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Extract from MGB Driver Jun/Jul 1999, the NAMGBR official publication
Remembering J.W.Y.Thornley OBE
June 11, 1909-July 15, 1994
John William Yates Thornley looms large as one of the commanding figures in the history of the MG marque. 1999 marks the 90th anniversary of his birth in 1909, the 30th anniversary of his retirement from the MG Car Company in 1969 and 5 years since he passed away in 1994. His son Peter Thornley, who resides in Atlanta, wrote this remembrance of his father for MGB Driver to mark the occasion.
Pop's first experiences with internal combustion engines were with a succession of, ever more powerful, motorcycles. When he reached the age of twenty-one his father prevailed upon him to graduate to a motor car. Pop was confronted with the choice between a supercharged Triumph, a Morgan three-wheeler and an M.G. M-Type. (We often wonder where life would have led had his decision been different!)
By the middle of 1930, the M-Type had been in production for some three years. In and around London they proved to be quite distinctive-small in size, bright in colour and with the distinctive 'V' shaped windshield. It became the custom for drivers of similar machines to wave or flash headlights in recognition. The situation was ripe for the formation of a Car Club.
The first meeting of the M.G. Car Club was held in North London in September of 1930. John, as the first Honorary Secretary, was instructed to go to Abingdon to obtain approval from Cecil Kimber. From here on Pop's life became complicated, but his enthusiasm pulled him through. He was in training to become an Incorporated Accountant, and attending the London School of Economics in the evenings. Every other Saturday was spent up at Abingdon on Club business, and so by the end of the year he was making overtures to CK for an opportunity of employment. However, lest we forget, this was the Great Depression, and jobs were hard to find. Persistence pays and by November of 1931 John was at M.G. Car Company. In fairly short order he became their Service Manager, which he was when the war intervened.
Due to his experience in the Officer Training Corp at school, John rose rapidly to become a Lieutenant Colonel in charge of the Purchasing, of all electronic and communications equipment for the British Army. He rejoined MG at the end of hostilities, again as Service Manager, and eighteen months later became Sales and Service Manager. After the assimilation of the production of Rileys, John became General Manager of M.G. Car Company in 1952. He assumed command with four objectives:
- - To maintain the high moral standards that he had inherited.
- - To bring MG sports car design responsibility back to Abingdon (It was not being afforded sufficient attention at Morris headquarters at Cowley).
- - To produce a high quality enclosed sports car that was sufficiently civilized for executive transportation.
- - To maintain MG production at Abingdon.
The story has been often told of Pop's influence on the creation of the TD out of an amalgam of a TC body onto a shortened Y-Type chassis. And the production of the Prototype MGA by Syd Enever for George 'Spud' Phillips to race at LeMans in 1951. From this fundamental design was to come the EX 182 entry of a three car team in the 1954 twenty-four hour LeMans event. In all of these John was the 'Eminence Grise' that pushed from the shadows to make things happen.
After the MGA was off the ground and in production, long range thoughts turned fairly rapidly to it's successors. In November of 1955 after the Earls Court Motor Show, John and Syd Enever wrote the following paragraph to S.V. Smith, the BMC director in charge of Abingdon:
"The great disadvantage of the monocoque form, particularly in the case of relatively small production rates such as our own, is that, unless the general construction of the car is to be very orthodox, one must of necessity tie oneself to a body design too far ahead of production. By using a self-supporting chassis (even though this may ultimately be welded or multiply-bolted to the body) development of chassis and body can proceed independently. The complete design then enjoys the benefit of flexibility, such that the style may subsequently be changed without interfering with the chassis, and vice versa.
We consider therefore that all future Abingdon products should have chassis frames."
These paragraphs, when the MGB is considered, were to give John considerable amusement, for it was only months later that Syd was deeply involved in the monocoque design for the next generation MG. And to perhaps give you a new perspective on the MGB and John's respect for Syd Enever let me quote again from his own writing:
"I think if you want an indication of how remarkable it is, as a design: take an MGB roadster with the 'shed' down: open both doors fully; and then look at it from the side with your eyes about a foot of the ground; and you will see two large chunks of motor car joined together by 'not very much'; into that 'not very much' he had to build, not just the beam strength to hold the thing up off the road, but the torsional rigidity. You see if you are designing a saloon motor car, you've got tin over the top, and you can stress that, you can make the thing as torsionally tight as you like. He got it built into the sills. He deserves a Putty Medal for that lot."
The next development beyond the MGB roadster was, of course the GT version, and here we see the completion of the third objective that he had when he became General Manager. He was to accomplish the fourth, for he retired in 1969, but then spent the next ten years watching people who knew not what they were about, destroying all that he had fought to maintain.
Pop was a wordsmith-see his writings; he was an enthusiast-the product attests to that; he was an authoritarian-my posterior can attest to that! Humanitarian, artist, accountant, public speaker, engineer, father and remarkable grandfather. As a son, one is perhaps too close to fully appreciate this remarkable multifaceted man, who was very complex-an enormous personality. At times very warm and generous, at others he could be disapproving. His expectations of himself and others were always high-he was not liberal in his praise. Which made it more appreciated when it came.
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