Four Harps and a Coffin

Sam Smith
Regis Lefebure

By rights [well past its redline], the engine should blow up; a connecting rod should come hurtling through the block . . . the valves should scatter like snowflakes. Somehow they stay put . . . and the car simply goes faster.
     - Ken Purdy, Kings of the Road, 1955.

The MG [TC] can outperform any car made in America.
     - Tom McCahill, Mechanix Illustrated, 1948.

What in blazes is that old thing? It looks angry as hell.
     - Roadside observer, upstate New York, 2007.

I don't remember the first time I set foot in an MG TC, but I do remember the second time, because I almost fell out of it. While the car was moving. At 40 mph. It turns out that a flexes-by-design chassis married to a wooden body tub and a tired door latch isn't the best recipe for keeping eight-year-old passengers in the cockpit. We hit a bump while rounding a corner, and before I could think to hang on, the door popped open. My whole torso went flailing out into the breeze, caught only by the driver's arm at the very last minute. Doom and dismemberment may have been nipped in the bud, but my eyes were the size of trash can lids. The next time I climbed into an MG, I lashed myself to everything in sight.

Eighteen years later, pounding through the countryside just west of Watkins Glen, New York, I'm tugging on the aircraft-style lap belt that rings my waist, scrunching deeper and deeper into patinated red leather. The 1947 MG TC I'm driving is so stiffly sprung and so tautly wound that every bump and crest in the road sends me sailing up off the flat bench seat. The belt tightens a little with every yank, but all it seems to do is paunch out my gut and not actually help keep me in the car. The engine snarls at the trees, I shift, and it snarls again. I glance across the dash at the speedometer and have my mind blown: it feels like I'm doubling the 45-mph speed limit, but I'm doing only 50 mph.

The occasional rowdy MG aside, Watkins Glen is a quiet place, a small village nestled deep in the western half of the state. It sits at the south end of Seneca Lake, one of New York's famed Finger Lakes, roughly halfway between Binghamton and Rochester. The town makes for a relaxing vacation spot, but Watkins Glen's relative tranquility belies its worldwide fame. Watkins Glen International Raceway - one of the oldest purpose-built road courses in America, a former Formula 1 venue and site of one of the two annual NASCAR Nextel Cup road races - is located just fifteen minutes to the west, and it's the main draw for the majority of people who visit the area.

That said, the permanent road course isn't the reason we're here. Watkins Glen International was built in 1956, but the region's association with motorsports stretches even earlier into the century. On October 2, 1948, a road race was held here on closed-off public highways. The 1948 Watkins Glen Sports Car Grand Prix was the first organized postwar sports car race in America (see sidebar), and it was the catalyst for all American road racing that followed. That race would likely not have been possible - or, at the very least, it would have been far less successful - without the MG TC.

It took the end of World War II for sports cars to make the trip across the Atlantic in any numbers. Then, as now, American motorsports was dominated by oval-track racing. As a result, stateside vehicles reflected the needs of that form of competition; compared with their European counterparts, few American cars wanted for power, but even fewer could stop or go around corners very well. Driving a true sports car required bringing one over from Europe yourself or finding someone who already had, and in prewar, Depression-starved America, neither option was cheap or easy.

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