John Edgar MG Special – MG Mighty Midget, TC for All Times
Our MG Mighty Midget, TC for All Times
By William Edgar and photography courtesy of Edgar Motorsport Archive
My first really dramatic recollection of our MG-TC was drifting through Sunset Boulevard’s curves, my father at the wheel. He’d folded the screen flat and the wind-blown tangs of hot engine and rubber were sheer adrenaline. I was 15 then, had already learned to drive the family’s Type 57C Bugatti, and knew that handling the little MG would be cake. All I wanted was a chance, but first I’d have to swipe it.
We were living at a smart hotel in Hollywood at the time that John Edgar got his MG-TC late in 1947, and the cut-doors two-seater fresh from Abingdon-on-Thames was parked in a lot just beyond the Garden of Allah’s kidney-shaped swimming pool and hibiscus shrubs. When my parents walked to dinner at a close-by restaurant (where the mandolin player was a Brazilian who’d come to the States with Carman Miranda) I’d make my move on the idle MG.
I knew I’d have a safe hour or so behind its RHD wheel and up the road I flew, feeling myself a reborn Tazio Nuvolari. I’d read all the prewar Grand Prix books and knew what those drivers looked like when they drove. I had their body language down pat and spoke the lingo, spouting engine and chassis specs. The MG in my grip was a bullet on the loose.
Earlier that summer, Roger Barlow, a California Sports Car Club co-founder, foreign car importer and filmmaker, had accepted John Edgar’s deposit on what would be a postwar sensation—MG’s belligerent new Midget Series “TC”. Perhaps no automobile ever fit as nicely the mitts of those wanting an affordable, great handling sporty car (under $1,800) that demanded so relatively little of its driver. At 5,200 rpm its 1,250cc overhead-valve inline-4 made a feisty 54 hp, sent aft to 19-inch knock-off wire wheels through a syncho-mesh quad-speed gearbox shifted with your left hand, while your right managed the flick-quick worm steering of only 1.5-turns lock-to-lock. Just 1,732 pounds was what she weighed, and her 15-gallon gas tank was good for a 400-mile romp without re-fill.
Funny, those first TCs came by ship in basic color lots of 20, ignition keys cut according to car paint, so the key to our red one would fit any other red TC. When the freighter docked at San Pedro, new owners were bused to the harbor to drive their MGs back to the seller’s shop. The little TC’s track was too narrow to fit ordinary car haulers and, because they were right-hand drive and in order to be street legal in California, electric turn signals—the kind used for trucks—had to be dealer-installed before you could take your TC home. So there they were, this convoy of shiny MGs rolling toward Hollywood, the owners’ first road test conducted en masse.
The TC’s drum brakes were Lockheed hydraulics, adequate for stock setup. Suspension on the 94-inch wheelbase roadster was semi-elliptic leaf springs front and rear. The chassis, underslung below the rear axle and upswept over the front, was braced with tubular cross members and box sectioned side elements. British to its yoke, the TC possessed more than a few quirks, and rode stiffly—characteristics consistent from the time the first MG came into being at Morris Garages in 1923 to begin the marque’s famed racing history.
When it rained you stopped, pulled up your TC’s canvas twill top and fastened floppy side screens to keep out most of the wet—never all. Its 19 x 4.50-inch Dunlops stuck, but still allowed respectable drift, and the dash-mounted horn belonged on a toy. But never mind being heard. Under hard acceleration, twin SU semi-downdraft carbs brashly voiced the car’s approach. It ran flat out at 73 mph with windscreen and throttle all the way down. This Brit marvel—its engine declared by motor journalist Ken Purdy in 1949 as “defiant and tough as a Staffordshire pit dog”—was a kick to drive back when Fords mimicked tanks and Cads weighed more than some cabin cruisers. Essentially, the MG-TC was a hot little item straight off the boat, and before the car publicly reached its hit status, Phil Hill, Bill Pollack and John von Neumann had one. So did my father. The difference was, John Edgar wasn’t racing his—not yet.
First to be had of our MG was off-beat family service. My older brother, Jack, attending Hollywood High, needed wheels, and the snappy MG in his hands began attracting classmates wanting a ride. Flies to honey, it was. One day after school he pulled in for gas at the Richfield station where our father’s friend and veteran motorcycle racer Rollie Free worked. A total of nine high school kids were in the tiny MG, piled on top of each other, literally. About then, in drove our father and, mad as hell, he walked over to them. Janice, my brother’s girlfriend with a cigarette habit, looked up at the fury in John Edgar’s face and blew smoke in it. The MG went into lockdown.
Not long after, my father had Rollie ride our HRD Vincent Black Lightning prototype at Bonneville for an unfaired motorcycle speed record. Also, during that eventful summer of ’48, Edgar turned the MG over to race car engineer Ernie McAfee. Already, Jack Early, another MG zealot among those who raced their TCs in the San Fernando Valley’s illegal Cento Miglio, had begun modifying our TC by putting in Oldsmobile valves. When Ernie got the car, more mods were made and on went an Arnott blower, sparking new fire in my father, who already in his younger years had been an outboard hydroplane ace only a few wins short of a national title.
Then came the leap. On pre-dawn October 10, 1948, he aimed our Bugatti toward the Mojave Desert’s El Mirage dry lake. Ahead of us was Ernie McAfee, hauling our MG. We were going to a meet of the Russetta Timing Association and all of the best larger-bore rods and lakesters in Southern California would be there. The odd-ball MG bunch that day, which would include Phil Hill and Barlow, was looked upon with wonder as to what and who in the hell we were. But El Mirage was all about f-a-s-t, and good speed trap numbers promised respect no matter “what ya brung”.
At sunup, alongside revered highboys, chopped sedans and torpedo-like belly tanks, our petite MG seemed more baby buggy than car. All around I remember how full-house flatheads bellowed at red line, making pure lakes music. Nonetheless, the Arnott supercharger, when its throttle was punched, gave our TC’s open exhaust a bark that snapped hot-rodders’ heads, including icons there like Dean Moon and Lou Baney. My father strapped on his Clymer helmet and “sickle” goggles and made a pedal-down run at the lights. Riding high on tall wire wheels, he and the Midget were knight and stead on charge. His clocked 93-mph—stock top plus twenty—was fastest MG of the meet. On that blistering morning at El Mirage, the little red car’s racing life was born.
But first there were more street miles in its history, hairy episodes of our “blowing away” many an MG in boulevard drags and canyon-carving contests. When my father wearied of such illicit fun, I was right there again—freely driving the car now with full boost. The stock rear rubber hopped and chattered, spokes loosened and bent. Soon the MG’s wheels were cut down to 16-inch. I saw the car morph from little beauty to budding brute. Then one day it went to the shop and didn’t come home. My father was now mailing checks to “Ernie McAfee Engineering Company” and our MG’s horsepower rose accordingly.
Enter another name early on associated with the Edgar TC—Bill Pollack. Fresh from law school and working at Petersen Publishing, Bill was driving his own TC and gaining a reputation for being impressively quick. In addition, up-and-coming MG mechanic John von Neumann had stuck a British Shorrock vane-type blower on Pollack’s engine before Bill drove it in his own first race at Palm Springs’ inaugural meet. Also, while hanging around Ernie’s shop, Bill met my father, who’d been awed by his Palm Springs effort. Edgar thought Pollack would do well with our MG that Ernie was prepping, and so invited Bill to drive it at the Santa Ana blimp base sports car races.
On June 25, 1950—our MG’s first legit race—Pollack finished ahead of three other blown MGs and von Neumann’s Lea-Francis, to come second behind Sterling Edward’s V8 “60” special in Santa Ana’s preliminary, putting Pollack on row-3 for the main. Roy Richter’s Allard won that big one, leaving Pollack and other future driving greats, including Phil Hill and Jack McAfee, in its dust.
By now, too, a new hand was helping at Ernie’s. Jack McAfee had been called in to mount a full-race V8 in my father’s Lincoln Continental after its stock V12 began blowing smoke, like they all did. Jack knew racing, both its mechanical and driving aspects. He’d cut his teeth on dry lakes hot rods and dirt-track sprints. While Ernie McAfee was good with a slide rule, Jack McAfee understood perfectly the rules of slide. Thus began the McAfee duo that many erroneously believed to be brothers. Asked Ernie of Jack, “Can you speed shift?” The new McAfee replied, “Every Model ‘A’ driver speed shifts.”
At the wheel, “Big Jack” made our MG appear even smaller than it was. Two weeks after Santa Ana, he took the Edgar TC to first in class at the El Segundo Time Trials, clocking 18.32 secs. for the standing quarter-mile. My father wanted Jack in the car again for an approaching hillclimb, but McAfee then was Tony Parravano’s driver and the gentleman in Jack was a man of honor.
John Edgar himself took our MG up the Sandberg Hillclimb, a half-mile unused gradient on the original “Ridge Route” an hour north of Los Angeles—winning his class in 37.93 secs. to finish third overall ahead of McAfee in Parravano’s Jaguar XK-120. Public road rallies and hillclimbs like this at Sandberg Ranch were where the burgeoning sports car contingent played, testing engine and chassis modifications on European imports alongside emergent home-made specials such as the hillclimb’s overall winner that day—Thatcher Darwin’s potent V8. Our TC found its niche midway—a classic British sports car modified through American hot rod savvy. Edgar’s plan was to push its limits further than any other racing TC had gone before.
Back at Ernie’s shop in North Hollywood, work on the MG continued toward its next outing, Gardena’s Carrell Speedway at 174th Street and Vermont on the south side of Los Angeles. For the sports cars’ first meet there on October 15, 1950, Carrell’s half-mile dirt oval was altered to go out through the pit gate, up a hill and across the parking lot before rejoining the oval, forming a 1-mile circuit. Primitive, but future top contenders honed their skills here. Pollack was again at the wheel of the Edgar MG, winning 2 heats. “You could really dirt track that car,” Bill told me years later. “You’d let it all hang out, and slide sideways.” Another blown MG, Harold Erb’s, won the 20-lap feature that time. Meanwhile, Pebble Beach’s opener was less than a month off and our MG—well known now by its catchy number “88”—needed extra punch, and got it.
My father towed the car north with his hotted-up Lincoln, and Pollack recalled for me what the MG was like in practice for that very first Pebble Beach race. “The thing was ready to orbit the earth!” said Bill of “88.” “It made an incredible racket and went like stink.” What had Ernie done to it?!
For one, the Arnott had been replaced with a modified Italmeccanica supercharger, the positive-displacement Italian-made blower my father was then importing. Its 2-lobe, straight cut steel rotors turned through pulleys at 12,000 rpm to make 12 lbs boost, but at the same time shooting fuel-air mixture to way-too-hot 350 degrees. This urged Ernie to engineer a pair of aircraft heat exchangers for intercooler-outercooler roles in temperature reduction. Further, a new camshaft was machined from billet so the IT blower could better scavenge exhaust gases. Compression was dropped to 6:1, with solid copper head gasket and alloy head studs aimed to keep the engine from blowing its top—literally. To slow the car quicker, surplus Bendix aircraft brakes were adapted.
Ernie also re-did the steering, had special steel axles made, went to a 4.875 rear end and used larger valves with double springs, but kept the stock MG pistons. Minus only fuse and plunger, this virtual bomb, running Firestone racing rubber and expelling ear-splitting exhaust, scored 148 horses on the Clayton dyno. Said one magazine write-up, “With a power-to-weight ratio of 1:10 this car goes like nothing other than an Offy midget.” We would see about that.
Pollack, again: “Race day at Pebble arrived and when the flag went, I came up along the outside and was really hauling butt going by everybody.” Bill’s voice lowered to almost a whisper, “All of a sudden everything died,” he said. “The car just quit.” He tried to re-fire it, pulling repeatedly on the starter knob, then finally saw what was happening every time the engine cranked over. “Each one of the stacks” he said with animated hands, “shot out a squirt of water!” Ernie’s intercooler maze had self-destructed, in turn blowing the radiator, with the electric pump filling the engine with engine coolant. “So that was the end of ‘88,'” lamented Pollack, “and, I think, of my tenure in the car.”
Bill didn’t need to beat up on himself; it wasn’t his fault. The MG’s engine simply had been tweaked too far. And before it could be re-thought, re-done, Pollack was up, out, and away driving Tom Carsten’s Cad-Allard, a big change soon to earn Bill fame as one of American sports car racing’s most successful drivers. That’s the subject of his book, “Red Wheels and White Sidewalls: Confessions of an Allard Racer.” If you haven’t read it, you haven’t been there.
Back from Pebble, Ernie McAfee took our MG to the drawing board once more looking for solutions. The intercooling was revamped to utilize a more efficient Crosley radiator placed on the cockpit’s left side. Following decent finishes again at Carrell Speedway, Palm Springs and on Sandberg’s hill, the car was once more ready for Pebble Beach in May 1951. Together, the McAfees loaded “88” onto a rental rig and headed north, a trip Jack would never forget.
“We blew a trailer tire up on the Ridge Route,” he recalled, “and the clamping ring came off and went down into the canyon.” At that, Ernie suggested they unload the race car and Jack get in and drive it. Remembering the din of the MG’s straight stacks, Jack laughed out loud retelling the tale. “I drove that damn thing all the way from the Ridge Route to Pebble Beach,” he told me. “Maybe that’s why I don’t hear very well today.”
On Pebble’s improved course, Jack McAfee drove “88” to ninth overall in both the Del Monte Handicap and Pebble Beach Cup races, winning his class in the latter. “The car ran super, and it handled,” said Jack. Pollack, now the man to beat in the big Cad-Allard, won the main in Carsten’s 6.0-liter monster, while Phil Hill took the Del Monte Cup driving his open 2.9 Alfa Romeo before a career switch to Jaguar then Ferrari, early steps toward his world championship ten years later. What my father got from this second Pebble Beach experience was a clear call he’d better catch up with changing times. The MG begged for more than just horsepower. Critical for its survival was less weight and vastly improved aerodynamics. Edgar mused that he should dump it, and in a rash moment he placed a “For Sale” advert in June 1951’s issue of Road and Track. But nobody wanted to pay the $4,500.
For some time, on his way home from work, Jack McAfee had stopped by a shop at 5822 West Washington Boulevard in Culver City to chat with Emil Diedt, one of the best chassis engineers in the game for both sports and Indy cars. Diedt could drastically alter the shape and success rate of our boxy MG. My father, still in his pre-Ferrari days and thinking small can be better, gave Diedt the go-ahead. Jack said it was a “here’s the car, put a body on it” kind of deal. What Diedt actually created in the Edgar MG Special—in only 30 days, no less—was a highly functional, stunning work of art.
Our Diedt-body “88” made its racing debut at Palm Springs on October 28, 1951. Lighter and infinitely more slippery, not to mention further modifications under its aluminum envelope skin, all eyes were on Jack and the newly shaped MG. From ninth at the start he shot up to seventh, then fell back. Something was wrong; McAfee pitted with a burned piston. Don Parkinson won in his Jag, followed by Bill Stroppe in the scrappy V8 “60”-powered MG special called “2-Jr.”
At Torrey Pines in December, Jack turned the tables with our MG and led “2-Jr”—this time with Phil Hill driving the little V8—to win Class 3. A week later at Sandberg, Jack won his class again in “88” and repeated a class victory at Palm Springs in March 1952 while taking fourth overall—the IT blower now replaced with the newer version S.C.o.T. [Supercharger Company of Turin], bringing “88” to be called “the best known blown MG in the U.S.” In full-page color, it was a Road and Track [before the ampersand] cover car. I have to chuckle whenever I see that issue because to make the MG point left the image was flopped. “88” didn’t matter—it looks the same both ways. But RHD became LHD in the bargain!
We did well at Pebble in ‘52, won our class at Golden Gate Park’s inaugural road races attended by 90,000 spectators, finished Torrey Pines sixth in the main with another class win, then won class at El Segundo’s trials. The streak was of the first rank, though disenchantment was perhaps inevitable. In March 1953, Jack McAfee stepped up into my father’s 4.1-liter Ferrari 340 America to win the Palm Springs main outright. In the same race, George Metzger drove our MG to sixth overall, but it was no longer the jewel of my father’s eye. “The world had gone by,” said Jack. John Edgar was into Ferraris now, with Porsche 550s and Maseratis to follow. His last entry for our MG was Bakersfield on March 21, 1954, with Jack at the wheel and managing only ten overall. “88” was again for sale, and this time it sold.
The new owner of what had become “Old 88” was Los Angeles television personality Bill Leyden, and he began racing it with the engine out of a Triumph TR-2. Bill’s motor switch, casual attitude and mediocre outcomes at Santa Barbara, Palm Springs and California’s new road race course at Paramount Ranch in Agoura, even though the genial Leyden enjoyed driving it, resulted in a come-down for the car. Its once luminous stature was missing; it became a rather pathetic also-ran, a frequent DNF. Then, in October 1958, the former Edgar MG Special made a striking comeback to be seen by millions.
Film director Stanley Kramer was shooting a movie about nuclear disaster, drawing its story from author Nevil Shute’s best-seller, “On the Beach”. Shute, himself a sports car enthusiast, had included a do-or-die road race in his novel of human destruction, and Kramer had to have it in his film, cost be damned. He rented Riverside International Raceway and hired top drivers to pilot a field of sports cars. Bob Drake in a Ferrari would sub for star Fred Astaire’s “Julian Osborne” suicidal character. Others recruited to stage Kramer’s mock “Australian Grand Prix” included Dan Gurney, Max Balchowsky, Jerry Austin and Mary Davis. Skip Hudson drove the Corvette camera car, while Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner in their acting roles grimaced on cue at meticulously executed carnage. The stunt considered the movie’s most daring showed an Austin-Healey broadsided in the esses by a deadly missile—the old John Edgar MG.
Engineless, dummy at the wheel, the doomed now-white ex-Edgar MG wearing number “6” was hooked at its side to a fast Jaguar XK-120, and at the precise moment released to go flying straight into the stalled Healey. Flames consumed both cars while cameras rolled. In that fiery moment of filmmaking butchery the Diedt-bodied gem was denied its chance to ever be a vintage prize.
In a way, though, its end felt right. “88” would never be restored, primped or fussed over, relegated to remote private collection or silent museum hall. I think I like best the way our little racer went, and my father would, too—full speed ahead and KA-BOOM!
Today, when I drive my Miata top-down through Sonoma Country’s wine country where I live, I remember vividly our MG TC and what it was back then, over sixty years ago, blower howling, wind in the face, decades still ahead of me with cars and motorcycles yet to come.