by Anders Ditlev Clausager
As I ought to know by now, you always get something wrong, or leave something out when you write a book. While you might think that I took long enough to complete my recent MG Saloon Cars - my publisher certainly thought so - there were still facts that I got plain wrong, or nuggets of information which simply escaped me, typically because they turned up just too late to be included.
The reader will realise that one of the questions which has been endlessly debated over the years, is how fast the SA - and the VA, and the WA - actually were. In my book, I devote quite a bit of space to this, if you refer to pages 57-58 in particular, but also elsewhere. The problem of course arises because no full scientific road test was ever undertaken of the SA or the WA, by either 'The Autocar' or 'The Motor'.
Anyway, after the book had gone to print, I came across some further information which appeared in the pages of the first-mentioned of these two august journals - an amusing exchange of letters in the correspondence columns of 'The Autocar', in the issues appearing between 16 December 1938 and 10 February 1939. Having been assured that these letters have never before been reproduced in the SVW Review, I venture to share them with you here.
It started innocently enough with a letter from A Clifford Johnson (16 December 1938) who had noticed that 'The Autocar' had not yet road tested either the 2-litre, or the 2.6-litre MG. He continued, "On application, I have discovered that the M.G. Co. are extremely reluctant about letting the performance figures of their cars be published. Why is this? Perhaps the M.G. Co. will care to submit an answer for publication…".
Indeed the M.G. Co., or at least Cecil Kimber, was happy to furnish the required explanation. In the following week's issue of 'The Autocar', Kimber's reply - ill conceived and ill advised though it seems in retrospect - was published, containing the following statement:
"… we should like to state that when these (road) tests are carried out in a more official manner, and not subject to the irregularities which have occurred to our definite knowledge, in the past, we shall then be pleased to submit our cars for such trial. - In fairness to 'The Autocar' and other journals conducting similar tests, these irregularities referred to have occurred without their knowledge and approval. - In the meantime, anyone sufficiently interested in the performance of the M.G. can apply to their nearest distributor, or to the factory, when every facility will be afforded to put any particular model through any reasonable test required."
Not unnaturally, this was like a red rag to the bull personified by the editor of 'The Autocar', who was proud of his journal's record as an impartial and accurate road tester, and who appended the following magisterial statement:
"By 'irregularities' is presumably meant the special preparation of a car to obtain abnormal test figures; but as such action would lead to innumerable complaints to manufacturers from owners whose cars would not give the published performance, it would be, in practice, disadvantageous. In any case, every possible precaution is taken by 'The Autocar' to ensure that tested cars are representative, and we know of only one case in a period of years where a non-standard car passed scrutiny. This was strongly taken up and we do not think that any repetition is likely. … If, however, Mr Kimber will give us his "definite knowledge" and also the meaning of "tests carried out in a more official manner", the matter will be thoroughly investigated."
The irony of the situation was that the one occasion where 'The Autocar' admitted to having been hood-winked, was more than likely to have been the infamous road test of the MG J2 Midget which had appeared on 5 August 1932, with a measured top speed of over 80mph, something that a standard J2 was plainly incapable of. Check your copy of MG by McComb (page 90) for the background to the story. If Kimber had been responsible for that little number, was it now, six years later, a case of the pot calling the kettle black? Or did he simply intend to deflect the argument away from the performance of his MGs to the test methods employed by 'The Autocar' and other magazines, knowing full well that the editor - mindful of his advertising revenue - would not care to reveal the make of the alleged non-standard car which had been submitted for test?
I suspect the latter, as most of the letters which appeared in the following issues concentrated on the question of the road tests, with readers springing to defend the honour of 'The Autocar'. John Gibson (6 January 1939) suggested that the Royal Automobile Club should carry out tests, and in the same issue R G Baillie found it "strange that the manufacturer of a sporting car should adopt such an attitude, and the observer cannot be blamed for coming to the obvious conclusion."
Mr Clifford Johnson returned to the fray on 13 January. He stated that he wanted to compare the MGs with the SS Jaguar 2½-litre, the Riley Big Four and the Triumph Dolomite, and rhetorically posed the question "Does Mr Kimber feel that the M.G. 2- or 2.6-litre models would not compare favourably with the above…?". Mr D Brown was inclined to defend MGs, as this make has "a well-earned reputation for high performance and fine handling … The position is the more mystifying in that M.G.s have never failed to give remarkable figures for their engine capacity." Indeed, but perhaps all MG press cars were specially tuned!
In the same issue, W Boddy, who later became the redoubtable editor of Motor Sport, declared that "one is struck by the manner in which the figures (from road test reports in 'The Autocar') tally with those of cars timed personally." He did not, however, offer to share any figures he might have obtained for any of the MGs in question. He also felt that the methods used by 'The Autocar' were a safeguard against the specially prepared press car.
Next week (20 January), John H Ritson was also inclined to be critical of MG's attitude: "Mr Kimber, in failing to submit his cars to test, seems to fail to realise that many people, when buying a new car, will believe the reports of the car given by a good motoring paper, such as 'The Autocar', before they will believe a hopeful salesman." A reader from Switzerland stated flatly that he had considered the choice of "the 2-litre M.G. and two others … I would not dream of buying a car the Road Test of which had not been made by you." His nom-de-plume of "Aprilia" presumably reflected the model of car that he had eventually selected in preference to the MG. His grammar presumably reflected the fact that he not English was.
Despite Kimber's assurance that "every facility will be afforded to put any particular model through any reasonable test", one can not see the distributors or the factory being happy about their precious demonstrators being taken out on extended loan, with prospective customers trying to get 85mph out of them. This point was made by B Webb Ware on 27 January; he felt that short trial runs were of little value and that if he had had a car on a 500 mile test, he "should feel morally obliged to place an order." E R Murray felt that Kimber could not "claim that the M.G. has ever been 'unfairly' treated by your Road Tests." And at last, somebody was prepared to speak up for the 2-litre itself, Mr A Morris, who wrote:
"What is this squabble about the performance of the larger M.G. cars? I do not know Mr Kimber's reasons for not submitting them for test, but it certainly cannot be because he is afraid their performance is not the equal of their competitors. - From personal knowledge of a 1937 model M.G. 2-litre, I can give the following figures: timed speed over ¼ mile (mean of 3 runs), 82.1 m.p.h.; acceleration from standstill to 50 m.p.h. (speedometer reading) (mean of 3 runs), 14 sec. - I should like to know what other British car of similar price and comparable engine size could beat these figures. Usual disclaimer."
Mr Morris need perhaps not have worried about the disclaimer: his figures were not as good as those which MG liked to suggest the 2-litre was capable of, witness The Sports Car whose figures I quote in my book. He may also have overlooked that the Jaguar 2½-litre (admittedly with another 350cc under the bonnet, but costing only £10 more) had been tested by 'The Autocar', which credited it with a top speed of 86-88mph.
The final words in this debate came on 10 February. A 2-litre owner wrote to express his view that "Not to submit a car to test gives the public the impression that the makers are ashamed of its performance, whereas, in fact, that of an M.G. is one to be proud of; although as a 2-litre owner I have always found M.G.s inclined to hide their light under a bushel" - which he then proceeded to do himself, signing with the registration mark of his car, AAP 456. In the same issue, R G Sutherland who was the managing director of Aston Martin, wrote to say "how impressed (he) was … with the accuracy and fairness shown (of 'The Autocar' road tests) … the figures obtained are accurate and reliable" and then expressed his view that most standard cars sold to the public had optimistic speedometers, as demonstrated in many cases by 'The Autocar'. There the matter rested, without being totally resolved.
What can we conclude from these letters? Assuming that those which were printed were representative of all letters written to 'The Autocar'on the subject, it is interesting that only a minority of three actually spoke out in defence of the SA, and of those only Mr Morris was prepared to back his opinion with figures - which remained unchallenged, either by the opposition or by MG themselves. Did Kimber deliberately stir up a hornets' nest with his original letter? And did MG tacitly admit that 82mph was about as much as ordinary owners of standard 2-litre cars were likely to be able to achieve?