Insomnia Crew

Octagon Newsletter March 1984

By Burns MacDonald

Two issues ago I wrote a story dealing with my visit to Abingdon, birthplace of so many of our MG cars. A principal figure in that story was Henry Stone. Henry and his wife Winnie are honorary members of the Victoria MG Club and Henry himself is an honourary director. He is also one of the last of the famous Insomnia Crew of MG racing team mechanics and development personnel that is able to, or willing to travel. Henry takes a genuine interest in all things MG and considers himself kin to all MG enthusiasts. Both Henry and his wife are coming to GoF '84 in Victoria, as guests of our club. With such a VIP in our midst, it's only appropriate that Victoria MG Club members know a little about our most famous club-member. Those who wish to read more about Henry and the early (and later) days of the MG Car Company are urged to obtain and read a copy of Henry's book, MG Mania. It was on sale at last years GoF and probably will be again this year.

Like much of the work-force in Abingdon, Henry was a native of this quiet little Berkshire town. When he started with "the works", the MG Company had just relocated to Abingdon from Oxford and was then occupying an old leather factory resulting in it's less frequent nickname, the "Pavlov Works". The year was 1931 and it was the start of an exciting era for Henry. He was first employed as an electrical fireman on the 19/80 Mk I and the M-Type Midget. Although thrilled at the prospect of being a member of the MG production team, Henry longed to become a member of the elite MG works racing fraternity. Elite they were too. Working in cloistered secrecy behind closed doors and beyond the constraints of normal time-keeping, punch-clocking and the monotonous regularity of labour on "the line", the racing department held much attraction for Henry. The special team of development engineers, mechanics and tuners were yet embryonic, having been created in the period after Cecil Kimber's first triumph at Lands End only six years previous. Still, what they lacked in depth of experience, they more than made up for in dedication, determination, innovativeness and, more often than not, stamina and talent.

This was a magical period for MG. A time when many of the traditions and myths that set MGs apart from any other car, were created. After only a short apprenticeship on the line, Henry was drafted into the racing department where he too had a hand in the creation of an unparalleled automotive legacy that included the Monthly Midgets, the J2, the K3 Magnette, the PA, PB and the, now classic, Cream Cracker's team cars. Strings of victories, won by ingenuity, sweat and guile included Brooklands, Monte Carlo, Le Mans, the Mille Miglia, Nurburgring and Silverstone. This was the time when MGs' racing pedigree was established and the standards of construction, with a racing flavour, that would last over forty years, until finally strangled by parochial corporate policies and 'rationalization' for it's own sake.

Many claim that these pre-war years were the renaissance of the MG Car Company racing effort. Certainly it was to be one of the few times when works cars could be developed and raced by significant factory input without interference from a budget-minded Head Office. With the arrival of Mr. Len Lord, as head of the Nuffield organization, the MG racing programme was axed in 1935, as were several planned model modifications. Amazingly, one of the models cancelled was a plan for a V-8 sports car. It wasn't until forty years later, that an MG V-8 would finally be built. Lord openly disliked sports cars in general and MGs in particular. He found the little Abingdon factory too non-conformist and difficult to incorporate into his plans for a streamlined corporation with the primary purpose of producing Wolsley and Morris "grocery-getters". Although a tragic turn of events, it would not be the last for MG, for in successive takeovers by BMC and British Leyland the same pattern would be repeated and would eventually sound the death knell for the post-war MG Company.

With the advent of the Second World War, MG production stopped, as factories all over Britain began gearing up for the war effort. It appears that, even in the face of this great crisis, the corporate hatchet was not to be buried. Founding father and architect of the MG marque, Cecil Kimber was fired over a dispute concerning his insistence that the MG factory become involved in war production. While this was all going on, Henry was still employed in the remnants of the racing team which was now variously known as the special tuning or development departments. Although not officially allowed to exist or race company cars, the team nevertheless kept as busy as ever by building, modifying and maintaining MGs owned by private enthusiasts who just happened to be competent race drivers. With the war, this too ceased and, like so many of the Abingdon craftsmen, Henry's, by then considerable skills, were turned toward the production of Albemarle bombers and tanks.

The war proved to be a blessing in disguise. It exposed many American and Canadian servicemen to the delights of small sports car motoring. Until this time, in North America, faster meant bigger and curves and chicanes were considered a civil engineers mistake. In post war America, this growing desire for small peppy sporting roadsters of the European style was coincident with the resumption of car production at Abingdon. Initially produced as an improved and up-dated 'TB' in order to save set-up time, the new model, the 'TC', became increasingly popular in the U.S.A. As one of the "old guard", Henry was involved in setting up the 'TC' production line. Soon the factory was back in full swing and so was the racing department, although the ban on 'factory' racing remained in effect. As before, however, this did little to hamper the MG team. In 1946 records were smashed for land speed in Brussels in a car owned and driven by Goldie Gardener. The next year, the same feat was repeated in a smaller displacement class! By 1948, the ban on company race participation was relaxed following a change in corporate management. For the next two years, Henry and his mates were kept busy as record after record fell to the little team from Abingdon. The team was also busy on conventional race circuits such as Le Mans racking up wins such as the famous Tourist Trophy team prize in 1950.

Under the guidance of Syd Enever and John Thornley, a new, more competitive, prototype car was built which was eventually to evolve into the MGA. This car and it's production offspring were raced by the Abingdon team on the continents in Britain and at Sebring in the U.S.A. with considerable success. By now MG was the largest single producer of sports cars in the world. Henry continued with his first love (next to Wining), the racing team and rose, in position, to become foreman and chief racing mechanic. By this time the big Healeys were also being built at Abingdon and, with the formation of MG under BMC, the famous racing Minis were also prepared by the Abingdon team. (Mini vans were actually produced in the MG works at this time as well!) As production soared, so too did the need to maintain designs according to current standards. Henry was very involved in the development of the MGB model. In fact if you look under the dash of the nearest MGB, you'll see a lateral strut bar added after Henry identified a requirement for more rigidity during high speed testing. Henry was also deeply involved in the development of the MG V-8 which, although successful from an engineering standpoint, was never introduced into the North American market due to Leyland fears that it would prejudice the lucrative American market for the ill chosen, but nevertheless favoured Leyland son the TR7.

In 1974, after 43 years of service in which Henry had seen the small but skilled Berkshire factory grow into a world force in sports cars, Henry retired. Just six short years later, the marque too retired as a sports car entity and the famous factory now stands vacant and idle. Henry's career spans, if not the birth, then surely the childhood, adolescence and maturity of the MG marque. In many ways Henry's story is the MG story and his sense of recall, in detail, is nothing short of remarkable, as he remembers vividly his experiences with Goldie Gardener, Syd Enever, Stirling Moss, Phil Hill and other greats of the British racing car epoch. Listening to Henry's tales, peppered with his invariably dry and amusing wit, was a highlight of the Long Beach GoF for me last year and one which I can barely wait to repeat this year. Many people ask what's so special about "the Abingdon Spirit". After meeting Henry and his charming wife, Winnie, they don't ask any longer, they know.

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