Towards the end of 1961, a rumour began to circulate around Abingdon the some of the MG Development Department cars might come up for sale. This was unusual, for a company rule dictated that Syd Enever's various weirdies normally had to be broken up. -- being too non-standard to pass into private hands -- when experimental work on them ended. Those of us who longed to own a fairly modern MG, but couldn't afford one in the normal way, pricked up our ears. We knew that John Thornley's amiable policy in such cases was 'Charity begins at home'.
Eventually it was confirmed that three MGA roadsters -- one red, one black and one blue -- were to be sold -- the department's attention having been switched to the new MGB roadster to be announced in the following year's London Motor Show. The first two cars were so old and had been the subject of so many experiments (including several types of independent rear suspension) that the original frames were to be replaced by complete MGA 1600 MK II rolling chassis off the production line, although both would retain their EX-prefix chassis numbers. Also they would both have to be registered before they were sold, having previously run on trade plates. This meant they would in many ways be virtually brand-new MGAs, with brand-new 1961 registration numbers, but available at a knockdown price because of their ancient body shells dated back to goodness knows when in MGA history, there were various mysterious patched-up holes relating to their previous career, and their book value was almost rock bottom.
The blue car had a slightly different history, having originally been registered (as ORX 885) in January 1958 as one of several pre-production vehicles related to the forthcoming MGA Twin Cam, finally unveiled to the public some six months later. Development of the Twin Cam had been a slow business, starting as early as 1955 when an experimental engine was used in one of the three works MGAs entered for the Ulster TT at Dunford. A completely new Austin-designed dohc engine had briefly been considered, and a very promising engine it was, but it was abandoned as being too expensive to put into production: the choice was instead to a Morris conversion of the existing BMC B-series unit. We now know that the Austin Twin Cam would probably have been a wiser choice, penny-pinching having left the Morris version with a certain built-in fragility that was to become all too obvious later on. However, it seemed pretty good at the time,
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performing well in Abingdon's EX-179 record car in Utah in 1956 and again -- supercharged, on this occasion -- in the EX-181 mid-engined record car driven by Sterling Moss in 1957.
ORX 885 had spent part of its early life with Dunlop as a test vehicle for their all-round disc brakes and the novel centrelock pressed steel wheels which MG planned to have as part of the Twin Cam model's uprated specification. It had also been used by BMC's own Engines Branch at Coventry in connection with their work on the dohc engine. As put up for sale, however, ORX 885 had an ordinary 1622cc pushrod engine of current production type, making it officially an MGA MK II De Luxe, like the cars we built to dispose of unused Twin Cam chassis after the dohc model was discontinued.
The three Abingdon employees interested in the three MGAs were John Sharp, and Tom Haig, both of Development Department, and myself. John was keen to start racing, so he particularly fancied the ORX with its all-round disc brakes. Tom had given up racing, so he didn't much mind which car he had, so long as the price was right. I already had the use of a friend's car for racing, so as I was looking for a road car I preferred the Lockheed set-up of disc front and drum rear brakes. The black car was a lot scruffier than the red one -- so much scruffier, indeed, that it would have to be repainted, giving me the chance to try some bodywork mods I had in mind.
Offered first chance, I plumped for the black one. John and Tom tossed a coin over the remaining cars, and when John won he naturally chose ORX. Tom's car was registered YRX 982, and mine was YRX 983. Mine was never used on the track, but Tom generously loaned his to Henry Stone's 17-year-old son Don for his first season of club racing.
John Sharp's first race with ORX 885 was at the MG Car Club's May 1962 Silverstone meeting, where, still getting the feel of things, he won no awards. At the same meeting I was driving VPO 320, my borrowed MGA 1500, which went quicker than ever before -- and broke its crankshaft three weeks later, on the way to its next Silverstone race. I scrounged and MGB engine from Syd Enever and fitted this for the Sic Hour Relay Race in August, but it ran several bottom-end bearings during practice -- exactly the fate that was to befall the works MGBs at their Sebring debut the following year. According to John Sharp, I borrowed ORX 885 for the
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Six Hours and retired with a dropped valve, but I have a total Freudian block about this -- not surprisingly if I blew up three engines in less than three months ... VPO 320 was fitted with the engine from the ex-Pat Moss Riley 1.5 I had earlier bought from the Competitions Department, and I suggested to Syd Enever the he should let John try his luck with the MGB engine.
The first full season that John had with ORX 885 was 1963 -- and what a season that was! He ran in ten sprint meetings, three hill climbs, 15 Restricted and three National race meetings between early March and mid-November, invariably driving to and from the events on the road, and even carrying camping equipment for himself and his wife, Mary, when he raced in two Irish events during the summer. Not once was John beaten by another MG of any type, and the MGB engined car always set a faster lap or class time than any MGA had previously done on the same course. Class awards included eight first places, three seconds, six thirds, four fourths, and three fifths.
Obviously ORX 885 was a very quick car, always well prepared, and with a drive of considerable natural ability. But in 1964 the MGB-powered MGA was no longer homologated. With great reluctance, John sold it. Although the ex-works MGB that took its place gave him another successful season -- he missed the 1964 Freddie Division Trophy by a single point because his clutch failed in the penultimate race of the series -- it just wasn't as quick as the MGA had been.
The MGA went to Norman Lefton, who had previously raced and ex-John Gott Twin Cam in MGOC and other events, but he had an engine blow-up and sold the car not long afterwards. Later it was owned by someone in Staffordshire, and records show that in 1969 it was painted in BRG -- the change to 1800cc capacity being belatedly made official at this time! In the early Seventies Ken Tugwell bought the car and sold the MGB engine, which he replaced by a Twin Cam unit. For 12 years he ran ORX 885 in many MGOC speed events, before selling it to that ultra-enthusiastic MG racer and collector, Collin Pearcy, who had the car completely dismantled and rebuilt, using a good deal of light alloy paneling. Now painted Chariot Red, it has become a familiar sight once again in club racing, sometimes with a full-race Twin Cam engine and sometimes with a three-bearing MGB unit. Even though he is now about to race his newly-acquired Sebring MGC, Colin has no plans to sell the MGA, having completely fallen for its delightful handling and performance.