Export or Die

The first car I ever sat in may have been an MG. However, I can say with complete confidence that the first car I ever saw was an MG—an MG TA back in 1938, when my father took me to the Abingdon Works on a British bank holiday. The factory was open so that families of the employees could enjoy their annual summer party.

My father, not to mention a few other relatives, worked either for MG or the Morris Motors Group, which in 1938 was the only name in town if you lived in or around the university city of Oxford. I have somewhere a black and white snapshot of a very small boy…me…beside a very large MG TA!

A few years later, I was doing my National Service (“draft” to you Yanks!) in the R.A.F., and in order to supplement my income from the Royal Paymaster, I would join the ranks of the temporary/permanent ferry crew, whose job it was to drive new MG TDs from Abingdon, near Oxford, to Southampton, the international port of departure for America. At that time, the motto throughout war-torn Britain was “export or die,” and the MG Car Company was certainly in the forefront of export activity.

The company did not wish to use trained personnel to drive these export cars to the Southampton docks, a distance of about 80 miles, so this casual, “no questions asked providing you had a driving license” policy was adopted every time there was a deadline to meet in terms of filling the empty space on a transatlantic freighter.

Because I could get a weekend pass on a fairly regular basis, and I still had a few relatives scattered around the Morris empire, I became a member of the semi-regular casual ferry crew who were given 10 bob (2 dollars in 1950 exchange rates) to cover expenses and sent off with just enough petrol (sorry, gas!) to get them to Southampton Docks. Petrol was severely rationed at this time, and every spoonful had to be accounted for!

The money was to enable us to buy a rail ticket back to Oxford Central Station, where a bus would be waiting to take us back to Abingdon for another delivery trip. On average, you could do two trips a day and make about eight dollars at the current exchange rate. However, if you tucked the trade (dealer) plates under your arm and stood at the roadside out of Southampton, you could usually thumb a lift back to somewhere near Oxford from a friendly lorry driver. This enabled you to pocket the 10 bob and boost your economic status by about 60 percent!

As I said earlier, the TDs we drove only had just enough gas to get us to our destination, and furthermore, we were under strict orders that we must not exceed a speed limit of 40 mph, so that the engines were not placed under any undue stress before they reached their new owners in the U.S. or wherever. So with a limited amount of fuel, and a speed limit that matched that requirement, we had to watch how fast we went. At the same time, we couldn’t just crawl along and put excess strain on the engine, so the ferrying exercise took more than a touch of skillful driving, coupled with the ability to judge how much gas could be saved for the 15-mile “open” strip that was located about halfway between the point of departure and the destination, Southampton. This was a three-lane suicide section of the highway that had been built sometime between the wars, when planners imagined that if you gave motorists a central lane to overtake, they would take turns in utilizing this feature! In reality, what happened was that everyone traveling either direction simply used the center lane as the fast track and usually managed to hit each other in the process!

However, if you were displaying Export Transport Plates, you were usually given a wide berth, as the penalty for hitting one of Britain’s Export Gems was severe! We usually traveled in packs of either three or four cars for economy reasons and safely. For example, if we should break down, run out of gas, or, heaven forbid—hit something—there would be supporting transport ready to head for the nearest phone. In the event, we seldom broke down, sometimes ran out of gas, and it is on record that once (through no fault of our own!) we had been hit by another motorist!

Let me set the picture in vivid color. Three or four young, virile Brits in charge of new sports cars that were not theirs…on an open highway…for 15 miles! There was the guy in front who had been giving you a load of B.S. about his driving ability, coupled with the guy behind, who told everyone at least three times there was nothing on the road that could show him a clean pair of tail lamps. I ask you, what else could you do but set an example of modest achievement by beating the you-know-what out of them as soon as you hit the open road? As a consequence, the very new engine, not to mention the gearbox and all the other running equipment, got a very good test in their first 100 miles of use!

However, the vast majority of cars exported survived to bring joy and happiness to their American owners for many years. Others spent time in and out of the American dealers’ service departments with strange problems that no one could analyze, while a very small minority broke down well within the warranty period, only to be replaced by Austin-Healeys that had been raced at much greater speeds on their way to the docks!

So, if you were one of those people who purchased an MG TD between 1951-53 and then discovered that it turned out to be a fantastic car in terms of speed and overall performance, you could well owe me a couple of large drinks. Remember, I may have been the guy who introduced YOUR car to the world of competitive speed on the 15-mile highway between its Abingdon birthplace and the New World!

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