1957 MG EX-181; photo courtesy of MGAGuru.com
1957 MG EX-181; photo courtesy of MGAGuru.com. Click image to enlarge

By Bill Vance

While British MG sports cars were popular in North America following the Second World War, and were raced enthusiastically, they were not particularly fast. The beloved little square-rigged TD could barely top 129 km/h (80 mph), and it wasn’t until 1957 that a stock MG, the MGA coupe, could top 161 km/h (100 mph). Such British sports cars as Triumphs, Austin-Healeys and Jaguars had reached “the ton” years earlier.

But inside those modest sports cars lay real potential for speed. This was demonstrated in 1951 when legendary English MG racer Lt. Col. A.T. “Goldie” Gardner took a special aerodynamic MG streamliner, designated EX-135, to Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats. It had a supercharged, 1,250 cc (76 cu in.) MG TD engine, and among other records, he averaged 224 km/h (139.3 mph) for an hour.

In 1952, Gardner returned to Bonneville with the TD-engined special and hit 325 km/h (202 mph), setting 21 speed records in Class F (engines of 1.1 to 1.5 litres displacement).

Why Bonneville? The Bonneville Salt Flats are part of the Great Salt Lake Desert lying some 160 km (100 mi.) west of Salt Lake City, Utah. It is the shrine of land speed records because it is large, smooth and level, and the salt is easy on tires. It’s a magical place unmatched for attaining the absolute highest speed on wheels. That’s why serious land speed record contenders go to the Salt Flats.

While the MG’s high speed ability had been soundly displayed in 1951 and 1952, MG’s parent, British Motor Corporation, felt it could do even better. In 1957 it again headed to Utah’s high desert to mount an assault on the class F record. Its weapon was a new, fully enclosed, teardrop shaped MG called the EX-181, which it hoped would reach 402 km/h (250 mph).

EX-181 was very small for a record car, standing only 972 mm (38.25 in.) high at the tallest point. Overall length was 4,619 mm (181.5 in.), width was 1,632 mm (64.25 in.), and it rode on a 2,438 mm (96 in.) wheelbase. Track was 1,067 mm (42 in.) at the front and a mere 781 mm (30.75 in.) at the rear, allowing the wheels to fit within the tapered aluminum body. A central rear fin was fitted to aid high speed stability.

The coil spring front suspension and rack-and-pinion steering were from the MGA. Rather than the MGA’s traditional solid rear axle, a de Dion type was carried on quarter elliptic springs. Braking was by a single, rear axle-mounted disc, which took up to five km (three miles) to stop the car from high speed. The 450 X 15 tires inflated to 60 pounds per square inch were smooth for reduced rolling resistance.

The BMC B series, 1.5-litre (90.8 cu in.) four-cylinder engine, which normally had pushrod operated overhead valves, was given twin overhead camshafts. Its Shorrock vane type supercharger breathed through two SU carburetors and pumped air into the cylinders at a boost reaching 32 pounds per square inch at 7,000 engine r.p.m.

The engine was mounted amidships in the tubular steel frame, and unlike EX-135 where Gardner was behind the engine, the driver was in a semi-reclining position in the very front of the car. Engine cooling came from two small aircraft type radiators mounted on each side just behind the driver.

BMC hired outstanding drivers for the record attempt. Stirling Moss, one of Britain’s best ever, was the main driver, with Phil Hill, who would be the only American to win the World’s Driving Championship, acting as alternative.

Hill took the EX-181 out for a test run on Sunday, August 18th and although it was the car’s first time at speed, he found everything to be satisfactory except for nasty gasoline fumes in the cabin. Moss arrived the following Tuesday for a planned run on Wednesday but rain washed out the attempt.

Thursday’s weather was better, but problems delayed the run until 5:00 p.m. Although it was getting late in the day Moss insisted on going. It took a couple of tries due to the loss of third gear, but before the sun had set he was able to take the car through a measured mile at an astounding 338 km/h (245.11 mph). Although Moss was an experienced Grand Prix racer, it was the fastest he had ever driven a car.

It was a tremendous speed for a 1.5-litre car, and it provided wonderful publicity for MG sports cars, which had fallen behind the competition in performance. MG addressed the performance deficit with the 1959 MG Twin Cam, but it came with problems and was short lived.

The MGB arrived as a 1963 model, carried on until 1980 by British Leyland Corporation as the company was now called. The MG name would be continued in sports sedans, and then in the early 1990s in the MG RV8 and MGF sports cars. The post-1980 models were not exported to North America.

MG Rover (yet another new name) returned to the salt in 2003 with an MG station wagon (!) and went 225 mph, claiming to be the world’s fastest station wagon.

Many MG enthusiasts consider the 1980 MGB to be the last “real” MG, and those 1951, ’52 and ’57 record runs contributed a great deal to that mystique.

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