This is the first MG sports car: it has
skinny tyres, no power and hopeless brakes - but is it still a great car?
It is not every day that you drive
something which is so much a part of a car maker's history that it is
effectively priceless - but that is what I am doing at the wheel of Old
Number One, the first sports car ever to wear the MG badge. Auctioneers
and MG experts shy away from giving it a definitive value - with what
could it be compared? - but we would be talking about 250,000 if it ever
came to auction.
But let us put value out of our minds,
because that is not what this spindly 70-year-old sports car is about.
Instead it speaks eloquently of what MGs have always been built on: speed
and fun. Despite being an assemblage of Morris components, Old Number One
has a verve that belies its humble underpinnings.
It was sprightly in its day, having a
top speed of around 70mph when the most flamboyant of sports cars could
barely top 100mph. Today, it feels slower than the most stately of
shopping cars. Yet it is fun to drive, because MG's founder Cecil Kimber
knew about the basics of a good sports car.
For a start, its skimpy bodywork gives
it a racy appeal. Its major controls respond well, with the steering and
throttle pedals having particularly pleasing actions. And it makes a
lovely throaty rasp under acceleration and a staccato backfire when you
lift off the throttle. Built by Kimber for hillclimb trials, the MG is a
joy to throw around, its anorexic Dunlop Cord tyres able to cope with the
(lack of) power in the dry, but sliding delightfully on wet and muddy
You feel a part of this machine. You
hear every component in action, feel the blast of icy air over the
scuttle, and even pop gently out of your seat in sympathy with the car
when it skips over bumps. Where in modern cars you are insulated from the
machinery, here you have to be attuned to it. The clutch cannot be slipped
and the gearlever cannot be hurried, otherwise the cogs grate in protest:
you need to let the engine revs die while changing up and speed them up
while downshifting to effect quiet changes.
The brake pedal acts only on the front
wheels, while the outside lever actuates the rear brakes. Stabbing the
pedal has about as much effect as trying to blow a house down, so in
emergencies you also reach for the outside lever. You cannot say that it
is comfortable, either. There is no weather protection not even a
windscreen. The only source of warmth is the heat of the engine wafting
back into the cockpit, so it pays to wrap up.
While modern-car drivers would find Old
Number One lacking in creature comforts, they would also be confused by
the dials and controls. In the 1920s, a good driver was constantly alert
to the machine, so this car has attractive silver-faced Smiths dials to
monitor fuel and oil pressure, engine revs, road speed and the condition
of the electrical system. The water temperature gauge is a glorified
thermometer ("The Boyce Motometer") set on the radiator cap.
Other controls in the cabin include a
fuel pressure pump, a lever for ignition advance and retard, and a fuel
mixture dial, vital for starting in cold weather. Ah yes, starting. This
is a bit of a palaver.
If MGs are all about having fun, then
that fun started here, 70 years ago
Flick on the ignition and fuel pump (now
a modern electric device, added for convenience), retard the ignition,
check that the gearlever is in neutral - it would be embarrassing to run
yourself over as you stand by the prow in cranking position - open the
bonnet, flood the carburettor by pulling its top, turn the starting handle
and hope that the engine fires. All of this would have been standard
procedure in 1925 when Kimber helped to bring the MG (Morris Garages) name
to the public's attention with a faultless performance in the Land's End
Trial, a premier sporting event. Organised by the Motor Cycling Club, this
test of performance and durability started in Slough and finished at
Kimber produced this car specially for
the event: although Morris Garages built several cars before 1925, FC 7900
or Old Number One is regarded by Rover and the British Motor Industry
Heritage Trust as the first MG sports car. It had a bespoke chassis frame
into which was fitted an overhead valve Hotchkiss 1.5-litre four-cylinder
engine giving about 38bhp. Morris axles and brakes were used, special
springs made, and racy Hartford friction dampers fitted at the rear.
Carbodies of Coventry built the two-seater bodywork, which has sketchy
mudguards and hopeless lighting: two small lamps mounted above the twin
spare wheels and a single glow-worm at the back.
After Kimber had finished with it, he
sold it to a friend in Lancashire. It returned to MG in the early 1930s
after allegedly being found on a scrapheap in Manchester, and has been in
the care of MG's owners ever since. In that it proved Kimber's genius for
taking unlikely components from the parts bin and then assembling them
into lively, good looking sports cars, it is the beginning of the MG
legend. If MGs are all about having fun, then that fun started here, 70