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To Hang off, or to Ride Upright? – That is the Question

hang off

The controversy surrounding hanging off

hang off

An extreme example of power sliding and efective weight distribution

In the past 30 years, so much has been written praising the virtues of “hanging off” of a motorcycle when cornering at high speeds, that it makes my head swim.  It appears to me that every effort is made these days to encourage and defend the application of “hanging off” by those who identify with its daring appearance.

So popular is this emphasis on hanging off that the least experienced riders are self assured that they are experts on the matter.

When it comes to sporting motorcycle riding on racetracks, it seems that every Tom, Dick, or Harry believes themselves to be an expert on the subject, based on what they have read, or based on the handful of times they have been on a racetrack themselves.

This hanging off thing only began to become wildly popular, my memory estimates, around the mid 1970s.  .Many of its current proponents may not have been born yet at that time, and they have grown up learning the educated delusion that this is the only way to properly ride a motorcycle fast.

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Two generations of motorcycle road racing. Stirling Watts in 1985 and Eric Watts in 2013.

Hanging off was shunned by numerous riders of earlier generations

I’ve always been a great fan of the late Phil Irving.  Irving was an Australian mechanical engineer and journalist who made important strides in motorcycle and engine development.  He was the chief engineer for Vincent for many years, and the man primarily responsible for the success of the legendary Black Shadow.

In the literary world, Irving authored several classic books on engine and motorcycle technology, and was a regular technical contributor to motoring publications of his era.  I cannot recall whether it was in  the book “Black Smoke”, or “Rich Mixture” or “Motorcycle Engineering” where Irving blasted the practice of climbing all over the motorcycle, condemning it to be but primarily a visual spectacle.  I cannot say that  I agree with him 100%, but that was an expert’s opinion at that time that is now contrary to current thought.

Ted Hubbard, where are you today?

In the mid 80s I had a racing friend named Ted Hubbard.  I think he lived in South Carolina or Georgia.  We always met up at Roebling Road near Savannah.  Ted was at that time, I think, in his early 60s.  Ted had lived in England in the late 60s and early 70s,where he had been a development engineer, and as I recall also a test rider for BSA.

During the time I was associated with Ted we became good friends, hanging out at WERA races and pitting together with the other vintage people.  (Ted and his bike were vintage, but in my case, only my bike qualified as vintage.  I was still relatively young!)

I was racing my 350 Ducati single, and Ted was always racing a big British single.  I believe it was a 441 Victor based bike that he normally rode.  He almost always won the race in his class on that Victor.  Ted was a lightning fast rider and a practical, intelligent man.  He ended up eventually doing some porting work for me on a Ducati single head, and installed a bg intake valve for me.  He was, and I hope still is, a great guy.

Flat track riding style on the road race track.  It works well!

Ted’s riding style?  Ted had more American TT and half mile and mile experience than

hanging off

Ted Hubbard’s road racing style

everyone else did.  His riding style was closer to that which you would have seen in dirt track racing than in road racing.   He was always well tucked in, knees against the tank, and he knew exactly where he was on the track every millisecond.  There were of course lots of younger riders on more powerful bikes, climbing all over them, who were not able to keep up with Ted.  And Ted privately shunned their riding style.

I had another friend in the same era named Royce Eaton, from Daytona.  Royce was about 65 years old then, and ran a small hobby type performance motorcycle shop. Memory tells me Royce was a retired airline pilot.  I don’t know what became of him either.  But anyway, there was no way I ever could keep up the pace with Royce his vintage class Triumph T100 Trident, me riding aggressively on my highly modified and more modern GS 750 Suzuki.  Conservation of momentum seemed to be the biggest part of his secret.

Royce’s riding style?  You guessed it.  Tucked in, knees on the tank, always in control, never climbing around on the bike.  Royce also shunned hanging off, and I believe that most of his racing experience had been on asphalt.

Boet van Dulmen and other big stars

hanging off

Tucked in old school style

Again, this may be an unfamiliar name to many younger readers.  Van Dulmen was a Dutch world class road racing star who was at the top of his career in the late 70s, around the time of Barry Sheene, Kenny Roberts, Freddy Spencer, and the likes of that era.  Van Dulmen was in fact quite renowned for his lightning fast and always tucked in riding position, but it was a style that was beginning to fall out of favor at that time.

Watch this short documentary and interview with Boet van Dulmen about the Assen TT in 1981, and why Van Dulmen won it.  The commentary and interview are in Dutch.  A couple of minutes into the video you will see the effectiveness of Boet’s upright style.  It’s interesting to see him passing Marco Lucchinelli in the rain, knee all stuck out to the side, while van Dulmen stays tucked in.

So, why hang off? Let’s ask the road racing guru, Keith Code.

I had the privilege of receiving personal instruction from the Master, Keith Code, back in the days before the California Superbike School had become a huge deal.  I attended a road racing school under his tutelage at Roebling Road in the Spring of 1984.  Hanging off was not a subject that was recommended during that class.  Here is what Keith has to say on the subject in his classic work, Twist of the Wrist:

You are moving your body weight from the top of the bike to a position that is lower and to the inside. This changes how your weight influences the bike when centrifugal force begins pushing it toward the outside of the turn. When you weight is higher on the bike, it gives the cornering forces a lever to work with. To overcome the centrifugal force, the bike must be leaned over in the turn. The greater the force, the more you must lean to overcome it. By hanging off, you move your weight to the inside of the bike and lower to the ground, presenting less of a lever for the forces to act upon. This does not weaken the force, it simply lessens its effect. Now the bike does not have to be leaned over as far to make the same radius of turn, and CAN GO FASTER WITHOUT having to INCREASE the lean angle. Even if you go through the turn at the same speed as a rider sitting upright on his machine, you can begin your acceleration sooner than he can because your straight-up bike has more rubber on the road This can be a tremendous advantage. Remember, increasing your speed in a turn effectively decreases the radius of the turn. Right or wrong, everyone who is currently competitive us IS hanging off.

Hanging off has nothing to do with safety!

kevin-schwantz hang off

Kevin Schwantz displaying excellent weight distribution form.

I have heard it said by bench racers, who once spent at most a handful of times on a racetrack, that hanging off prevents you from low siding.  That’s pure bullshit, as evidenced by Keith’s comments above.  Hanging off is about being competitive on the modern racetrack, and nothing more.  It’s about carrying a higher speed while leaned over at the same maximum angle as the guy who is not hanging off.  When riding with a group of other riders who are also not world class competition material, it’s pretty meaningless.
You will low side when you exceed the limits of traction by being leaned over too far.  That’s the only cause of a low side crash.  You can lose traction when you’re upright because you’re riding at the edge of your tires contact patch, or you can lose traction for the very same reason when you’re hanging of just inches from the pavement.  Perhaps being out of the seat already might be an advantage if you were to crash, because you’re already closer to the ground.  But I have always planned not to crash anyway!

You can also drag parts lightly without drastically increasing your chances of loss of adhesion.  I’ve proven this point to myself.  My old Suzuki GS1000 based race bike almost had a hole ground into the alternator cover on the left side of the engine from making contact with the pavement.

I never went down because of dragging parts, but I did experience a couple of violent high side effects on the GS1000  from dragging the left side of the motor, from which I recovered without going down.  I think that those high side effects were amplified by some kind of improper bodily reaction on my part after I felt the contact, but I never figured that out. It didn’t happen often enough for me to figure it out, and I certainly never tried to encourage experiencing it again.

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The Master himself, Keith Code

Ask yourself this:

Ask yourself:  If two identical motorcycles are riding at the limits of adhesion, and one rider is hanging off, and the other one is not, which rider is going faster?

You will naturally and correctly answer “The one who is hanging off, of course.”

Does this make one of them more or less likely to low side by exceeding the limits of adhesion?  Of course not!  They are both riding at the limits of their tire contact patch.

The two primary  advantages  to hanging off are:

First, the additional speed you carry while still cornering,

Second, after you climb back on center at the exit of the corner, you can start applying power sooner than the rider who remained upright, because for the same speed you’re carrying as the more upright guy, you have more tire patch on the road than he does.

Isn’t that advantageous?

For the super rider, yes. For the guy who goes to the racetrack a few times per year, no.

Focusing on smoothing out every transition you make will make you faster than focusing on any one item in your technique. All things need to happen quickly at high speed, but the sudden severity of every change of every condition needs to be minimized and smoothed. That translates to smooth transitions from being hard on the gas to being hard on the brakes, smooth gear shifting both up and down, especially in corners, and smoothness in the shifting around of your own body weight.  That last item is last because it has the least overall effect.

In most cases, especially on less powerful motorcycles, shifting your weight drastically around is a factor that’s only marginally helpful in comparison to the many other refinements in smoothness you need to learn to make with respect to conserving momentum, being in the right place and following the right line, and all the elements of smoothness of action.

For everything…. there is a season….and a time… turn, turn, turn….

hang off

When men were men! Making a KZ1000 go fast.

There are times when a hanging off technique can be quite necessary.  It depends on what you are riding.  Are you riding something from the old steel tubing frame era, like a GS1100 or a KZ1000, or a competitive motorcycle of recent design?

The best case in point was riding my 1978 GS1000 at racetrack speeds.  It required a great amount of steering input, muscle, and weight transfer just to convince it to change directions.  I’m convinced that was most of the reason that hanging off became so popular in the early 80s.  Everyone was riding GS1100s and KZ1000s (and the like)!

Well I hope that was entertaining and didn’t piss you off  too bad if you happen to like to hang off!

No insult is meant to the self proclaimed expert bench racers who insist that hanging off keeps them from crashing. Maybe you believe that it does that for you, but I am quite sure that It doesn’t do that for me.

Unless we were all world class riders of the highest developed skill level (of course we can always pretend) then I don’t believe it makes a hootin’ bit of difference whether or not we hang off in high speed corners on today’s most superbly designed motorcycles.  There are more important things to learn about controlling a motorcycle first .

But it sure looks feels good, and it looks cool too!  Keep the shiny side up!




Where Are They All Today? Part 4, Final Edition on early MG TC Racing by Bob Watts

Harley Watts in 1955 with family and his MG TC

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.

Part 3

A Historical Perspective On Performance by Stirling Watts


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!


Complexities of a Weber 40 DCOE System

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!



Common MG TC Modifications and Mechanical Issues in the early Racing Era – Part 3, by Bob Watts

Harley Watts in a 1953 SCCA hillclimb event in his MG TC

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 Central Ohio, Part 2 – Sports Car Racing in the Early 50s

Newspaper.article.Harley@McDill.AFB. in'51

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!

Part 1

A Testimony of Mechanical Ingenuity

Phil Miller Caricature Cartoon

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.


Visiting Brooklands | Vintage Era Racetrack in Surrey England

Three wheeled Morgan with JAP engine.

Visiting Brooklands

By Larry Watts

My wife Carol and I visited the Brooklands Motor Racing Circuit Museum in Surrey, England a couple of weeks ago. It is the oldest purpose built motor racing circuit in the world, constructed in 1907.


Brooklands was THE place for motor racing in England up until 1939. Britain’s WW 2 Defense activities ended the racing there in 1939 when the circuit was taken over for aircraft construction and an airstrip was built in the infield.


An aircraft construction hanger was built directly on the pit lane and another built on one of the straights thus rendering the circuit useless for racing. Today it is a fascinating museum displaying motorcycles, cars, aircraft (including a Concorde!) and even a London Bus museum.


Large portions of the original banking are still there and you can walk on it. I went there expecting to stay about 15 minutes and spent the entire day there.


I highly recommend visiting Brooklands if you’re planning a trip to England. Brooklands is located inside the M25 in the southwest corner of the London metropolitan area.

MG TC Racing in the 1950s


MG TC Racing in the 1950s by Larry Watts

Harley Watts in 1955 with family and his MG TC

MG TC Racing in the 1950s

McDill Air Force Base, Tampa, Florida, 1951

By Larry Watts

(Editor’s note:  Younger readers might not appreciate just how fantastic today’s tires are.  In the 1950’s one would have expected an average set of automobile tires to last no more than a few thousand miles.  Tires have only become as long lasting and reliable as they currently are within the past 30 to 40 years.­)

Harley Watts and Bob Fergus, both from Columbus, Ohio, were two of a group of about eight guys in central Ohio that all owned MG TCs in the early fifties.  Harley was a gifted tuner/car prep guy and Fergus knew how to make a TC sing and dance.  Not that Harley wasn’t a talented driver in his own right.  Together, they campaigned Fergus’s TC for a couple of seasons. (In the picture above is Harley and his family in 1955, with the car as it would have appeared after having been driven to a typical race meeting)

One of the races that the pair entered that year was at the track laid out on the runways of McDill Air Force Base near Tampa, Florida.  After Harley’s usual immaculate car preparation, w new set of four tires was fitted to the car and they set out for Tampa from Columbus, driving the TC.

You see, in those days, NOBODY trailered a race car to an event.  I suppose that there were a few teams with lots of money that had transporters, but that wasn’t the norm.  You drove it to the race, took off the bumpers , taped over the lights, raced all weekend, reversed the process and drove it home on Sunday night.

Anyway, back to Harley and Bob Fergus.  Harley never commented much about the drive to and from Florida, so it must have been uneventful.  The interstate highways were still a dream fifteen years into the future, so all the trip was on two lane highways.  I’m sure that they had to restrain themselves in the twisties in order to conserve the tires.

The race at McDill was a six hour endurance race.  Their TC was entered in F Production.  A LeMans type start saw all classes mixed, same as today.  The faster stuff consisted of Ferraris, Allards, Jaguars, Cunninghams, Porsches, Oscas and others.  At the end of the race after the dust settled and the checkered flag flew, Harley and Fergus won their class bay a lap and a half margin over the second place car, never having been overtaken.  It was Harley’s first National Road Race.  John Fitch driving a Cunningham was the overall winner.

Nothing broke during the weekend thanks to excellent car prep by Harley, one of the best in the business.  Sunday evening they prepped the car for the drive home which proved to be as uneventful as the drive down.  But, think about this.  They drove the car 1300 miles home on one set of 1950’s vintage 4.24 x 19 Dunlop tires!

Yeah. In the 1950s, men were men.  And the drivers were fat and the tires were skinny.

The Fast Ones Embracing Motorsports


The Fast Ones – Embracing the Entire Vintage Motorsports Community

Harley Watts in a 1953 SCCA hillclimb event in his MG TC

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!