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WHAT WOULD 1950s’ high-school car-nuts sketch in their study-hall notebooks? Look no further than an M.G. And a highpoint of this British marque’s long history is the 1933 Mille Miglia.
During the early 1930s, British Racing Green was noteworthy by its rarity in winners’ circles of European racing. French Blue (Bugatti) and Italian Red (Alfa Romeo) predominated; it was too early for German White (Auto Union and Mercedes-Benz Silver Arrows).
The best that Brits could hope for were class victories. And M.G. fulfilled these hopes big time. The marque already had a potent competitor in its four-cylinder 750-cc Midget. But the factory folks at Abingdon, near Oxford, decided to move up into International Class G with a six-cylinder 1100-cc model.
The Magnette K.3 evolved as a racing version of the K.2 two-seater, which in turn was derived from the company’s K.1 saloon. In late 1932, English enthusiast Earl Howe, who often raced Bugattis, made a deal with the M.G. works: Build a trio of K.3s and he’d bear costs of transporting them to Italy and entering them in the 1933 Mille Miglia.
Two prototypes were cobbled together, one of them entered in the 1933 Monte Carlo Rally. It proved quickest in one of the event’s hillclimbs, but finished 64th of the Monte’s 69 survivors. However, it did finish, and another 60 entries failed to do so in that especially arctic running.
For the Mille Miglia, Howe assembled an impressive team: Count “Johnny” Lurani, Italian auto engineer/driver/journalist. Sir Henry “Tim” Birkin, of Le Mans Bentley fame. Bernard Rubin, another of the Bentley Boys. Hugh “Hammy” Hamilton, a salesman at M.G.‘s London distributor. And Captain George Eyston, having already set records with M.G. Midgets (he was a descendent of Sir Thomas More, who lost his head after tangling with Henry VIII over Anne Boleyn’s coronation as Queen of England).
Howe drove the second prototype, open exhaust and all, through France where he and colleagues detoured to Molsheim to visit Ettore Bugatti.
Le Patron took a look at the K.3 and declared that the front axle wasn’t strong enough. Word was sent to Abingdon and stronger axles were put on order. (The single K.3s not fitted with this new design was to break its front axle in practice for the Mannin Beg ‘round the houses circuit on the Isle of Man in 1934).
In mid-February 1933, Howe and colleagues had practiced the Mille Miglia’s 1000 miles through rain and snow, on roads open to ordinary traffic. Then this second prototype K.3 was returned to Abingdon to remedy the problems revealed.
In early March, three fresh K.3s and the prototype as practice mule arrived in Brescia, the event’s start/finish city in northern Italy. The team stayed at the Hotel Moderno Gallo, a good omen as everything there was monogrammed M.G.
Their strategy was a sound one: Birkin and his co-driver Rubin would be the team rabbit setting a scorching pace to break the opposition. Eyston and Lurani, Howe and Hamilton would lay back, ready to head their class once Birkin and the competition dropped out.
Mille Miglia cars leave at minute intervals, and Birkin overtook 35 other cars in the first 129 miles. Eventually, down the road near Siena, 228.5 miles from the start, his K.3 retired at a checkpoint with a broken valve.
By the traditional turnaround in Rome, Eyston’s K.3 was leading the class, having taken 25 minutes off the 1100-cc record. Howe wasn’t far behind.
The two M.G.s crossed the Brescia finish line 1-2 in class, though not without drama. Eyston and Lurani had to replace no less than 157 spark plugs during the event; this, for a curious technical reason: The K.3’s engine was supercharged, and this compressor demanded heavy lubrication. “Hot” plugs that wouldn’t oil up would burn out at full throttle. “Cold” plugs capable of the heat would oil up on over-run.
Also, in the last 100 miles, both the Eyston and Howe car needed on-road tire changes because of punctures. Nevertheless, the M.G.s finish better than any other team and thus garnered the coveted Gran Premio Brescia, the team prize never before won by a non-Italian marque.
Nor does the Magnette K.3 tale end with the 1933 Mille Miglia. Tazio Nulovari piloted one to victory in the 1933 Ulster Tourist Trophy. Siamese Prince Bira drove one early in his racing career. And Britisher Goldie Gardner set land speed records, both before and after World War II, in M.G. EX-135, a car derived from the K.3.
As Profile author F. Wilson McComb observes, “If the essential sports car is (as many believe) epitomised by a mid-thirties M.G., then surely the K.3 Magnette is the epitome of the M.G.”
And it was perfect for study hall. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2016
A possibly even greater accomplishment was achieved by K3027 when it came in 4th overall and won the Index of Performance at Le Mans in 1934. This achievement against much larger displacement competition has been largely ignored or forgotten in the MG history books.
I had a false memory of that artwork. I remembered it as being one of the Toby Nippel illustrations from R&T back in the day, but those were a Fraser Nash and a Bentley.