Concepts and prototypes : MG EX record breakers (1930-1959)

Land-speed record breaking is an unfashionable thing these days – maybe it’s because we have no more to break, or perhaps more likely, no one can afford to do it anymore with too many diminishing returns. However, in the 20th century, it was a vital part of the motor sport scene. Any car manufacturer with an ounce of competitive blood coursing through its veins chose to rely on a bevy of records to publicise its latest products.

Between 1930 and 1959 MG probably achieved more than anyone else yet the marque really slipped into the business by accident. It was George Eyston who sparked off MG’s interest and Cecil Kimber who made it all possible. Kimber left MG in 1941, but his traditions lived on for another 20 years. We’ll cover the short-lived re-emergence on MG’s speed hunting with the EXF, EX255 and ZT-T in a future article.

Cecil Kimber, at MG, was the classic case of a tycoon who loved fast cars. He was sure that sporting success should sell him more MGs, so his involvement was a case of business with pleasure.

Why go record breaking at all?

George Eyston, and his partner Ernest Eldridge, really inspired the first MG record breaker EX120 in 1930. The last of the original record cars which MG built before the 1990s revival – EX181 – was the only major project in which neither he nor his rival Goldie Gardner were involved. MG stopped building record cars when it became clear that costs were getting out of hand.

The EX120, EX135 and even EX179 were loosely based on production hardware – in EX181 only the engine was distantly related to a road car. Any carmaker with sufficient money, the ability to develop powerful engines and Engineers who could produce streamlined bodies, could go in for record breaking. Handling and braking ability were of no importance – apart from sheer performance, only the endurance appropriate to the attempt was needed.

George Eyston (below, with A Denley and the EX127) proved this privately – he took a whole series of records in the 1930s with an AEC diesel engine lifted from a London bus, installed in an ancient Chrysler chassis frame.

Turning brute force into science

It’s impossible not to overstate just how important aerodynamics are to record breaking. Wind resistance increases according to the square of the speed and, in order to double the speed in any particular car, the engine power has to increase eight times.

MG was determined to turn the ‘brute force’ business into a scientific exercise. It succeeded and the string of records prove it – the difference was in the streamlining. Eyston’s first record was in EX120, with a naturally-aspirated 750cc engine, with which he clocked 87.3mph. By 1930 standards that was pretty sensational, especially considering the M Type in which the basic engine was installed could only reach 64mph. By 1950, things had advanced so much that Goldie Gardner’s EX135 could beat 120mph with a supercharged 350cc engine.

Between 1930 and 1959 there were five famous MG record cars – of which three survive in museums. Each had alternative engines Gardner’s – EX135, in particular, hosting all manner of power units in its 18-year career. But what do these numbers mean?

The EX numbers explained

Quite simply, the numbers come out of MG’s Project Register book. EX means experimental and 179 was merely the 179th such entry since the list was started. Mind you, its record isn’t entirely without mystery. EX120 was built in 1930, but MG had only been making cars since 1924 – certainly there hadn’t been 120 experimental schemes during those six years, so we have to assume that Kimber, for the sake of dignity, started at 100!

Breaking speed records was not quite as difficult as it sounds. If the right sort of track banked for flat-out circulation can be found, there are so many records their waiting to be attacked that the first contender can choose an engine size and a duration to suit. It all came down to budget and location.

MG knew this, so always set its sights on a whole group of targets. Only the last, very specialised, EX181 car was a pure sprinter. Earlier cars could be asked to set new flying-mile times, but could also be driven round and round a track for hours at a time. EX181 was so tiny, and driving space so restricted, that nobody could possibly have been comfortable for prolonged periods.

How it all began: MG EX120

MG’s successes didn’t start in any carefully planned way. In 1930, Eyston and Eldridge had thought of attacking Class H (750cc) records by installing a tuned Riley Nine engine into one of the original MGs. During the process of super-tuning an M Type Midget engine, the pair visited Abingdon to discuss its
worth, and were promptly offered an experimental chassis in which to fit it.

The chassis itself was EX120 – made at Abingdon with a view to long-distance Brooklands racing. In fact, in general layout, it formed the inspiration for all production MGs built up to 1950. Apart from an underslung rear, and MG’s own system of sliding-trunnion leaf spring supports, it was technically nothing to get excited about. Neither, at first, was the body – merely a tightly wrapped open wheel body with some standard M Type Midget panels.

EX120 didn’t last long. It achieved 87mph, unsupercharged, then in December 1930, was supercharged at increasing levels of boost, eventually going on to run at 101mph for a whole hour before finishing the session with the engine in flames! Eyston, a large man in a tiny and constricting car, had trouble in getting out, and finished up in hospital for a time due to his injuries. The car was destroyed.

On to the next challenge: EX127

MG was disappointed, but not too disheartened. It had already built a new car, EX127, whose principal mechanical innovation was an offset transmission line with asymmetric rear axle. This meant that the driver could sit much lower than before, and the body could be streamlined more effectively.

Thus was the Magic Midget born. Only ever fitted with the firm’s supercharged 750cc four-cylinder engine, it took its first record at 110.3mph in September 1931, and its last at 140.6mph in October 1936. However, for the last couple of years it struggled with poor aerodynamics – a science that MG had yet to learn about.

The remarkably adaptable EX135

In 1938, the enthusiastic Cecil Kimber was still in charge, and even though Lord Nuffield had now incorporated MG into his Nuffield Motors company, he retained overall control. Having seen how successful the streamlined Auto Unions and Mercedes-Benz Silver Arrows had been in recent years, he decided to follow their lead.

The car of choice would be the EX135. It started life as an offset single-seater which raced at Brooklands. George Eyston, who owned it, christened it the Magic Magnette because it used the K3 Magnette’s chassis and six-cylinder engine. But to make it a record breaker, it needed a new streamlined body – Reid Railton was the firm commissioned to produce the new bodyshell.

Reid Railton? Yes, one of the most famous of all record-breaking specialists, and producer of the deliciously-smooth and wickedly-fast Railton Land Speed Record car.

Giving the EX135 wings

Railton’s approach was to clothe the EX135 chassis with bodywork that drew upon Auto Union and Mercedes-Benz expertise. The results were sensational.

In November 1938, Gardner took the new car to a specially prepared German autobahn near Frankfurt (above), unleashed the projectile and achieved 187.6mph. When the news was cabled back to Britain, many people steadfastly refused to believe it. Railton, with his new body, had allowed Gardner’s car to go nearly 40mph faster than it had with its previous racer-spec bodywork.

But it was true, and in June 1939, with war clouds already gathering, Gardner returned to Dessau in Germany, achieving 203mph with a supercharged 1100cc engine with about 200bhp. That was the occasion when MG mechanics then stripped the engine, rebored it to a mite more than 1100cc and allowed Gardner to take the 1500cc records as well.

EX135 was so versatile, and so well streamlined, that it eventually set new records for the 350cc, 500cc, 750cc, 1100cc and 1500cc categories before being retired in 1952.

MG EX179: Logical development

MG EX135 was Gardner’s own property, and sponsored by Duckhams Oil, so when MG (then linked with Castrol) wanted to do even better, it built a new car and hired new drivers. The replacement was EX179 and, when it appeared in 1954, it was almost a disappointment.

Superficially, it looked exactly like the old car (and used the same external body formers so, in truth, there was cause for this) but under the skin it was much changed. MG, short on cash but long on enthusiasm, based it all on a prototype of the MGA chassis, built in 1952.

The new car started life with a version of the new 948cc Sprite/Midget A-Series engine, and notched up 118mph for 12 hours. Finally, and most creditably, EX179 was much modified to become EX219, had a supercharged Sprite engine installed, and finished its career in 1959 with a best figure of 147mph.

MG EX219: Subtle improvements

The EX179 would be evolved into the EX219 for 1959 and a new set of speed records. It was powered by a supercharged Sprite engine, and followed its predecessor’s winning ways. In September 1959, it secured 15 International Class G records including the 12 hours standing-start record, which it raised to the 138.75mph.

MG EX181: Sensational ‘Roaring Raindrop’

MG’s next record car was very special indeed but not nearly as special as Chief Engineer Syd Enever would have liked it to be. However, for the first and only time, the Abingdon Design Team were not faced with using an existing chassis frame. They accepted such a challenge with relish, and produced a magnificently detailed EX181 with a mid-mounted engine.

The new device wasn’t so much a car as a missile. In shape, it was almost a perfectly streamlined teardrop with stability fins at the rear and the tiniest possible bulge and fairing to accommodate the driver. The engine was almost precisely amidships, and the driver reclined so far forward in the chassis that the steering rack passed under his knees. Although EX181 had only 10% less frontal area than EX179, its wind resistance was more than 30% less.

The chassis was simple. The front suspension was conventional and rear was by de Dion, with a narrow track. The transmission was conventional in that there was an engine, gearbox, propshaft and axle. However, the propshaft was less than 10-inches long. The engine was a prototype 1.5-litre MGA Twin Cam with Shorrock supercharger, twin SU carburettors and 290bhp at 7300rpm.

The supercharged record breaker

Stirling Moss (above) steered EX181 ‘Roaring Raindrop’ to its first clutch of records – in August 1957, it covered a flying kilometre at 245.6mph. This eclipsed Gardner’s 1939 record by no less than 41mph. It demonstrated, perhaps nearly conclusively, that MG was now so immersed and so successful in the record breaking business, that it was reduced to beating itself.

And so it proved. There were no challengers to beat this new figure, so in order to get some more use out of the expensive little toy, MG was forced to look elsewhere. A year after the MGA Twin-Cam had been put into production, the highly boosted engine was rebuilt into a 1,506cc unit. In September 1959, racing driver Phill Hill piloted it to a set of 2000cc (Class E) records, at up to 254.9mph. After that, EX181 was retired and is probably one of the most underused competition cars of all time.

That, in fact, was MG’s swansong in record breaking. It realised that it now held just about every record worth keeping, and that some had been to its credit for 20 years. The BMC management thought there was little point in such one-sided ventures, and decreed an end to the enterprise. It was probably right. Cecil Kimber, who died in 1945, would have expected nothing less.

List of records taken by MG

EX135

Experimental project 1100-1500

  • Supercharged six-cylinder MG Magnette 204.20mph

EX219

International Class G (750-1100cc)

  • 50km (142.01mph) 145.56mph
  • 50 miles (140.87mph) 145.48mph
  • 100km (141.14mph) 145.08mph
  • 100 miles (140.21mph) 146.17mph
  • 200km (140.19mph) 146.64mph
  • 1 hour (137.26mph) 146.95mph
  • 500km (132.39mph) 138.85mph
  • 1000km (131.84mph) 138.39mph
  • 2000km (120.81mph) 138.86mph
  • 200 miles (131.89mph) 138.15mph
  • 500 miles (131.38mph) 137.72mph
  • 1000 Miles (120.62mph) 138.55mph
  • 3 hours (132.62mph) 139.38mph
  • 6 hours (132.13mph) 139.09mph
  • 12 hours (118.13mph) 138.75mph

EX181

International Class E (1501cc to 2000cc)

  • 1km (185.41mph) 254.91mph
  • 1 mile (180.50mph) 254.33mph
  • 5km (170.52mph) 232.97mph
  • 5 miles (140.17mph) 238.36mph
  • 10km (140.07mph) 234.49mph
  • 10 miles (138.34mph) 191.03mph

They’re still with us

The historians among you will be happy to know that EX135, EX179 and EX181 are intact, and well cared for at the British Motor Museum. The last and greatest, EX181, looks like it could be taken straight out to Utah and relive its past triumphs.

Keith Adams

3 Comments

  1. “Why go record breaking at all?” Human nature? Animal nature? The alpha male instinct? All the contents of this article were totally new to me. Thank you, Keith.

  2. Quite by chance we are here at Gaydon and just looking at the beast. Fabulous BMC/BL day, but our Austin Counties Car Club has pride of place right outside the entrance. Gorgeous selection of Somersets, Devons, A40 Sports and Atlantics etc.

  3. MG heritage: not a lot of people know this: you can now buy a drink in Cecil Kimber’s house; which has been converted into a pub, called the Boundary House. The admin’ block still stands (converted to flats). So does part of the factory; with a sign describing the occupiers as “a jewel in the crown of British manufacturing”. That brought a lump to my throat. The railway branch line which took cars out for export is now a footpath, albeit rather rough and hard to follow.

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