2023 – The 100th Anniversary of M.G. sports cars

 The convention for the celebration of anniversaries is to start from the date when the event first occurred – and the first M.G. sports cars were produced in 1923, so this is the date from which all things M.G. truly began.

Over the years, due to misunderstandings, other dates such as 1924, 1925 and even 1928 have been erroneously adopted as the starting point of  M.G. These errors are easily explained, as will be seen in the following information.

The very essence of the M.G. brand is a true sporting car which incorporates good looks, performance and reliability. One cannot ignore the fact that the Morris brand, from which M.G. products sprang, were noted more for reliability than for sporting prowess.

It was only after Cecil Kimber joined the staff at The Morris Garages, Oxford in 1921, that his enthusiasm for motor sport eventually led him to develop ‘hotted up’ Morris cars. The Morris Garages produced a few Morris cars with bespoke coachwork, (mainly up-market saloons), and then in 1922 began to sell Morris Cowleys with coachwork that they named the “Chummy Body”.

Morris Garages Chummies featured a small 4-seater body, wherein all passengers enjoyed the protection of the hood. Over 100 of these cars were sold. These cars were never marketed as M.G.s and had no sporting pretentions. However, Kimber modified his own Chummy and in March 1923 won a gold award with the car in the London to Land’s End Trial.

Kimber’s success in this event led to William Morris sanctioning an order for six sporting 2-seaters to be produced – and these were to be the very first M.G. sports cars.

The coachwork for these six 2-seater sports cars was made by the Oxford firm, Charles Raworth & Sons. Kimber’s design incorporated various improvements in handling and performance which enabled the car to do 60mph on the flat!

The styling of the cars included several features which were to be iconic on M.G.s for several years – rakish swept wings, a sloping windscreen with triangulated end frames and ‘marine style’ air ventilators on the scuttle.

Adverts for these M.G.s first appeared in December 1923, in which the model was named ‘The M.G. Super Sports Morris’ – featuring the MG Octagon, as shown.

These first M.G.s were available to customers earlier in 1923, and the first recorded sale was in August 1923.

The M.G. Octagon – a history in itself!

The M.G. octagon first appeared in an advert in The Oxford Times of March 2nd 1923 and was subsequently used in virtually every M.G. advert thereafter.

The octagon logo is understood to have been designed by Ted Lee, Cost Accountant at The Morris Garages. The two-letter acronym soon became M.G.’s logo.

The M.G. Car Company was formed in March 1928 and yet, almost unbelievably, the M.G. octagon had never been registered as a trademark! The first application for the image as a trademark was made a month later in April 1928.

Even then, the ‘date of claimed first use’ was erroneous. The date given on the application was 1st May 1924, (probably taken from the earliest advert to hand), whereas the octagon was first used in March 1923.

These errors are responsible for some folk to think that M.G. started in 1924, or even in 1928, when the trademark was claimed.

Further confusion over the 1975 Jubilee MGBs

When in 1975, under British Leyland management, M.G. was desperate to shift stocks of MGB GTs, a model named ‘Jubilee’ was introduced. The management team thought that the production of M.G.s began in 1925 – so 1975 was the 50th anniversary. Sadly, they were two years too late, but the error convinced the uninitiated to believe that 1925 was the start date of the marque.

The 2023 Centenary Celebrations.

Plans are well advanced for a big M.G. Centenary event to be held in England in 2023. All of the major M.Gs. car clubs are involved, including the oldest – the M.G. Car Club in Abingdon – and all of those clubs agree that the first M.G.s were the Raworth-bodied Super Sports built in 1923.

The M.G. Salesmen’s Handbook, issued in January 1928, states that “…the M.G. Sports Cars were first introduced in 1923 …”.

Cecil Cousins, who was Kimber’s right-hand man at M.G., told author Wilson McComb that the first cars that can be considered M.G.s were the Raworth-bodied Super Sports of 1923.

So – that’s why the big celebrations will be held in 2023!

Chris Keevill – Editor, The Early M.G. Society

Editor’s note:

This article was written by Chris for the Newsletter of the Classic MG Club of Orlando, Florida and appeared in the August 2020 edition of its Newsletter ‘The Octagon’.

I had previously introduced Glen Moore, editor of ‘The Octagon’ to Chris; Glen was seeking clarification on early M.G. radiator badges. This led to an exchange of e-mails about the centenary of M.G. – which in turn prompted Chris to write an article about why it’s 2023.

Chris’ article is a useful follow on to “The 97th International Oliver Arkell day”, which was published in the October Issue (number 62). This celebrated the occasion in 1923 when a young man, John Oliver Arkell, came to Oxford to buy a car from the Morris Garages showrooms in Queen Street.

The surname Arkell will be familiar to UK West Country folk, especially beer drinkers, as a brewer based in Swindon, Wiltshire.

John Arkell, born 1802 in Kempsford, Gloucestershire, first started brewing beer in 1843. Brought up in a farming community, he emigrated to Canada in his late twenties with a group of local people, keen to escape the harsh conditions of agricultural employment at the time. The group established the community of Arkell, but John was to return to England after three years to marry and set up home in Stratton St Margaret, near Swindon in Wiltshire, where he grew barley and brewed beer on his farm.

In the mid19th century, beer that was sold in pubs was brewed on site and also in private dwellings. John Arkell saw an opportunity here to supply pubs with beer as well as his own pub, which he had just bought.

Arkell’s foresight was handsomely rewarded with the acquisition of a string of pubs in the town of Swindon and in towns and villages in Gloucestershire and Wiltshire. This required a new steam brewery built in 1861, which itself reached capacity by 1867.

John Arkell did not live long enough to see the continuing burgeoning expansion of pubs as he died in 1881. On his death, the business was carried on by two of his sons; Thomas Arkell (died 1919, aged 80) and James Arkell (died 1925 aged 76).

Arkell’s became a private limited company in 1927 with all shares owned by the family – as, indeed, is the case today. Now at the helm were James Arkell’s sons, Thomas Noel (later Sir Noel), James Graham and John Oliver Arkell.

If you’ve followed the genealogy thus far, you’ll see where John Oliver Arkell arrived on the scene.

John Oliver Arkell was born on 28th November 1899. After education at Wellington College, he joined the Royal Navy as a special entry cadet in 1918, rising to the rank of Lieutenant Commander. His Royal Navy service record gives his full name as John Oliver Augustus Arkell. He was a keen philatelist, a Fellow of the Royal Philatelic Society London, and was author of a number of booklets relating to various aspects of stamp collecting.

A practising solicitor, in between his service in the Royal Navy, (I think he must have been recalled to the Navy on the outbreak of war) he was not involved in the day to day running of the brewing company, albeit he was a director.

Oliver Arkell died in 1977, so he was still around when Wilson McComb was researching his book The Story of the M.G. Sports Car, first published in 1972. The ‘Client Copy’ given to McComb (copy below), held in the archive of the Early M.G. Society, (hence the water mark), was annotated by Arkell (see top right-hand corner) and given to McComb at a meeting between the two.

Note that Arkell signed the order as J. O. A. Arkell.

The Early M.G. Society also holds a copy of the ‘Works Copy’ of this order in its archive. William Morris considered this order to be for the very first M.G. and had it framed and displayed in his billiard room at Nuffield Place. The original framed copy sadly now seems to have been misappropriated.

The surviving copies of the ‘Client’s Copy’ and the ‘Works Copy’ are historically significant because they represent the very first documented sale of an M.G. sports car.

Looking at Arkell’s annotation in the top right-hand corner of the ‘Client’s copy’, I think it says “My first car. I believe it was the first MG as the price had not been fixed (finalised?) and was later said to be £350.”

For those who don’t have a copy of McComb’s The Story of the M.G. Sports Car, here is a précis from the relevant passage of the book which would have been based on McComb’s meeting with Arkell:

Arkell recalled the date of 11th August 1923 when he travelled to Oxford from his home in Highworth, Wiltshire to buy a Morris Chummy [a Morris open 2-seater with a space in the back for occasional passengers] when he noticed a yellow sports car in the window of the Queen Street showroom. He was much taken with the colour “an unusual yellow, the colour of good butter, and it had black wings.” Kimber was in attendance and said the price was £300, whereupon Arkell agreed to buy it, on the basis that it wasn’t much more than a Chummy. 

Having paid a deposit three days later, Arkell’s Raworth was registered FC 5855 in Oxford on 16th August and was delivered on 5th September.

‘Oliver’s Beetle’ as his father christened it, had neither front-wheel brakes or a starter. When Arkell asked about having these fitted, Kimber told him that the weight would spoil the performance; the car apparently achieved 60 mph on one occasion, only for the magdyno to collapse under the strain.

Shortly after the purchase, Arkell was told that the price should have been £350 and this was the figure quoted in later advertisements (see below).

McComb opined that this uncertainty over the price suggested that Arkell’s Raworth was the first one sold to a private customer.

The first recorded advert for Raworth-bodied Super Sports.

The Editor would like to acknowledge the help of members of The Early M.G. Society, Chris Keevill, Keith Herkes and Phil Jennings in the compilation of this article.

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