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