Founder of MG, Cecil Kimber (1888-1945), was ahead of his time. In the 1920s he wrote copy, designed advertisements and engaged the best artists to fulfil a vision he had of what we would nowadays call a lifestyle choice. This was more than simply buying space in newspapers to sell cars. Kimber was creating a brand. He was pioneering a procedure not only identifying MG’s place in the market but also creating product to fit it.
Pale, small, with a limp following a motorcycling accident in his twenties, Kimber (above) was manager of Morris Garages, Longwall, Oxford. A small workshop by Magdalen College, separated by a tall 15th century stone enclosure from its deer park and in the shadow of the old city wall in New College, it meant that Kimber was surrounded with university undergraduates. Students in the 1920s were often wealthy enough to own cars, not all perhaps Bugattis at £1475 - about the same price as a decent Alfa Romeo. A few rich ones could put up £1975 for a Bentley. Yet mostly it was a £140 Morris Eight clientele. Morris Garages would sell any make but since the proprietor William Morris had a factory making Morrises by the thousand, Kimber was expected to do best with them.
The Morris Sports Special. Kimber made them into MGs.
Somewhere between the Well-to-Do and the Just-Managing, Kimber reckoned, were some show-offs, perhaps keen drivers who would spend parents’ allowances or gifts from indulgent aunts on cars smartened up with bright colours and shiny accessories. The market had not moved on much since Henry Ford’s famous dictum about black. It was easy for Kimber to improve small Morrises cosmetically, better still if they went a bit faster as well, enabling Kimber to sell them for £245. Then, by enhancing their reputation and renaming Morris Garages Specials MGs, the profitable sky was the limit.
The build-up was subtle, Kimber’s flair for publicity deft. He engaged two artists who became good friends, Frederick Gordon Crosby and Harold Connolly (MG K3 above by Connolly) to enhance the inage. Crosby is usually credited with the leaping mascot on Kimber’s desk at his Abingdon-on-Thames MG factory. Kimber put it on the ambitious MG Tigress, however researchers have shown it the work of French sculptor Casimir Brau who called it Panthère. In any case it was in due course purloined by Jaguar.
Notwithstanding that, Kimber entrusted Crosby with a commission to make his cars sexy. It was a bit ambiguous; Kimber knew his market and girls were buying MGs. In 1935 three PA Midgets were entered for the Le Mans 24-Hours’ race, a team was run by speed record holder George Eyston. Two women shared the driving of each and went down in MG folklore as Eyston’s “Dancing Daughters”, finishing a creditable 24th 25th and 26th in the world’s most famous endurance race. Although well behind the rival Singers, they were ahead of the even more rival Austin Sevens.
But was Kimber’s initiative really more aimed at men who might think of an MG as a sway to tempt girls? Crosby obliged with the celebrated MG Girl (top) for the front of The Autocar and MG experts still argue over which MG model the water colour and charcoal painting depicts. It was probably an F-type but given artistic licence nobody is quite sure.
To MG researchers CONNOLLY alongside an advertising drawing is a hallmark of authenticity yet Harold Connolly, like Crosby, was a rather better-than-average commercial artist. The Motoring Art of Harold Connolly, his biography by Louis Connolly shows his work between 1919 and 1939 as a leading illustrator for Austin, Morris, AC, Lagonda, Dodge, Chevrolet, Cadillac as well as MG. His distinctive artwork coincided with the Art Deco movement and reflects its influence.
Chrysler aimed to move in aristocratic circles with the “Wimbledon”
Yet it was when he set out in 1949 to produce a hand-made book recalling a lifetime of cars that became classics that brought out the best in Connolly.
This precious autobiography reproduced within Louis’ book is a full account of a motoring life that began in 1893 and covers the author’s adventures in the First World War, motorcycling in what was then called Mesapotamia and the Dardanelles. He recounts parents’ cars such as the splendid Lanchester of 1905 that embarrassed his mother through its resemblance to “one of the new-fangled motor hearses,” that encouraged bystanders to raise their hats in respect.
Leaving home in 1920 to become an impecunious artist led to a Model T Ford with electric starting and lighting, neither apparently very efficient. “I spent a lot of energy on the starting handle.” Among his MG commissions was an extravagant 1938 brochure for the big 2.6 Litre saloon that shared its line and stylishness with the new SS Jaguars being made by William Lyons, who shared Kimber’s talent for brand-building. Connolly’s day at the races could have come straight out of My Fair Lady: “Every duke and earl and peer is here/Everyone who should be here is here/What a smashing positively dashing spectacle/The Ascot opening day”.