Several years ago, I suffered another of my periodic bouts of sleepless, sweat-soaked MG TC fever and told my friend and neighbor, Chris Beebe, that I was possibly in the hunt for one of these fine cars again. There was a long, thoughtful silence on the phone, and then he said, “Have you driven one lately?” “No,” I admitted, “it’s been a long time.” “Well, why don’t you take mine for a drive and see what you think. I’ll leave the keys in it tomorrow morning, and you can take it out for an all-day test drive if you want.”
“Sounds good,” I said.
Truth be told, Chris’s car is not a TC. It’s a 1939 MG TB, a mechanically similar and near look-alike predecessor to the TC.
MG introduced the TB just before World War II and made a mere 379 examples before suspending production in favor of aircraft parts. It was an irresistibly attractive car, and apparently Hitler was so enraged by unfavorable aesthetic comparisons between the lovely TB and the odd, beetle-like “people’s car” Ferdinand Porsche had recently cooked up for him that he decided to bomb England for the next five years.
This story originally appeared in Volume 6 of Road & Track.
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That said, I’ve owned two of those beetle-shaped German cars myself, and later bought a 356B and a Boxster S, but have yet to acquire a TC. So maybe Dr. Porsche was simply ahead of his time. Or the repair curve.
Anyway, when that particular tantrum ended in 1945, MG quickly revived the design and, with a few minor upgrades, introduced it to the postwar world as the MG TC. The same OHV four-cylinder 1250-cc engine was updated with such wonders as a timing-chain tensioner and was good for 54.4 hp at 5200 rpm.
Taking Chris up on his generous invitation, I put on my tweed Nigel Shiftright cap, walked across the creek bridge to his garage, fired up the TB, and drove off into a fine summer morning.
It was all still there: the charming hollow exhaust note, the close steering wheel connected to slightly loose underpinnings, the pleasantly mechanical gearbox, and the beautiful view down the bonnet. Acceleration that sounds and feels more impressive than any stopwatch numbers would be inclined to verify. Dead-flat cornering. No place to rest your clutch foot.
I took back roads through the woods and past the old French cemetery, where pioneers born in Paris and St. Germain now rest after clearing the Wisconsin township’s first farmlands. It felt good to be alive. Some of the rougher roads, however, began to provide a monotonous wallop to the spine, and after about 10 more miles, I turned around and headed for home.
Chris called later and asked how far I drove.
“About 27 miles,” I admitted.
“That was far enough, wasn’t it?”
“Yes. It’s not a long-distance car for me, unless we get some of our roads repaved. But it was wonderful just to be in the car for a short drive, and it looks great in the garage.”
Chris said his trips tended to be short ones for exactly the same reason.
Oddly enough, in 1982, the two of us had borrowed a dark green TC belonging to Chris’s brother Joe and had driven it on a 2600-mile, back-road trip from Wisconsin to Road Atlanta for the SCCA fall runoffs, and I recalled the ride as firm but fairly comfortable. Were we simply younger then?
A quick trip to my small MG reference library solved the mystery. Before the postwar TC was released, MG engineers decided to redress some complaints about the earlier model. They widened the cockpit by four inches at the rear door pillar for more elbow room, replaced the twin six-volt batteries beneath the luggage compartment with a single 12-volt mounted in the engine bay, and—best of all—softened the springs and installed better shock absorbers. They also shed the metal-on-metal sliding trunnions in favor of rubber-bushed shackles. It had a hint more body lean in corners, but not so much that the average Buick owner in the U.S. would notice.
And what Americans wanted was suddenly important. England was bombed-out, tired, and broke after the war, having nearly exhausted itself defeating evil, and it needed viable exports to rebuild the economy. MG, like many other factories, was told to sell goods overseas or risk having its supply of raw materials cut off.
And hardly any English car manufacturer had failed to notice how the visiting Yanks had been charmed by Britain’s spare and romantically jaunty two-seaters, so different from anything they’d owned or driven. A very few servicemen had even shipped them home before hostilities broke out in 1939. Chris Beebe’s TB was one of them. An officer at the embassy, perhaps.
There is a popular myth that American GIs loved MG sports cars so much, they brought them home with them from the war. I suppose this would have been possible for Ike or General Hap Arnold, but in my Army experience, the average GI is lucky to make it home with his duffel bag intact. A more likely scenario is that American servicemen were charmed by these cars, remembered them fondly, and were receptive when import models started filtering into the U.S. a few years later.
And then there were legions of potential customers who had never been in the military at all, but were simply struck dumb with desire the first time they saw one.
American F1 champion Phil Hill and noted racer and car journalist Denise McCluggage each told me that they’d spotted a TC somewhere and immediately turned their lives upside-down to acquire one that very day.
The same thing happened to the great jazz singer Mel Tormé. In his autobiography, It Wasn’t All
Velvet, Mel tells us that he saw one in the window of a Manhattan car dealership and bought it on the spot for $1750. Mel’s good friend, the legendary drummer Buddy Rich, took one look at the car and said, “Gotta have it!” They drove back to the dealership, and Buddy bought one.
I can’t think of another car with this kind of struck-by-lightning clout, except for perhaps the first Ford Model A in 1927, another highly affordable car that had movie stars and captains of industry standing in line to buy one.
The Jaguar E-type had this allure, too, but its price slowed down impulse buying. The Model A and the TC were affordable to almost anyone who wanted a car.
Except for me.
In 1967, I spotted a red TC on a used-car lot in the small town of Wonewoc, Wisconsin, while riding my Honda Super 90 home from college. The window sticker said $1100. Once home, I asked my parents if I could get a bank loan for the car. They gave the idea three seconds of careful consideration and then said no. In unison. I might as well have asked to rent a villa in Tuscany for the summer. So I rode the Honda 90 that year, and TC ownership remained an elusive dream.
Why the desire for this somewhat impractical car with a top speed of around 73 mph?
Well, the looks, of course. In my own eyes, the car has proportions that can’t be improved. Once described as looking like “a coffin sitting on four harps,” its rakish wing lines are perfectly accentuated by its vertical radiator and those tall 19-inch wire wheels. And we can unaffectedly say “wings” rather than “fenders” because they actually look like wings.
And then there’s the romantic glow of history. For those of us who grew up in the aftermath of WWII, early MGs will always be fused with images of the sacrifice and glory we associate with the Battle of Britain. Especially in an aviation-conscious brain like mine. Perhaps that’s because I once saw a photo of RAF hero Douglas Bader sitting in his new MG TA at some English airdrome. Or because director Guy Hamilton had the good taste to put Christopher Plummer in an MG PA four-seater for a rendezvous with the lovely Susannah York in the epic film Battle of Britain.
More insidious yet is the framed print that’s hung above my desk for the past 30 years: a painting by James Dietz of an attractive WAAF in a red MG TB chatting with a young RAF pilot on a flight line of Spitfires. Those two machines—and people—perfectly symbolize the era.
Actually, the T-Series cars seem to fit seamlessly into any era of English history, as if they’ve always been there. You could probably have parked one in front of the Globe Theatre in 1599 and Shakespeare wouldn’t have noticed anything amiss on his way to work. It’s a design that doesn’t offend any particular century’s sense of craft or architecture. Timeless, I guess, is the word.
One enduring charm of the TC is that a reasonably skilled home mechanic can fix practically everything on the car without any diagnostic equipment more complex than a dwell meter. And even that’s unnecessary if you have a decent gap gauge and maybe a 12-volt test light. I’ve done two MGB restorations without farming out anything except machine-shop work and paint. The TC is similarly straightforward, though the wood framing of the body shell can require a few woodworking skills.
Recently i attended an annual vintage sports-car hill climb at the nearby town of New Glarus, Wisconsin, and, lo, there appeared on the starting line a black 1947 TC that looked like Phil Hill had just driven it out of the showroom. It belonged to a gentleman named David Kerr from Lincolnwood, Illinois. Camera gear and string-backed driving gloves in hand, I met him at his home a week later.
As a northern suburb of Chicago, Lincolnwood is not the first place you’d look for a rustic, Cotswold- like setting, but there are miles of parks, woods, and grand old homes built along the swooping and curvy Sheridan Road, which runs beside Lake Michigan.
Out in the sunlight of the back alley, the TC looked remarkably straight and crisp. It has an estimated 12,000 miles on the odometer, and David told us it had spent most of its life in a private car museum, taken apart only in 1968 for fresh paint and to replace some of the more perishable parts. The block, cylinder head, and engine compartment still have their original paint, a gray-green hue that Kerr describes as “battleship green.” The car was originally purchased at J.S. Inskip Inc. in Manhattan and owned by Anne Bradley of Southborough, Massachusetts, until 1967. It changed hands three more times before David bought it in 2018.
A pull on the small black choke and adjacent starter knob had the engine coughing to life and settling into a nice steady idle. I graciously let David drive through the heavy city traffic until we reached the greener pastures of Sheridan Road, where I took over the right-hand driver’s seat.
Like Chris’s TB, this car has a smooth, succinct four-speed gearbox with synchro in the top three gears, normal clutch actuation, and driver-friendly torque. You can rev it, but the engine also pulls well at low rpm without complaint. The big Bluemels steering wheel sits close to your chest, and the pedals are close to your feet.
Steering precision has never been the TC’s strong point, and most I’ve driven are a bit twitchy, loose, and slightly heavy in slow, tight corners. Many fixes have been tried over the years; this car has a Tompkins steering kit installed. It’s better than most, but still unlikely to instill envy in the hearts of Lotus Elan owners. Handling, however, is quite good, limited mostly by the grip of the tall, narrow 19-inch tires. It stays flat in corners and has a remarkably compliant ride, feeling properly sprung for its weight and less jittery than the TB.
Overall, it’s charming and old-fashioned on the road, which is a large part of the appeal—and maybe always has been. Even in the late Forties, no one mistook the TC for a flying saucer or some other futuristic marvel. On the balance beam between useful transportation and historical artifact, the TC would come down pretty heavily on the side of the latter. It’s been derided by critics as being “ten years out-of-date when introduced.”
But then the T-Series cars were, to some extent, the product of a car company—and a country—simply trying to stay alive.
The first of the family, the 1936 TA, was a Great Depression–driven compromise intended to save MG from financial ruin by using ordinary sedan parts to make a cheaper car than its more exotic predecessors. Ditto for the much-improved but still affordable TB.
And the TC was meant to capture foreign markets in the cash-strapped years after the war. That they did it with so much panache is the reason America developed a vibrant sports-car movement—and a love of the marque that has never abated. And why some of us want one, even now.
The TC still speaks to me of rebirth and civilization at the end of darkness, a fulfillment of Churchill’s promised move into those sunlit uplands. And that seems quite enough weight for one old car to carry.