Being There [Part Three]

Win on Sunday, sell on Monday…

Image: migioslot.blogspot.com

The 31st staging of the Le Mans 24 Hour endurance race took place at the circuit de la Sarthe over the 15th and 16th of June 1963. It would be won by the Scuderia Ferrari entrant, a 250P, driven by an all-Italian pairing of Ludovico Scarfiotti and Lorenzo Bandini, marking not only the first time a mid-engined race machine had won the event, but also the largest winning margin in 36 years.

Le Mans was to prove something of a Ferrari benefit that year, with Maranello taking the first six places of a field, which through a combination of attrition, misfortune and tragedy was whittled down to  12 finishers. This final classified car was an MGB, a solo privateer entry, discretely backed by the works. But in this case, finishing at the rear of the field would be marked as a victory (in Abingdon at least).

The MG marque iconography was forged to a very large extent upon competition, and although by the early 1960s, BMC’s racing activities were primarily focussed upon the Mini Cooper, their well organised competition department was centred at MG’s Abingdon facility. Not that BMC did everything themselves; the Cooper Car Company, Broadspeed and Equipe Arden handling the Mini’s UK and overseas track career, while the Healey Motor Company prepared heavily modified Sprites in the International Sports Car classes.

Having enjoyed some rallying successes with the MGA, and with BMC keeping close tabs on MG’s competition activities, General Manager, John Thornley was required to be somewhat strategic in his choice of operations. In the wake of the MGB’s introduction, and keen to gain the car a competition pedigree Thornley had a single MGB prepared for the 1963 Le Mans event. Officially a private entry, it would in effect be a factory exercise to test the new car’s mettle in one of the most gruelling motorsport events on the calendar.

Thornley insisted the car must be as close to a production B as practicable, with modifications that any customer could themselves make (at a price). Hence, the car was brought up to works approved Stage 5 tune. The B-series engine was bored to 1801 cc and fitted with a high-lift camshaft. The compression ratio was raised to 10.4 : 1 by modified pistons, while a flowed and polished cylinder head, balanced crankshaft and flywheel, modified oil pump, oil cooler and a Weber 45 DCOE carburettor saw power raised to 130 bhp at 6500 rpm. With a close ratio gearbox, a competition clutch and 3.3 : 1 axle ratio the competition MGB’s top speed was reckoned to be around 130 mph.

Image: catawiki

This was aided in some measure by Syd Enever’s more aerodynamic nosecone, which lowered the frontal area and added about 10 mph to the top speed. Fitted with a factory hardtop, a larger fuel tank (with external filler) and a stripped out cabin, the Le Mans B left a 20 kilogram lighter impression on the weighing scales than its roadgoing equivalent. Entered in the 2-litre GT class, the MG was required to qualify within a set lap time (5 minutes) to be eligible. Clocking a lap of 4 minutes 50 seconds in practice, and with a timed maximum speed of 132 mph on the Mulsanne straight, the B qualified with ease. Paired alongside Northern Irish rally ace, Paddy Hopkirk was Alan Hutcheson, under whose name the car was entered.

Race day was fine and sunny as the field got under way at 4 PM, local time, but as the leaders diced for dominance during the chaotic opening laps, Hutcheson, who had taken the opening stint became caught up in the early race melee, embedding himself and his steed deep in the Mulsanne sand trap. An hour and 25 minutes later, using everything to hand (including his racing helmet and at one point, the seat), he extricated the stricken MG, before returning gingerly to the pits and the intense annoyance of his team mate.

Oops. Image: IMCDb

Fortunately, the MG was undamaged and with no regulations infringed, could continue, the B thereafter running metronomically throughout the remainder of the race. Apart from scheduled stops for fuel and driver changes[1], and a loose exhaust which required rectification, the car was untouched over the 24 hour period. When Hopkirk and Hutcheson took the chequered flag they had finished 12th out of the 13 surviving cars, winning their class, MG’s fifth such victory in this event.

Buoyed by this success, MG entered the following year’s Le Mans, this time as a full works-sponsored entry using a brand new bodyshell[2]. Hopkirk was once again at the wheel[3], with Andrew Hedges as his team-mate. Facing an array of Alfa Romeos and Porsche 904 GTs, the lone MG once again lapped with monotonous regularity, the only excitement occurring when during one of the refuelling stops, a careless plombeur sheared off the quick-release fuel cap, necessitating a desperate search for a replacement (donated by a rival British team) and its rapid fitment. The eight minutes lost didn’t amount to much over 24 hours of racing and with a best lap time of 104.9 mph, not to mention Hopkirk setting the fastest time through the Mulsanne speed trap of 139 mph, the MGB finished in 19th place overall, the best placed British car[4], averaging a speed of 99.9 mph.

Le Mans 1964. Image: pasionslot

1965 saw Abingdon fielding the same driver pairing with another new bodyshell, running to an identical specification. Once again, the MGB was a paragon of reliability, finishing a creditable 11th, second in class behind a Porsche 904. Had the Porsche retired one lap earlier (its engine packed it in right at the finish), Hopkirk and Hedges would have taken another class win.

1965 marked the final Le Mans outing for the MGB, but the model’s competition career would continue. A number of works or semi-works MGBs entered various rally events throughout the 1960s, including victory in the 1966 Liege-Sofia-Liege, a gruelling road-rally event[5]. However in 1966, the Morley brothers[6] requested a works-prepared MGB for that year’s Monte Carlo rally, beating Alfa Romeo, Lancia and Porsche for victory in the GT category. It was (almost) a double for Stuart Turner’s BMC competition department that year, winning the event outright again in the Cooper S[7].

Image: migioslot.blogspot.com

With the MGC in hand, BMC’s competition department commissioned a number of C GT bodyshells to be modified for racing. In 1967, a hybrid, car, using this new lightweight body mated to an over-bored B-series engine was tried out at that year’s Targa Florio. The following year, it had gained the race-tuned 3-litre six, and driven by Hopkirk and Hedges, finished tenth overall at the Sebring 12 hours event. Also entered at that year’s Marathon de la Route, which in 1968 took place over 84 grinding hours at the Nurburgring, one of the two MGC’s entered finished sixth (having been as high as second at one point).

But before any further development could take place however, the takeover with Leyland and the immediate cost-cutting which entailed put paid to MG’s racing career, along with much (although not all) of Abingdon’s competition activities. BLMC’s centre of gravity was shifting elsewhere and the auguries for MG and its spiritual home would be anything but favourable.

[1] Apart from a change of tyres at half distance, the car required no attention. The brake pads were also changed, as a precaution.

[2] The ’63 class winning car (7 DBL) had been written off (while lying 4th) at that year’s Tour de France motor race.

[3] Celebrating a successful practice session, Paddy Hopkirk got up to some hi-jinks on a borrowed Moulton bicycle, ending up with rather painful road rash for his trouble. Hopkirk was on a high that year, having already won the Monte Carlo rally in a Mini Cooper. 

[4] Motor magazine offered a trophy for the best placed British competitor at Le Mans.

[5] Previously known as the Liege-Rome-Liege (or Marathon de la Route), the event was deemed the world’s toughest rally. The 1966 marathon also saw a works-prepared MGB entered by privateers, Rev. Rupert Jones (a Church of England vicar) and David Haim, which retired with rear suspension failure near Titograd in the former Yugoslavia. 

[6] The Morley brothers were Donald and his identical twin brother Erle, best known for their rallying successes in Austin Healeys. 

[7] The Cooper S of Timo Mäkinnen and Rauno Aaltonen took victory at the ’66 Monte (Hopkirk and co-driver, and Henry Liddon placed third) only for the organisers to controversially disqualify the works Minis on a technicality. 

Sources: Peter Browning – Sporting Cars – Dec 1982/ Classic and Sportscar – April 1983.

Paddy Hopkirk MBE – 14th April 1933 – 21st July 2022. RIP.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

13 thoughts on “Being There [Part Three]”

  1. Good morning Eóin. I had no idea that the MGB was the basis for a rally car, so this is all new to me and a very enjoyable read. Paddy Hopkirk’s death had also passed me by, but your piece serves as a nice tribute, thank you.

    1. You’re not to be blamed for missing Paddy Hopkirk’s death – it went unreported outside the motorsport press I think. That surprised me, considering how frequently the BBC in particular have long obituaries for people I’ve barely heard of, and that he was very well known in the active part of his career.

    2. There were a number of obituaries published last weekend, Michael, but not nearly as many as the late Mr. Hopkirk deserved.

    3. It’s sad to hear that Paddy Hopkirk has left us.
      It was names like his or Reverend Rupert Jones (imagine your local priest/pastor wearing a racing helmet), the Morley Brothers (go rallying only when work on your farm permits), Tony ‘it’s plain air here’ Ambrose and my childhood hero Erik ‘on the roof’ Carlsson that made me a dedicated fan of rally sports.
      Later it were guys like Roger Clark, Markku Alén or Walter Röhrl that kept me interested.
      Thank you for bringing these times back to my memory and for the fine tribute to a great man.

  2. Although it focuses primarily on Triumphs, the MGs can be seen in action in this film:

    I, too, wasn’t aware that Paddy Hopkirk had died – that’s a great shame – he was a good chap. I see that Sir Christopher Meyer has also died. He was a former UK ambassador to the US and came across as a very normal / likable man. I’ve read his autobiography, which I thought was honest and entertaining.

  3. I love to read about the 1960s 24 hours of Le Mans, thanks for sharing .
    I am very surprised to see a British sportscar being “paragon of reliability”. Apparently, they knew how to do it.

    1. British cars were pretty good until the ‘70s, when a variety chickens all came home to roost – lack of rationalization, poor product planning, the fuel crisis and economic problems, poor labour relations, lack of money for investment in new products, rushed development, etc, etc.

      To be fair to companies like British Leyland, although they made mistakes, they had a difficult environment to work in and the mergers that took place were rushed and not entirely of their own doing.

      It was interesting to see what Stellantis did when they inherited the nearly-read Opel Corsa from GM; they completely re-engineered it to suit themselves, very successfully and in a very short time. One needs strong focus of that sort to make big, complex businesses work.

  4. Sorry to go massively off topic here, but I rather like the Porsche 904:

    Not as much as the 718, but still.

    Wasn’t the technicality that got the Mini disqualified from the Monte the running of not-yellow headlights?

    More on topic: Funny how the somewhat haphazard aerodynamic nose makes the MGB look a bit generic 1960’s sports car. They simply removed the chrome side strip from the front part but left it in place at the back, making it look even more incongruous, though they probably did that to keep as much as possible of the road car intact and recognisable. Here’s an ad that highlights MG’s Le Mans success (source: https://mgb1967.com/mg-mgb-at-lemans-in-the-early-60s/1963-mg-mgb-lemans/) in keeping with the title:

    I had read about Paddy Hopkirk’s passing, he’ll be synonymous with Mini forever. RIP. I was not aware that he’d done Le Mans though. It shows his versatility.

  5. Before it received the C-Series engine, the 1967 hybrid MGC GTS was said to have featured a 2004cc B-Series engine.

    Did wonder how much longer the car could have remained competitive in motorsport, let alone any further developments planned that could have filtered down to the road-going models. As seen in the link below (if not quite as potent). https://www.classicandsportscar.com/features/best-mg-might-have-been

    Would the (admittingly 4-cylinder only) Fiat 124 Sport Spider’s motorsport run til 75-76 have been a rough benchmark for MG or is a competitive run to about 69-70 more plausible?

    1. Also in 1963 early ideas for what became the MGC in competition included an OHC Six, although nothing seems to have happened with the OHC idea.

  6. @Charles

    You’re absolutely right. There was never anything wrong with the engineering or, as we discovered much later, the workforce. British cars were, until the late 60s, perfectly fine or in some cases, class leading and revolutionary. The Mini, the 1100, the E-Type, the Rover/Triumph 2000, the Range Rover, all marvellous, but all unfortunately left to wither on the vine.

    Just a lot of unfortunate circumstances mixed with terrible management and labour relations creating a perfect storm for failure. But I still ponder if it was all inevitable or not.

  7. JCC

    Yes, but where was the profit? For example, the Mini never made any. Ford figured out that the Mini lost its manufacturer money with every example built. Britain’s problem was that there were debts that needed servicing. Much capital was sucked out of the productive sector as the result. The economic system was extractive with all sorts of expropriations operating, visible, invisible, direct, indirect, you name it…

    You have to question the idea that “rationalisations”, mergers (which, to be honest about it, were coerced) and the like really do help. Bigger does not insulate against failure (as the whole sorry saga of the wrecked British motor industry demonstrated).

  8. @JT

    Well that was one of the problems. BMC seem to have got it into their heads that Ford was their main competitor, and that their methods were the way to go, when in fact their real competitors were the smaller, more high tech European manufacturers; Fiat, Renault, Citroen, those types. Terrible business decision; how else could they have best sellers like the mini and the 1100 on their hands and still be losing money?

    They should have focused on maximising profits per car instead of building to a cost. If I remember correctly, BMC’s front wheel drive cars were estimated to have been about £20 underpriced because they were trying to price match Ford. That’s near £500 in today’s money. I believe they could have easily asked for more; their cars were high tech, desirable, and they had patriotism on their side too.

    And to bring it back to MG; MG was a highly desirable marquee especially beloved in America that could sell well in Europe too. They had the golden goose on their hands there, but they didn’t capitalise on it.

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