MG J4: Abingdon’s giant killer

| 13 Nov 2020
Classic & Sports Car – MG J4: Abingdon’s giant killer

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Post The Great Depression, the year 1932 was economically bleak and not the best time to launch a new sports car.

But Cecil Kimber, the genius behind the MG marque, had other ideas with the cheery J-type.

The design and flair of this new model were a major leap forward from the vintage-style, fabric-bodied M-type, which had launched the company with more than 3000 sales and impressive competition success.

Racing improves the breed, and lessons learned from the M-type fed through to the J-type.

Classic & Sports Car – MG J4: Abingdon’s giant killer

Visually, the J-type looked the part. Gone were influences of French voiturettes with their bolt-on wheels, short bonnets, vee ’screens and deep chassis valances.

The new model looked distinctively English, and its fresh Le Mans style cast the mould for a new era of great MGs: long bonnet, cut-away door sides, cycle wings and a 12-gallon slab tank with spare wheel strapped behind on a triangulated metal clamp.

The shapely scuttle wind scoops – no doubt inspired by the work of aristocratic racer/designer Freddie March – fold-flat windscreen, quick-release filler caps, slimmer radiator and Rudge-Whitworth wire wheels just looked so right.

Only the skimpy 8in-diameter brakes and narrow 19in tyres restrained its sporty style, but at £199 10s it was a seductive package.

Rivals including Singer, Wolseley, HRG and Aston Martin quickly copied the new look.

Classic & Sports Car – MG J4: Abingdon’s giant killer

The 847cc ‘four’ owed much to the vintage Midget and retained the two-bearing crankshaft but with a new crossflow head with staggered inlet and exhaust valves, which when fitted with twin semi-downdraught SU carburettors produced 36bhp at 5500rpm and a fruity exhaust rasp.

The new lightweight four-speed gearbox, with neat central remote-control lever, was a major improvement and, with its very low first gear and 11.5cwt (584kg) weight, it was perfect for motoring trials, rallies and tests. Gordon Murray would surely have approved.

The underslung frame featured refinements for stiffening, including a tubular front engine mount and phosphor-bronze guides for the semi-elliptic springs.

Bulkhead-mounted Tecalemit lubricators kept springs, brake cables and steering serviced. For the boy racer, extras included stone-guards for the lights and radiator.

Classic & Sports Car – MG J4: Abingdon’s giant killer

Despite the economic times the J2 was a great sales success, but Kimber got into trouble after supplying a tweaked J2 to the press.

When owners tried in vain to match the 80mph claims, complainers were offered free tuning at the new Abingdon works to find the extra 8mph.

The nippy and good-looking J2 was a fresh template for the marque, which offered inexpensive yet exciting motoring to more than 2000 buyers.

Only the lack of front-wing valances – and the resultant showers of stones and mud on rough roads –spoiled the fun in the early ’30s; long, sweeping wings were introduced for the final four months of production.

Classic & Sports Car – MG J4: Abingdon’s giant killer

The hottest version was the J4, a toolroom road-racer handmade to special order in MG’s competition department, and which matched the standard model only in style.

The full-race engine was further uprated with a Powerplus No 7 supercharger, while the gearbox was switched to the ENV ‘crash’ C-type change.

The modified chassis featured 12in drum brakes to match the extra power and speed, while a new steering system with split track-rod ends helped alleviate the kickback of the standard J-type.

The bodywork was strengthened by the deletion of opening doors, and the outside exhaust swept over the rear wing to a fishtail silencer.

Classic & Sports Car – MG J4: Abingdon’s giant killer

Later nicknamed the ‘Baby K3’, this fervent voiturette proved a giant-slayer in pre-war sports car races, particularly in the determined hands of Northern Irish ace Hugh Caulfield Hamilton.

The 28-year-old Ulsterman was sensationally quick in the lightweight ‘works’ 746cc J4, as underlined at the Nürburgring on 28 May 1933 for the Eifelrennen.

Entered in the 800cc class at the 12-lap event, which ran simultaneously with the Grand Prix, Hamilton upstaged much faster Bugatti Type 37s and even GP cars to win his class by a staggering 24 minutes at 95.43kph.

These J4s were very special machines that came at a huge extra cost to wealthy young buyers with racing ambitions.

With a price-tag of £495, it’s hardly surprising that just nine were built. Only seven survive today.

Classic & Sports Car – MG J4: Abingdon’s giant killer

When Luis Fontés turned 20 years old on Boxing Day 1932, the studious-looking enthusiast immediately used part of his considerable inheritance to place an order for a J4 through dealership CH Truman & Co.

With the fifth example built, the eager Fontés entered as many events as possible, from sand races to the first club meetings at Donington.

Fontés headed to Ireland for his first big race, which was to deliver the J4’s greatest moment when Hamilton produced a remarkable drive on home turf in the RAC Tourist Trophy on 2 September.

The race had been extended to 478 miles to return the event to its original six-hour concept.

The entry featured eight supercharged J4s, including the local favourite Hamilton and ‘our’ car, driven by Fontés.

Classic & Sports Car – MG J4: Abingdon’s giant killer

Wealthy American Grand Prix driver Whitney Straight had entered an MGK3, but at the last minute his doctor discouraged him from racing and the seat was taken by the legendary Tazio Nuvolari.

The J4s were allowed to run without mudguards, and most were fitted with high cowls and just a single aeroscreen for the driver.

As well as his Nürburgring radiator badge, Hamilton’s J4 carried a bizarre black baby doll mascot strapped to the water filler.

Fontes’ poor luck or over-eagerness dropped him out early: as he reached the top of Mill Hill the MG’s engine cried enough and he retired with a broken connecting rod.

The youngster sat out the race, but what a spectacle he witnessed.

Classic & Sports Car – MG J4: Abingdon’s giant killer

Following a handicap format, the 1083cc Riley of Victor Gillow arrived back first after the opening lap, but just two seconds behind was Hamilton’s J4, lapping at a furious 75mph.

Further back, Nuvolari’s K3 almost matched the bigger Alfa Romeo 8Cs. Hamilton’s pace was sensational, breaking class lap records regularly, and by the end of the first hour he was leading both on the road and on handicap.

Accidents on the challenging road course eliminated several frontrunners including Tom Simister’s J4 at Moate, where he ended up in a field with a very bent car.

Later, through Quarry Corner, Gillow’s over-confident approach ended dramatically and promoted Nuvolari to fourth.

Classic & Sports Car – MG J4: Abingdon’s giant killer
Classic & Sports Car – MG J4: Abingdon’s giant killer

With a pitstop for fuel and tyres, Hamilton’s race went all wrong. Hasty refuelling splashed the nervous riding mechanic’s clothes, and disaster struck when the starter button refused to work.

After he bypassed the switch with a spanner, it arced and set fire to his gloves. Throughout, an exasperated Hamilton became ever more vocal and shouted at the poor man, but it was seven minutes before the J4 got away and Nuvolari was 47 secs ahead on handicap.

With 15 laps to go, a fired-up Hamilton produced the performance of his racing career, reducing the advantage to nine seconds.

The electrifying battle went down to the wire, when Hamilton made a surprise last pitstop, his tank almost dry.

Just one can was splashed in during the rapid 20-second stop before the J4 rasped off with a 15secs handicap advantage over Nuvolari, who was having his own fuel dramas.

Classic & Sports Car – MG J4: Abingdon’s giant killer

After the engine cutout on the penultimate lap Nuvolari was convinced his race was lost, but his mechanic Alec Hounslow, who knew no Italian, switched to the reserve and the K3 burst back into life.

The Flying Mantuan eventually caught the Irishman, passing him on the Newtownards to Comber straight to win by 40 secs.

The winning K3 was so low on petrol it stopped just past the flag and had to be refuelled for the victory lap.

But it was a monumental performance from Hamilton, who pushed the demon little J4 to the limit, carrying staggering speeds through the corners in the chase to set a final 73.46mph average.

Of the eight official finishers, Hamilton’s was the only J4.

Classic & Sports Car – MG J4: Abingdon’s giant killer

Two weeks after the Tourist Trophy, Hamilton towed his J4 across Europe to Czechoslovakia for the Masaryk (now Brno) Grand Prix.

The ‘Tyrone Tiger’ was again the sensation of the wet and windy race, cutting through the pack in challenging conditions.

As others slowed, daunted by the blinding rain and slippery track, Hamilton stormed on and after seven laps passed Guido Landi’s Maserati 4C to take second.

The drenched crowds were on edge as the little MG chased leader Ernst Burggaller ’s Bugatti T51A.

Classic & Sports Car – MG J4: Abingdon’s giant killer

After 10 laps the leaders headed for the pits to refuel, and Hamilton’s crew performed superbly to send the MG out ahead of the Bugatti.

Such was Hamilton’s amazing speed, he even started to catch Luigi Fagioli’s Scuderia Ferrari Grand Prix Alfa Romeo, but his luck ran out when at speed his waterproof cape blew up into his face.

Momentarily blinded, he lost control and the little J4 rolled several times. A battered Hamilton suffered numerous broken ribs.

His talent had impressed Straight, who invited the fiery Ulsterman to race his Maserati 8CM.

Tragically, in the wet 1934 Swiss Grand Prix, the 29-year-old lost his life in a horrific crash on the final lap after hitting a tree almost within sight of the finish line.

Classic & Sports Car – MG J4: Abingdon’s giant killer

Those in the know soon learned how special the J4s were, including hillclimb champion Dennis Poore and privateer sports car racer David Piper, who both owned the ex-Hugh Hamilton J4, chassis 002.

Piper even made the cover of Autosport with his 20-year-old J4 in April 1954.

“It was a greatcar,” recalled Piper to historian Doug Nye.“I absolutely loved it, and had great success with it. One of the best features was its beautiful ENV gearbox with a wonderful change – like a Ferrari GTO. The MG engine was wonderful, a labour of love.”

After his frustrations at the TT, Fontés remained active in J4 chassis 005 between 1933 and ’35 before he acquired an Alfa Monza.

The green MG was also Fontés’ daily transport, and no doubt clocked up hundreds of miles driving to Donington Park and sand races at Southport. He even loaned the car to his friend A Todd for the 1934 Bol d’Or 24-hour race at Montlhéry.

Classic & Sports Car – MG J4: Abingdon’s giant killer

As Fontés became tempted by bigger machinery, with an Invicta Low Chassis joining his stable, the J4 became redundant and in 1936 005 was sold to J Hewson, who replaced the Powerplus supercharger with a Marshall blower to race at Brooklands.

The J4 eventually ended up in Scotland with Valenti Motors in Glasgow where it tempted Gene Alcott, an American pilot who shipped the MG back home after the war.

The J4 moved to the East Coast and was soon back competing with the newly formed Sports Car Club of America.

Pennsylvania-based Otto Linton ran the car in the Junior Grand Prix on the Watkins Glen road circuit, the first post-war road race in the USA, where it lined up with a mass of new MG TCs, Frank Griswold’s Alfa Romeo 8C 2.9 coupé and Briggs Cunningham ’s hot rod Bu-Merc.

Linton eventually retired with no oil pressure but, undeterred, he later braved Langhorne Speedway before selling in 1952.

The MG changed hands several times through the 1950s before Howard Byron put it into storage.

Classic & Sports Car – MG J4: Abingdon’s giant killer

In February 1971, collector Gary Schonwald spotted the J4 in the classifieds of the New York Times and immediately snapped it up, but soon sold it on to Jerry Goguen, one of the best-known MG connoisseurs in America.

The J4 had remained remarkably original over the years, as Goguen discovered when the car was restored by model guru Colin Tieche.

During the rebuild an authentic Powerplus No 8 supercharger was discovered in France.

Since I was kid in the 1960s, watching club racer Geoff Coles’ immaculate and very fast J4s at Silverstone, I’ve had a special admiration for these early MG Midgets.

Former Brooklands racer Coles ran two: the beautifully restored ex-Dennis Mansell car, chassis 004, and the light blue 006, which he continued to race into his 60s.

Watching Coles gun his perfect red J4 through the old Woodcote and beating younger machinery was always a highlight of MG Car Club meetings, but news of his fatal accident at Snetterton in 1974 really shocked me.

Classic & Sports Car – MG J4: Abingdon’s giant killer

Having ogled those rapid J4s at Silverstone, I’ve always longed to drive one and thanks to John Polson that much-anticipated experience didn’t disappoint.

The stronger ENV gearbox with close ratios has a super-slick change, its rapid action a revelation for a pre-war car.

What the junior ‘four’ lacks in low-down punch, it makes up in the higher range and above 4000rpm it really starts to sing, the sharp bark signalling the J4’s approach long before its arrival.

On deserted country roads, when the view is clear and the surface smooth, the J4 comes into its element as you keep the engine in its powerband and carry impressive speed through empty, sweeping bends.

Here, it’s easy to appreciate Hamilton’s remarkable pace against the big guns. The steering is light and direct, which suits the accurate commands the short car demands to maintain a sharper pace.

Through faster corners the chassis feels taut and tidy, if a little nervous on the tall and skinny 4in-wide tyres, but even with the added blower weight up front there’s no hint of understeer.

Classic & Sports Car – MG J4: Abingdon’s giant killer

There are similarities with riding a fast motorbike, the J4 responding best to a neat and precise technique, while the cable-operated brakes require respect at higher speeds.

Snug in the cockpit, you revel in that fast gearchange and the engine’s extra surge at the top end, and the J4 proves to be enormous fun around scenic and flowing Suffolk back-roads.

These routes have surprising connections with early MGs because the Varsity Speed Trial at Branches Park in Newmarket was held just down the road from Polson’s base.

The grand 18th-century house has long since been demolished and the estate looks faded, but the J4’s character remains as vibrant as ever, its supercharged heart ringing out around secluded lanes in the wheeltracks of young graduates.

To drive one back in 1933 as a 20-year-old must have been even more special.

Images: John Bradshaw

Thanks to John Polson of Polson Motor Company; James Gunn at Ecurie Fusil


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