Four Harps and a Coffin

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.

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.

As for driving a TC in anger, Cornett was in good company. Phil Hill, Carroll Shelby, John Fitch, Ken Miles, Ritchie Ginther, and Denise McCluggage, to name a few, all started their racing careers in TCs. For a short time, the car simply was road racing – it filled starting grids across America, won countless championships, and typified the period’s race-your-street-car/drive-your-race-car-on-the-street mentality.

Writer Karl Ludvigsen once called the TC “a coffin riding on four harps,” and that analogy isn’t very far off. Standing in front of the MG, it’s hard to imagine what an interstate-free, Detroit-driven nation must have thought of its tiny, angular shape and spindly wire wheels. Consider, also, just how important the TC was: it launched America’s love affair with the sports car, it helped revive stateside road racing, and it served as training wheels for much of this country’s postwar racing talent. The combination is enough to make your head spin – and certainly more than enough to make an eight-year-old boy forgive a brief spit out into the breeze.

Sidebar: Driving the Beast

Go ahead, I’m told, pull that black Bakelite knob on the dash. I do, and down by my feet, beneath a thin layer of rubberized plastic, a starter motor turns. The engine catches, coughs, and then settles into a lumpy, 1200-rpm idle. The TC is running, and the air is suddenly filled with a mishmash of sound, an alien combination of last-century noise and unfamiliar hubbub. The chronometric tach, a platter-sized chunk of spasmic motion directly behind the steering wheel, whirs and clicks like an ancient watch. The twin SU carburetors hiss quietly as the smell of raw fuel and hot oil wafts up from under the dash. I slot the slender chrome shift lever into first and lift my foot off the tiny clutch pedal, and we’re off: braappping down the road, wind in my teeth. I am gloriously uninsulated from the pavement – in fact, I can reach down and touch it with my right hand.

We head out of Watkins Glen, retracing the old public-road race circuit. The TC has to work to climb the steep hills just west of town, and I have to shift a lot and never lift my right foot to maintain the 45-mph speed limit. A hundred shakes, shimmies, and seat-of-the-pants rumblings make the entire car feel stiffly alive, as if built from a thousand unoiled hinges. Holding any set course soon becomes constant work.

The advice I was given earlier flashes through my head: Power comes on at four grand; shift at six. Trust the brakes, but not too much. Don’t let the inch (!) of play in the steering bother you; that’s normal. (Normal? It’s downright freaky.)

Cornett’s Stone Bridge – where this very car once went for a shallow swim – looms at the bottom of a long and tree-covered hill. I nail the throttle and the MG flings itself down the hillside, jumping from lane to lane. I saw at the wheel, attempting to rein things in until a thought occurs. Quit holding the car back. I relax, loosen my grip, and the wheel begins to dance independently of my hands. The car suddenly seems to gain speed, as if it had immediately grown lighter. It’s then that I realize that the TC is fastest and most composed when you don’t fight it, when you stop trying to subdue the wriggling chassis and the flexing bodywork, when you stop driving the car and start aiming it. It’s intimidating, and it can be nerve-racking, but it works. I hit a patch of gravel at the end of the bridge, rip off a surprisingly perfect left-handed downshift, and countersteer: raucous, fluid oversteer. Beautiful.

I pull over to the side of the road, toes a-tingle and hands shaking. I can’t stop laughing. Race something like this, mile after mile, on public roads? Unreal. As I shut off the car, two thoughts cross my mind simultaneously. One: Sixty years ago, they grew cojones in a completely different size. And two: I was born entirely too late.

Sidebar: Road Racing at the Glen

The first road race in postwar America started on the main street of Watkins Glen, directly in front of the courthouse. Its 6.6-mile lap climbed up into the nearby hills, dove down into a deep creek valley, crossed a shut-down New York Central railroad line – one that often launched cars several feet into the air – and then came tearing back into town via more than a mile of 100-mph, off-camber hillside. The event’s success prompted other towns to act, and places like Bridgehampton, New York, and Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, soon followed the Glen’s pattern. Racing in Watkins Glen proper lasted only until 1952, when the death of a seven-year-old spectator brought national attention to issues of safety and crowd control. (Attendance for the ’52 event exceeded 200,000 people, but spectators were restrained by little more than hay bales and bunting.) The event then moved out to safer, more remote confines, and Watkins Glen International was built shortly after.