now browsing by category
Automotive Memories from Eastern Kentucky, 1965 to 1970 | Stirling Watts
These automotive memories of my youth are interspersed with fond memories of my Dad, who was a first rate mechanic and competitive driver in the early SCCA days and a die- hard firearms enthusiast. These experiences all took place during our temporary residence in eastern Kentucky from 1965 to 1970. The following paragraphs are an excerpt from a more complete article describing that period of my life. The car pictured is very similar to the one described in the paragraphs below. Ours had bubble style headlight covers which had been added by the previous owner, but otherwise the car looks identical,
An Interesting Afternoon Drive
While we were living in that green house, one Sunday afternoon we decided to all take a long drive. At that time the family car was a 1962 Lancia Appia, a very tiny 4 door sedan by modern standards. Our destination was Pine Mountain, in Breathitt County in the south part of Kentucky near the Tennessee line. I remember that the terrain down that way was very rugged, and that dad had said that Breathitt County also had a reputation for being a rough place. We had an employee on that job named Bert Couch, who came from Breathitt County who could attest to its rough reputaion. Bert was a tough man.
The whole family was on this Sunday driving excursion, my two older brothers in the back seat and I think I was up front between Mom and Dad on the bench front seat. We had just been to Pine Mountain and I think we were sill in Breathitt County heading back north towards Morehead. A carload of possibly drunk men, I think there were four of them in their car, appeared in front of us. It seems to me they were driving something like a standard Chevy sedan of the period. They seemed to be wandering all over the road. Dad prepared to pass them, and just as he pulled to the left to go around, the driver also swerved left and jammed on his brakes forcing us to almost come to a stop. Then they drove off, laughing at the fun they had just had.
Pretty soon we were behind them again and dad figured he would just pass them up and get away from them. Again, Dad pulled to the left to pass and they repeated the same trick, apparently even more amused at the fun they were having with this Yankee with Ohio tags. Dad opened the glove box and pulled out his M1911 .45 auto. On the third attempt to pass, he plainly displayed the .45 in his right hand, pointing it straight up, as he pulled to the left to pass. The occupants of the car all immediately stopped laughing. The driver jammed on the brakes as we were passing them. If my memory serves me right, we saw them make a U turn and head the other direction.
I related this story at Dad’s funeral. That day affirmed to me Dad’s strong character. Harley Watts was a tough and respectable individual. Dad almost always carried. Maybe it was illegal, I have no idea, but there was always a loaded pistol at his disposal at virtually every moment, and he lived a long and incident free life.
Fast Street Driving in a 1959 Ferrari 250 GT
I remember a couple of automotive incidents from that era involved Dad’s 1959 Ferrari 250 GT, his hobby car. You have to understand something of the automotive background of the Watts family to appreciate why he owned a Ferrari, while we all lived an average and far less than flamboyant middle class style of life. Any way, Dad used to drive the Ferrari back and forth to Columbus every other weekend during the school year, when the family was back home. It was 165 mile drive which included driving through traffic lights in four towns including the edge of Columbus, across the toll bridge into Kentucky in Portsmouth, Ohio, followed by the portion of the trip where he would really make time on 2 lane rural roads the rest of the way into Morehead. His best time in the Ferrari was right at 2 hours and 30 minutes, and average speed of 66 mph, including traffic lights in 4 towns. Guess for yourself what his maximum speed must have been along various parts of the route. I rode with him on one such commute which was far slower than his best average, and I recall seeing the speedometer dial pushing the 140 mph mark on more than just a few occasions along the way.
One time I remember fondly that we were driving on KY 10 along the Ohio River between Portsmouth, OH and Vanceburg, KY. We came up behind a guy in a convertible Corvette, probably a late 50s model, and he obviously thought he was going to be able to prevent Dad from passing him. I guess the fact that we came up on him at a high rate of speed must have been to him an indication of a desire to race. I’m guessing the Vette was running along at 100 to 110 mph on the straight sections, and then he was all over the place in the corners. The Ferrari had excellent cornering manners, but lacked the punch to overtake the Vette in the straight sections. It only took a couple of corners to make it by him. Dad just left enough space between us and him to allow himself to gain on him while building momentum at the exit of the corner. Just about the time the Vette driver was ready to punch the throttle , we slingshotted past him. In only a few more corners he was totally left in the dust. I LOVED driving with Dad in those days.
On another occasion we had driven in the Ferrari to do some business at the Montgomery County court house in Mt Sterling. It was a rainy and slightly cold day. Anybody with any sense at all had their headlights on, and we did. Driving with Dad in the Ferrari was sort of like being in competition regardless of the conditions, and I think he rather liked to play sliding games in the rain. We were passing cars on east bound US 60 like they were standing still, one after another. Most of the time when I was Dad’s passenger, I was just smiling ear to ear the whole time. This was no exception. But this time Dad did make one small error in judgment as we were making what would have been a smooth pass. In the middle of a pass with the power full on, there suddenly appeared in the opposite lane a car. It had not been as visible, as the driver had failed to turn on his lights. There were two things we could do in that short span of time – we could either hit him head on, or take intelligent evasive action. As usual, Dad took intelligent action. He slowed the car down tremendously with the brakes and looked for an available entrance into the ditch to our left, which we found at just the moment the approaching car passed by us in the opposite direction. It happened so fast that I doubt if the other driver even had the time to brake. I think the car may have been slowed to maybe 40 mph when we entered the rather broad but deep ditch. It then took several hundred feet for us to slow to a stop.
We came to a stop well down in a rather deep and only slightly muddy ditch, as most of the surface of the ditch had grass in it. Dad was only a little bothered by his mistake, but I think my heart was beating a little faster than normal. It was a great save by a good driver. The guy who was coming the other way showed up in a few minutes later, white as a ghost, as he was almost sure that we had rolled the car or been badly injured. I was impressed at the truly quick and intelligent thinking on Dad’s part. The other driver I think didn’t even realize we had been going pretty fast, and he was extremely apologetic about not having his lights on. The other driver I think got a wrecker out to us and that put us back on the road. I think there was a piece of trim that got pulled off, and a minor dent in one rocker panel, and a whole lot of mud under the car, but we drove home otherwise unscathed. I know this to have happened in 1965, because I remember the car so well, and it was in 1966 that Dad moved on to a different model of Ferrari.
When we got home, Dad never said a word about what happened. I think he was a little pissed at me when I blabbered about it to Mom.
More Vehicle Stories – Work Vehicles
Telling this story brings back memories of the other vehicles we used on the job. Dad’s primary work vehicle was a 1964 VW Kombi, known to many as a VW bus. The Kombi, though a bit underpowered for highway use, and being only 2 wheel drive was every bit as nimble as were the 4 wheel drive vehicles which the crews were also using. There was red 1960 Ford 4×4 pickup which was jacked high in the air for ground clearance. It looked strange and unconventional at that time, because absolutely nobody put lift kits in their trucks back then. That fad didn’t start until 30 years later. And there was a 1947 Willys Jeep. It was okay, but still no more nimble off road than was the VW Kombi. They also had a 1952 Willys which was only 2 wd. Perhaps there were some other work trucks but I cannot recall what they were.
The VW was great because it was relatively water tight. The road systems of the time in that region rarely included bridges, unless the road was paved. In that era, a large number of KY state highways were still gravel. County roads were less maintained and usually had gravel on them. Township maintained roads were often just dirt paths with little or no gravel on them.
Anyway, there was one particular farm that Dad had to survey that was owned by a family named Donahue. I don’t remember their first names, and there were Donahue families all over the place in that valley. It seems that different families spelled the name differently. Maybe it was because nobody really could read or write well and they were all intermaqrried, or maybe it was because they were reall from different families, or maybe some of both. There was Donnahoo, Donahue, Donahew, etc. on various mailboxes. Anyway to get to these Donahues house you had to ford the river. When the water was up at all, there was a troublesome deep spot near the bank closest to their house. I know that Dad’s favorite vehicle for crossing there was the Kombi, because the motor just never got wet, as long as you didn’t stay in the water too long. On more than one occasion the wheel stopped touching the bottom of the river for a few seconds, and the Kombi was floating across propelled only by momentum and spinning five wheels.
Read this and more fun stories at www.wattsness.com
Where Are They All Today? Part 4, Final Edition on early MG TC Racing by Bob Watts
I can add a few bits of updated information since this article was written circa 1997. Harley’s chartreuse colored TC is still, as reported, in the possession of my brother, Larry, where it has been for about 25 years. Its restoration was (slowly) initiated in the late 60s, and the car still remains in complete and solid and restorable condition. The last time I remember it being licensed for the street must have been around 1961. It was then still our daily transportation family car, and I remember running errands in it with my Mom at the wheel, right about the time I started in public school. For a long time there was a 1961 Ohio tag on its front bumper. The picture here, taken the year before my birth, shows the car as I remember it.
The slightly tweaked frame as well as some other body parts of Harley’s first BRG TC was in our garage for the longest time. I believe that Bob finally collected all of those parts and that they are in his possession. .Also, since this was written, none of the names mentioned in the article are with us any more, with the exception of possibly Chuck Dietrich, and Bob Watts. The last time I saw Chuck was when Dad came to one of the SCCA races I drove at Mid Ohio around 1996. Chuck was then around age 72, was also driving that day, and was still extremely competitive in his Formula Atlantic. Dad passed away in 2004. I saw Don Marsh at Dad’s funeral, and not too many years after that I learned of Bob Fergus’ passing. The last time I had seen Bob Fergus was in the early 90s at a vintage sports car race at Sebring, which I had gone to spectate. What happened to the Fergus cars we have no idea. Bob Watts is now age 87, is and very active in the MG club in central Ohio. Though he does not mention it in this article, Bob completed a meticulous restoration of his second TC in the late 90s, and he regularly drives it in casual vintage events. –editor.
Final Edition – part 4 on MG TCs in Central Ohio by Bob Watts
Those original TCs are where now? Ray Fisher’s TC was, as I recall, a cream colored car, and may have been traded on the Porsche 356 drophead which he drove for many years. Don’t know where it might be now. Tom Harrington’s TC was a cream car also. I don’t know what happened to it. I believe Roger Morgan owned it for a while. Bob Fergus still has his BRG late 48 or 49 TC, and values it highly. Phil Miller’s TC was re-painted “Bread Truck White” and sold, or traded on an Austin Healey 100. I think the Italmecchanica blower was still on it when he disposed of it. Dave Lee’s TC was red and is currently owned by Dave Stewart of Powell, Ohio and is a R.I.P. Tom Miller’s TC is red and was given to his daughter in California in early March 1996. It was in need of total restoration, which was completed in 1997. Don March still drives his black 48 TC with the Marshall blower, which was put on the car in 49 or 50. Don’s second TC a cream colored car, not blown, was sold to someone in Cleveland in the mid 50s. Harley Watts’ original BRG 48 TC was the one rolled by a friend coming down the hill at the Bellefontaine hillclimb in about 1954. The engine ended up in his second TC, while most of the other parts, including fenders, are still in his garage or in my possession. The engine from the second TC is in Harley’s garage. His second TC was chartreuse (ugly) and was driven for many years as a family car. His son Larry now has this car. He replaced some wood in the tub, and painted the car BRG. It has not been restored mechanically and is in storage. Chuck Dietrich’s BRG TC, at last report, was owned by one of Chuck Henry’s sons in Bellevue, Ohio.
Of the nine TCs, the location of six are known, leaving three which are unknowns. Six out of nine after 46 years isn’t bad. If you include Harley Watts’ second TC it is seven out of ten. Of the six, two are driven on occasion, two are R.I.P., one is a basket case without the body tub, and one probably in storage. I expect the presently existing cars are likely to be around for considerably longer.
The 49 TC EXU purchased by R.G. Watts in Florida in 1952 was sold to “Herbie” Kountz, Ray Fisher’s brother-in-law, who raced it locally before moving to Massachusetts and taking the car along. The present location is unknown. My second TC was # 6557 purchased from the Columbus Sports Car Co. (Bob Fergus) in 1954. It was a “trade-in” on an Austin Healey 100. This TC is the subject of the following “Restoration Manual”.
The MG TC was the beginning vehicle which launched the “Sports Car” boom as well as the SCCA in central Ohio. Many more models and makes followed, most of which were British, including the XK 120, Austin Healey, Triumph, and the German Porsche.
A Historical Perspective on Performance: The 80s Versus Today
By Stirling Watts
At left: Old school fuel delivery – Two 40mm Weber DCOE dual throat carburetors fitted to our 1959 Alfa Romeo Giulietta Sprint Veloce
What is History to One, is Fond Memories to Another!
Only recently has it come to my attention that my own recent personal experiences are, in the eyes of the younger adult generation in fact, history! That which I remember about all the fun I ever had racing motorcycles and carts and automobiles is to me as clear as is any other memory. To those who were not yet born in the early 80s, that which is to me the mundane might be to them quite interesting. Without that realization I never would have considered assembling this article. I certainly feel amazed when I read all the material that Bob Watts has contributed about racing in the early 50s, just a few years before my own birth. The memory of a world in which cars from the 1930s were an everyday experience is to me like fantasy, while to Bob it is just a memorable reality.
Though I am no detailed technical authority on the subject of internal combustion efficiency, I lived through the era of the 80s paying at least some attention to it, while the average citizen did not. Not everything I write will reflect the truth as my world of experience is quite narrow, and I only state things as I remember them and with respect to that which I was privileged to witness. When I started fooling around with increasing the performance of standard engines was during this period, the early 1980s. It was a good period for the motoring hobbyist, for it was a period during which off- the- shelf engine efficiency was still in its infancy. Under my Dad’s tutelage, I gained the majority of my guidance from a classic book which is still in circulation in reprint, entitled “Tuning for Speed” by Phil Irving. Irving was a renowned Australian motorcycle engine designer and tuner who knew and understood, through vast amounts of practical experience in racing as well as professional work as an engine designer, how to make standard engines perform to their maximum potential. His experience was well documented in this classic book, which I think was first published in the late 1940s. “Tuning for Speed” by Phil Irving was my Dad’s Bible.
The Era of Federally Mandated Dismal Performance
Looking back on it, motorcycles and automobiles have advanced to a highly reliable and advanced state in the past 30 years. In my childhood and teen years, performance cars were all leftovers from the 1960s. Late in the 70s and in the early 80s in the automotive world, government mandated pollution controls were initially a great hindrance to performance. There was a brief period of low performance “high performance” vehicles. In that era, the requirements imposed upon automotive manufacturers for cleaner air were in excess of the capabilities of existing technologies. Such standards could only initially be met with adverse effects upon performance. Rather than focusing on finding methods to increase combustion efficiency, automotive engineers were, at least in the short term, compelled to use “band-aid” fixes which focused on a less efficient approach to cleaner exhaust air, namely, burning off the leftover gases after the fact, as opposed to finding more advanced methods to improve combustion in the power cycle itself. Evidence of that state of being behind the curve could be seen under the hood of virtually any common period car. The plumbing under the hood of just about any car of the late 70s or early 80s was almost mind boggling. It was also a major confusion factor for even the best mechanics. Fuel injection technology was still less than perfect. Many manufacturers chose to continue to rely upon carburetor technology simply on the basis of cost control. But meeting the clean air standards required more control of fuel mixture and delivery than could be delivered by traditional carburetion systems. Hence, fuel and exhaust systems became extremely complex. On top of all of that complexity was relatively poor performance with respect to what we see today. Look, for example at the output specifications of a 1979 Chevrolet Corvette, or that of a 1979 Pontiac Trans Am. I clearly remember renting a California model 1979 AMC sedan of some sort while on a business trip to San Diego. I could not believe that people were willing to buy new cars with such dismal performance. I felt similarly about a Ford Pinto I once rented for a couple of weeks in 1979.
The Advancement of motorcycle performance was less restricted by government interference.
Motorcycles did not suffer exactly the same fate of directly strangled performance, due to the fact that the EPA chose to attack motorcycles on a more relaxed and delayed schedule. But the motorcycle industry did in fact have its own set of government interference problems with which to deal in the 80s, including some market interference laws which compelled the big four Japanese firms to market 700cc machines in place of the already established 750cc standard. Later in the decade of the 80s came also an “anti-horsepower “ movement, during which propositions were under consideration which threatened to limit the maximum performance by federal mandate. “Horsepower kills” was the motto of the day. Intelligent lobbying efforts eventually killed the proposed horsepower limitations.
As time went on and technology began to catch up with government mandated standards, engine efficiency improved. This state of affairs led to the almost incredible state of reliability and performance which we witness today, and which the younger generation has no capacity to appreciate. Before them e development of advanced engine and mixture control by computerized mapping, every single change or flow improvement made to an intake or exhaust system resulted in an unknown and difficult to predict change in mixture requirements. “Plug reading tests” in the field, combined with a developed understanding of and a good feel for understanding the various stages of a carburetor (main jet choice, needle choice, needle position choice, pilot jet choices, were necessary in order to be able to tweak maximum performance from a motor. Few with the exception of those with excellent mentors and/or a wealth of experience really could properly tune a race motor. Myself included, I witnessed this many times testing new motors at club racing events, at which I had wished my Dad had been present! Only those with unlimited budgets had or have access to dynomometer facilities with which one can at least find an approximately correct setup before going to the track in a relatively casual manner.
Today’s Amazing State of Tuning and Efficiency
Today, with the exception of those who continue to enjoy vintage competition, those days are gone. On the down side, there are probably few real tuners in this world anymore. With computerized mapping controlling everything from fuel mixture under every possible load and engine speed condition, to real time changes in camshaft and ignition timing, also calculated as functions of load and engine speed, no real tuning ability is needed. Today we can swap out and ECU with a different pre-assigned set of mapping functions, and completely change the output characteristics of a given engine.
Most impressive is for example the new Fiat engine used in the car currently known as the 500. My son, Eric recently purchased an Abarth version. We were surprised to learn that off-the-shelf performance improvements can be implemented by virtually anyone, by simply pulling out and replacing an ECU chip. All of the tuning has already been done flawlessly and perfectly by someone else! One can purchase a chip directly from Fiat engineering people which will change the mapping from the standard 160 bhp in Sport mode) to 200 bhp! No intelligence required! All for around $600!
Perhaps it is difficult to grasp just how amazing this is unless you have yourself attempted to adapt a new set of carburetors to an engine to which you have made other mechanical and airflow modifications. Our 1959 Alfa Romeo Giulietta Sprint Veloce is a good example. A few years back we discovered that the original dual double throat DCO3 Weber carburetors were completely worn out, such that with them it was no longer possible to balance the airflow between the cylinders. We purchased a set of more modern DCOE Webers as a replacement. Thanks to the skill of our friend Peter Smith, an experienced old school tuner (who by the way also was the 1970 SCCA Can Am 2 Liter National Champion in a BMW powered Lola chassis), the newer DCOEs were finally brought into a state of tune which allows tolerable drivabilty. But that was no small task! It required repeated removal, modification, retesting, and rebalancing until the effort was perfected. More on the Alfa Sprint Veloce in a future post!
What Promises Does the Future Hold?
If you are much younger in years than the author, you might not have had the opportunity to grasp just how amazing is today’s technology. Just imagine what another 30 years might do! Some younger reader will, it is hoped, in the now seemingly far off year of 2043,be found writing fondly about the good old days in 2013, about how crude and undeveloped was technology in that era, perhaps back in the days when cars had wheels and internal combustion engines. Happy Motoring!
Part 3: Common MG TC Modifications and Mechanical Issues in the early Racing Era
It’s difficult to separate Bob’s article into distinct segments, but this one tends to focus on the major mechanical issues with which TC racers had to deal in the mid 1950s. I can recollect going along for the ride as a small boy on a few rescue missions similar to those recalled here by Bob in this article. At left is Harley’s original TC, which was rolled (by another driver borrowing the car) and significantly damaged, in the very event at which this photo was taken.
I only reached the age of being able to recall specific memories near the tail end of Dad’s active automobile racing support activities. I only vaguely remember Jaguars and Ferraris and Porsches and other exotica in our driveway, and hanging around with my Dad in the shop, listening to grown-up talk about the automobiles they were working on, and getting to take fast test rides in exotic cars with my Dad at the wheel. Only later in life did I learn to appreciate that what seemed like commonplace activity in my childhood was not common with other children of my generation. Consequently it might be easier for me to appreciate these anecdotes, having been blessed with the opportunity to witness the tail end of an era which is now gone forever. – editor.
About 1955 Bob Fergus was trading for various cars he wanted. He traded for a chain drive Frazer-Nash and felt his side of the trade was worth much more, so a 1931 “C” type MH Montlhery Midget was thrown in to make up the difference!
Efforts to improve TC performance were made by Don Marsh, who installed a Marshall blower, and by Phil Miller who got Harley Watts to install his Italmechanics blower. Ray Fisher also added a blower, and others raised the compression ratio, polished intake ports, installed larger valves, heavier valve springs, installed high compression pistons, larger SUs, changed SU jets and needles, installed a competition clutch, removed the air cleaner, installed a competition coil, changed spark plugs, reduced back pressure with a straight pipe, replaced rear wheels with 16” wire wheels, etc. Also it should be noted the much quoted 54 hp if the XPAG engine was on 72 octane gasoline, which was all that was available in England in late 1945. “High test” pump gasoline here, was 87 octane. The heavy, air scoop front fenders were sometimes replaced with shortened ’35 – ’36 Ford spare tire covers from the junk yard. These were shortened to make skinny cycle fenders. Weight reduction also included temporary removal of the windshield and bonnet side panels. These later modifications were only for more serious competition.
Phil Miller’s supercharger made a noticeable difference ion the car’s performance. I followed Phil in his TC to visit the Greiner Brothers on the east edge of Springfield the summer of 1950. Following a noisy ride in a Mercedes 540K, we headed back to Columbus on Route 40. Phil put his foot in it and I tried to keep up in my Pontiac. The speedometer hand in the Pontiac went out of sight behind a shield at an indicated 100 mph. During much of the return ride the speedometer hand was out of sight. I’m sure the speedometer was optimistic, however the TC would pull away seemingly at will. I don’t know whether stronger valve springs had been installed on the TC engine, but Phil had to be running at or near 6000 rpm much of the time. 15.64 mph per 1000 rpm at 6000 rpm is about 95 mph. The TC had to be running at or near this speed much of the 40 miles to Columbus.
TCs were driven hard and mechanical problems were accepted as normal. Harley Watts with one or two others, probably Don Marsh, Bob Fergus, and/or Chuck Dietrich, late on a Sunday afternoon, called from Wapakoneta with a broken rear axle. A spare axle, without the normally pressed on bearing carrier, was taken to him. The broken stub had been removed by removing the opposite wheel and axle and pushing it out from the opposite side, possibly with a jack handle rod. The replacement axle was installed after dark in an unlit gas station lot in a very short time. The TC was promptly driven back to Columbus. The bearing carrier was originally pressed onto the axle with some seven tons of pressure. However the constant shock of up and down shifts, hard braking, over revs when airborne over bumps, such as railroads, etc., loosened this spline connection, and it became normal to accept the bearing carrier-axle spline connection to a finger tight sliding fit. As a result, spare axles were usually were usually carried without the pressed on bearing carrier. A related problem was wet rear brakes from differential grease finding its way through the splined axle bearing carrier connection and past the grease seal onto the inside of the brake drums, and also onto the rear wheel spokes. Normal hard cornering threw the differential grease to the outside of the case with enough pressure to force it through the ineffective bronze return thrower also. With these “leaks” onto the rear brake linings, rear brakes were often almost non- existent. Frequent hard braking was known to burn the paint on the brake drums on all four wheels.
Occasional fuel pump failures caused spares to be carried. Windshields were replaced often from rock damage, frequently from driving on gravel roads, Aluminum rear plate engine supports cracked or broke from the shock of landing after aviating over a railroad crossing or other bumps as well as the general rough pavement.
At a Put-in-Bay race, a TC coming into town from the Cemetary on a rough, bumpy section of road, developed violent front axle tramp, so violent that one front tire hit and broke one cycle fender off. Tire marks on the underside of the clamshell front fenders of hard driven TCs were not uncommon from similar front axle tramp.
Bishop cam steering was often not kept full of 140 weight “grease” or temporarily filled with chassis grease, and deteriorated rapidly. Tompkins kits, when they became available, were enthusiastically adopted. Hard driving required at least weekly, if not daily attention, to all lube points.
Tire wear was rapid. Less than ten thousand miles of driving exuberantly was all it took to run Dunlops from new to bald. Pirelli tires were discovered early on. They were “stickier” and wore for many more miles. There are still TCs around being driven with 40 year old Pirellis. These tires were made in England.
Front wheel bearing replacement at frequent intervals was routine. Chuck Dietrich replaced his after every race. King pin replacement was done fairly often.
Stay tuned for the final segment – “Where are they all today?”
Part 2 – MG TCs in Columbus by Bob Watts
I have the original newspaper article shown at left, framed on my living room wall. It touches on some of what Bob writes about in the continuation of the article below. Harley (Dad) being the lead mechanic, Bob and Harley also shared driving duties to win their class at McDill AFB in 1951 in the Fergus MG TC. The local Columbus Dispatch published this article about the event in the Sports section. At that time I was still a twinkle in my Mom and Dad’s eye (born in ’56), our brother Grayum was going on 2 years old, and Larry was born shortly thereafter in January of ’52 -editor.
Some ten or so TC owners in the Columbus area, as well as Chuck Dietrich from Sandusky, often toured rural Ohio on Sunday, avoiding the roads patrolled by the law. Most of these roads were gravel with oiled strips in front of some farm homes as dust control. These roads were not smooth or straight. It was common to meet occasional oncoming traffic on such a road, and wonder why many would pull over to the side and stop. Occasionally one would even seek out the ditch. Having gotten some distance in front of the group on one occasion, and waiting at the end of a straight section of bumpy gravel road, the reason for the local driver to “make room” was revealed. The front wheels of the oncoming TC were violently bouncing up and down and flopping about while the car came straight ahead. It was obviously an accident about to happen and the prudent thing to do was to get out of the way. The MG driver felt he was in complete control and could see no reason for the other driver’s reaction.
Cooperation between MG drivers was normal when problems arose. In the summer of ’52, a group of mostly TCs was heading south on Rt. 104 from Columbus for a hillclimb near Bainbridge. In my ’49 TC I was at the rear of the group. Everyone else had passed a Buick, but when I started around, he decided he was not going to allow me to pass him. At close to 6000 rpm, I could not outrun him. Bob Fergus saw what was happening from ahead. He dropped back in his XK 120 (Jaguar), pointed to hi rear bumper for me to wind tail him. I did, and he sucked the TC past the Buick with ease. I don’t recall what rpm the TC was running but I soon backed off for fear I was about to blow the engine up. It did not happen.
Summer driving meant bugs on the windshield, lots of them, frequently so thick there was a temptation to use a putty knife. Windshield down with driver slid down in the seat allowed most of them to go overhead. Upright seating meant bugs in the face and a toothpick to dislofge the bug shells from between the teeth. Brooklands “deflectors” allowed better visibility without most of the bug problems. Today’s insecticides have drastically reduced this as a problem.
Locally a “Grand Prix” road course was set up southeast of Columbus on country roads. Traffic was light. The course had a number of bends, several of which were fairly tight, several long straights and some rolling bends. Good MG roads. The Sheriff soon became aware of the “fun” . Frequent efforts to catch the “speeders” took place but the rolling bends were not “Ford” roads. Police radio was not very good, and attempts at road blocks were always after the fact. Sitting at Harley’s house and listening to the sirens was like listening to hounds chasing the fox. The “hounds” never found which hole (garage) the fox had slipped into. This sort of activity enhanced the reputation of the MG as being very fast, which it really wasn’t. However the local speed limits were regularly badly fractured. It was youthful fun, viewed by all participants as quite innocent.
Bob Fergus had quit selling Cadillacs and obtained the MG, Jaguar, Austin, etc. dealerships. Initially he had no cars to sell, just literature to show what was available. When you bought a car, you had the choice of going to New York to pick it up, or pay for delivery. Shortly there was a TD and then an XK 120 demonstrator. Bob Fergus and Harley Watts and others made numerous trips to New York to drive new cars back. This quickly included Porsches. “The Columbus Sports Car Co.” moved from several apartment garages on Auburn Ave. to a garage with a one car show room on Livingston Ave. to a new showroom on Northwest Blvd. When new cars for display were not in hand, Bob’s TC and 35B Bugatti were there to see.
Meanwhile weekends were very active with hill climbs, regularity runs, rallies, and just finding MG roads and driving them. Harley Watts went to Watkins Glen in 1949 . Bob Fergus began racing his TC at every opportunity. Watkins Glen, through the town road course, for three years, Bryfan Tyddn, Giant’s Despair hill climb, Elkhart Lake (before Road America existed), McDill AFB in Tampa, Lockbourne AFB, Chanute Field in Illinois, and others. The TC was driven to, and back from , every race, regardless of distance from home. Almost everyone else did the same. Harley Watts kept Bob’s TC running at its best. Many thought he had a secret. He did, he meticulously followed the English instructions for getting maximum performance. Both Blower and Smith’s instructions for the several tuning stages of the XPAG engine were not published till 1952 and even then were not widely circulated. The factory tuning stages for the XPAG engines were almost unknown locally at the time. Harley had a copy and he just followed the instructions for getting maximum performance. It worked! Bob’s outstanding ability as a driver did the rest.
Bob also shared driving a 1500cc Fiat engine Siata with Dick irish, of Cleveland, at Vero beach, Florida in March 1952, the weekend before Sebring. The Siata blew a head gasket and DNFd. Cranking the engine with plugs removed squirted several columns of water some distance. This was an airport race with much fine grime on the pavement. Dust was blowing during the entire race and everything and everyone was covered with grit. The head gasket was replaced in time for Sebring the following weekend.
The ’52 race was the second Sebring race, and the first twelve hour race. The Fergus-Irish team were outstanding, finishing 3rd overall, behind a LeMans 2 liter Frazer-Nash, and XK 120M, 1st in theor class and 2nd or 3rd in the index of performance. Cars behind them included a Ferrari 166, an XK 120, thre MGs, a Morgan, and the index winner a DB (Aston Martin). R.G. Watts kept the lap chart, and where the top several cars were on the index of performance. This was the slide rule era, before good stop watches, calculators or computers. The Siata was raced both weekends with a substantial dent on one side from an accident in Tennessee while being driven from Cleveland to Florida. After Sebring it was driven back to Cleveland. Between the two races I purchased my first TC, an Ivory -49 EXU from Taylor Motors in Palm Beach.
Photographs and newspaper articles from this peiod are scattered through this section, with labels and a few explanations.
During this time period, Tom Miller purchased the former Malcolm Campbell Type 39A Bugatti from an English owner for about $1500. His brother, Phil, bought a Type 37 from Tony Hogg, then in England. Tony later came to the US and worked briefly for Bob Fergus. He then moved on to California, where in time, he became editor of Road & Track magazine. These two Bugattis together with the Fergus 35B were all owned by TC owners and were in Columbus at the same time. Phil sold his Type 37 to a TC owner from New England who towed it back home behind the TC. Unfortunately, no photos of the car are known to exist.
About 1955 Bob Fergus was trading…………..STAY TUNED for Part 3!
Far right in the photo at left is the author of this article, Bob Watts, standing by his brother (and my father) Harley Watts, and some other unidentified friends working on a Jaguar XK-120 race car owned by Harley’s co-driver, Bob Fergus, at an unidentified race event in 1953.
MG TCs in Central Ohio by Bob Watts
A Historic Perspective
As a student at the Ohio State University, the first MG I saw was a TC parked behind the Horticulture building in the spring of 1948. The size and appearance were quite attractive. What it was, and where it was made, were not obvious, the owner was not around, and efforts to make contact were not successful as our class schedules were different. Even after finally meeting the owner, only a minimum of information was obtained.
Some time later when my brother Harley, and I were after parts for our 1933 V-12 Cadillac, we became acquainted with Bob Fergus, a salesman at Columbus Motorcar, the local Cadillac dealer. Bob had a late ‘48 TC and was required to hide it so Cadillac customers could not see it. Bob introduced us to Ray Fisher who drove an Ivory TC. Ray gave me my first ride in a TC. It was a brief ride around the perimeter cinder road in Franklin Park which circled inside the park near the outside fence. We were stopped by the park police for speeding on the park road. The officer demanded my drivers license since I got out of the left side of the car. Ray offered his license to the officer and was brushed aside. Finally Ray opened the door on the left side , (the top was up and side curtains on, as the weather was cold), invited the officer , and said “See, no steering wheel”. The totally confused officer looked at the TC, questioned how the steering wheel could be on the wrong side and couldn’t decide who had been driving, but finally took Ray’s license. He banned TCs from the park for excessively exceeding the speed limit.
By March 1949 Tom Miller had purchased a ’48 TC from one of the Greiner brothers in Springfield, Ohio. His brother Phil had gone to Canada and bought a TC, and Don Marsh had acquired a black TC in Indiana. I don’t know just when, but Dave Lee showed up with a red TC and Chuch Dietrich came down from Sandusky with a BRG TC. Harley Watts found a used BRG ’48 TC in Dayton, Ohio. Don Marsh also bought an Ivory TC, he now had two TCs. By the fall of ’49 there were at least ten TCs in the area which assembled on Sundays for tours and other activities. Most TC owners drove their cars hard, occasionally drag raced of traffic lights and found every relatively close winding road arounb, many of which were in southern Ohio.
Many, if not most, current “T” series owners have little or no concept of those times. To better understand them, when the TC was new, a brief discussion of the way things were about 1949 may provide a better perspective.
The population of the Columbus area was about one tenth of that of 1997. With few exceptions, males between the ages of 21 and 30 had been directly involved in the recently ended world war. Many men from ages 30 to 50 , had also been in the service in one capacity or another. Everyone at home had been involved in the war effort, with rationing of most everything. Also the great depression was a very vivid memory of a not very distant past. Few families had more than one car. Most middle class men rode the trolly bus to work or shared a ride with several others. The street cars had just been phased out, and the tracks with the granite paving bricks between and beside them were being torn out. Many cars were driven 10,000 miles or less per year. For a change many more people had money to spend on a car and were eager to do so.
There were no fast food restaurants and restaurants in general were quite sparse. For most families, eating out was rather rare and somewhat of an event. The fist shopping center in the US was built by Don Casto on East Broad Street in 1950. It was only the west end of the present “Miracle Mile”. Gasoline and tire rationing ended in late 1945 and a desire to take advantage of this was still not fully satisfied by late 1949. Traffic was light and roads were two lane, much narrower than today’s two lane roads, and not very well paved.
Vehicles on the road around Ohio, when the T cars were new, were leftovers from the ‘30s, if not in fact, they were in design, just like the TC. Relatively new Fords had 85 hp, flat head V-8s, and torque tube drive. Chevrolets were straight 6 pushrod engines that relatively recently had gone from 15 psi oil pressure (rod bearings being lubricated by a scoop on the bottom of each rod that dipped into the oil) in the pan – if there was any there- to full pressure of 35 lbs. Most others were flat head fours, sixes, or eights. Standard transmissions were normal, three speed on the column which were very sloppy, even when new. Four speeds were unknown to the average driver. Electric systems were six volt with the battery under the floor on the front passenger side on many cars. Windshield wipers were vacuum operated from a hose off the intake manifold. During acceleration the wipers stopped. Heaters were poor at best and were re-circulating only (except on Nash cars). Defrosters consisted of a small after market electric fan on the dash blowing on the windshield, wiping the inside of the glass with a cloth, or driving with the windows open regardless of the temperature.
Antifreeze consisted of two choices, alcohol or Prestone. Alcohol boils at about 180F, and frequently boiled away on winter days. Cracked blocks were not unusual. Freeze out plugs lived up to their name. “Permanent” antifreeze was drained in the spring, saved, and returned to the cooling system in the fall.
Most cars had 6.00 x 16 tires. All were tube type. There were no radial tires. Normal tire life was about 10,000 miles. Exuberant driving shortened this. Retreading of bald tires was fairly common. Blowouts were all too common.
Starters were activated by pushing on a foot pedal on the floor, except for Buick which was on the accelerator pedal when depressed all the way to the floor. Power steering arrived in the mid 50s. Vacuum assist power brakes were around from the late 20s, or early 30s on high priced cars only. Constant maintenance was necessary. “Gas stations” all changed oil, spark plugs, and provided regular maintenance, including washing, and they all pumped the gas as it was against the law in Ohio to pump your own. Every gas station had a lift or sometimes a pit in the floor with steps down to it.
Many prewar cars were daily drivers. Model A Fords, early 30s Chevys , Auburns, Hupmobiles, LaSalles, and run of the mill Oldsmobiles, Pontiacs, Plymouths, Studebakers, Kaisers, Henry Js, Mercurys, Packards, Nashes, Lincolns, Willys’, Crossleys, etc were commonly seen daily. An occasional Model T Ford, Deusenberg, or Cord 810 or 812 or Pierce Arrow was not unusual. An occasional Cadillac OHV V 12 or V 16 from the 30s was seen. There was even a Baker electric driven by a little old lady out on East Broad Street. Semi trucks were much smaller and slow. New car transporters were limited to carrying four cars.
About 1950 an Army Air Force officer stationed at Lockbourne AFB was driving his Bugatti Royale to the base from his rooming house on Bryden Road in Columbus where the Bug was parked on the street. It was offered for sale for $2500 but there were no takers.
Cadillac had introduced the Kettering OHV V-8, which was also in the brand new Oldsmobile 88 in ’49. It was well known to not keep its tune very well, especially when run hard. There were more sick “88s” than properly running ones. Chrysler brought out the Hemi-Head V-8 in late ‘49 or’ 50. The “cheap” Ford and Chevy first saw V-8s in ’55. The “performance” V-8 cars were the exception, not the rule, and suspension development had not caught up with engines. The shock of the acceptance of the small “quick sports car from England” by mainly the young, had yet to sink in at GM, Ford, or Chrysler and other manufacturers. The Chevy Corvette was still a few years away, and the Mustang even farther. The early influence, primarily of the MG, is the reason these cars came about, even if they are not “Sports Cars” in the same sense of the word.
As a result, any well driven TC or TD could out drag, and out run, many then current American cars on the road, even on straight roads, and frequently did. Also, the MAXIMUM speed limit on the best rural State and National highways in Ohio was 50 mph. Many places it was 25 or 35 mph. There were no freeways and very few four lane roads, and no radar. Few MG owners had not been stopped for speeding. On the open road the Highway Patrol would fall in behind an MG and look for an excuse to stop him. They frequently would turn around when an MG was spotted going the other way and fall in behind. The smart (or smart alec) MG driver would stop and “check the oil”, or take off down a side road, often gravel, and try to lose the “law” This latter tactic usually worked, and was quite successful in advancing the reputation of MGs and other “sports cars”. Fortunately the point system for violations did not yet exist.
The ten or so TC owners in the Columbus area,……………..STAY TUNED FOR PART 2!
Mechanical Ingenuity at the 1951 Watkins Glen Queen Catherine Cup
By Larry Watts
(The cartoon featured here was drawn by family friend and racing enthusiast Phil Miller, and depicts the event in satire. Phil was a talented artist)
In an earlier story, I wrote about competitors in the early post war years driving their cars to the track, taping over, taping over headlights and racing all weekend. If something mechanical broke during the weekend, you had to fix it in order to drive your race car home on Sunday night. Some creative repairs were made in order to get home after the weekend.
In the late 1940s and early 1950s, MG TCs were a popular race car. Teggie Ogilvie, Postmaster General of Ottowa, Canada was an MG TC owner/racer. In the 1951 QUEEN CATHERINE CUP at Watkins Glen, Ogilvie dropped a valve during the race in his TC. The damage was limited to the one cylinder but the piston and valve were destroyed and no replacements were available that weekend.
With no means of towing the car back to Ottowa from the Finger Lakes, the engine had to be repaired somehow. The solution? The boys from the “Wire Wheel Team” in Columbus (principally Harley Watts, MG specialist) helped Ogelvie remove the piston, rod, valves, and pushrods from the damaged cylinder. Next the rod was wrapped in heavy gasket paper held in place by hose clamps. The engine was then buttoned back up and fired up on the remaining three cylinders . Even though the engine vibrated badly, the car was driven back to Ottowa, Ontario without further incident.
Embracing the Entire Vintage Motorsports Community
Initially, “The Fast Ones” was envisioned as a venue under which owners of vintage competition motorcycles might get together for track days and/or competition days a few times a year, and have some fun on the pavement. That’s a great idea! We do plan to do that! There are a lot of potential vintage motorcycle racers, and most motorsports enthusiasts do not restrict their interest purely to motorcycles. So we asked ourselves, “From whence might we draw some new enthusiasts? How might we draw new and fresh interest into the world of vintage motorcycle racing?”
The author, having a broad range of experience in numerous motorsports venues, can vouch for the fact that there is a lot of crossover interest among racing enthusiasts. We will be talking about all aspects of motorsports competition, from race car preparation or motorcycle racing preparation to driving and riding. So, why not include everyone and invite all those who are interested in all types of vintage motorsports to join us?
On that note, upcoming posts will feature a variety of subjects in the world of vintage and classic racing, including two, three, and four wheels. Having enjoyed a lifetime of exposure to motor racing in various forms, the editor is getting the ball rolling with some posts on motorsport experiences from our own family, beginning with some anecdotal and fun stories about what we experienced of sports car racing in the 1950s and 1960s.
Want to see a feature on a particular automobile or motorcycle manufacturer? Do you have vintage racing history or information that you would like to share with the public? What tickles your fancy? Sidecars? Historic sports cars? Rally? Enduros? Flat track racing? Speedway? Sprint cars? What would you like to explore or discuss? Contact us!
But for now we are going to add content relative to our own experience. Stay tuned!