At first glance there are plenty of similarities with the two cars pictured here. Obviously they both wear similar “war paint”. Both are powered by fairly “hot” 1275cc A-series engines and both reside in the suburbs of Brisbane, within only a few blocks of each other.
Both cars were absolute legends in their day, but their histories, while related, are vastly different. They are more like cousins than brothers, but when parked together or competing at historic race meetings attract many admirers.
However, uncovering the full story, particularly on the Midget, has been very difficult. Not the least because the cars were famous nearly 50 years ago and people’s memories differ, especially on minor detail points on who did what and when. A lot of people were involved with building and running the Midget, and this complicates things a bit.
12 Hours at Surfers
September 3, 1967. Surfers Paradise played host to the second running of the Rothmans 12-Hour Sportscar Race – billed at the time as the longest endurance race in Australia.
BMC Australia had entered its lightweight Mini (NOT the car pictured here, but more on that later) driven by Bob Holden and Don Holland.
Almost at the eleventh hour, BMC Competitions Manager Alan Kemp decided to enter another car: a lightweight racing MG Midget, mainly to promote the soon for Australia road version.
Drivers chosen were Brian Foley and John French – a logical pairing because they had driven the lightweight Mini in the previous year’s event, finishing sixth overall.
The Midget was built, virtually from scratch, in three weeks and arrived, untested, at Surfers Paradise late on Friday. A few practice laps on Saturday saw some tweaks, but otherwise the car was looking very promising. According to Racing Car News; “Alan Kemp appeared quite pleased with his little special…The car was quickly sorted, and consistent lap times around 1:25 for both drivers augured well for the coming marathon.”
That time was good enough for fourth place on the grid, and four places higher than the Mini (at 1:29.7), but because of its late arrival the Midget had not actually set a qualifying time and had to start from the back of the grid.
The race featured a Le Mans type start, and John French got cracking. He was in the lead pack as he crossed the start-finish line level with the eventual winning Ferrari. Just for fun, there was a Dymo label message stuck to the top of the Midget’s dashboard, which read; “Please sound horn when passing Ferrari.” But there wasn’t much likelihood for the horn getting any use, with the Ferrari lapping around ten seconds faster than the Midget.
French soon settled into sixth place, but a broken fuel line early on caused the loss of a lap. Another stop caused by a broken rocker shaft, saw the Midget slip further down, but French charged back through the field. By 1pm he was in fourth place, three laps ahead of the next competitor.
He got two lucky breaks in succession in the fourth hour, when the leading Porsche Spyder slid off the track, into Armco, and the third-placed Lola T70 had to pit with overheating problems.
The Midget was suddenly in second place outright. RCN continued: “Foley took over the MG Midget at 1.35 (PM) after a quick brake check, and the car, despite its hasty preparation, was running splendidly and seemed set for a high placing.”
Coming up to 4pm and the half-way point of the race, the Midget suddenly lost oil pressure and headed into the pits. The problem was diagnosed to the failure of the oil scavenger pump in the dry-sump system. The engine was quickly converted to wet-sump and the car sent out again, but the damage had been done and Foley brought the car back into the pits, officially retiring at 4.20pm.
Apparently a small roll pin in the scavenger pump drive had sheered. The pump itself hadn’t seized, as reported. It was a minor problem that caused a major catastrophe in the engine.
The Mini continued on and finished a very credible fifth outright and second in class.
Although it had retired, the Midget had shown its potential and was ahead of much more favoured cars, including Porsche, Lola, Lotus, MGB, Cobra, TVR and others.
Midget For Australia
Although released in the UK in June 1961, effectively an up-market version of the Mk2 Austin-Healey Sprite (released one month earlier), the MG Midget was not available in Australia before 1968.
Unlike its parent, BMC Australia saw no economic sense in trying to sell two almost identical cars under different brand names. As the original “Bugeye” Sprite had been assembled from kit form at Pressed Metal Corporation in Enfield since 1959, PMC continued to build the Mk2 as soon as it was available.
BMC (or Leyland), which already had a 30% stake, bought Pressed Metal Corp outright in early 1968 and transferred all sports car assembly to Zetland.
As this more or less coincided with the release of the 1275cc-engined Mk4 Sprite and Mk3 Midget, the decision was taken to only produce the MG version, alongside the MGB.
Thus, all Sprites assembled in Australia came from the Enfield factory, while all but the very earliest Aussie Midgets were assembled at Zetland.
The Lightweight Midget
Privateer Sprites had been competing successfully in Australia since they had first arrived in the country, so it was no surprise that the Competition Department at Zetland felt that a factory-prepared car could be at least as successful.
A box of special Competition parts duly arrived from Abingdon. Included were numerous aluminium panels, a dry-sumped competition engine and close -ratio gearbox, adjustable competition shock absorbers and a set of knock-on Minilite magnesium alloy wheels.
It is a common belief that Brian Foley brought the parts back from the UK on BMC’s behalf. Foley certainly made numerous trips to the UK and brought back parts for his Minis, but says he has no recollection at all of organizing parts for the Midget. Alan Kemp, Terry Douglas and John Cotter believe the parts came directly from Abingdon, and Kemp believes it was probably Evan Green who organised it.
It is not clear where the chassis came from, but it seems that it was not part of the pack from the UK.
Terry Douglas and John Cotter were the two mechanics responsible for building the car. The chassis was probably a former press test car (which would mean an earlier model Sprite) that had been sitting around for some time – possibly waiting for the UK parts to arrive.
“It was a very basic car”, Cotter recalls. “We built it from a bare chassis…minus all the guards…with the rails out the front. It was the firewall, floorpan and boot type of thing. No rear guards on it at all.”
Looking at the one photo that exists of the car under construction it is clear that the aluminium panels included at least the front guards, the front panels and the bonnet shut panel. Photos of the car today show the holes in the inner front and rear guards have been pressed, rather than drilled like many other panels on the car, so it is likely these came from Abingdon as well.
The doors were flimsy, single-skin aluminium with a box section frame.
The engine appears to have been built to Group Two specs in the UK, bored out to 1310cc or 1330cc, with, according to Sports Car Word magazine; “Cooper S type bottom end and head, 12 to 1 compression and the factory rally cam – No 648.”
The decision to enter the car in the 12-Hour came only three weeks before the race, meaning a marathon effort just to get the car built. “It was bedlam”, Cotter remembers. “One night I slept in the storeroom of the Competition Department, on a pile of rags, because we finished at 4 o’clock in the morning.”
If you would like to read the rest of this story, grab a copy of the magazine from your local newsagent (in Australia) or subscribe on-line today.
The BMC Experience Issue 7. Oct-Nov 2013 Magazine
All back issues of The BMC Experience are now available in digital format from www.pocketmags.com.