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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.

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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.

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