Austin/Morris – Geoff Wheatley

There is little doubt that Morris and Austin were real competitors as far as the British Motor industry was concerned. Morris had built his name and fame on the mass market Family car and Austin had soon followed in his foot steps. Like Ford they were products of their time who saw an opportunity and went for it. The only difference between these three men who commanded almost a third of the world’s car production in 1925 was how they saw their potential market. Ford believed that if you had a winner stay with it as illustrated by the Model A and the limited range of motor vehicles that he allowed to be produced. Morris was a man who saw the future of the industry as control of the sales outlets and the suppliers, the cars would take care of themselves especially if you offered a medium quality product at an attractive price. In today’s world we would call him a bean counter and of course a very successful one. Austin believed that the real demand for motor cars would come as and when every family could afford to own and run their own vehicle. Motor Shows and product marketing was not his style, the Austin company spent about 15% on sales and promotion compared with the advertising policy of both Ford and Morris. In fact Morris was the first manufacturer to use promotional films and Ford published his own news magazine every month that was both a promotional tool and a political medium for his own sometimes controversial views on the world. It is also interesting to remember that Ford and Morris were good friends such good friends that Morris gave Edsel a special present, but I am getting ahead of myself.

In 1923 Austin got lucky in his quest for a “Peoples Car”, his words not Adolph Hitler’s who is often credited with this title in respect to the development of the VW Beetle. In the early 1930’s. A engine manufacturer in Scotland who had supplied various power units to several British car companies, (it was the economic policy of the day to buy your engines from specialist manufacturers rather than make capital investments in expensive development,) This policy did not usually apply to the normal operations of people like Ford and Morris who had their own engine works and extensive development facilities.

The Scottish manufacturer later to become the Standard Motor Company, famous for the development of the SS Jaguar engine and the post war Triumph range had developed a small 700 cc four cylinder power unit ideal for an inexpensive family vehicle that Austin was striving to produce. Put a cheap fabric body around this engine with enough room for four small people and sell it for just over a hundred 1925 pounds and you had a winner. No frills not even a windscreen wiper, and the spare tire was extra   the nearest in price to such an offer was the British Ford and the Morris family Ten both selling in a higher price bracket to a different market. On top of that a gallon per mile performance of 45 mpg at virtually the same speed made it a very attractive buy for the family who may have owned a motor cycle and a sidecar, very popular as a cheap means of transport at the time. The now famous Austin Seven was born and would go on for the next sixteen years, the Mini of its day without the comfort of that famous product. To say that Morris was upset would be the understatement of the decade, the first thing he did was slash the price of his family car and offer special payment deals through his national Morris Garage operations. The second thing was to get his design team off their butts and start working on a new small power unit, the end result was the equally famous Morris Eight family car that sold for exactly one hundred pounds with a spare wheel and a real top not a canvas cover as was the case with the Austin Seven. The actual size of the engine was just over eight HP, at 847 cc with an overhead camshaft not the side valve power unit in the Austin. The motor press of the day called both of these cars “Midgets”, a term that would have a lasting impact on the motor world. Someone, and it certainly wasn’t Morris but might have been Kimber, must have said, Why not develop a small sports car out of the Morris Minor, a peoples sports car!” A Morris Minor engine was acquired by MG Abingdon who had just negotiated for their new factory at the same location, and one of the cars was driven by the Earl of March within a matter of months the baby MG was ready to launch. What they did to the engine is not clear and there seems to be no records of the improvements apart from the obvious changes that can be seen. Why it was called the M Type is also obscure but I suspect the letter related to the fact that the original engine was from the Morris factory and such things kept Billy Morris happy! Remember, he was the boss and his empire rose or fell on his decisions. He had a soft spot for Kimber and the MG adventure but it was a very small part of the whole company and could be closed down at a moments notice if that was ever required .On top of that the people at Cowley, home of the Morris empire had little time for those cowboys in Abingdon who were not part of the real world of producing motor cars and vans not to mention millions of spares every year.

The term Midget that had been used by the motor press, became the identity of this first mass produced MG and the MG Type M Midget hit the market in April 1929. No launch at the famous Earls Court Motor show for this baby just a few announcements and a hundred cars distributed throughout the UK via Morris outlets did the trick. It was like is brother the Morris Miner, a success. No one at that time could have seen that this small vehicle with a plywood body sitting on a 78 inch wheelbase would be the first in a long line of MG sports cars. Obviously the sporting crowd was excited by this new toy and with a little private adjustment to the engine like pushing up the compression ratio about twenty bhp could be squeezed out of the tiny engine. In 1929 it was decided that Abingdon would enter three Midgets in the High Speed Trials at Brooklands Race track.

In reality this was a decision that could have killed off the car and the future of MG. It was to use a good English expression, “Going For Broke”  One of the drivers was a popular member of the upper class, the Earl of March who had a great record as an armature race driver. He also had the necessary funds to back the project with a little help from Kimber and his team from Abingdon. Another advantage was the fact that Billy Morris who was now Sir William Morris on his way to becoming Lord Nuffield like to mix with Earls Etc. so having one driving one of your cars was a great compliment!

The three Midgets took the first three places with little trouble which certainly increased the demand for the car both in the UK and Europe. In May 1930 the works team, yes with the success of the Earl and his merry men Morris had agreed to fund a full three car work team blew away the competition including two Austin specials fitted with superchargers. Over a twenty four hours of racing the average speeds ranged from 57.77 to 60,23. That’s going some especially with only 847 cc under the hood!

They also won the class team award which went down very well with the media as one of the private drivers with her own Midget was a Lady!

Just think, if Austin had not caught Morris napping with his Austin Seven and Billy had not pushed for a better small vehicle, and someone in MG had not decided to try the small power unit in a sports car, and even when they did it lost at Brooklands. You and I would not own a MG. Need I say more?

C/R Geoff Wheatley

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