MG 90

MG’s 90th year is, apparently, off to a strong start with over 1000 orders for the MG3. “Since the first MG went on sale 90 years ago in 1924…” according to SAIC Motor Corporation, MG’s Chinese owner.
Unfortunately MG is awash with first car claimants. They’re detailed in Classic MG and, as anybody will tell you, go back to 1902 when Morris Garages was set up at old livery stables in Longwall Street, Oxford (above). William Richard Morris started business alongside Magdalen College. Longwall Street was named after the old city wall in the grounds of New College, and it was another two decades before Morris Garages created MG. Romantic histories of MG by Alfred Edgar Frederick Higgs, or Barré Lyndon as he called himself, are no help. Barré Lyndon gained fame as a Hollywood scriptwriter and his books lent MGs as dramatic a quality as his films. His legacy of myth and legend went well beyond anything so prosaic as a car.
Morris Garages’ manager, Edward Armstead unfortunately left in 1922 and committed suicide. Mr Morris was too busy buying up Morris Motors’ suppliers and in the course of taking over axle manufacturer EG Wrigley, came across Cecil Kimber a bright executive steadily losing his savings as the firm failed. Morris knew a natural salesman when he saw one, appointing Kimber as replacement for Armstead. Morris was careful not to take Kimber on to Morris Motors; he had something more specialized in mind. Wrigley was bought cheaply from the receiver in 1923 and recast as Morris Commercial Cars Ltd
MG started with Kimber developing a premium profitable Morris Garages sideline. Besides selling, servicing, and repairing cars, he fitted Morrises up with a variety of coachwork. Like young William Lyons in Blackpool, busily laying the foundations of Jaguar at the same time, Kimber had an eye for style. He encouraged customers to specify individual designs much like their betters did in the luxury bespoke market. Even though the chassis was made by the humble WRM Motors, Kimber had coachwork designed for them by Raworth of Oxford, or Carbodies of Coventry. WM Morris didn’t much like the interruptions this caused to production, but put up with it for the money.
Cecil Kimber carved out the octagonal initials, adding pedigree to Morris’s homely ingenuity, inventing what the world’s motor industry came to know as niche marketing. MGs could be priced 20 per cent higher provided they were 10 per cent faster, looked 10 per cent better, and hardly cost any extra to make.

Manufacturing a Morris Garages Cowley Chummy of 1924 actually turned out cheaper, so Morris stopped making the plain Sports Cowley, a poor seller anyway, setting the stage for a new car not only stylish but also fast. Morris owners had been buying engine conversions such as Pope Ricardo aluminium cylinder heads at £8 15s 0d (£8.75), or overhead valve sets from Chesterfield or Lap at around £25. They were in the market for speed although on its own it was not enough. Neighbours didn’t notice. MGs had to have a smart appearance and a good name. Wealthy Oxford undergraduates were eager buyers.

Kimber flattered them. MGs “…can be bought by those who know.” An MG octagon superimposed on a Super Sports Morris might be thought the first MG. It could be argued that MG as a make dated from an advertisement in The Morris Owner of May 1924.

Before the first batch of Super Sports Morrises was finished, an order came in from a customer who wanted an aluminium-bodied Morris Oxford 4-seater. Kimber liked it so much that he based another new Morris Garages model on it. Changes to the Oxford chassis, which was brought in complete then stripped and reassembled, included flattened springs, lowered steering, raised axle ratio and a “tuned” engine.
Mudguards were painted smoke blue or claret, or maybe something to match the upholstery. Colour co-ordinated hood and carpets enhanced a graceful aluminium body. Both 2- and 4-seat versions of the MG 14/28 were built in Pusey Street during 1924, with polished aluminium Ace discs on beaded-edge artillery wheels. The first MG at last? Not quite, although the octagon was for the first time embossed on door sill step-plates.

The 14/28 offered, “10 per cent better performance, 50 per cent better handling, and 80 per cent better appearance than the standard Morris Oxford.” Kimber achieved improvements at small cost for the 20 per cent increase in price. Early MGs were often road-going facsimiles of cars made for trialing up muddy hills. The only MG actually made at Morris Garages’ workshop at Longwall Oxford, which had simple machine tools and no space for production, was Kimber’s Old Number One, FC7900.
Although by 1924-1925 it could scarcely be the first-ever MG, its title was enshrined in MG folklore and whether Kimber ever really intended it to be “first” or “my first”, or “first competition” or first anything doesn’t much matter. It came to be called Old Number One and was put on show as such ever after.

In 1922 Kimber acquired premises in Alfred Lane to make the Chummy and the first 14/28s but more space was still needed and it was 1925 before he persuaded Morris to let him use the available space. The acquisitive Morris had bought a radiator supplier in Bainton Road Oxford, reorganized it as Morris Radiators, and allowed MG spare bays there until 1927. It moved once again to a factory, specially built at a cost of £20,000, in Edmund Road, Cowley, still lacking a paint shop so MGs had to be sent for mudguard fitting and painting to Morris Garages’ coachwork repair shop in Leopold Street Oxford.

So about 90 years since the first MG.
The author samples Old Number One
Timeline from Classic MG

1902 Morris bicycle dealership 48 High Street Oxford, and 100 Holywell Street, known as Longwall.
1903 Morris enters partnership, The Oxford Automobile and Cycle Agency, at 16 George Street, George Street Mews and New Road. Business fails, Morris borrows money to buy back tools and never enters a partnership again. Resumes repair business at 48 High Street and motor trade at Longwall.
1907 Expands garage business at Longwall.
1908 Sells 48 High Street to Edward Armstead.
1912 Oct: WRM Motors established. £4000 capital from Earl of Macclesfield.
Nov: Morris shows designs of Morris Oxford at Olympia. Gordon Stewart of Stewart & Ardern buys 400.
1913 The Morris Garages (WR Morris, proprietor) established in Longwall, Queen Street and St Cross Road.
29 Mar: First Morris Oxford: body by Raworth, engine and gearbox White & Poppe, axles E G Wrigley, bull-nose radiator by Doherty Motor Components. Built at Temple Cowley.
1914 Jan: WRM Motors lists six Morris Oxfords. Standard £180. De Luxe coupe £255. Sports £220.
Apl: Morris sails to USA with Hans Landstad of White & Poppe, meets Continental Motor Manufacturing Company in Detroit, Michigan. Landstad joins WRM Motors.
1915 Apl: Morris Cowley two-seater with American engine and gearbox.
Sep: Chancellor of the Exchequer, Reginald McKenna, imposes 33-and-a-third per cent import duty on cars. First engines for Morris Cowley delivered from Continental. Supplies erratic due to war.
1916 Mar: Engine imports badly affected by wartime shipping restrictions.
1918 Nov: Last Morris Cowleys with Continental engines.
1919 Mar: Morris Garages manager, F G Barton, resigns due to ill health. Replaced by Edward Armstead.
Jly: WRM Motors liquidated. Morris forms Morris Motors. WRM Motors tied to unacceptable distribution agreement. First Hotchkiss engine.
Aug: Morris sets up Osberton Radiators at Cowley, helping HA Ryder and AL Davies (from Doherty Motor Components) to buy it.
1920 Jan: Cecil Cousins joins Morris Garages at Clarendon Yard. Syd Enever, aged 15, joins Morris Garages in Queen Street.
1921 Cecil Kimber joins Morris Garages as sales manager. Enever to Clarendon Yard.
1922 Mar: Kimber becomes general manager after Edward Armstead.
Autumn: First Morris Garages Chummy based on Morris Oxford with lowered springs, special paint and leather trim.
1923 1 Jan: William Morris buys Hollick & Pratt, coachbuilders, for £100,000 after a fire. Sold to Morris Motors in 1926. Morris also buys Osberton Radiators.
Feb: Chummy production from Longwall to Alfred Lane under Cecil Cousins.
Mar: Cecil Kimber takes Chummy on Land’s End Trial with Russell Chiesman.
May: Hotchkiss factory in Gosford Road Coventry bought by Morris for £349,423. FG Woollard becomes works manager.
16 Jly: The Morris Company formed.
Nov: First appearance of octagonal MG logo in Morris Garages advertisement in The lsis.
Dec: Morris buys EG Wrigley.
1924 Jan: Miles Thomas joins WR Morris to launch Morris Owner.
May: Morris Owner carries advertisement for Morris Garages with MG octagon.
1925 13 Mar: Carbodies begins building ‘Old Number One’. FC 7900 registered 27 March, 1925.
Apl 10-11: Land’s End Trial. Kimber and Wilfred Matthews enter in FC 7900.
Sep: MG production starts Bainton Road alongside Osberton Radiators.
Modern MG3. MG has announced over 1000 orders and more than 400 registrations of the supermini, since its launch in November 2013. Ten new retailer appointments have been announced so far this year. You can have one for £99 a month.