The Magic of Basics

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Updated: March 19, 2019

At 90 years young this MG Midget ‘M’ Type is a wonderful Australian survivor. What do you get with a modern two-seater sportscar?

Typically excellent performance, hopefully, a racing pedigree, lightweight and an accepted compromise on cabin space. Above all, it has to look great, bring a smile to the face of driver and passers-by, and for the ultimate experience, be open to the elements. If it’s painted red – the fastest colour – that’s a bonus.

It may be 90 years old, but these 8/33 MG Midget Sports ‘M’ Type shows core sportscar elements haven’t really changed since the 1920s. Here was a tiny car built for racing and cheap road transport, weighing less than half a tonne, capable of over 100kmh and a target for any chap keen on impressing a young lady with a romantic roof-off jaunt into the countryside.

Little wonder Tony Slattery’s 1930 bright red MG is a hit at car shows or his local roads. “You’re asking for trouble if you take it on anything but a 60-80kmh road, and even then I have to pull over to let others by,” he says. “These cars really need driven regularly, but just five kilometres down and back is all it needs, and the happiness of that lasts for weeks. You can’t drive them any distance without having to re-set the points.”

Tony’s a confirmed MG nut, with eight in his current collection on the Sunshine Coast hinterland, where he has a huge workshop shed with endless tools and parts to go about his tinkering. “I like to muck about with the odd MGs, the saloons and tourers,” he says. “The engineering is pretty old fashioned and simple, and the MG that gives me the most trouble is the more modern 2004 one.”

It’s clear he has special affinity for his 1930 ‘M’ Type, one of about 25 known in Australia. Everything about it is ‘Midget’, from its tiny 20bhp 847cc four-cylinder engine to its external dimensions, seats, pedals and three-speed gear lever. Tony explains it was built for British people of 100 years ago who were markedly smaller then, and, not being a short man, the current owner’s head rides well above the top of the windscreen.

“If You Take The Rocker Cover Off And Start It Up It’s Like Watching Someone Play The Piano; It’s Like Magic In There.”

The ‘M’ Type was the car that really put MG on the map. MG’s previous models were built only in the hundreds, but some 3235 ‘M’ cars were built, mainly two-seaters or coupes with metal or more popular fabric bodies. Production lasted from 1929 until 1932, with sporting owners no doubt lured in by the model’s appearances at the Le Mans 24 Hours, Monte Carlo Rally, hill climbs and racing on the banked oval at Brooklands.

Much of this ‘M’ Type’s history is unknown, but has been an Australian – and probably Queensland – car its whole life, and registered for road use until 1957. “In the early 1980s it finished up under a house in Bulimba where the owner completely pulled it apart,” Tony said. “He died in the late 80s and a guy I know bought the pieces. He began putting it all back together, and half way through someone from the Vintage Car Club said he had the workshop/owners manual for an ‘M’ Type and would he like it. At the front it listed the 1934 owner as A.B. Gillespe of Albion, Brisbane, the engine number, and it had the Queensland registration Q1.”

Tony wrote to the Triple-M Register in the UK to check factory records, and incredibly the engine number from the owner’s book matched the car being restored. “After however many years, the handbook and the car had been reunited,” Tony said.

The ‘M’ Type was on the road again by 1999, and Tony said to the restorer to keep him in mind if he planned on selling it. The call came in 2014, Tony paid the asking price and the little sports car was now in his collection. “I tracked down the son of A.B. Gillespe and he gave me a photo of the car from 1934 and some medals his father had won in the MG from Queesnland hill climbs and reliability trials,” he said. As a former racer whose career was cut short after 45 per cent full depth burns froma 1983 accident at the Surfer’s Paradise circuit, this motorsport link was an added bonus for Tony.

“It was assembled and running and I could sort of drive it, but it isn’t a happy car,” Tony said. “It’s not valuable as such so the restorer didn’t want to spend an awful lot of money. He’d put it together with the best bits that came with the car. He didn’t know what camshaft it was using, or what ignition timing it ran: ‘I just kept turning the distributor until it ran,’ I was told.”

Tony says he went back to first principles. He saw the camshaft had been welded up several times and the lobes were all different shapes. He used Tighe cams to grind him a new camshaft, had new valves made in Brisbane but didn’t grind the head “because I wanted to keep as much life in the head and engine as I could, so didn’t go for high compression,” he says.

Tony made contact with the owner of the ‘M’ Type with the chassis number one away from his own – also a Queensland car – and as he’d just done the work on his own car, volunteered to set up the new head and camshaft. “He put in 70 hours just installing the camshaft,” he says. “To set it up initially you have to adjust the length of the valves, it’s very time-consuming.”

There were new rocker shafts and a huge amount of work to set up the ignition timing properly. Even so, the idea was never for this to be a racing engine. “It wouldn’t pull the skin off a rice pudding,” Tony says. “It’s a funny little thing to drive because the accelerator is between the brake and the clutch, and the pedals are so close together. It’s challenging to drive as you need to concentrate, and all my MGs have their own quirks and peculiarities anyway.”

Tony’s spent time repairing the axles, securing the steering arm nuts properly and the nightmare job of rewiring. The skinny 19×2.5-inch tyres are over 20 years old but on black wire wheels look superb under the red body.

Incredibly, the skin is still original, although the timberwork has been replaced. The ‘M’ Type was imported complete minus its body tub to avoid complete car duties, and it’s believed a Brisbane coachbuilder built the one-piece aluminium body. Note it has only one door on the passenger side, helping save weight for competition use.

The single overhead camshaft engine looks beautiful too with gravity-feed fuel tank, 1 1/8th SU side draft carburettor and the cam driven through a generator mounted vertically at the front. “The camshaft has two rocker shafts either side, one operating the inlet valves the other the exhaust valves,” says Tony. “If you take the rocker cover off and start it up it’s like watching someone play the piano; it’s like magic in there.”

So light and small is the car that Tony can take it to shows in the back of his Ford Transit van. But he still enjoys driving it when he can too. “The drive experience is primitive; it’s super light in the steering and it follows the bumps of the road with its cart springs at each corner,” he says. “I’ve fiddled with the steering alignment, but it doesn’t get any better.”

Watching and hearing this lovely old  ‘M’ Type in action you’d forgive any of its quirks, though. Back in the day these were fast, talented and fun sportscars, and although our idea of speed may have changed in 90 years, the fun bit hasn’t. Little wonder it never ceases to bring on a smile.