MG SA/VA/WA (Geoff Wheatley)

I would not like to guess how many words have been written about MGs over the years, certainly millions or even trillions, perhaps even more!

However, there are some vehicles that came out of the Abingdon factory that only share a fraction of the MG story. We all know about the postwar boom with the TC ..TD and TF and who can forget the sporting image of the MGA and the very attractive MGB who’s appeal lasted almost eighteen years, a record for any British car.

However, between 1936 and 1939 resulting from the internal change of policy at the Abingdon factory a unique range of luxury cars were produced that completely changed the image of  MG  if only for a brief period of motor history, starting with the MG. SA  launched in the fall of 1935/36.Was this Morris Motors putting a slender foot into the luxury market knowing that if it failed Cowley would not get a blast from Billy Morris who was always watching the pennies and of course the profit?

The response at the 1935 Motor Show was more than encouraging especially when we remember that until then the company had not been associated with the production of large luxury vehicles designed to appeal to a small but obviously affluent section of the motoring public. The fact that the Abingdon operation had been taken over by Morris Motors Cowley and was no longer an independent operation certainly had something to do with this additional range of vehicles. Morris Motors did have the Wolsley range which was certainly a quality vehicle but never elegant or sporty as illustrated by the fact that Nuffield owned a Wosley for many years while his wife, Lady Nuffield, sported a Rolls and an open top Bentley at their country home. The power unit for the 1936 SA was a modified Morris 2 liter engine not exactly a prestige power unit but reliable and not expensive to maintain. However, these modifications cause some delay in meeting the orders obtained at the !935 Motor Show in fact some would be purchasers waited as long as six months for their car which did not exactly embellish the new image of  the MG SA. To add salt to the situation the 2.5 liter SS Jaguar produced by William Lyons was equally elegant in style and design and was at least 20% less expensive than the SA.
Not as fast however, with even with a 2.5 liter side valve engine made under contact for Jaguar by the Standard Motor Company, a leading supplier of engines to about 60% of the British motor industry. (Remembered today as the company that saved Ferguson Tractors when Ford stopped making their engines after WWII. That’s another story for another time!)

Side by side there was little to chose between the SA and the Jaguar, both extremely attractive in design and style that today we associate with the rich and famous on their yachts in Monte Carlo in the prewar era. Once the production had been sorted out at Abingdon and Cowley was able to supply the important things like an engine and chassis the SA did fairly well within its limited market. However, with Jaguar offering a similar package priced at just over three hundred pounds against the SA priced at over four hundred, the fact that the SA was about ten miles faster was not a big selling point for the extra money.

It is also interesting to note that the name Jaguar was not used until this time and was not registered as the official company name until 1946. The company name was SS, short for Swallow Sidecars Ltd. It was only after the war when the term S.S. was not exactly an asset to any manufacturer, be it cars or caster oil, that the Jaguar Motor Car Company came into existence.

Also in 1935 a sports version of the SS Jaguar was introduced, later to be known as the SS 90 because it was guaranteed to do ninety miles an hour.  Looking back at the performance reports of the day it is not clear if this was on a flat surface or down hill!  However, in design it also rivaled the MG SA in both elegance and style and was about 25% less than any other comparable vehicle not that there were that many to choose from as the world economy started to recover from a depression.

The SA and later the VA with a different power unit continued for about two years which by modern day economics would hardly be seen as an economical success. However, the general policy of MG had been to bring out various versions of their production almost on a yearly basis as any study of the prewar models will show.  Why this was the case is difficult to evaluate however we do know that Kimber often encouraged this policy and seemed to think that you had to offer a never ending variety of vehicles to sustain a market share. In reality this may well have been the reason why the company never made any real profit and usually ended each year in the red with Kimber going cap in hand to the boss for financial assistance. All this came to an end when  Nuffield sold his MG interest to the Morris Corporation in 1935 and Cowley took control of the Abingdon operation. However, this was a short term situation with Nuffield  was back in control with his finger on the purse strings by the spring of 1937.

As already suggested it is feasible that the introduction of the SA vehicles were a direct result of this change in policy as the Morris Motors Board, like others in the business were upset by the success of William Lyons and his SS Jaguar range of vehicles.
As one motor correspondence of the day wrote: “The success of Jaguar is a prime example of the small company showing the big companies how to provide the right product at the right price at the right time for the right audience”

It is also interesting to note that just a few months after Nuffield took back control of MG a new luxury car was produced following in the footsteps of the SA and VA.

The MG WA was everything that the word elegant and luxury suggested furthermore both a coupe and tourer were offered although only nine tourer versions were ever made. The total production run was only 265 before WWII started in September 1939.

The Press Release for the WA indicated that this new car could cruise all day at 75 mph provided by a new 2.6 liter engine and better still would give the owner around 24 MPG.
(Even then with fuel around eighteen cents a gallon people were still concerned about fuel costs even those who could afford a new MG WA!)

To my knowledge no one ever disputed this claim!

As to be excepted the SS Jaguar out sold all the MG series but this was simply a question of price not performance.

The whole MG luxury range is a delight to see and there are examples at both the Heritage Center and the National Motor Collection at Beaulieu in the UK

Sad to say I have yet to experience the delights of driving such a vehicle although I did ride as a passenger in a beautiful 1938 WA from the Heritage Center, complete with walnut interior, deep leather seats and a ride that would put a baby to sleep. The car simply glided along with no sensation of speed although we were running at around 75 mph on a British Motorway.

I doubt if MG ever recovered its financial outlay for the production of these cars with only three short years to sell before a war ended the pre-war Motor Car era of elegance and beauty.

Geoff Wheatley  2011

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