Four Harps and a Coffin

Sam Smith
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Regis Lefebure
Four Harps and a Coffin

Enter the American GI. During service in the European theater, more than a few U.S. soldiers had developed a healthy appreciation for light, nimble, and inexpensive performance cars. When those men began returning home, they often brought with them (or searched out on their return) small European sports cars. The British MG TC was simply in the right place at the right time; it was one of the only sporting machines that was widely available, relatively fast, and relatively inexpensive.

Even by the standards of the time, the TC wasn't intended to be anything special - complicated drivetrains and high-strung personalities weren't in its family tree. MG had specialized in sports cars since the early 1920s, but its products were always meant to provide maximum grins per dollar rather than outright speed. As a result, the company's cars often paired sedan-derived mechanicals with light, low-cost chassis. The end product wasn't always that fast, but it was almost always fun.

Like a great many cars of the period, much of the TC's fundamental design was carried over from the prewar era (in this case, the late-'30s MG TA and TB). The 1550-pound TC's simple ladder frame and leaf-sprung solid axles carried a long-stroke, 1250-cc Morris four-cylinder and a four-speed gearbox. And although as much as 100 hp could be extracted from the engine for racing use, production output was a relatively meager 54 hp at 5200 rpm. Nineteen-inch center-lock wire wheels held the whole package off the ground, and four nine-inch hydraulic drums stopped it. In a 1945 Autocar road test, the TC charged to 60 mph in 22.7 seconds, and its top speed was recorded as 75 mph. Heady stuff.

The TC, however, was more than the sum of its parts. At just under twelve feet long and five feet wide, the MG was dwarfed by the leviathans on American roads at the time. Its short-geared, relatively low-torque engine required the driver to work to go quickly, but over a winding road, the TC could humble anything made in America. The car was deceptively quick, visually arresting, long on character, and short on fragility. At a time when most American cars weren't capable of extended top-speed running, the TC's tiny four could sit at its redline for days on end without blowing up. That people became attached to the tiny MG - and that it soon was winning races - came as no surprise.

Prompted almost solely by the urgings of Cameron Argetsinger, a young TC owner from Ohio who happened to vacation in the Finger Lakes region of New York, the fledgling Sports Car Club of America staged its first road race at Watkins Glen in 1948. At the time, the SCCA's membership roster included only 120 people, a great many of them new TC owners, and a great many of them would-be racers. Twenty-three entrants competed in that first race, and 5000 spectators crowded the streets of the town for the event. Of the eleven MGs entered, eight TCs finished in the top ten.

The MG that I'm driving was one of those eight, and it exemplifies the pattern followed by most TC owners. Kentuckian Denver Cornett bought his TC new in 1947, drove it every day, and traveled to Watkins Glen for that first race in 1948. After losing control on the back half of the course during the Junior Prix race, Cornett rolled his MG twenty feet downhill into a creek at Old Stone Bridge. For his trouble, he received the distinction of having the bridge unofficially renamed in his honor - and was loaned a replacement wheel by none other than America's Cup and future Le Mans team owner Briggs Cunningham. Both Cornett and the MG competed in the main event later in the day. The TC, little harmed, finished seventh and returned to race at Watkins Glen several times over the next few years.

After spending a few decades in storage, Cornett's 12,000-mile MG was recently sympathetically refurbished. It remains amazingly original and complete, even down to the black factory steering wheel - a rare item because its flexible spokes break easily since drivers tend to use it as a brace to keep themselves in the car. Cornett passed away last year, but the car is still owned and regularly exercised by his son, Denny.

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