Fifty Years and Counting

20th April 2020

Few, if any, marques have generated such enthusiasm, loyalty, and sheer pleasure of ownership as MG. It’s a truly special marque. And, few couples can have owned, cherished, and regularly used, their MGs for as long as John and Donna Beesley have.

Sporting Choice

John, a long-time member of the MGCC (he joined in 1968), bought SGO 27, a 1938 MG TA, in 1968, when he was very young. Just 18 years-old, in fact. Not only that, said TA was purchased using funds that Donna, his girlfriend, thought that John had earmarked for their not-too-distant wedding.

Of course, the purchase of the TA could well have derailed the planned nuptials. Fortunately though, as well as having fallen for John’s charms, Donna quickly fell for the delights of the two-seater MG and the wedding plans were soon back on track. Mind you, had it not been for MG’s sporting heritage – and the appeal of two-seat, open-top motoring – those funds could just have easily been spent on a Riley RM.

“I really liked the Riley RM Series, and still do,” John admits. “Nevertheless, being a young man, I was particularly drawn to the idea of a two-seater MG. But I was in teacher training college at the time, and somewhat short of funds, which meant that the younger TD and TF models were out of my price range. However there were plenty of TCs advertised between £150 and £200. The TC certainly appealed, although, having looked at all of the variants, I was particularly drawn to the TA, with its ‘narrow-winged’ rear styling.”

Not just drawn to its looks, John became so smitten he went on the hunt and tracked down SGO 27, a 1938 TA. “I bought it from a chap in Coulsdon,” recalls John. “It was advertised in the Exchange & Mart. The owner wanted £200, but I managed to get him to accept £170.

“Interestingly, like most T types back then, it had been the subject of some modifications, including 16in rear wheels, a black plastic covering on the dash, and sidelights that were of VW origin. It had also been fitted with an XPAG engine, which was a very common swap at the time.

“I’ve since put the TA back to near original… with the exception of the 16in rear wheels and engine. Indeed, it was the XPAG that was a major factor in my decision to buy, due to it being more robust, as well as being an engine that responded to traditional tuning methods such as gas-flowing and bigger carburettors, etc.

“Intriguingly, the paperwork stated that SGO 27 had been registered in 1955 which, for a 1938 car, was a bit odd. This prompted me to investigate and I discovered that it had previously been given a German registration. I subsequently spotted that the chassis plate had additional information overstamped in German. Further research revealed that my TA had been built as an export model and sent to Germany from new. MG exported a lot of cars to Germany pre-war.”

Fast Forward

SGO 27, domiciled in the UK since 1955, became John and Donna’s daily driver. What’s more, as John had envisioned, the trusty XPAG engine was soon the subject of a number of upgrades, many of which came about thanks to John’s association, and friendship, with Gerry Brown of T-Type racing fame.

“I’d qualified by this time and had taken up a post teaching Design and Technology in Hemel Hempstead,” recalls John. “We’d moved house, too. As it transpired, Gerry Brown was a near neighbour. With our shared MG interests, we soon became friends, and during the school holidays he used the machines in my home workshop to develop some demon modifications for his racing TC. He gave me lots of great advice and tips. Naturally, every modification he devised for his TC, I carefully machined the same ones for my TA, with very useful results!”

Very useful indeed, and John and Donna continued to use the reinvigorated TA as their daily driver. Which was absolutely fine when there were just the two of them… but, not long after, they welcomed the arrival of the first child, Tim.

New Arrivals

Typically, the arrival of a first child is normally a time when a man shrugs off the mantle of youthful impetuousness, steps up in terms of maturity, and bids goodbye to his sports car.

Well, there is no questioning the fact that John certainly stepped up to the mark. Yet, rather than parting with the TA, he kept it, albeit with Donna’s blessing. “It made sense to keep the TA,” mentions Donna, smiling. “We’d had so much fun with it, and we both appreciated that it would be useful to have the use of a second car. Keeping the TA wasn’t really an issue, yet finding an affordable, interesting and practical family car certainly was.”

John and Donna perused the pages of Exchange & Mart on a regular basis. Without much luck. All that was seemingly on offer was the mass-produced and the mundane. Nothing tickled their fancy. Then fate stepped in and presented John and Donna with a saloon-shaped solution … one that just so happened to sport an Octagon badge.

“One Sunday morning, and rather unexpectedly, an acquaintance of ours turned up,” recalls John. “He’d been visiting the local scrapyard. Whilst there, he spotted a Magnette which was waiting in a queue to be taken in for scrap. It belonged to two lads who’d planned to take it banger racing. Apparently, the lads’ father, who’d got wind of their intentions, stepped in and curtailed their plans and ordered them to scrap the car instead. Anyway, this acquaintance of ours reckoned that the Magnette deserved a better fate than to end its days in the jaws of a crusher. So he offered the lads £20, which they gladly accepted.

“However, having bought the Magnette, he wasn’t really planning on keeping it, but he knew of my MG interests. Which explains his visit. Donna thought it would be an ideal family car. So did I. A deal was struck, £25 changed hands, and we became the proud owners of RRK 579, a 1957 Magnette ZB with just 82,000 miles on its odometer.

“Although obviously a runner, it needed some mechanical TLC and, more importantly, some bodywork repairs. Thankfully, Eddie Edwards, the Magnette Register spares guy, had galvanized sills in stock. Before long we’d had the sills replaced, floors repaired, I’d done the mechanical work, and the Magnette was soon the proud owner of a fresh MOT.”

Up and running, and in daily use, the Magnette represented money well spent and, despite the heavy steering, Donna revelled in its excellent handling and lively performance. John, who also thoroughly enjoyed driving the Magnette, was keen to unearth its history, and began scrutinising the log book.

“I noticed that the previous owner happened to live in the next town. Looking in the phone book, I was able to track him down, and I arranged a visit,” remembers John, fondly. “A friendly old man, and former bank manager, he was delighted to learn that his car was safe in the hands of an enthusiast. Apparently, he had reluctantly let the young lads take it for what he knew to be certain destruction.

“He not only chatted about the car at some length, he handed over a full box of every bill, and service history records. These revealed that in addition to the annual services, it had been treated to three new clutches and two rear axle oil seals. He also gave us all the handbooks and owner’s paraphernalia that comes with a new car!”

Due Consideration

Despite the sill and floor repairs, more corrosion was soon making itself evident elsewhere on the car, not to mention a slipping clutch. What with this, and another MOT looming, John took the decision to take the Magnette off the road.

“This was 1976, and we now had a second son, Nick,” tells John. “Although we weren’t prepared to part with the Magnette, I came to the realisation that I simply didn’t have the time to devote to it. Needing a car quickly, we had a look around for a suitable replacement and found a Morris Traveller. It was, dare I say, a bit easier to drive and rather more practical.

“With the Traveller doing the daily driver duties, I stored the Magnette in a friend’s garage, having first pledged to Donna that one day I’d restore it. In fact, having chatted Magnette body repair with Lou Shorten, at MG Silverstone in 1976, I’d already started planning the Magnette’s restoration.”

John may well have planned the Magnette’s restoration, and fully intended to do it. Nevertheless, with family and career commitments, house moves, helping restore a steam locomotive, building and racing hovercraft, constructing garages and an extension, and many other mitigating factors, he couldn’t commit to such a project for another three decades or so. The upshot being that between 1976 and 1992, the Magnette led a rather itinerant life, moving from one friend’s garage to another. Then, shock horror, it was sold!

Return to Sender

“It was dawning on me that I was never going to find the time to restore the Magnette,” confesses John. “So, I sold it to a chap in Grimsby. He paid me £1,000. This price included a good number of spares. He actually worked for a restoration company and it was his intention to restore the Magnette. Even so, we really didn’t want to part with it.

“Feeling rather emotional, just as he was about to leave, I said that if, for any reason, he didn’t get around to doing the restoration, or got fed up with the Magnette, would he please give me first refusal. He kindly agreed.

“Lo and behold, two years later he rang and asked if I was interested in buying the Magnette back. I was! So was Donna. As soon as possible – just in case he changed his mind – Nick and I travelled to Grimsby and brought the Magnette, and a host of spares, back home. At the time, I was still intent on doing the restoration.”

Promise Kept

Intent on, but still far too busy. Which helps explain why the Magnette spent the period from 1992 to 2006 lying dormant. Except, on this occasion, it resided in a disused chicken shed instead of a friend’s garage. Thankfully, in 2006, with retirement looming, John was able to spare enough time to remove the Magnette from its roost and start the long-awaited and much-promised restoration, a restoration that would gather even more pace in 2008, the year in which John bid goodbye to the classroom and retired.

“At last, I had the time to devote to the Magnette’s restoration and make good on the promise I made to Donna all those years ago,” says John, smiling. “I even rang Lou Shorten. Lou not only remembered meeting me at Silverstone, she reprimanded me by saying that she’d been waiting for me to call for many, many years!

“It was a real experience dealing with Lou, who’s sadly no longer with us. She had such an intimate and extensive knowledge of the Magnette. Luckily, the parts developed by Lou are still available via the MGCC’s Magnette Register Historian, Peter Martin.

“I began the restoration by stripping the bodyshell bare and then had it dipped and phosphate-coated at SPL in Dudley. Subsequent to this, I took it to John Shorten, Magnette guru and manufacturer of Magnette body panels, who repaired the bodyshell to as good as new, retaining as much of the original bodywork as practical, and the car was expertly repainted, locally, in its original Smoke Grey.

“With the structural work completed, and paintwork done, I could begin the reassembly, a job that was made much easier due to the fact that I’d purchased a car roller. It beats lying on a cold workshop floor any day. Highly recommended!”

Local Knowledge

Although John went through the Magnette’s mechanicals with the proverbial fine tooth comb and, where practicable, refurbished rather than replaced, he didn’t elect to rebuild the B-series engine. And with good reason. As alluded to, one of his neighbours (and a good friend) is Gerry Brown.

“Gerry‘s forte is building and tuning engines, MG engines being a speciality,” says John. “As I’ve mentioned, he previously helped me with the XPAG in the TA. Although I can rebuild an engine, I decided to take the Magnette engine, a five-bearing MGB unit, that I’d previously acquired, to him. Not because I wanted it tuned as such, although it was in fact mildly tuned, but because I’d seen the meticulous way he worked.

“On the rolling road it produced just over 100bhp at the wheels, which makes for a quick Magnette. It’s very tractable, too. Even though I’ve made a few changes to the Magnette’s specification, I’m keen to keep everything looking original, so I’ve detailed the underbonnet area so that it looks, as near possible, factory original. The engine is mated to a five-speed Type nine gearbox. Again, looking inside the car you wouldn’t know. I’ve also fitted an uprated front anti-roll bar, supplied by the Magnette Register.

“It was always a great driving car, but it’s so much better with the five-speed gearbox and uprated anti-roll bar.”

In for the Long Haul

Considering that the Magnette spent a lot of its former life in stasis, by contrast, the past few years have been very active ones. Adventurous too.

“We’ve done a number of MGCC events and trips,” enthuses Donna. “Some have been trips abroad, including the MGCC European Magnette event in Southern Germany. The Magnette performed faultlessly. It’s a comfy car to cover long distances and it can certainly keep up with modern traffic as it will cruise all day at motorway speeds. Plus, it’s very practical, easy to get into, and can accommodate a lot of luggage.

“The only downside with a classic such as the Magnette is that on a hot day it can get very warm inside. The front quarter lights help, and John has installed a layer of wool insulation above the headlining, which stabilises the temperature and helps a bit. This was a tip that was shared by one of the Australian MGCC members and a fellow Magnette owner.”

The Magnette is certainly doing the lion’s share of the Beesley’s classic motoring. That’s not to say the TA has been mothballed. Far from it, in fact. The two are almost umbilically linked and often appear at local shows together.

“Buying the Magnette in the early seventies enabled me to take the TA off the road and strip it down to its chassis and overhaul everything,” elaborates John. “I did this, when I could find the time, over a four-year period. Those years were the only ones when the car was inactive. From the mid-seventies onwards it’s been in regular use and has been to most of the MGLive! events.

“It still runs very well, too, although because of the amount of use and miles covered, I don’t think it bears close scrutiny, especially when I take it to shows where there are lots of stunning concours cars in evidence. That said, at one show, we were about to leave when an official came up and stopped us. To our surprise, he informed us that the TA had won a cup for the ‘Most Loved, Least Polished.’ We appreciate that it has its own special charm, but it’s good to know that it’s also appreciated by others. This adds to the enjoyment of ownership.

“As does being part of the MGCC, and its T-Type Register and Magnette Register. This has been such good fun, and so beneficial, and long may it continue. The Club is like a big family. Donna and I are proud to have been members of the Club for such a long time and were thrilled to be invited to Abingdon to celebrate 50 years of membership. The icing on the cake, really.”

Words by Martyn Morgan Jones and Photos by Gez Hughes