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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!
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.
Inteoduction to “A Motorsports Heritage – A Car Nut Household” by Stirling Watts
The following article was penned by my brother to describe the unique childhood we enjoyed as members of a car nut family. Our Dad, Harley Watts, was one of the founding members of the Ohio Valley SCCA, and in the early 1950s developed quite a reputation for himself primarily as an all around go-fast mechanic and tuner, as well as a national class SCCA driver. Here’s a little bit of how and why we all grew up with gasoline in our veins. Larry only scratched the surface in this short piece. I have a few car and motorcycle related memories of my own, for those who would care to listen. I have memories of all of the cars mentioned below except for the 1947 Alfa, which was gone before I was born. When I got my driver’s license in 1972, the last Series 3 Lancia Appia which Larry recalls below, was one of the cars I was permitted to drive regularly until I purchased a car of my own (also Italian of course). The Alfa Romeo Giulietta Sprint Veloce to which Larry refers was not the car we currently own, but was probably owned by one of Dad’s racing friends. Later, in 1975, Dad bought one. I can proudly say that it is still in my garage, and in original daily driver condition. We will do a piece on that car later.
I earned the name “Stirling” in honor of Sir Stirling Moss, the most famous and natural racing car drivers of all time never to have earned a world championship title, who as quite well known in the racing world when I was born in 1956. Harley even had the privilege of driving as a fellow competitor with Moss on at least one occasion of which I am aware, namely, the 1954 Sebring 12 hour event. I thought highly of Dad in many ways. May he rest in peace. He departed from this world 9 years ago, in October 2004 at the age of 80.
Car Nut Household
By Larry Watts
I’ve been spending time in front of the word processor lately writing about the early days of the sports car movement in the USA. I grew up in the 50s and remember when sports cars were interesting cars! They were everywhere. The English manufacturers, MG, Triumph, Austin, Morris, Rover, Austin Healey, etc. outnumbered the rest by a good margin. Still, the rest of Europe was well represented with Simcas, Peugeots, Opels, BMW Isettas, Renaults (4CVs, Caravelles, Dauphines), Porsches, and of course Volkswagens everywhere you went. The majority of Americans though, drove American cars. Looking back on my childhood I realize that I was a member of an unusual family. At least when it came to cars.
I grew up in a working class neighborhood on the west side of Columbus, Ohio, where the majority of our neighbors worked at either the GM plant or the Westinghouse plant. The GM people of course, all owned GM cars. The others owned mostly American iron. It was the 50s and the post war economic miracle was in full swing. Everybody wanted a new car and Detroit was keeping them happy with their annual model changes.
Our driveway was different. An MG TC was our daily driver. No heater. No defroster. Side curtains. Right hand drive. Lift the hood every morning and tickle the SUs until they puked gasoline all over your fingers and the driveway. If you’ve even owned an old British car you are now nodding your head and smiling.
In our garage I remember some really interesting cars. We had a 1947 Alfa Romeo 6C 2500 Berlina with coachwork by Pininfarina. Around 1955, Dad sold the car for $50 because he didn’t have the storage space to keep it! What would that car be worth today? A hundred grand? Who knows.
We had a 1948 Fiat Topolino with a rollback top. Five hundred seventy seven CCs flathead inline four with, get this, twelve horsepower. Top speed 45 mph. Touring speed 35 mph. No water pump, cooling by convection. Crashbox transmission with no synchronizers. This was the first car I ever drove at the age of 9 or so with the car in my Granddad’s woods. Had to sit on a phone book to see over the wheel.
We took a trip to New York City when I was about eight or nine years old. The reason for the trip was to pick up a 1948 Lancia Ardea berlina that my Dad just bought from a guy named Hudson Mills in East Orange, New Jersey. The Lancia was classic Vincenzo Lancia engineering. One thousand cc narrow angle V4 engine mounted out front with crashbox transmission, no sychronizers ,and rear wheel drive. Sliding pillar front suspension. Suicide doors in the back. No door pillar. Aluminum bumpers, hood, and trunk lid. Wool upholstery that smelled of mothballs every time you entered the car. This car would run 75 mph all day. Beautiful car! Pretty to look at and so easy to drive.
Later we had a pair of Lancia Appia berlinas. The first was a 1959 Series II. The second was a 1962 Series III. The coachwork on both Appias was identical from the A pillar rearward. Only the nose was changed. The earlier car had the classic vertical grill and was a much prettier car. Lancia and Fiat in those days styled the sedans (berlinas) in house. Only the spyders and coupes were farmed out to carrozerias like Bertone and Pininfarina. Both Appias had identical running gear. Again classic Vincenzo Lancia engineering with 1100 cc narrow angle V4, sliding pillar front suspension, suicide doors in the back with no door pillar. Not as pretty as the Ardea but still fun to drive. They would run 85 mph all day and get 40 mpg doing it.
When I was a kid, it was not unusual to see a Type 35 Bugatti or a Frazier Nash in the driveway on weekends. I first rode in a Pininfarina bodied Ferrari 4.9 Superamerica when I was 8 or 9 years old. I also remember a ride in an Alfa Romeo Giulietta Sprint Veloce. I thought this was normal. I also remember a lot of cars being dragged to our house on the end of a tow rope on Friday night and driven home on Sunday night. My Dad was Mr. Fixit. He had a reputation far and wide as one of the sharpest mechanics around.
My own kids today are now in their mid twenties (mid thirties now – this was written a while back –ed.). It is not unusual today to have one of them drag a daily driver home to my house on Friday night and drive it away on Sunday. I fix ‘em just like my Dad did. The big difference is that modern cars are boring. Reliable and economical maybe, but boring.