Prewar Perfection: MG Magnette NB-type

Story by David S. Walllens, Photography as Credited

 

You may think you recognize the car pictured here, thanks to its iconic bonnet and sweeping fenders, never mind the octagon on the radiator surround, but you might be surprised: It’s not an MG T-series, or even a P-type. It’s a 1935 MG Magnette NB-type, one of maybe a dozen here in the States.

This particular example, owned by Tom Metcalf and completely rebuilt by Safety Fast Restoration, his MG restoration company, can also boast of being a class winner at both the Amelia Island and Hilton Head concours.

First, it’s very difficult to be invited to these events,” Tom observes. “We are fortunate to have a pretty good track record of doing extremely well, though, and since our quality is a known quantity, it’s much easier.

To actually win a class or even be noticed in an MG is also difficult, and I swear, it cannot be taken seriously,” he says of the experience. “Sometimes a car does very well when it shouldn’t; sometimes it does nothing when it should. But judges are typically pretty astute and well prepared. The vehicle’s background is very important–that story that goes with every car. Racing history is always good, and many MGs and other sports cars have it.

Add in originality–things like true factory colors, documented–correct components, proper stance, field presence, rarity, some wow factor–and certainly what the other cars in the class are–all contribute. Judges will smile and nod with your story, but I’m sure they can sniff out phony crap. I typically have everything in mind I want to talk about,” Tom says, “then totally forget it all and wing it.

And, certainly, a well restored example of a rare car–rarity being somewhat subjective–still requires effort to look perfect on the show field. For those of us who enjoy driving our cars, that’s not always easy, especially [with] English cars that may leak just a bit of oil no matter how many modern seals are installed on a rebuild.”

 

One Percenter

Photograph Courtesy Tim Suddard

Photograph Courtesy Tim Suddard

Tom mentioned a key word: rarity. This car has that in spades, since MG built just 98 copies of the two-seat Magnette NB during its 1935–’36 production run.

Power came from a 1271cc six-cylinder version of the brand’s more common four-cylinder P-type engine. And it’s that inline-six engine that makes these cars so special, Tom explains. “The MG overhead-cam engine has beautiful cross-flow ports, which allows for supercharging to nearly double the power output depending on blower size and speed. These high-revving engines were used up to late 1936, when [they were] replaced in the new T-series with rather pedestrian overhead-valve 1275cc engines.”

Tom had long known there was one of these cars here in the States, although its condition was not prime. A friend of his, Jerry Keuper, had purchased this one in the early ’90s. “It had sat in a field for many years,” Tom adds, “complete with young trees growing up through it.”

After Jerry passed away, Tom purchased the car from the estate. The date was January 3, 2003-the day, he notes, that his beloved Ohio State Buckeyes beat the Miami Hurricanes to take the national championship.

“Jerry stored the rusting hulk in a small shed right on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean,” Tom continues. “I’m not sure how many years had passed since those shed doors had been opened, but the floor was very crunchy from a heavy layer of chameleon egg shells.”

The MG, which at this point was a rusty, rolling shell of its former self, was pushed onto a trailer for the drive back to Tom’s shop in Ohio. “The chassis was not pretty, nor was it sturdy,” he notes. “We stopped at a hotel and asked the owner if we could park the trailer someplace. He glanced outside and told us to park around back to make sure nobody could see it.”

 

Enter a Musketeer

Photography Courtesy Tom Metcalf (Above); Amelia Island Concours (Below)

Photography Courtesy Tom Metcalf (Above); Amelia Island Concours (Below)

At one point, Tom Metcalf's prewar MG sat in a field. Trees grew through the bodywork. He eventually rescued the car and turned it into a winner at both Amelia Island and Hilton Head.

 

Tom had the Magnette, but no plan for it. “The car sat in my shop for a few years while I tried to come up with a rebuild plan,” he recalls. “Build a blown special? Eh, lotsa those.”

He thought about turning it into a replica of a K3, the famed supercharged MG race cars. The one that finished fourth overall at Le Mans in 1934 now rests in the Simeone collection. “Drivers found it a magnificent car to handle and viewers marveled at its grace,” Dr. Simeone writes on his museum’s website. “It was certainly the high point for the marque.” But Tom discounted this idea as well.

Finally, during a 2007 visit to England, he drove his inspiration: Aramis. The MG marque so dominated prewar trials competition, the MG Car Company fielded its own teams. The three-car team that ran the six-cylinder MGs was known as The Three Musketeers, with each entry named for one of the famed adventurers: Athos, Porthos and–the car Tom drove–Aramis.

“I was then hooked on that sweet overhead-cam six,” he recalls. “Now the question was, Do I build a Three Musketeers trials replica or a standard two-seater with a hot engine? I decided on the latter with an original duo-blue color scheme.”

 

The Club, the Tub and the Rub

Photograph Courtesy Tim Suddard

Photograph Courtesy Tim Suddard

As the sales literature of the day notes, this one was built for speed, featuring an "engine primarily designed for racing." Standard features included a forged crankshaft, alloy pistons and a cross-flow cylinder head sporting individual ports for each cylinder. A Bakelite holder stores an extra set of spark plugs.

 

While the NB Magnette is not a common car, it is quite fortunately supported by an active club, the Triple-M Register, a group dedicated to the 1929-’36 Midget, Magna and Magnette. The register is part of the MG Car Club, which dates back to 1930 and now counts 50,000 members.

“I’m very well connected in the Triple-M world and travel to Beaulieu and other UK autojumbles on a regular-beer basis,” Tom notes. “The remaining overhead-cam cars are often bastardized into supercharged race cars, so the standard components are obtainable if you’re at the right place at the right time.”

The biggest hurdle, he explains, was recreating the body tub–remember, his was broken and battered. “I decided on a tub builder in England, who built the frame and shipped it to another tub builder, who was to skin the frame in aluminum,” he recalls. “I went to look at it after receiving many questions from the second guy, and we decided we needed to start over. The first tub was ceremoniously burned. More beer.”

After two more years and several additional trips over to England, Tom received the second tub at his shop- and, again, things were not quite to spec. “During the first fit, we quickly determined a few critical angles were off, which required removing the aluminum skin and reworking the ash framework underneath,” he continues. “Eventually we got everything to fit as it should, but recreating a rarish car is not for the novice. It’s not like restoring a TC, or any other car where there were thousands produced.”

 

Photograph Courtesy Tim Suddard

Photograph Courtesy Tim Suddard

Photograph Courtesy Tim Suddard

Photograph Courtesy Tim Suddard

Photograph Courtesy Tim Suddard

Photograph Courtesy Tim Suddard

Photograph Courtesy Tim Suddard

Photograph Courtesy Tim Suddard

Debut Redux

Photograph Courtesy Tim Suddard

Photograph Courtesy Tim Suddard

The totally rebuilt Magnette had its grand reveal at the Hilton Head Island Concours in 2010, where it won best-in-class honors. A year later, Tom showed the car at Amelia Island. He again took home the class win.

What are his future plans for the car? “Actually, that’s a good question,” Tom replies. “Drive it more, maybe do a tour, maybe sell it since I’m working on the NA Airline Coupe now. And you mentioned rare: only seven of those Airlines were built.”

 

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