MG TA; Wartime RAF Pilots Choice
History throws up moments when an unpopular decision turns out to be the correct one, often by accident. The decision to allow MG to become part of the Nanjing Automobile Group in 2005 does not fall into that category and sticks in the claw of most enthusiasts. MG (Morris Garages) founded in 1924 by Cecil Kimber has seen 10 owners during its lifetime but it was in 1935 when sold by the Nuffield Group to Morris Motors that the marque lost its independence. MG would have to relinquish the use of the Wolseley based overhead cam engines that had powered the previous PB range in favour of the Morris 10 derived OHV unit and new boss Leonard Lord banned all factory backed motorsport; the design team department was transferred to Cowley. As with most things it was all about profit and the news made the purest flinch but they would however be won over by the all new MG T. The new model was priced to compete at £222.00, it was great value and in many ways it turned out the new car was better, easier to drive and slightly larger. The MG T only received its ‘A’ when the very limited production of the MG TB (379) arrived in 1939, just in time for war. The MG TA Midget ran from 1936 to 1939 when over 3000 were built; robust, reliable and a real sports car with great presence, still a pleasure to be around today.
Think of the ‘TA’ and immediately the vision of an RAF pilot on route to some airbase along the south coast comes to mind. Christopher Plummer played Squadron Leader Colin Harvey in the ‘Battle of Britain’ film made in 1969 and the keen eyed MG enthusiasts will point out he was driving a MGPA, one of around 2500 built from 1934-1936. Douglas Bader also drove one of the early MG’s as did Kenneth Moore in the film ‘Reach for the Sky’ recounting the ace pilots life in RAF. Considered one of the last ‘real sports cars’ the ‘T’ series ran through to 1955 and ended with the TF model; all versions were used in many variants of motorsport worldwide and were especially enjoyed in the USA where the MG’s saw action on the ovals and circuits. The all new Mount Panorama Circuit in Australia played host to the 1938 GP where native Alan Crago raced his TA into 3rd , the following year, at the same GP but this time held at the Lobethal Circuit saw a supercharge ‘TA’ take the win driven by Allan Tomlinson. After the intervention of war the MG TC was launched and most of the changes the factory made were forced on them due to lack of materials but to the average man in the street the car had changed very little. The enduring popularity of the MG continued and caught the factory by surprise; what was essentially a pre-war car had great post-war success.
When you have to own a Midget MG
‘I had always had an eye for one’, Sussex man and classic car enthusiast Mick Hullett told me and during the mid-sixties he had inspected and considered a few early MG’s. Whilst away on a course his brother in law Dennis Anley (a renowned restorer) found EBP 244, an MG TA in need of TLC but with enough tax and MOT to get home under its own power; it was 1968 and the MG had just turned 30. The early type log book shows this MG could have originally been blue although at this time it was hand painted Valspar enamel black and this would certainly have to go. The MG TA used the body on frame construction method with a wooden Ash frame covered with sheet steel for the body mounted into a steel chassis. Not many weeks after getting the MG home Mick assembled all those willing to listen and set about lifting the body from the chassis; he remembers collecting packaging from ready meals supplied at work, ideal for storing all the smaller parts removed in the strip-down. The chassis was pushed to one side and the Ash frame work went off to a pattern maker to recreate in new timber. Mick didn’t put a time scale on the MG restoration and life; work and house renovation ensured it would not be touched for some years. The body was reassembled in the early 1970s and the car would be something Mick would look forward to finishing once retirement allowed him time. It would be a new Millennium before the real work resumed; the stripped chassis prepared and painted and the rebuilt engine fitted. Mick had help from knowledgeable restorer Mike Pearce, who was working with brother in law Dennis; so with a wealth of experience the ‘TA’ was reassembled over the next two years. Now nearly a decade on the car looks almost perfect, it doesn’t carry the ‘just restored’ look and never has. The paint is not glossy in keeping with a 30’s look, the interior is unmarked but shows signs of use, it just looks right.
Mick told me the MG has been reliable and enjoyable over the last 7 years of road use, averaging 500-1000 miles a year; the only glitch has been a blocked oil way and subsequent abnormal noises forcing another engine rebuild in 2008. Stepping in through the tiny suicide doors you drop down into your seat, the passenger has the handbrake for company and although the leg room is generous in length (even for a six footer) the width is narrow but not squashed. The dash is beautiful and the four spoke steering wheel dominates inside, your view out front is splendid, huge fenders glide away either side of the long bonnet, large chrome headlights and the smaller fender mounted sidelights add the final touches. I was surprised how much was available on the dash with more switches and buttons than I have seen before on a Pre-War car, the driver can even adjust the tick-over from his seat. The lack of 1st and 2nd gear synchromesh resulted in a slight protest as we made our way onto the open road, roof down and sun shining, the only way to really enjoy a car like this. The suspension is quite firm, half elliptic springs and the ‘Lever Arm Dampers’ absorb all but the worst pot holes and body roll was surprisingly minimal; I was expecting the movement to be more extreme in-fact it moved most when I got in and out. The original 1292cc MPJG engine picks up the pace quite well, once into 2nd gear the 50hp enables the MG to drive at current traffic speeds and not hold anyone up. The Lockheed hydraulic drum brakes stop the 742 kilo weight (same as a current Smart Car) with ease, if in a rather noisy fashion; Mick confessed a brake clean was in order. I really enjoyed the driving experience and can totally appreciate the attraction of the MG T series cars. My time in the ‘TA’ was a great experience; that said, I still feel the real pleasure spending time around this MG is in the viewing, pure ‘eye candy’, the right size, perfect lines and so much detail that the more you look the more the ‘TA’ offers.
The Dashboard That Has Everything
Taking in to account the rather limited equipment and operations required for a Pre-War cars dash display, not only were MG able to produce such a superbly finished ‘Walnut’ sculptured panel, the facilities offered to the driver are worth pointing out. From left to right;
Grab Handle, speedo, Lucas ‘King of the Road’ map light, amp meter, pull starter, mixture/choke, single front fog light switch, ignition, accessory switch, horn & dip, ignition light, slow running/idle adjuster, oil pressure, Lucas 30mph warning light, rev counter/clock and trafficators.
Why a Pre War MG; Mick Explains...
Custodian Mick Hullett shares his thoughts on owning and driving a Pre War MG TA on today’s roads.
First and foremost I love the shape; the lovely sweep down of the front wings continuing into the running boards is still a joy to behold. The exhilaration of driving with the hood down, wind in your hair and the sensation of speed are probably of equal pleasure. You don’t have to be driving fast, the fact that you are so low down gives an additional impression of speed. My wife says that I think I am Stirling Moss when I am behind the wheel, in fact I don’t drive at more than 60 mph and usually not more than 50 mph when she is in the car with the speedo in front of her; rev counter for the driver. Unlike today’s cars, the MG TA is responsive in all sorts of ways, requires driver involvement rather than being used as a means of getting from A to B. Driving with the hood up is nowhere near as good; even if it does rain, as long as a reasonable speed is maintained you just don’t get wet. It is also rewarding to get admiring looks whether the car is moving or stationary.
MG TA Technical Details
Engine: MPJG 4 Cylinder /1292cc/ 50HP/OHV
Carbs: twin semi downdraught SUs.
Gearbox: manual 4 speed part synchro
Rear Axle: Spiral bevel gears.
Suspension: half elliptic springs/ hydraulic lever arm dampers
Wheels: Centre lock wire spoke.
Tyres: 4.50-19" on 2.5" rims.
Brakes: Lockheed hydraulic 9" drum front and rear.
Length: 11ft 7in Weight: 15cwt ¾ or 762 kilo’s
Max speed: 79mph. 0-50mph: 15.4 sec
MPG: approx. 30
MGTA Launch Price: £222.00. Average House Price: £550.00. Pint of Beer: 5p
1936 Edward VIII has to abdicate to marry Wallis Simpson whilst Jesse Owen took 4 gold medals and so much more in the Berlin Olympics. The BBC begins public TV broadcasts in London and Crystal Palace is destroyed by fire.
The Marston Legacy
John Marston 1869-1918 created The Sunbeam brand and it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to proclaim he influenced all forms of transport on a Global scale. Marston enjoyed early bicycles and constructed his own machine at his enamelling workshops in Wolverhampton. His first attempt came with solid tyres and was seen as basic if not a little crude but his workshop foreman William Neville became interested and produced a quality machine for the company chief. The frame was coated in deep black enamel with gold leaf to an extremely high standard and when Marston’s wife Ellen observed sunlight dancing across its finish she named it ‘Sunbeam’; the new ventures title from 1888. Villiers Engineering began life as an alternate supplier of quality pedals for Sunbeam cycles in 1898 and once taken over by Marston it would expand and prosper under the influence of his eldest son Charles. Villiers would produce its 2 millionth engine in 1956 and the name would be part of motorcycles heritage until 1978.
Car production began in 1901 with the Sunbeam-Mabley, a very strange 2 ¾ hp four wheeled (in a diamond layout) single cylinder machine, capable of carrying two, for sale at £130.00. Marston then began importing Berliet chassis from Lyon, France and fitting Sunbeam bodies, their success at around 18 cars a month led to the Sunbeam Motor Car Company Ltd in 1905; produced at the Moorfield Works and a separate endeavour from Marston’s other interests. More cars followed, including a 3.6 litre, this would have been one of the very first six cylinder engines produced when it arrived in 1904. John Marston began making his own vehicle radiators in 1906, one part of the business that would be unaffected by economics or war time restrictions to come. Prior to WW1 Louis Coatalen joined Sunbeam from Hillman, an engine designer from France he would pen the first aero engines for Sunbeam; his genius would later be utilised in Land Speed Record attempts and would launch the Wolverhampton factory into the Premiership of car producers. His influence also saw Sunbeam take on the racetracks of Europe with reasonable success, unfortunately halted when hostilities began in 1914.
During the war Sunbeams Moorfield Works would supply 647 complete aircraft and Coatalen designed engines would power fighters, bombers, seaplanes and even airships. Up the road at the Sunbeamland factory bicycles shared floor space with a new 2 ¾ hp motorcycle launched in 1912 but the interest created ensured the factory could offer three versions for the following year. War intervened and whilst some limited private production continued a massive demand for the military applications to all transport meant that most bikes leaving Wolverhampton were painted khaki. Post war and immediately the works riders for Sunbeam were in action, whether it be trails or TT. Just prior to cessation of hostilities tragedy struck Marston with the unexpected death of his 3rd son, Roland Marston who was due to take over from his father at Sumbeamland. The shock was such that John Marston also passed away the day after his son’s funeral, his wife Ellen would survive him by just six months. Although no longer at the helm Marston’s influence together with his highly skilled labour force ensured all parts of Sunbeam progressed, at least for the next decade.
1922 and a Louis Coatalen designed 350hp V12 Manitou (aero engine) of 18,322cc was shoe-horned into a Sunbeam prepared racer, arriving at Brooklands on the 18th May with Kenelm Lee Guinness in the seat, it would set a land speed record at 133.75mph. Watching that day was Malcolm Campbell who would constantly pester Coatalen to sell him the car; the Frenchman finally agreed in April 1923 and Campbell broke the record again in the Sunbeam, renamed Bluebird in both 1924 and 1925. On two wheels Sunbeam visited the TT races as a works team every year during the twenties and started the decade with first and third places in the Senior Race of 1920. Success over the mountain course would return several times during the decade and cement the Sunbeam name into motorcycle history. On water, Sunbeam/John Marston Ltd developed an outboard motor that would become known as the Marston Seagull in 1931; this engine would dominate its market for years. Sunbeam also produced hundreds of commercials, mainly buses and trolley buses, a part of the business that enjoyed success up until WW2.
By 1926 Sunbeam began to dominate the land speed record contest with Henry Seagrave driving ‘Ladybird’, a 4 litre V12 supercharged race car that later became known as the Tiger. With the record being challenged almost weekly Coatalen with Sunbeam’s finest, built the 1000hp twin engine monster, they expected to achieve 200mph. Seagrave powered ‘the slug’ as it was known to 203.79mph at Daytona Beach on 29th March 1927, the first time a non US vehicle had driven the beach and given the chance Sunbeam took the record. The 20s and early 30s were golden years for the manufacturer with a golden name but the depression slowed all areas of Sunbeam’s business and although the name continued the only work left in Sunbeamland was radiator production. Depression affected, car and aero engine production began to stall in the early 1930s so Louis Coatalen returned to France and mid-decade the group now called Sunbeam -Talbot- Darracq (STD) ran into financial problems.
The name John Marston will be remembered for many great engineering achievements but his influence over mass mobility with his creation Sunbeam is certainly prominent in the history of transport.