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Former engine guru at the M.G. Development Department at Abingdon, shouldn't really be Jimmy at all...
In 1945, as a 14 year old fresh out of St. Edmund's school, Jimmy's dad managed to secure him a job at Abingdon as a junior office/messenger boy. My dad was hoping to get me into the service side - he had friends there and I had always been helping him tinkering with things - so he thought that something in that line would suit me. In those days, it was not easy to become an apprentice - M.G. had no vacancies - but they were prepared to take in messenger boys .
At Abingdon, as elsewhere in the Nuffield Organisation, the theory was that a messenger boy should serve for six months before moving on to another job. After eight months had passed, I began to get a bit restless. Cecil Cousins called me in to his office and said Come with me upstairs and bring your satchel . Whereupon he took me to see John Bull and said here's your new tea boy for the TC chassis line .
On the line, Jimmy was nominally inder charge-hand Jack Lewis. He asked me what my name was and started to say Sydney John, but he interrupted me almost as soon as I had finished, saying we've got too many Syd's and Cissies (Cecils) here already, so we'll call you Jimmy.
Thus Jimmy - still relatively clean and smartly dressed, fresh from delivering messages - began helping Fred Saunders and Arthur Hazel with the TC suspension: my first job was the put the front springs on the bean axle. I was wearing a sports jacket and had no overalls (workers had to supply these themselves) and so I got absolutely plastered with grease. I can remember going home proudly sporting greasy marks on my face and clothes feeling that I had finally done something worthwhile .
After 4 years on the TC line, Jimmy had begun to know most of the senior staff at Abingdon, including of course Syd Enever: Syd was a brilliant engineer with an excellent memory - he always knew exactly what you were supposed to be doing - whether or not you were actually doing it. I remember that we had three special canshafts for some purpose and five years later he came to see me and said I think we've got one left to which I replied that I didn't think we had. Syd said to go and check and of course when I did he was absolutely right.
In my 1949, Jimmy went into the army for his national service. On his return from Hong Kong and Malaya in June 1951, and already assured of a job: I went down the Gees (the factory name for the plant) on a Friday and said when can I start?. They said Monday if you want to - and I'd only been back a few days! I started back and as I walked down the line if the blokes said hello Jim - haven't seen you for a while to which I replied no - I've been away two years!.
About the time that the TF was coming into being Jimmy had his first real contact with the celebrated Alec Hounslow, Development Shop Foreman. Hounslow was a powerful and sometimes intimidating figure, but was universally respected: During the war, I believe that Alec had been a mechanic in an MTB (Motor Torpedo Boat) and of course he is famous as being Nuvolari's riding mechanic in 1933. After re-building a blue TD which Alec had crashed, they asked me if I would like to stay in Development. I said that I would, and became their tea-boy. As we have seen, this meant much more at M.G. than brewing cuppas.
I quickly learned - particularly from my mistakes. I remember one time when Syd Enever came in and an engine which I had rebuilt was making a strange noise. Syd asked me what was wrong and I replied that I didn't know. So I went back to the bench where I found a plate; I didn't know what it was for and Syd said you know what you've got to do - find out!. It turned out to be a thrust plate for the camshaft (XPAG engine).
Jimmy is keen to emphasise that fact that he was never an apprentice, which led to all sort of problems: It is very difficult if you learn the theory after the practice - but I had it that way round. Nevertheless, this baptism of fire had its compensations: If you wanted to do something, someone would show you - e.g. lathe work - and that way I soon picked up the rudiments of engine work from Jack Crooke. We even had a K3 Magnette in one time, and I had the job of rebuilding the engine in that. I had a sort of apprenticeship by default.
In the early 1950's Jimmy had the opportunity to take over responsibility for building racing engines at Abingdon. We got to the point that the TD had run its course. George Philips car (UMG 400 - EX172) was Syd's idea and most of the basic body was by Wally Kimpsey. Syd always wanted to turn EX172 into a production car, and so he managed to get a further prototype built . This was the coach-built maroon prototype HMO 6 (EX175) which bore such a strong visual resemblance to the MGA which it sired. According to Jimmy, Syd Enever managed to get the body for HMO 6 done on the quiet at Bodies Branch.
In those days, the BMC merger was still very recent, and the integration of the former rival Morris and Austin companies virtually non-existent. Therefore when an Austin engine arrived at Abingdon, the first reaction was to have nothing to do with it: however the XPEG engine was really at its limits, and so we decided to look at the Austin engine. We put a full-flow filter on it - for which we drilled through the block - and we developed the camshaft for more lift. Then we worked with Harry Weslake on the combustion chambers and before long we found ourselves working on what would become the Le Mans engine specification for EX182 the 1955 Le Mans cars.
The Development Department invariably worked long hours. The basic working week was eight till six Monday to Thursday and then eight to five on a Friday, but we often did eight till nine except for Friday, when we still finished relatively early. We often worked Saturday and Sunday and one year I recall that we only had Christmas off. This had its problems, particularly for a young man like Jimmy: I was courting at the time and couldn't get Saturday afternoons off. I would go up to Alec and he would say but you had a Saturday afternoon off a couple of months ago - how many d'you want?
Unlike some modern business enterprises, there was strong and personal interest in the affairs of the Development Department from the very top of the Abingdon management: John Thornley often used to come in late with a load of fish and chips for the lads - he was well respected at Abingdon.
During the period prior to the 1955 Le Mans race, Jimmy and his colleagues were involved in the Monte Carlo entry of four Z Magnettes - known as the Four Musketeers. We had these cars in the shop says Jimmy, and we came up with a device to allow the back window of the car to be hinged open so that the navigator could lean out from inside the car and fill up the fuel tank via the filler without having to stop! This seemed to be a crazy idea and I don't think it worked very well.
Once the Le Mans cars had been built and tested they were ready to go to Le Mans: We drove the four cars (three in the race plus LBL 304 as a spare) and I was in the third car, Douggie Watts in the last one. We were all going down the road in convoy on the way to Dover and the next thing I knew the back end had gone. I was about two-thirds of the way round a left hand bend and the car spun three times - I can remember Douggie shouting to me hold on to it Jim! and then the car suddenly swung the other way round and shot forwards. The car went up the bank as I put the anchors on, and to our amazement there was no damage other than a slightly bent front number plate. I don't know to this day whether or not Marcus Chambers ever got to hear about this!
Jimmy has, understandably, some quite vivid recollections of the 1955 Le Mans race, including the well-known tragedy involving Pierre Levegh's Mercedes. I saw the Levegh accident very clearly, and in my opinion the fault appeared to lie with Mike Hawthorn. Lance Macklin was driving a Healey and Hawthorn shot past him. In my opinion, Mike Hawthorn misjudged coming into the pits - he must have been doing about 120 mph - as instead of coming in behind Macklin he cut in front of the Healey. As a result, Macklin pulled to the left just as Levegh was coming up behind him. The Healey was full of fuel and therefore riding very low; it also had that tapered rear wing line, and so Levegh's Mercedes simply rode up the Healey's wing and shot into the air, dug into the bank, and all the stuff from the wreckage flew into the crowd. Some 87 people were killed; it was a terrible thing to see. The reason why Jimmy is so confident of the story is because he was situated not far from where the accident happened: I was on the look out for our missing EX182 - driven by Dick Jacobs, which came roaring flat out through the smoke and flames; I remember thinking afterwards that he seemed to have no fear .
After the 1955 Le Mans, motor racing came to be seen in some quarters as politically incorrect and plans for future BMC entries were cancelled other than the Dundrod TT race in Northern Ireland in September 1955: There were of course the two engines - the Austin one by Bill Appleby and the Morris one by Eddie Maher. Syd Enever was friends with Eddie Maher and so it was hardly surprising that he tended to favour the Morris engines unit, which I also thought somehow looked more like a twin-can engine, if you see what I mean .
In the spring of 1957, Development and Comps were split up: Alec Hounslow had run both, but it had become too big for him to handle, since the Development Shop concerned itself not only with normal development but also the celebrated record breaking exploits on the Utah salt flats. We had started doing record breaking with George Eyston before the split, and he had a lot of influence. I didn't go on the first run with EX179 but I had worked on the changes to EX135 when it came in and out of the shop. EX135 was the record breaker which had been successful pre and post-war and Goldie Gardner, and in its final guise served as the inspiration for EX179. In later years it was modified at Abingdon for display purposes when, according to Jimmy, Johnny Lay cut holes in the bodywork and let in perspex panels for display purposes, which is how it survives today.
Jimmy's first trip to the Utah salt flats is etched upon his mind; Having tried to take in the spectacle of it all I asked Capt. Eyston what it was like to drive on the salt at about 300 m.p.h. He said that to his mind anything over 150 m.p.h. all seemed to be much the same!
Eventually, the men from M.G. began their record breaking exploits in earnest: we ran EX179 in an enormous circle for twelve hours, and EX181 in a straight line. To do this we had to drag the circuit with a railway sleeper and then drove six inch nails with a piece of red tape on into the salt with a hammer every three yards for twelve miles. (That is 7040 nails each time!) Every time we do a run we have to redo this - it was not the most enjoyable of jobs! This was used to lay the black line which EX181 had to follow, using old engine oil; this was the driver's only means of reference on the otherwise featureless plain at high speed to ensure that he was on sourse. Phil Hill was driving on this occasion and he had to put up with conditions which would have put the fear of God into most of us.
At the end of the straight-line run, Jimmy and Brian Rees had to turn the car round for the return leg; on this occasion it was difficult to re-start; it kept going pop pop pop and we thought that that was it - and then it fired up; what a wonderful noise in all that emptiness! . As has been recorded elsewhere, EX181 went in to achieve 254 m.p.h. and lasting fame as the last of the factory record breakers. Jimmy stayed with the Development Department for the next twelve years, working on many other projects, until he left the section in 1971. He remained through the factory closure until December 1980.
Jimmy now lives in happy retirement with his wife at their home in Abingdon, and I hope that you will share my gratitude to him for allowing us to share a little of his marvellous recollection of 35 memory-packed years at Abingdon.