Sebring Specials

Along with the Le Mans, Nürburgring and Targa Florio races, the 12 Hour Florida International Grand Prix of Endurance at Sebring had become one of the world’s major tests of automotive excellence by the early 1960s. Success at Sebring could give a new sports car instant credibility. It’s not surprising, therefore, that the newly introduced MGB was raced there by the factory in 1963, while a U.S. dealer fielded a team the following year.

What is surprising is that two of the three MGBs that achieved success in 1964 still survive, and have just been restored to the exact specifications in which they raced that year.

These two cars were the centerpiece of the Sebring MGB reunion staged this past March at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca by the Historic Motor Sports Association. Kjell Qvale and Joe Huffaker—the men who put the cars on the track at Sebring—attended along with several team representatives to share in the veneration of an enthusiastic contingent of current MG owners and vintage racing drivers.

The two MGs open a window on sports car marketing and racing in the 1960s.

Win On Sunday…

British Motor Corporation provided four Special Tuning engines to Qvale for the project.

Automobile racing, whether on the drag strip, the stock car oval, or the sports car road course, was an important part of every automobile company’s marketing program in the ’50s and ’60s. Having just introduced its new MGB sports car in the fall of 1962, British Motor Corporation’s Ecurie Safety Fast factory team entered two MGBs in the 12 Hour Florida International Grand Prix of Endurance at Sebring in early 1963.

The company hoped to earn some prestige in the important U.S. market that would come with a strong finish. California drivers Jack Flaherty and Jim Parkinson, veterans of several previous Sebring efforts in factory MGAs, were engaged to drive the new MGB. They were joined by the team of Denise McCluggage and Christabel Carlisle. Unfortunately, both cars retired in the early laps due to oil starvation on tight turns, resulting in loss of oil pressure and engine bearing failure.

However, the factory representatives couldn’t help noticing the success achieved in the Sebring race by Kjell Qvale, an important dealer of British cars from San Francisco. Qvale’s lightweight Jaguar E-Type, prepared by his own competition department under manager Joe Huffaker and driven by Ed Leslie and Frank Morrill, placed first in the four-liter GT class and scored an impressive seventh place overall.

Racing had been an important part of Qvale’s marketing strategy since he had established his MG dealership in 1946. He had been instrumental in helping organize the California Sports Car club (predecessor to the SCCA in California) and was a key member of the committee that designed and developed the race track at Laguna Seca in 1956.

Consequently, when BMC decided not to withdraw from a direct role in racing, it made sense for Qvale to enter three MGBs with factory support in the 1964 Sebring event.

When You Have Lemons, Make Lemonade

To reduce fueling stops, Huffaker fitted dual Special Tuning gas tanks with quick-release Le Mans-style fuel fillers.

Thanks to the prominence of Qvale’s British Motor Car Company dealership in the MG sales network—all cars destined for Northern California markets came through his San Francisco operation—Qvale had received one of the first shipments of the new MGBs prior to their introduction in the fall of 1962. Unfortunately, several of the cars had sustained saltwater damage in shipping, so they were set aside and not sold.

Three of the damaged cars, in appropriate colors of Iris Blue, Old English White and Tartan Red, seemed perfect for Qvale’s plan to enter the 1964 Sebring race. With the blue car carrying Body No. 104 and the red car Body No. 114, the three cars had been among the first 20 MGBs produced at Abingdon.

To support Qvale’s efforts, the BMC Competitions Department agreed to supply four BMC Special Tuning engines for the project, as well as lightweight alloy front fenders, doors, hoods and trunk lids. Other Special Tuning racing parts were supplied as well. Huffaker supervised the preparation, with Frank Morrill and Bob Smith doing most of the actual work, since Huffaker was at the same time also preparing the MG Liquid Suspension Special to race at Indianapolis.

The Special Tuning engines were supplied with tappets from the Austin-Healey 3000 and some head work already done, but Huffaker had all four engines disassembled. Camshafts and pistons were swapped for racing-grade parts, connecting rods were replaced with MGA Twin Cam pieces, and the engines were balanced. Single Weber 45DCOE carburetors were fitted to the red and blue cars, while the white car was equipped with a pair of two-inch SU carburetors. The blue car was prepared with stock valves and a lower compression ratio.

Preparation was otherwise quite conservative, with the emphasis on longevity rather than all-out performance. Huffaker took to heart the unofficial endurance racing motto: “To finish first, one must first finish.”

The three cars were prepared to different levels of tune, as the team had a plan: The white car would run as the “rabbit” to set a fast pace for the class in the early laps, while the blue car would run as the “mule,” intended to finish should both of the other cars wind up out of the race.

The alloy panels were fitted, with plastic replacing glass in the doors and hardtops, and the cars were repainted in their original colors but with racing stripes incorporating the two contrasting team colors bisecting the hood, hardtop and trunk lid.

Other modifications were made to the exterior, including plastic covers for the Marchal headlights, and Marchal running lights set into the grilles for night driving. Heavy-duty wire racing wheels were fitted to the white and blue cars, while the red car was fitted with American Racing magnesium wheels.

To speed up pit stops, hood releases were installed in the grilles of the cars and secondary fasteners for the hood and trunk lid—required by racing regulations—were made from aircraft shock cord, rather than the traditional leather belts and buckles that were always a challenge to fumbling mechanics’ fingers late in a race.

To extend time between pit stops, a Special Tuning dual fuel tank—consisting of two standard fuel tanks Siamesed together—was fitted into the trunk of each car. To speed up service stops, quick-release Le Mans-style fuel fillers were fitted and projected through holes cut in the trunk lids.

Aside from a roll bar and seat belts installed in each of the cars, a few racing gauges substituted into the stock instrument panels, and some of the trim panels removed, the interiors were original.

Ed Leslie recalls that a racing seat was installed in the red car at the drivers’ request. Other than those few modifications, the cars were generally stock in appearance to have the maximum impact on advertising.

Slow and Steady

The interiors of all three team cars were very close to stock in appearance, using the original seats, complete with contrasting piping to match the body color.

To complete the team’s effort, Qvale engaged drivers who had worked for him in other events. Jack Dalton of Berkeley was teamed with fellow Californian Ed Leslie to drive the red car, No. 47. Flaherty and Parkinson returned to drive the white car, No. 46.

Morrill had originally been slated to co-drive with Jim Adams, who had recently started driving for Hollywood Sports Cars in Los Angeles, and the two men’s names were painted on the blue car. However, at the last minute, with Huffaker engaged in the Indy effort, Morrill decided to turn his driving duties over to Merle Brennan of Reno, Nev., so he could focus on managing pit support with Bob Smith. There was no time to paint Brennan’s name on the car, so it raced with Morrill’s name on the fenders.

In the race, all three cars quickly established a good rhythm, with the engines running strong. Lap times were consistently less than four minutes, and pit stops were short and routine. Unfortunately, the white car was forced to retire after only 15 laps when a five-cent rear axle oil seal failed, destroying the differential.

The other two cars held their pace to the very end of the race. The blue Brennan/Adams car, No. 48, finished in 22nd place. Even more satisfying, the red Dalton/Leslie car, No. 47, finished a respectable 17th overall. These results were good enough to put the MGs third and fourth in the two-liter GT class, behind a factory-entered Porsche 356B 2000 GS and a Porsche Abarth Carrera.

The next closest car in the race, the Roger Penske/Jim Hall Corvette Grand Sport, was three laps behind. The cars even beat a Prototype class Porsche 356B 2000 GS, driven by Don Wester and Bruce Jennings, by five laps.

Although successful in their efforts, the MGBs would not again reach this level of international prominence. Entering the other events in the Challenge Mondial de Vitesse et d’Endurance—Le Mans, the Targa Florio, and the Nürburgring—was beyond Qvale’s resources, and in any case, his main interest was the U.S. sports car market on the West Coast. The cars were shipped back to San Francisco.

Local Successes in SCCA Racing

Upon returning to California, the three MGs were soon split up. These were cars designed to be raced, not collected.

The red car was sold to Ernie Rodrigues, manager of Qvale’s Walnut Creek dealership, who purchased it for his son Gary to race. Ernie and Gary took the car with them when Ernie moved to Southern California to manage BMC dealerships there. The blue car was sold to William Schmidt of Benicia, Calif., a racer in the SCCA San Francisco Region. The White car was kept by Qvale’s dealership to be raced by Chuck Tannlund in Northern California SCCA races.

Thanks to their alloy panels and Weber carburetors, the cars were not legal in SCCA Production classes; at the same time, they were not really competitive in the more liberal Modified classes. Gary Rodrigues used the red car in its original trim to obtain his SCCA driver’s ticket and raced it at Pomona in the E Modified class. Afterward, the car was converted back to Production specs by Hollywood Sports Cars. During the next four years, he ran many regional and national races in the car.

In 1968, Rodrigues and his former SCCA instructor, Bill Young, entered it in a six-hour Independence Day enduro at Riverside International Raceway. Rodrigues managed to take the car from 55th place to fourth, then turned driving duties over to Young. Four laps later, Young comprehensively crashed the car.

Already slated for an appearance the next Friday evening on the Johnny Carson show to promote James Garner’s new film, “Grand Prix,” the car underwent 160 hours of repair over the next four days and made the appearance. Huffaker, dressed in white MG coveralls, and Carson staged a pit stop on the set, Carson whacking away at the mag wheels with a huge hammer, with Rodrigues and Garner looking on.

Soon after, Rodrigues sold the car to Buzz Moore, who interestingly was the son of Jack Dalton’s tennis partner. Moore took his SCCA driver’s school in the MGB and raced it in Northern California through 1973. Another SCCA novice, Randy Sharp, raced the car in 1974, and then sold it to yet another novice, John McEwen of Mill Valley. McEwen raced it through 1979.

The car’s SCCA racing stint came to an abrupt end when McEwen put it into the wall at Turn 11 at Sears Point that year. Updating to an MG tub in better condition, McEwen put the original one and a collection of parts up for sale.

Schmidt ran the blue car in several races in the E Modified class before converting it to SCCA Production specs, with the alloy panels and carburetor replaced with stock parts. During the four years he owned the car, Schmidt ran it in local SCCA events at Candlestick Park, Vacaville and Laguna Seca. Schmidt took fourth in the San Francisco Region with it in 1968.

Schmidt then sold the blue car to William Robert Smith of Monterey. Smith updated the car, adding a full-width roll bar while changing the rear axle and front hubs to carry Minilite wheels. He also repainted the car white. Schmidt raced it in SCCA events on a regular basis for another six years through 1974. In total, the blue car ran 34 SCCA events with Schmidt and Smith, all with the original Sebring engine.

Qvale’s dealership replaced the alloy panels on the white car and repainted it orange before racing it for two years in local events. Sold without the alloy panels, the car was shipped east and was raced intermittently in the Midwest at least through 1981, when it raced at Indianapolis Raceway Park.

Enter Butch Gilbert

In 1979, Butch Gilbert, a racer and machine shop owner in the San Francisco region, purchased the red car’s tub from John McEwen. Butch would be the one to reassemble much of the original Sebring MGB effort.

Along with an assortment of parts, Butch was excited to find that the red car came with the dual gas tanks, adjustable shock absorbers and a Smiths chronometric tachometer. The car even came with a set of American Racing mag wheels, with one still displaying a prominent dent.

Butch also was interested in buying the blue MGB that Mac Townsend, editor of the SCCA San Francisco Region newsletter, The Wheel, had owned since 1968. Townsend had dreams of restoring the blue car and racing it, so he had carefully stored away the chassis, along with the alloy panels and parts, which had been kept with the car during the 10 years since the Sebring race.

Discussing the blue car with some other racers, Butch learned about the possible Sebring connection between it and the red car. After some research, he confirmed to his own satisfaction the provenance of his red tub, including the origin of the dent in one of the mag wheels.

In 1984, Butch finally convinced Townsend to sell the blue car. The original factory-supplied engine—ADO23-1087—and close-ratio gearbox were still in it. Along with the car came the distinctive aluminum front fenders, doors, hood and trunk lid, all still in their Sebring colors with the numbers intact.

In addition, the aluminum battery box cover, dual gas tanks, adjustable rear shock absorbers and the original dash with the Smiths chronometric tachometer were still with the car. The Marchal driving lights and headlights with their covers from Sebring were still in the boxes that Bill Schmidt used when he removed the parts from the car.

There was no question in Butch’s mind that he would restore these two cars to their Sebring trim as soon as he had the time and resources. But there still remained the question of the missing alloy panels for the red car. Then, in 1995, Butch was chatting about the cars with Cris Vandagriff, administrator for the Historic Motor Sports Association and son of the original owner of Hollywood Sports Cars.

Cris remembered the cars from when he had gone to Sebring with his father and the Hollywood Sports Cars teams as a child. On the off chance that some of the Sebring-specific parts from the red car might still be in his dad’s shop, he went searching in the parts loft. Sure enough, tucked away in the back of the loft was a set of red MGB panels with blue and white stripes and the number 47 still painted on the doors and deck lid. Only one front fender was missing.

Through the years, Butch has made a continuing effort to locate the white car and its Sebring parts, but both appear lost to time. He managed to trace it through two owners after Qvale sold it, to its last known appearance at Indianapolis in 1981, but there the trail went cold and nothing further has emerged regarding the car.

On the Track Again

Convinced of their Sebring identities and with all the parts finally assembled for both cars, in January 2003 Butch decided that he would restore one of them with the possibility of racing it in the Monterey Historic Automobile Races.

Selecting the red MGB because its body work was more advanced, and using the blue car as his example, Butch was able to take the car from a bare frame to the Laguna Seca grid in less than eight months. Having had no success in locating the original engine, Butch fitted the car with the MGB racing engine from his Elva MkIV, which had been prepared to very similar specifications to the original Sebring engine.

Work on the blue car was undertaken soon after the red car was started, but it went slowly until Butch and Cris decided that both cars should be up and running to observe the 40th anniversary of their Sebring achievements in 2004 at a special HMSA race at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca on March 20-21. As these things always go, the event planning, guest invitations and publicity went much more smoothly than the restoration. Butch didn’t finish the car until just days before the HMSA event.

Once things all came together, the event was truly impressive. Parked at the front of the paddock, the two MGBs drew a steady stream of onlookers all through the weekend. With the promise of the Sebring reunion, the local MG clubs organized a gathering of octagon enthusiasts; more than 120 street MGs and their owners were in attendance for the weekend. A full grid of 35 racing MGs was also assembled to accompany the Sebring MGBs on their first laps together in 40 years.

Kjell Qvale and Joe Huffaker also attended, and pronounced the cars to be identical to their trim and condition from those exciting days four decades before. The event was a tribute to the durability of the two cars, to the foresight of Qvale and Huffaker in putting them on the track the first time, and to Butch Gilbert’s love of the marque and his commitment to the objective of seeing them back on the track again.

And now? Much as Butch would love to race the Sebring MGBs as aggressively as he races his other cars, he is aware of the rarity of those original panels and the matching-numbers Special Tuning engines. It seems likely that they will not be raced in anger again on a regular basis, but Butch has no intention of confining the cars to a museum.

Just as we were privileged to do at Laguna Seca this past March, we can count on seeing them roar down the straight again in other notable gatherings of vintage race cars.

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