Abingdon in the 1930s, Part I

In these days of mass produced automobiles, using more and more robots, and fewer and fewer human beings, have you ever thought what it was like in the early days of sports car production? What sort of people put your dinosaur of a British car together? Well, come with us back to the 1930s (when your scribe was still in diapers), and meet a gentleman who actually worked at the MG Car Company in those days when building cars was still new and exciting! Sam Bennett tells the story of those early days in Abingdon…

I was born on February 11th 1908 in Horwich, Lancashire, England, and my school days came to an end at the age of 14 years. I then commenced work at the Lancashire & Yorkshire-Railway Company’s locomotive works in my home town. After serving a seven-year apprenticeship, at 17/66 ($2.50) per week, by the age of 21, I was a time served finer on the heady wages of £3.12 ($14.50) per week. I was then given a trade apprentice to look after, but due to the trade depression in the ’30s, when you had served your apprenticeship, you got the sack, and were put on the dole.

In the year of 1932, I went to live in Wheatley, Oxfordshire, and noticed a job on the board at the labor exchange which read Filler/Assembler Wanted. Not knowing what the job entailed, I was directed to the M.C. Works in Abingdon where I was interviewed by Mr. George Propert, General Manager of the works.

He asked me what I could do, and being honest, I told him I was a locomotive fitter from Lancashire. After some discussion, he said there was no reason why I couldn’t adapt myself to the class of work he had in mind. He said, “I’m not putting you on the assembly line. I propose to put you in the reject department, when can you start?” Finding a job promoted my utmost enthusiasm and I eagerly replied, “Right now!”

However, it was agreed that as the time was already 2:30 p.m., I would start the following day. The next morning, I reported promptly at 8:30 a.m. to Mr. George Morris in his little office situated in the middle of the shop. I was put to work in a small bay next to a man called Jack Ratcliffe, a reserved sort of chap, a little older than myself, but a man to whom I afforded the greatest respect. We were required to wear white coveralls, for which you were measured, and then five shillings was deducted from your wages the first week and the 2/6d (50¢) for each of the following two weeks to pay for the overalls.

We also had to purchase our own tools, usually Britool, and of course there were no such things as ring spanners in those days, we just had Whitworth open-ended spanners. There was, however, one type of ring spanner which you had to buy from the MG Car Co., and which had the MG logo stamped on it. This was for torquing the J2 cylinder head, without removing the camshaft from its bearings, a very thin spanner-cranked long enough to give you near enough the correct torque.

You were also issued with six brass checks when you started at MG, small discs with your works number stamped on them. These were passed over to the storekeeper when you needed anything in the way of special tools. If you required a flywheel extractor, a hub extractor, a ball race remover, or even a special file, you had to hand over a disc for each item. The discs were then pinned on a huge shadow board upon which the outline of the tool which had been borrowed was depicted. By this means they could see who had got what and who was currently responsible for a particular item of equipment.

At this time, the works were only about 150 yards square. As you passed down a slight incline onto the shop floor, you turned right past Mr. Propert’s office, then past the racing engine shop. Inside was the engine test bed, next to the tool room and the machine shop. Here the foreman was a chap by the name of Mr. Stevens, but I soon discovered that you had a hard job to even get into his domain. He ran the place on very private lines, and you were lucky to get in to even sharpen a chisel or a screwdriver on one of his grindstones. In another corner were the rollers on which the car you were testing could be reversed onto. Prior to this, you had to fill the radiator and lead the exhaust out through a pipe, via means of a hole in the workshop wall.

Once on the rollers, you were able to check all the instruments, miles per hour, rpm, etc., for the reject cars that were to be rectified. The cars arrived without their bodies, across from George Morris’s office (which was about the size of a bus shelter) having had their first run out on the test route. They were then placed by your bench with only chain and blocks. No inspection pits in those days to lift the front of the cars, which, at that time, were MG J2s.

The body for was a crude wooden box which each individual tester made for himself. This was rested on the bare chassis, with the electrical wiring fixed to the bonnet stay. On the car would be a yellow card completed by the tester and noting defects and other items requiring rectification: “Pull down cylinder head, adjust tappets, check tecalemit system, adjust brakes, adjust clutch toggles, noisy timing wheels on top or bottom, rear axle noisy on drive, or overrun.” All these and more passed through the shop.

For wheels and brakes, we would drive the car onto the brake-testing machine, with each wheel resting between the rollers. When the rollers were switched on, they would drive the car’s wheels. With the handbrake pulled on, you could check the dials situated above the rollers and the brake efficiency for each wheel, which were then adjusted. Coming off the rollers, you would pass onto two steel balance plates set into the floor, and which faced a large dial with two fingers. This would indicate to you whether the track was in or out.

There was a tremendous atmosphere at the MG factory. Everybody was willing to help each other and we had no aggravation whatsoever. It was not uncommon for one of the worker’s wives to walk into the factory to see her husband, and perhaps say, “Your dinner is in the oven,” or, “Your mother-in-law has arrived to stay.” Most of the workers at Abingdon came from the surrounding countryside, which was very rural at that time, and they had never worked in heavy industry before (like I previously had on the railway). They were grateful to be employed at MG and this contributed to the family atmosphere I have referred to.

Incidentally, we always kept our swimming costumes in our lockers, and on warm days, before we had lunch, we used to hop across the road and swim in the River Oak, from whence today’s Oak Street in Abingdon gets its name. Holidays were taken as and when, but usually the factory closed on the last week in August and the first week in September. While they eased up the production line, the service department remained open, so that owners could bring their cars in to be serviced during their annual holiday.

At that time, the wages at MG weren’t so bad—about l/8d (35¢) per hour as I recall—and there were a few perks of the job. Quite a few of us bad motorcycles and both Cyril Brown (who worked with me on rejects) and myself had “Ariel Square Fours.” Very few of the workers, by the way, had a car, although they were working on them all day. At MG we paid about 1/6d (30¢) a gallon for petrol and 8 l/2d a pint for oil, but to get these prices, you had to produce a note signed by your supervisor, and if you weren’t doing a good job, or had been late for work, no note was forthcoming.

by Sam Bennett

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