Ted Lee drew up the MG octagon. He was a 1920s accountant with Morris Garages that was selling spruced up Morris Oxfords. Undergraduates wanted sporty cars but couldn’t always run to £1475 Bugattis or £1975 Bentleys, so Lee’s pale small manager with a limp saw an opportunity. Cecil Kimber was good at selling £140 Morrises until he found that fancy bodywork in bright colours could make that £245.
All he had to do was invent a new make of car with its own symbol. Kimber was good at what we’d now call PR yet it was Lee who squeezed MG into an octagon for a Morris Garages advertisement in The Oxford Times in March 1923. His boss was delighted. Octagons proliferated on all MG advertising and brochures including one on perhaps the greatest MG of all, the racing K3 (above) portrayed eloquently by MG's favourite artist Harold Connolly. Kimber put octagons on brass plates below the doors of his 14/28 and 14/40. A big difference for 1926 replaced the bullnosed radiator with a flat one that had less nickel but better cooling. Kimber enhanced it with an appliqué octagon. The cars were guaranteed by MG, the chassis plate said MG; they were registered as MGs and in 1927 were was shown at Olympia on Morris Garages, not Morris Motors’ stand.
MG was now a brand and later octagons were everywhere. Once moved to its own factory at Abingdon-on-Thames, company typewriters had a single key with the MG cipher (above). So when Kimber wrote to the buyer of “Old Number One”, which while not exactly the first ever MG was the first to carry the magic octagon on the side, MG was stamped indelibly (above) in the text. MG appeared in the headlights of 1930s coupes. MG instruments on 1950s TFs (below) were no longer round. MG no longer meant Morris Garages, it meant MG and like ERA, BRM, OM, BMW AC or even Saab and Fiat come to that, took on an identity so distinguished it was bought by the Chinese in the 21st century.
Kimber always found selling last year’s cars difficult unless they could be elegantly renamed so introduced Mark numbers. Soldiers returning from World War I were familiar with the military habit of “Marks” in Roman numerals on equipment. So since he regarded 1924 14/28s as Mark Is, the long-chassis 14/28s of 1925-1926 as Mark IIs, and the 1927 14/28 with flat radiator as Mark IIIs, he introduced Mark IV in 1928. MG hid nothing, stripping it bare in salesmens’ notes (below) confident that Oxford undergraduates were probably unfamiliar with the humdrum Morris it was based on.
Modifications included flattened rear springs to make it look lower and the steering box was remounted so that the column was raked. MG was moving away from humble roots. Yet it was never above subtle grandeur. As Barraclough and Jennings put it in their magnificent Oxford to Abingdon book, the “40” bit of the 14/40 represented a target rather than an achievement. Car identities had calculated horsepower first, followed by a higher figure of brake horsepower from bench tests. One Laystall trial of a 1927 car did produce 44.1bhp (32.9kW) at 4,200rpm but that seemed scarcely typical.
MG didn’t need, in the end, hype to achieve status. It was the sports car everybody loved first.
MG Classics Book 1 to be published this month covers 1922-1939 with a detailed history of MG’s foundation by Kimber and Morris, through struggles in the aftermath of the First World War to its triumphs before the outbreak of the second. An offshoot of the burgeoning Morris Motors based in the university city of Oxford, by the 1930s it was self-sufficient at a small factory in rural Berkshire. MG achieved sporting success at Brooklands and in the Mille Miglia, creating a niche for a new kind of motor industry product, the small sporting two-seater. Forty-seven distinctive examples are detailed, illustrated and described in the first of a trilogy along with the comprehensive specifications that have gained Dove Publishing motor books their reputation for accuracy and authenticity. Chronicles of speed records and motor sporting successes will make MG Classics Books 1, 2 and 3 unique sources of facts and figures. The MG octagon was registered as a trademark on 1st May 1924.