The Birth of the MG TC Midget

September 17 marks the 70th anniversary of the start of TC production. Of the 10,000 TCs made, more than half still survive – a significant percentage for any car; a remarkable one for an inexpensive open roadster.

Few records survive about the development of the TC – at least as far as this author has found. Piecing together what happened from different bits of documentation produces this story, an excerpt from a soon to be published book – the story of how the TC Midget came about. If there are inaccuracies, please correct me!

Most written accounts of MG’s decision to make the TC follow the simple line of “Well, we should just continue on with what we were making before the war; better find out what was wrong with it, fix those things, then get on with it.” When boiled down to the most basic, this statement is reasonably accurate. As with many things in business however, the process and decision were much more complicated.

In early spring 1943, Managing Directors in the Nuffield Organisation started serious discussions and plans to return to car production after the war ended. The group recognized that Austin would have a big head start on Nuffield in the new car market after the war, as Austin was allowed by the Ministry to continue selling new cars in limited quantities during the war.

A March 11, 1943 letter from Miles Thomas to the Managing Director of each Nuffield car company (Morris, Wolseley, Riley, MG, Morris Commercial) queried them about what models they would be able to first produce after the war. “Would MG start with the 1½ Litre or something else?”

H.A. Ryder replied: “. . . the type of vehicle which MG would want to put on would be the one similar to the car you are now driving, which has not yet been properly christened, but is known as the 1¼ litre Saloon four-door Sliding Head Saloon (Cowley D.O. 811).”

This was the prototype 1¼ litre Y type, which Miles Thomas had been driving on an extended basis for evaluation.

H.A. Ryder (Harold Ryder from Morris Radiators) took over as Managing Director of MG upon Cecil Kimber’s departure in 1941 and steered the company through much of the war. Ryder was a Nuffield man through and through; his ‘director responsibilities’ included overseeing Radiators Branch and Pressings Branch during the war. He left most of the day-to-day MG operations to George Propert (MG General Manager), performing his “Managing Directing” from afar. So while responsible for the company, Ryder wasn’t immersed enough into The MG Car Company to really understand its culture, and what made it a market success.

Ryder, like Thomas, accepted but didn’t appreciate the value of the “sports car” image to the MG brand. He was a sharp businessman and skilled engineer, knowledgeable in sheet metal work. It has been written countless times that he saw no use for or benefit in auto racing or sports cars; I wonder what the real truth is? Actions reflect ideas and opinions, and his recommendation of the new 1¼ litre sedan as the ideal starting place for MG after the war could be a result of his preferences. But part of his thought process certainly included the loss of all the Midget body jigs, tools, and body fixtures destroyed in the Coventry Blitz, the devastating German bombing of Coventry in November 1940. Miles Thomas alluded to this loss in a letter to automotive journalist Marcus Bourdon dated May 18, 1945 in response to a request for info about post-war car programmes:

. . . We are not making any announcements about post-war programmes at the moment. . . . Broadly speaking, Morris and Wolseley will proceed with improved editions of their 1940 types; Riley and MG, because the jigs, tools, and body fixtures were destroyed in the blitz, will offer new models.”

A decision had already been made to simplify the line-up of cars in the Nuffield companies. Nuffield learned pre-war of the real benefits of commonality in parts and components across the different car brands, though the organization continued to struggle with the problems and challenges this created. The big move planned was the “Mosquito” project, Issigonis’ design of what eventually became the Morris Minor. On the drawing board throughout the war, the design was to be the basis for a group of “badge engineered” cars for Morris, Wolseley, and MG with differentiation created through body shapes and interior appointments. That it would come to market had been decided; when was a different story.

The strategy for returning to market was mostly finalized in early 1944. Nuffield directors knew that in the period immediately following the war Austin, their main competitor, would have both production and marketing advantages in the car market, as they were allowed to continue with “non-military” car production and sales through the war. Austin had a real head start, and it was crucial for all the Nuffield Companies to rapidly get back up to speed to protect their market share. The best strategy seemed to be continuance of pre-war models, outlined in a “Car Production Policy” dated February 2, 1944 for Morris Motors and carried through to the other Nuffield companies:

. . . That in view of the special conditions likely to exist at the cessation of hostilities, the need for getting quickly into car production with cars that were known to function satisfactorily, that it is known can be produced, and of which delivery can be more accurately promised, outweighs any possible benefits likely to accrue from the attempt to put on to the market immediately after the cessation of hostilities either entirely new models or fairly extensively revamped versions of the pre-war products. And it is deemed propitious for the Company to confine itself at the beginning of normal peacetime trading to the production of the 8 h.p and 10 h.p models which were current at the time of the outbreak of hostilities.

(Author’s notethe 8 & 10 h.p. were Morris models.)

Early Post-war Period – the Cowley Designs office shall forthwith begin active investigation into, and development of, a 3-Car Series Programme for the earliest possible sequence introduction in the post-war era. . . . the basic designs of the models in this range could be used as the fundamental foundation of both Wolseley and M.G. Cars, but that it should be accepted that no attempt should be made to make these marques conform to the exact outline, appearance and finish of the Morris range, and that those Companies should be free to adapt the basic design for use in conjunction with the features specially associated with their product.”

Discussions then went from the boardroom to respective car companies. Morris and Wolseley pretty much went along with the decision, while Riley continued their streak of independence, going so far as to want to make their own bodies (wood and metal). That was quickly shot down as there was only so much independence allowed in the organization. As to MG, here is what Ryder said in a February 10, 1944 letter:

MG POST-WAR PROGRAMME

. . . I thought it wise to have general discussion with the Executives at MG on what their views were with regard to the marketing of models immediately after the war. I must admit they made a very good case for the inclusion of a Midget.

I think you will appreciate that this Company was built up on a Midget car, and I feel that, providing we run a ‘bread and butter’ line, which is an improvement on the standard, we could economically produce a Midget car at least for a few years after the war in order not to give the public the impression we were falling out of the market which had given us such a good name.

I have, therefore, contacted Mr. Oak, and he informs me that the chassis of the 1¼ Litre can be readily used for a Midget, and he is investigating the possibility of body styles and types, using as much as possible standard panels.”

Thomas replied the following day, agreeing with the recommendation that the MG range should include a Midget. He noted the planned new small chassis-less Morris (aka Mosquito project) could be used as the basis of a Midget, and wondered if the 1¼ Litre chassis would be too heavy for a Midget.

Thus we have the beginning of both the TC and the TD – in February 1944! It’s interesting that at this point Ryder would even consider using a new chassis for the Midget, as it would entail significant development to prepare it for production.

Ryder’s comment about ‘MG being built up on the Midget line’ is also telling. Here he seems to grasp the importance of ‘sporting image and racing success’ to MG’s market reputation – something that Thomas and Ryder didn’t appear to appreciate. Perhaps this isn’t as important as one can make it out to be – Ryder may be just figuring that highest volume of a popular model car is the most important.

Meanwhile, back at the Nuffield board level, another discussion started in Spring 1944 regarding how to best utilize the MG factory in Abingdon. Talks centered around making it a metal job shop factory instead of a car manufacturer. During the war, MG developed a good reputation for their skill in manufacturing small quantities of sheet metal and machined parts in their Press Shop. It was a small area, utilizing a rubber type die system that was quick and inexpensive – ideal for short runs only. Their expertise in making small quantities on a moment’s notice for immediate delivery became well known throughout the munitions suppliers, and the work MG did in this area kept many larger projects going. Rather than return to making cars, the Directors considered having the Abingdon factory just keep on with this business rather than return to making cars. Ideas were offered and discussed; ultimately the decision on what to do was made by Ryder and Thomas.

H.A. Ryder wrote to Miles Thomas on July 5, 1944:

“MG Cars. During the war we have built up, in addition to our assembly technique which covers Tanks, Albermarles, and very shortly Tempest, a sort of odd job manufacturing section, which makes metal containers for Tanks as well as a certain quantity of machined parts.

Whether it is wise to develop this side I have my doubts because I feel that, with MG’s name and reputation and the type of car they manufactured, we should concentrate 100% on this car producing side, and I have in mind aiming at a target of 10,000 cars a year made up of two models, in which case we should not require to develop our machine side.

In any case, I am at the moment giving very full consideration to this policy, and when determined, will control the type of plant we shall require.”

Miles Thomas replied the following day:

I wholly agree that it would be unwise to associate the name of MG with sheet metal and similar production. I think your target of 10,000 cars out of the Abingdon factory is appropriate on pre-war computation, and I would reiterate that, in my opinion, it is much better to concentrate on two smaller models, as you propose to do, and eliminate the 2 and 2½-litre types, which, in my judgment, are not typical MG models.”

(Author’s note: 2 and 2½-litre types are the SA and WA).

Considering the highest annual output of MG before the war was about 3,000 cars, a target of 10,000 cars a year on the surface seems quite a goal. Ryder certainly thought of volume and processes differently than Kimber, and Ryder was much more production and profit oriented. With the MG war staff at 1,400 workers (350 was staff level before the war), simple math suggests MG could easily make 10,000 cars a year if staffing level was maintained post-war. MG’s advancement in production process and efficiency would also impact their abilities, likely increasing output per employee. But the intensity of labor at wartime production levels would be difficult to maintain, and the future market was unknown.

The key decisions about MGs immediate future were made, setting the course for post-war development. MG was to:

• Continue producing the Midget, the best selling model of all MG’s period

• Start development – in concept, at least, of what became the TD – a Midget on the 1¼ Litre chassis.

• Discontinue their presence in the upscale sporting sedan market niche, dropping the SA, VA, and WA models.

• Start the 1¼ Litre sedan into production when possible.

TC0251 – the Prototype

The way forward for MG was set once the decision was made to carry on with the Midget and start production of the 1¼ Litre. The Midget was the easier project of the two, as tooling and development time was faster and easier. Body jigs for tub production at Morris Bodies would need to be remade, though that was a matter of reproducing what was done pre-war with minor modifications.

Development of the 1¼ Litre had continued during the war, though on a limited basis. The prototype was used quite a bit as a general runabout during the war, but much work remained to prepare the model for production. Hence work started on the TC. The project was assigned Design Order 913, with a Sub Order 11/186 by the Experimental and Design department, located at the Morris factory in Cowley, about 12 miles from MG in Abingdon.

Experimental (as the department was known) was responsible for all design, development, and testing of new and existing models. They issued a monthly report from logs recording testing and the petrol used for each project. Ministry rationing rules required companies to account for fuel used, and these reports served that purpose as well as reporting to management general testing activities.

The first appearance of D.O. 913 in these logs is December 1944 for an 81 mile round trip in an MG 2-seater with registration number CJB 59. The test work is recorded as “Journey to Bodies Branch, Coventry in connection with work on D.O.913”. CJB 59 (a Berkshire registration number issued about July 1940) was the registration number carried by the TB that is often seen in MG publicity photos taken in the 1939-1944 era. It’s also the registration number carried by TC0251 – as evidenced by some factory photos. This TB was used by the factory through the war, and all evidence indicates it became TC0251. It was used for all the initial TC press photos, and details in these photos indicate it was a modified TB. The back rear spring shackle mount is attached to the chassis by bolts rather than rivets, suggesting a development modification (see picture).

TC0251 photograph from July/Aug. 1945 Note the bolts holding rear spring shackle to the chassis; in production these were riveted. (Click photo for bigger version).

The logs show entries for the project from February through August 1945. February lists “397 miles for General proving and testing after modification.”

TC0251 Press Photo Fall 1945 Mr. McMahon in the first TC. He appears in many TC photos – who is he?

TC0251 photograph from July/Aug. 1945 Looking quite beat up, though with a fresh interior and new tan wigan top!

The body drawings were completed in December 1944 (ever notice the hexagonal radiator cap in the large drawing?), and it’s reasonable to assume the tub for TC0251 was built shortly thereafter.

TC0251 is known to still exist (as of this writing) though its present owner and caretaker continue to preserve their anonymity.

The first 100 TCs

By mid May 1945, MG obtained license from the Ministry (i.e., permission) to make 1,500 cars in 1945. As it turned out, a permit to make cars was the easy part; Ministry approval to acquire the materials needed for production proved to be much more difficult. Initial allocations allowed for only 25. Lack of wood and rubber allocations were the main obstacles in 1945; in 1946 and 1947, steel allocation was the big problem. By the end of the year, 100 TCs were complete, a mere 7% of the goal.

Many parts used originally on the 1945 TCs are different than later cars, and make for interesting trivia and originality notes. That’s a subject for another article.

Production continued increasing bit by bit, and by March of 1946, Sir Miles Thomas was urging Ryder to increase production. “We really need 60 cars a week” he wrote. To which Ryder replied “We can do it if we can get the parts.” At that time MG was making eight cars a day. War munitions work continued at MG until the middle of 1947, when the factory finally returned to exclusively making cars.

Copyright © Tom Wilson 2015.

Ed’s note: A huge ‘Thank you’ to Tom for this fine article. A couple of photos of early TCs follow:

TC0252, the first production TC, shown here at a June 2015 GOF in Saratoga Springs New York; TC0252 is currently owned by Pete DeBruyn.

TC0272, 0273 & 0279 – the 21st, 22nd, and 28th TCs in Tom Wilson’s driveway

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