That Abingdon Spirit
Octagon Newsletter … January 1984
By Burns MacDonald
The Abingdon Spirit. That elusive quality which we, as enthusiasts of the MG marque, have frequently vowed to preserve but rarely understood. It touches us all in a way that, most particularly in North America, as it seems to be more a part of our lives than many of our British counterparts. Ever since I became seriously interested in MG cars, I've read of the factory at Abingdon, the men that made the cars, and this "Spirit" that moulded both into a marque unlike any other before or since. Like most enthusiasts, I knew there was a strange, almost mystical, attraction to the cars but I couldn't quite define it and couldn't help feeling that I was only on the distant edge of some ethereal, greater bond. And so it was until one cool, crisp overcast day this October when it became clear like a slow-breaking dawn and I too understood, the Abingdon Spirit.
Didcot. It wasn't a name that I recalled from any previous readings of the Marque. It was, however, the closest station to Abingdon on the British Rail system. Descending from the station platform, the change was immediately noticeable. Gone was London's acrid pall and sooty sophistication. In it's place was a neat little village with quaint brick buildings from some earlier indistinct period. Tidy hedges ran to and fro between the houses in a leafy display of casual order. It was six miles to Abingdon by taxi. The narrow road wound through hedges and walls, over stone bridges and past quilt-patch fields. How may brand new PA's and M-Types had skittered around these corners? How may K-3 Magnettes had barked their way down the straight stretches? Surely an MG of some sort would appear around the next hedge-rowed corner, but no, not an octagon was to be seen.
The last mile went quickly. A sign post silently declared our entry into Abingdon. Volkswagens, Vauxhalls, Volvos, and Minis by the dozen but not an MG in sight. The taxi wheeled around a corner. There, in front of the red brick structure was a sign high on a white post. Above the streamlined cigar‑shaped body streaking across the hand-painted background were neatly lettered two words: "Magic Midget".
The pub was a relatively new structure, almost disappointingly modern, according to our vision of an English pub. It's exterior, however, was adorned with large murals of the famous Magic Midget racer. In the corner of each, an octagon insignia ensured that there was no mistake as to the identity of the race car portrayed, or the heritage that the pub has laid claim to. Later I was to find out that the pub is a very pleasant place indeed, not one to be overlooked.
Shortly we drew up to Number One Gainsborough Green, home of Henry Stone, MG employee for over 40 years and, for most of those years, a member of the famous (infamous according to Henry) Competition Department. Henry is a part of the history of MG, having been a member of the renowned "Insomniac Crew" and spent the latter part of his career as the foreman or Chief racing mechanic. I had met Henry in August at the GoF in Long Beach. I spoke to him on the phone just a week prior to warn him of my visit, and now here I was, about to see him again, but this time on his own Abingdon soil. Henry and Winnie (his wife) live in a small comfortable house perched on the corner of a street where similar cozy homes are lined up like a row of coloured soldiers. Each is separated by a garden, hedge and laneway. Children play outside and dogs are walked by neighbours who nod knowingly to passing cars.
I rang the bell. There was no answer. About to leave, I was met at the foot of the laneway by a tall trim man with an easy smile. He introduced himself as Don, Henry's son and warmly shook my hand as he invited me back to his place. Henry was out visiting, but was to be back shortly. We walked up to Don's house which was only across the street and down about six doors. Outside a well-raced Mini perched on a trailer looking very non-stock and business like. A Jaguar XJ6 and another not-so-stock Mini completed Don's collection. In Don's living room, a glowing coal fire quickly took away the damp chill and we talked as his three young daughters each compiled 'Dear Santa' letters from a catalogue. Don works for Leyland in the inspection department of the new MG Metro/Maestro assembly plant. Previously, he worked on MGs in Abingdon in the Rectification Department.
After a while, it was decided that a visit to the Magic Midget pub was in order. Word was left for Henry to meet us there and I piled into Don's 'street' Mini, a term I use here only in the broadest sense. The Mini started with a throaty growl and we shot down the street, as he explained casually that a full race cam and a number of other 'goodies' could be found under the bonnet. Without being splashy or showy Don used the car well and within a wink, we were walking through the doors of this most famous of MG watering holes. Given the rather institutional exterior of the pub, the inside was surprisingly comfortable and warm. The patrons were locals of all ages, each enjoying the company of each other and their particular brew. A large bar ran the length of the pub along the back wall and every other wall was virtually festooned with Octagons. Club cloth badges, grill badges, mementoes, photos and plaques from around the world gave testimony to the fact that this was THE MG local in THE MG town.
We took our two pints of creamy English brew to a table by the window and, while we waited for Henry to arrive, Don talked easily of cars, his racing and of things in general in Abingdon. At two o'clock in the afternoon the pub closed and, knowing we were to hold an informal ceremony, the 'guv'nor' of the pub allowed us to stay while chasing the last of his neighbours out the doors as required by law. Mounted prominently in the centre of the end wall was an early MGB grille, a perfect place to mount the Victoria MG Club grille badge that I had carried for almost 7000 miles. Removing the grille from the wall, we were in the final stages of mounting it (after Don had run home to get pliers) when Henry arrived. Back up on the wall, the large circular red and white roundel announced the inclusion of the Victoria MG Club amongst those clubs whose members had made pilgrimages to our "Mecca".
A toast was drunk, pictures taken, Magic Midget windscreen decals issued, a guest book signed, hands shook and we were off to Henry's.
In Henry's house the air was thick with the delicious smells of home-cooked lamb. I was invited to lunch, but first Henry wanted to show me the plant site, a must after having come so far. Winnie issued strict orders concerning a time to be back so, grabbing my camera, we bustled out the door, into the car and down the street. Passing through the centre of the town, I was struck by the age of the buildings. Ever the tour guide, Henry explained that the city was founded as an Abbey in the fifth century. Coming from a country where buildings that are only 100 years old are designated heritage structures, the continued existence and even every day use of these ancient buildings has never ceased to awe me.
Down the road we came to a large cluster of older red brick buildings. This was it. Home of the little cars held so dear by so many people throughout the world, this once bustling factory now stands forlorn and empty, a mute testament to British big company policies. Where the factory sign should have stood a sign now declares the site an industrial estate and rows of brightly panelled aluminium building's encroach on the older remaining plant buildings. Henry drove through, continuing his guided tour. The crash wall area, the competition department, the head offices, the infirmary were all pointed out. I detected a tremor in Henry's voice, which was shortly followed by a lump rising in my own throat. It was the same feeling I had experienced, although to a lesser degree, when I was at the Midget … a sense of loss and perhaps even pride despite betrayal.
Henry stopped for the last of my pictures and then we turned the corner and it was gone. Down the street was Boundary House, which was the home of Cecil Kimber, the founding father of MG. Now a pub, the building stands welt-maintained and surrounded by chestnut trees, that had dropped their leaves during the previous night's frost. Two blocks away, we slowed as we passed the house of John Thornley, a managing director of the company. Henry casually explained that, except for the late hour, we would have popped in to see him. I just shook my head in wonder as names, only known to me in books, became reality. There was time for one last diversion and, on the way home, Henry wheeled into the local Leyland dealership. Stuffed away within the ranks of Austins were two new MG Metros, one black and one silver. Bubble-shaped with rounded lines, the large red and white octagon insignia. looked strangely out-of-place on these plastic-age saloons. Perhaps even more odd was the inevitable thought that these cars, bearing the octagon badge, had to be transported to the dealer in Abingdon from their factory.
Not daring to risk Winnie's jovial wrath more than we already had, Henry and I arrived home just in time for lunch. After a beautiful lamb dinner we retired to the living room and a glowing gas fire. Henry started stirring around in his 'collection' of memorabilia. What a beautiful collection it was! Photos, scrapbooks, certificates, and . keepsakes chronicled almost fifty years in the history of the world's best‑loved sports car. Absolutely spellbound, I sat beside Henry as he went through his personal scrap‑book, page by page. LeMans pit passes, team photos, action shots and sketches brought to life names such as Goldie Gardner, Sterling Moss and Nuvolare in a way that no other book could. Here and there a photo was missing as a selection had been removed to illustrate Henry's book The Insomnia Crew.
Thus the afternoon was passed all too quickly. Reservations had been made for Henry and Winnie to be my guest for dinner at a local restaurant located on the site of the original Abbey mill. Just before we left there was a knock at the door. In came a tall weathered gentleman who was introduced as Tom Haig, the former high-speed test driver for MG! By this time I had ceased to be amazed by anything and wouldn't have been surprised if Cecil Kimber himself, had shown up. Tom had a few minutes and was quickly recruited to join us for drinks before dinner which resulted in another round of picture taking. The men had bitters. Winnie, probably the smartest of us all, had tea. Dinner followed and after toasts to ourselves and the car that brought us together, I popped the question on Henry. Would he and Winnie consider becoming honourary members in the Victoria MG Club and, if so, would Henry honour us by being an honourary director? Henry quietly agreed and a proud new page in our club history was made.
As suddenly as I had arrived, it was time to go. The Mini sped through the darkened country lanes. In quiet fascination I watched, as Henry smoothly sped up and down the gears, working the little car through the narrow winding roads, never missing a rev point, smoothly double-clutching on all down shifts and cleanly catching the apex of each curve. Then, sadly, as Didcot station loomed out of the dark, I knew it was over. Goodbyes were said and promises to write were made. I walked to the ticket office. Half-way through "five pound-fifty to Paddington", I heard the bleat of a Mini horn. I turned to see both Henry and Winnie each giving me the ancient thumbs-ups signal which speaks of sport, dash, camaraderie, and belonging. They drove off into the night and a smile spread across my face as I recalled Henry's words at dinner, "MG?, that's my life's work!" It was then I realized at last what was meant by the "Abingdon Spirit".
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