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(With a little help from the Old Speckled Hen)
On 16th May, I received a fax from David Saunders to update me on the T Series Diamond Jubilee Continental Tour. There came a paragraph stating that Rover Cars were prepared to make available an MGF for any part of the Tour and the question was whether I would like to drive it and participate in the M.G. Car Club Deutschland Centre's Classic Car week-end at the Nurburgring.
Would I not?
Let's go back to earlier days. In June 1936 the motoring public first heard of the new T Series Midget which was to emerge from Abingdon. This was to be the first overhead valve push-rod engine in a Midget (as opposed to previous overhead cam models) and was to be larger than its predecessors.
The Powers of the day expected the new Midget to have a much wider market appeal. When the chance came for a well-known motoring photographer to take an early car to join a two week Tour of Europe organised by the M.G. Car Club, the idea seemed to be appealing.
So it came about that W.J. Brunell took JB 9446 along with four P Types, a Riley and a Lagonda. They crossed from Dover to Calais (using the hoists of the day - no drive-on/drive-offs in those days) and then went via Arras, St. Quentin, Reims and Basle to Lucerne. At this point, Bill Brunell chose to use his rest day to try the T Type over some of the Alpine Passes. The Klausen, Furka, St. Gothard and Grimsel presented themselves as obvious choices and it was recorded that the car swept up the miles of steep dusty roads with plenty of power and braking to spare.
The Party then moved through the Black Forest to the Nurburgring where the cars were driven round the circuit and many people turned out to watch. It was in Germany that mention was made of the wonderful new roads and on one occasion the cars, running together, covered fifty miles in forty minutes. That's 75 mph cruising in 1936!
After Germany, the Tour went up to Amsterdam and then into Belgium where the pavè roads made the T Driver the envy of the other Midgets due to its superior and remarkably comfortable ride. This took the cars back to Ostend and then home.
All this was recorded in The Sports Car magazine of October 1936. In 1986 David Saunders organised the London-Inverness Endurance Run to celebrate the Golden Jubilee of the T Type Midget by restaging a Motor road test of the TC which had taken place forty years earlier. He chose the same route and the same date - The Last Weekend In June, as the road test was headed. This captured David's imagination and lent its name to the Run. The legendary Henry Stone accompanied David on that trip as riding mechanic, helping to keep all ten cars mobile. At the end of that four day event, the participants talked of how they might celebrate the Diamond Jubilee ten years hence. At that time, the Continental Rally was not even known about.
The origins of the Rally might have remained a secret had not Paddy Willmer published in Safety Fast! a photograph of a T Type in a Continental setting. This had come from the Club's archives and was spotted by a Member, Robin Mace, who had some old copies of The Sports Car and pointed out that there was an article to which the photograph related. This set David thinking and by 1993 there was the germ of an idea in his mind.
The Saunders mind considered that this must have been the first event in which a T Type could have been involved, in which case, what more appropriate way to follow up the Inverness Run? Plans were started. A small Sub-Committee was formed and, once serious searching began, more photographs were traced, 37 in the Club's archives and another 15 at the National Motor Museum at Beaulieu. Thanks to the co-operation between the Club and Michael E. Ware, the Curator at Beaulieu, it was agreed that all the original prints be copied with two sets of negatives to endure their future safety. These photographs enabled the Sub-Committee to plot the original route fairly accurately.
So now, back to my opening remarks. The Tour was to follow, in outline, the old route through France, Switzerland, Germany, Holland and Belgium. Steve Cox, Business Manager of M.G. Cars made a VVC available (the latest M.G. product, just as the T-Series had been at the time of the 1936 Continental Rally) and Brian Crutchley of Rover had it checked over and then delivered it to my door. A few basic instructions on how the splendid security system worked and a warning not to lock the ignition key in the boot and Brian was away to more important duties. Eleventh hour sponsorship from Morland's Brewery at Abingdon was of vital help in financing a small souvenir programme that could be given to people en route, publicising the event and explaining the reason for it.
In her own words, June concentrated her mind on how to get luggage for two for eleven days into a sports two-seater, being used to throwing everything into the boot of a Sterling. It was amazing what it did take and, to gloss over the details, we crossed the Channel and France to join the Tour at Brunnen on Lake Lucerne.
Here, Raymond Sunier and Roger Rigini (two of the original Inverness crew) had joined the Tour and Marcus Brundler (for once in his home Switzerland instead of attending M.G. Car Club events in UK!) was in charge of all the special arrangements that had been laid on. On the final night in this area, the Swiss Centre organised a Dinner for the Tour at Raclette Suisse and, among others, this was attended by Mrs Marti Keller, the widow of Heinz Keller, the pre-war Importer of M.G.s to Switzerland.
Whilst at Brunnen, Members could explore the Alpine Passes that Mr Brunell had used sixty years earlier to test the T Type. For this hundred mile trip, 6 Tour cars set off with Swiss Centre Members (in T-Types and MGBs) for one of the highlights of the Tour to which all the cars responded well despite their age. June and I came over the Susten Pass from Neuchatel that evening and the MGF seemed to say was that a hill?.
Leaving Switzerland, the route took us through the Schwarzwald to Stuttgart. The day before departure, I heard that Gerhard Maier of Hausach had been ill. I telephoned to enquire how he was progressing to find that he was back at work half time and was invited to call. Gerhard was his old self in outlook The K3 is ready and This is the first MGF in my yard as I write this, I find that this last remark was not quite correct, Max Zingg of St. Gallen tells me that he drove into the Maier premises in his MGF whilst Gerhard was ill. Those who attended the Hausach events or have met Gerhard and Bärbel at Silverstone will be pleased to know that he is progressing well.
On to Stuttgart where, after a good night's sleep, several Members went to look at the Porsche Museum prior to setting off along the beautiful Mosel Valley to Koblenz where we were to be at Diehl's hotel, about 100 meters from the Rhine, but it is the nearest I have ever been to the railway running through the middle of the house . The trains were about 100 feet (yes, feet) from my bed, but one soon failed to notice them.
This is where the traumas started. A telephone call from Peter Benzing advised us that John Gardam had a broken half-shaft and that the car was South of Mainz. We all knew that David Saunders was carrying two spare half-shafts so Peter said that he would leave his mobile telephone open so that John could be advised when David arrived. To cut a long story short, David arrived and reminded us of the rescue service in the Classic Car Tours scheme. It was 2 am when John finally arrived awakening Mike Lugg and David to say that he was sure that they would want to know that both he and car had made it! There were many willing hands and much advice for John in the morning, especially about crossing Alpine Passes at speed in a fifty-eight year old car!
Saturday saw a few of us at the Nurburgring to meet James Beachus, Overseas Secretary of the Deutschland Centre of the M.G. Car Club, who had been a great help in organising the German part of the itinerary. We were entertained in the Rover hospitality suite. It was not long before Wolf Pröpsting (President of the Deutschland Centre) arrived and he was his usual polite and hospitable self. He had his enormous entourage at the circuit, including about five of his twelve M.G.s. At the end of the day, he invited June and myself to join his crew at a local restaurant. When we arrived, we found David and several others there and everyone delighted to see David's book of the 1936 photographs.
On Sunday, the entire Continental Tour Party was assembled at the Nurburgring for another highlight of the trip - to be part of the Corso at this classic car weekend. This included a lap in convoy of the old 14 mile circuit. Although this was intended for cars built before 1969, the MGF was allowed, as a special concession, to be included. Most of the distance was completed at a speed considerably less than that which the car could have managed, but at least I enjoyed trying to take the right line and I dutifully maintained my position at the back. I did hear a rumour that one or two M.G.s did perform a little overtaking, but of course, I couldn't possibly comment!
The racing was good too with historic Formula I Grand Prix cars as well as motor cycles and varied makes of road cars. Wolf Pröpsting managed a fifth place being first M.G.
The next morning we left Koblenz to spend two nights near Breda at the Motel Gilzerigen. This was an excellent establishment, but poor Cyril Mellor (of 14/40 fame) arrived to announce that he had a big end on the way out. He intended to drop the sump, remove piston and rod and return to the UK on three! When I expressed doubt, he started the engine and I could see (or rather, hear) that he had a point. As usual, friends rallied round, other shell bearings were produced and matched and it was decided that the unit could be re-assembled with a chance of completing the journey on four cylinders.
It was at this motel that the Rally Dinner was held and the Tour Party had generously invited June and myself to attend as their Guests. The Management made available a private room and laid out the tables in a huge square prior to serving a delicious meal. The party went with a swing with several people putting in their six pennyworth, but Mike Lugg rather stole the thunder with a hastily constructed rhyme about the event and its personalities. It scanned and it rhymed and it attracted enormous applause (Wait for this in December! APW)
The sad bit for June and myself was that we were to return to the UK the next day whilst the rest of the party went on to Bruges and then to Boulogne for the final night and yet another Dinner. My spies tell me that this was another enjoyable part of this incredible operation. Cyril's bearings started to protest again so the TD was driven at 30 mph with four others in attendance in case of failure. Rescue Service once again and the car was taken to the ferry the next morning and was met by another vehicle in UK to take it to Staffordshire.
Not only must Classic Car Tours be congratulated on their overall booking arrangements and hotel selection (including the recommended Restaurant for the Dinner in Boulogne - a boisterous affair I am told), but also on the emergency services that once again proved that it is unwise to take old cars on long trips without proper cover.
The final twist in the tale came when Peter Benzing's TF broke a half-shaft in Dover. There was an ugly rumour that this was caused by the excessive weight of champagne at the back of the car, but again, I couldn't possibly comment and anyway, David was completely out of half-shafts.
The Tour was another piece of unrepeatable history in the world of M.G. and I am very grateful and honoured to have been a small part of it. To David must go the laurels for the initiative and leadership, but his small Committee must also take great credit for its work, Rod Sawyer who provided initial support and who became Treasurer also negotiated with Jonathan Bowles at Classic Car Tours. John Bloomfield who volunteered at the very moment when additional help was required, put together a comprehensive Route Guide and offered his home for Committee Meetings whilst his wife, Diana coped with the catering arrangements. Frances Maynard, although missing the Tour due to business commitments, still volunteered her services for the preparation work and took responsibility for the word processing of the handbook.
However, without the Entrants there would be no event and it was their enthusiasm, co-operation and willingness to get on together and to make the Tour the success that it was, that the final thanks should be given. I only hope that everyone else enjoyed it as much as June and I did.
The final note in the Route Book was that it was hoped that the document would survive and be used to plan the 2036 Tour to celebrate the T Type Centenary. If in that year you see N281 SVC storming up a Swiss Pass with a crate of Old Speckled Hen on the boot, you'll know why. I have a feeling that I might just miss that!
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