Old Red Wine

We mark the passing of a much respected British engineer.

Don Hayter (second from left) marks the completion of the half-millionth MGB at Abingdon. Image: Hemmings

Don Hayter, was born in Oxfordshire on 24th January 1926. His father, a retired policeman, took up a job delivering MG TF Midgets from Abingdon to the docks for export. Meanwhile his son had shown not only aptitude but a flair for technical drawing. Upon leaving Abingdon school, he took an apprenticeship with the Pressed Steel Company at Cowley working on aircraft such as the AVRO Lancaster during the war, progressing to bodywork panels for Jaguar’s XK120 and the ZA Magnette.

Don had taken up an offer from then Feltham-based Aston Martin Lagonda as a draftsman in the early fifties with a return to Oxfordshire when AML upped sticks to Newport Pagnell. Returning home to Morris Garages witnessed DH working on the MGA’s exhaust access panel. Whilst hardly exciting, it gave excellent grounding for subjects more fitting for a man of his talents.

The twin-cam engine installation, along with checking the bodywork tolerances earned Don respect from Chief Engineer Syd Enever. Tasked by Enever to productionise the MGA coupé, entailed Don scurrying through the Cotswolds from Abingdon to Morris Bodies in Coventry daily for months with the car being modified in ten or more hour shifts. A lowered roof but keeping the original windscreen saw the MGA fight it out around the circuit de la Sarthe.

Relating his aeronautical nous solved several tricky strengthening problems that not only MG’s suffered from. The Austin Healey Sprite was found when road tested to be perfectly fine until people had the temerity to place fuel and luggage on board – the body’s back simply bent. DH explained (with mirth) how the production line had to reverse for a time – welding in extra reinforcement after the car had been built.

1961 MGB. Image: autoconception

DH will of course be forever known as the Father of the MGB, but however large the plaudits, he maintained his inputs were influenced by the strong engineering leadership of Evener. Given free reign, DH drew up quarter scale renditions which led to a full size wooden models, followed by steel and the green light for the B. Evener, keen on aerodynamics was swayed by the Roaring Raindrop EX-181 wished to keep some of the record breaking car’s character on the everyday rag-top roadster. Far from the Utah salt flats where this car managed 245 mph in 1957, what the B lacked in outright speed was more than made up for in longevity.

A large part of this was the car’s strength. Designed in from the beginning, 16 gauge aluminium alloys were, in the prototype stage found wanting. Doors, boot lid and bonnet all suffered at the hands of testers, literally bending on use or impact. Beefing these areas up was necessary but the bonnet remained; inside, above the locking platform resides a shaped wooden chock where ones hand naturally forces down the bonnet. No more bent bonnets, in that respect.

Inherently robust, the large and lucrative American market demanded more of the B’s rigidity. The fitting of the Sabrina impact absorbing bumper was anathema to Hayter but necessary. Required for 5mph front impacts without damaging the lights or mechanicals proved an easy enough remedy but at the cost of ruining looks and adding weight.

Add in the MGB’s somewhat ground hugging tendencies, and the weightier swinging pendulum tests against taller US vehicles ended up bypassing the bumpers completely, smashing the bodywork. Lifting the car by an inch, again helped pass the tests but rankled practically everyone but the testing authorities. The B easily passing the thirty mph test with Hyater’s rather pithy comment, “the crash test dummy flattened the steering column but the car was sound. You should be able to walk away…

1975 models gained impact absorbing bumpers and a raised ride height. Image: the drive

To motive power where DH extols the BL O-series engine that Triumph had disregarded. With the now breathless standard B-Series engine floored by American emissions restrictions, DH looked to Longbridge and John Barnett. Barnett and his team has designed two versions; a two litre, overhead cam with carburettor, the other a Jaguar-based Lucas/ Bosch fuel injection system to assist with those power sapping restrictions. Twenty four prototypes were built, six sent to the States. “We sent them to Galveston, Texas for speed trails, running about 112mph. They went to Denver to comply with the air zones, New Orleans for temperatures and Pikes Peak for altitude testing. And they passed everything!

Having been made MG’s Chief Engineer in 1973, succeeding Roy Brocklehurst, DH was thus immersed in the all petty-minded machinations that BL could offer. With Abingdon starved of finance by successive Leyland management, soon followed by the removal of the O-series engine, he knew the writing was on the wall – re-badging Metros with the octagonal badge of old counted for little with Hayter and the workforce. The Abingdon factory was closed for good in October 1980.

Approached soon after (Abingdon enjoying far better Union/management relations than their troubled counterparts) by BL to help Europeanise the Honda Ballade into the Triumph Acclaim saw DH once more office-based at Pressed Steel, completing the man’s automotive journey lasting over thirty years.

Retirement led to DH’s fertile mind collaborating with Nuffield Orthopaedic, assisting with improving wheelchair design and manoeuvrability and in his downtime enjoying a glass or two of red wine as member of the Oxford Wine Circle. Approachable, amiable with far more than just the B behind him, Donald Hayter was a figurehead of post-war British engineering. He passed away October 9th 2020, aged 94. RIP.

Author: Andrew Miles

Beyond hope there lie dreams; after those, custard creams?

8 thoughts on “Old Red Wine”

  1. Love your articles Andrew, full of interesting facts and written in a easy to read style. Never owned an MG, was a Triumph fan back then, but worked on a lot and always enjoyed an extended test drive, especially in a V8 MGB GT.

  2. What an interesting retrospective on the life of someone previously unknown to me, so thank you, Andrew. Although I owned a Midget for a couple of years, I know relatively little about the MGB

    Two nuggets of information particularly caught my attention. Firstly, the block of wood used to prevent the aluminium bonnet deforming when it was being closed: how many production MGBs had aluminium bonnets and was the block of wood used in those cars? Secondly, did they really name the black impact absorbing bumpers ‘Sabrina’ and, if so, why? It seems rather whimsical.

    1. As an avid reader of this site and a new owner of a 52 year old MGB roadster, I enjoyed this article with some pathos. Much has been written about these days of MG and of BMC/BLMC/BL, but in none of them does one ever get the impression of Don Hayter as anything but skilled, knowledgeable, humble and affable. Along with Syd Enever, he was undoubtedly the father of what is probably the most celebrated and loved sports car of the British glory years. But I guess he’s the last of those men to pass.

      I’m going to check under the aluminium bonnet of my car later to see if that wooden block is there!

    2. Oh , please do so, Sean. I’m irrationally fascinated by the idea that somebody in BMC had the job of fabricating Stilton cheese-shaped wedges of (presumably) hardwood for this purpose. Or did they contract the work out to a local joinery shop? We need to know.

      Great to hear you’re enjoying DTW.

    3. Well, it’s a closed box section so I can’t be 100% certain right down to the pointiest bit at the front, but there’s certainly no wooden block filling the void. Mine’s a MkII so perhaps the earliest cars were different. I’ve never been so disappointed that something I never knew existed wasn’t there!

    4. Hi Sean. Thanks for investigating. Like you, I’m strangely disappointed. Perhaps it was a quick fix that was engineered out in later cars?

  3. I can offer but one response, for the latter and it is in no way technical. Seems a young lady by the (real) name of Norma Ann Sykes was a prominent figure in more than one sense. The British newspapers used all their imagination at their disposal on hearing her nickname was Sabrina…

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