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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!
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.
1989 WERA Vintage Finals
The Western Eastern Road Racing Association, known as WERA, holds its annual WERA Vintage Finals at its Garnd national Finals event held each year at Road Atllanta in Braselton, Georgia.
This photo (above) is itself vintage photo in its own right, having been taken in 1989. Here is Larry Watts in 1989 aboard his 1973 Mototrans Ducati 350 single in the vintage race of that year’s WERA finals at Road Atlanta, Braselton, Georgia.
If you would like to partake in similar activities in a purely fun and safe racetrack environment, then come and join us. Once we become established, we just might be holding our own Vintage Finals at a racetrack near you in he southeast!
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!
The Fast Ones Vintage Racing: Some Proposed Class Structures
Submitted by Stirling Watts
These proposed class structures are designed to limit that application of big money, while still allowing and encouraging innovation and free thought. As written they are roughly based on simplified rules of some existing vintage racing clubs. Their objective is simplicity, flexibility, and the maximization of eligibility across the board.
Any suggestions? There may be (a) specific motorcycle(s) which may be accidentally excluded by these rules, so let’s look at them closely and make the structure as affordable and fair as possible for everyone involved.
Lightweight Vintage: Single and twin cylinder four stroke or two stroke, manufactured in the 1950s and 1960s to 350 cc. Drum brakes only.
Middleweight Vintage: Single and twin cylinders of the 1950s and 1960s, two stroke or four stroke, to 500cc. Drum brakes only.
Heavyweight Vintage: Twins and 3 cylinders to 750cc of the 1950s and 1960s, four cylinders to 600cc, with period brakes.
Classic 350: Singles and twins to 350 cc up to model year 1979. Two strokes of any configuration and 4 stroke four cylinders to 250cc. Period brakes.
Classic 500: Singles and twins to 500 cc up to model year 1979, 3 or more cylinders and two strokes of any configuration to 400cc. Bodywork to reflect the period.
Classic 750: twins and threes to 750 cc, four cylinders to 600 cc to model year 1979 equipped with disc brakes. Ducati Pantah up to 650 cc
Classic Bott (Twins and Triples): Two and three cylinder s up to model year 1981 over 750 cc.
Classic Open Lightweight: Four cylinders up to 600 cc to model year 1983. Air cooled only.
Classic Unlimited Superbike: Four cylinders over 600 cc up to model year 1985. No water cooling.
For all classes:
Any motorcycle excluded on the basis of the rules as stated may be backdated to meet the requirements. DOT tires only (no slicks), no tire warmers. No nitrous oxide, no non standard fuel injection, no methanol based fuels.
Tires are DOT legal (no slicks), unless Formula classes are added in the future. We do not want to exclude TZs and RSs and the like if they are out there!
This is a brand new effort…..and if you like vintage motorcycle road racing as much as I do, and if you like like the idea of attending affordable motorcycle track days,,simple, informal and fun, you will want to hear more about this.
Club racing for many has always felt a little bit too formal and a little too uppity. It has always seemed hard to filter out those people with the big money, and the formal rules that were designed to control all of that get in the way of fun.
The main problem is that in club racing there is just far too much emphasis on the competition, on winning, on points, on personal recognition, and just not enough emphasis on the fun. Part of the solution in motorcycle track days. We, who are among “the fast ones” forming this group, want to put that affordable fun back into riding on the racetrack…..we want to create an environment where you can afford to learn to be a ”fast one” on YOUR vintage bike, in a safe and fun environment.
Who are “the fast ones?” Well we can all be fast, or at least we can think we are. But how fast are you, really? Do you really know how to ride at a fast but sane pace ? How can you learn to do so without truly and literally risking your own life?
The answer to those questions is “the racetrack”. Do you own a fast vintage bike? Would you like to ride it REALLY fast….like, to explore its limits, and yours, in a safe and controlled environment?
All during the 80s I was heavy into motorcycle club road racing, in both modern classes and vintage, and the most fun I EVER had racing was in those vintage classes. And I think it was because the folks riding in those classes were less focused on personal competition. They were there simply for the joy, perhaps for the nostalgia of riding fast in the vintage class. In several clubs of that period, I had a blast on the racetrack on my Ducati 350 single…… Recently we started to put that Ducati back together again. Our good friend Martin Weiss, also known as Reptile-Motos, has been working on that project. In working with Martin on that project, a little bit of bench racing stirred up some fresh ideas about track time and vintage motorcycles that a lot of folks are going to like.
We all love going faster with our vintage bikes than is allowed, or it is safe to do on the street. This is why we go to the race track where we can go as fast as we want (or can). For now we just want to have fun, but if there is enough interest we will create a Vintage/Classic Racing group. 2-3 races a year. For now the group will probably be Florida based. Suggested venues so far are Jennings in north Florida, and Moroso Park in West Palm Beach. There are other potential options.
Please Send us a short message, comment on the video (to be imbedded here soon) or this post, and introduce yourself, your bike, and what you hope to get out of joining us in this new organization. And let’s make this a reality!
- Stirling Watts