miglia.”

“There is a gap in its his­tory – we don’t know what hap­pened to it after the mid-’30s,” Storer con­tin­ues. “I bought it in 1975 as a wreck – it had been rolled – and re­stored it, which took 25 years! There isn’t any filler – it’s all metal, which is why it looks rip­ply. It is part of its his­tory and I bought it with the in­ten­tion of rac­ing.”

Peer­ing un­der the bon­net, the cylin­der head ap­pears to be more stud than head: “It has a 25-stud head and the only Seven with more than that is the one at Gay­don, which has 32 studs. The 25-stud en­gines were works units but they were made avail­able to pri­va­teers, while the 32-stud ones were works-only – and they’re a very dif­fer­ent ket­tle of fish.”

The MG C-type, chas­sis num­ber 287 (the 36th of 44), comes with an ex­ten­sive his­tory, which re­veals sev­eral changes dur­ing its life. It was de­liv­ered to Univer­sity Mo­tors at the end of Au­gust 1931, but wasn’t reg­is­tered un­til May the fol­low­ing year. It is be­lieved to have been used as a demon­stra­tor – a tan­ta­lis­ing prospect given that one of the sales­men was the tal­ented driver Hugh ‘Hammy’ Hamil­ton, so there must have been some rather star­tled cus­tomers.

Pot­ter’s fa­ther, David, bought the car in the mid-’90s from North­ern Ire­land, where it had been since the war. “It still had its mid-1930s Q-type body on it,” he re­calls, “which had come from GP Har­vey No­ble’s sin­gle-seater record­breaker. This C-type body was hang­ing on the wall of wiz­ard en­gine-tuner Robin Jack­son’s shed at Brook­lands and was 10 quid! So the Han­d­ley brothers [who owned the car at the time] bought it while Jack­son was or­gan­is­ing

‘The Mid­get looks more se­ri­ous, fo­cused and de­ter­mined – the Ul­ster has an al­most car­toon­ish lev­ity and cute­ness to it’

a new crank – David Han­d­ley had bro­ken it and he was wait­ing for a new Laystall item. He told us it was very ex­pen­sive – it cost him £17 10s!

“He grafted the body onto the car over the win­ter, and fit­ted these brakes and so on. The steer­ing gear came from MG’S com­pe­ti­tion de­part­ment, when it was sell­ing spares after the fac­tory stopped rac­ing.” It’s a J4/Q high-ra­tio Bishop Cam steer­ing box in place of the stan­dard Adamant unit. “It also has a stronger front axle – prob­a­bly from a J4 – with Q-type brakes,” adds Pot­ter. “The car has a mag­ne­sium-bod­ied pre-war Mar­shall blower, too, which is thought to have come from an­other racer.”

Tak­ing to the track, the Mid­get looks more se­ri­ous, fo­cused and de­ter­mined, like a K3 Mag­nette in minia­ture. The Ul­ster has an al­most car­toon­ish lev­ity and cute­ness to it – even if it didn’t bear the name ‘Cus­tard’ on its flanks.

The pho­tog­ra­phy ses­sion soon turns into a race. “I’ll try and keep be­hind you Andy, but it’ll be a strug­gle,” shouts Pot­ter. The gap shrinks. Revs are held for longer, gearchanges be­come quicker – un­til our pho­tog­ra­pher in­ter­venes.

Now it’s my turn for a blast. In the MG there is plenty of room, and lots of fa­mil­iar ‘Triple-m’ traits. What there is of the Austin’s util­i­tar­ian in­te­rior is more strewn out, com­pared to the MG’S ap­peal­ing lay­out and de­tail­ing. Even the C-type’s gearchange pat­tern – which it would give to later com­pe­ti­tion Mid­gets – takes but a cou­ple of re­as­sur­ing glances. There is no need to reach for the hand­brake be­cause the Q-type brakes have plenty of power, but the Bishop Cam steer­ing is not great: it’s well geared, but straight ahead is rather vague. Through cor­ners, how­ever, it weights up nicely and com­ple­ments the MG’S strong front-end grip and sta­bil­ity. On song be­tween 5-6000rpm, the in­vig­o­rat­ing per­for­mance from that lit­tle su­per­charged 746cc ohc screamer be­lies its con­sid­er­able age. Cars in pe­riod were rated at 50-53bhp at 6200rpm.

The re­mote gearchange is so won­der­fully pre­cise and me­chan­i­cal that changes up the ’box seem to hap­pen be­fore your dig­its make con­tact. The rear dampers have gone on strike, so the ride gets choppy as un­du­la­tions re­ver­ber­ate through a chas­sis that is de­signed to flex. This only adds to the fre­netic ex­pe­ri­ence as speeds and noise swell, and there’s enough tur­bu­lence to blow your grin­ning cheeks around your ears.

Get­ting my poundage into the Ul­ster is not so sim­ple: I have to sit on the floor­boards. Legs and feet are con­torted into the footwell and on to the close ped­als with the sort of de­ter­mi­na­tion re­quired to stow un­co­op­er­a­tive jump-leads. Its 6ft 3in wheel­base is half a foot shorter than the MG’S, and I’m miss­ing ev­ery inch. The seat­ing po­si­tion still feels higher, be­cause the Ul­ster does with­out the Mid­get’s un­der­slung rear axle.

The Austin feels lighter, more im­me­di­ate. Power from the 747cc unit – peak­ing at over 50bhp in TT spec – is more lin­ear and pro­gres­sive in its de­liv­ery, which is just as well given the slow, wand-like three-speed gear­lever and the re­versed, dog­leg shift pat­tern.

The Ul­ster’s Austin steer­ing box, though, beats the MG’S. Free from slop, faster and more ac­cu­rate, it’s very bright-eyed and bushy-tailed; the slight­est in­put elic­its a waspish re­sponse from the front end. Be too ham-fisted and you sense the Ul­ster would at best cock a wheel, at worst the sky and ground would swap places, due to its lower lat­eral grip than the MG.

Ac­cel­er­a­tion isn’t as im­pres­sive as in the Mid­get, maybe a prod­uct of my twisted limbs and un­fa­mil­iar­ity. Progress is not so fren­zied; with 12psi of boost it’s on song at 4000rpm but, as in the MG, ex­haust and wind noise drown out the Cozette blower. The ride is smoother and there’s less buf­fet­ing be­hind the ’screen than in the MG. Its brak­ing – thanks to its lower weight (784lb against 1456lb) – equals the Mid­get’s, too.

Is a truce pos­si­ble? Own­ers Storer and Pot­ter switch driver’s seats, then swap notes. “The MG’S more ad­vanced four-speed ’box gives you that ex­tra ra­tio, which gets you away quickly,” says Pot­ter. “At the im­me­di­ate start the Austin would beat the Mid­get off the line, but then I think the MG would come through and fly ahead. By the time the Austin has hit sec­ond gear, the MG has al­ready gone through two. You’re up into third at 6500rpm, then into top. As we both hit top gear, how­ever, I think you’d reel in the C-type and over­take it with the Austin’s ex­tra power and lighter weight.”

“Well, I was catch­ing you along the straight once I got it into top,” agrees Storer. “The Seven’s first-to-sec­ond gearchange is lumpy com­pared to the MG, and that’s the real dif­fer­ence. As soon as I get into top, I’m after you!”

“You’ve prob­a­bly got about twice the weight in the MG, so it only works when you wind it up to 5500-7500rpm,” ven­tures Pot­ter.

“Whereas we sel­dom take the Austin above 5000rpm,” coun­ters Storer. “That’s what makes the Seven so tractable for road events such as the TT and Mille Miglia. When Charles Goodacre took this car to the Mille Miglia, he said it was ca­pa­ble of 95mph – that’s 6000rpm in third! The MG would be bet­ter for the track – for a Brook­lands-type event. You just get it into top and keep it go­ing.”

As Pot­ter con­firms, those were ex­actly the com­pe­ti­tions in which the Mid­get ex­celled: “They won their fair share of Ards TTS and such, be­cause you were us­ing the revs all the time. I’ve hit 95mph in this car at Snet­ter­ton with­out the wings and lights, so I guess that it wouldn’t be too far from 100mph if you kept it run­ning. This par­tic­u­lar car has a sprint­type 8.47:1 dif­fer­en­tial; with an 8.43:1 diff I would have thought it would do 100mph – but it would feel like 300!”

Thanks to Ge­orge Ea­gle, MG Car Club Triple-m Regis­ter (www.mgcc.co.uk), and Chris Gar­ner, Austin Seven Clubs’ As­so­ci­a­tion (a7ca.org)

Above: Austin’s wheel­base is 6in shorter than MG’S. Be­low: Storer re­stored his Austin from a rolled wreck. Right, clock­wise from top left: Ul­ster’s tighter cabin; proud of in­no­va­tion; over 50bhp from 747cc; Austin has more pre­cise steer­ing

The MG has works com­pe­ti­tion steer­ing. Right, clock­wise from top left: more finely fin­ished, comfy cabin; mag­ne­sium­bod­ied pre-war Mar­shall blower; dinky en­gine sings at 5-6000rpm; front-end grip and sta­bil­ity im­press

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