Topless Beauties

      

Shahwar Hussain on the unalloyed joy of driving with the wind in your face in a 1940s car that makes you become one with it – the MG TC

 

Photographs: Ramesh Pathania

 

British cars before the war, and for quite some time thereafter, were seldom manufactured in any great numbers but what delightful cars they were! An overwhelming number of manufacturers were small-time operators and many of them made only the chassis and engine. The British seemed to have perfected the art of taking the chassis and engine from some existing car and putting on a variety of bodies with some very individual looks. The British were hooked on sports cars and these operators would take an existing chassis and engine and build up a small, lightweight two-seater on it and – lo and behold! – a sports car was born. Many of these cars were agile and fast but never flamboyant in style. Most of them had the typically British understated design. The MG TC is a sports car in this mould although not exactly an after market job.

Say MG, and the picture that forms in the mind’s eye is that of the TC. Although the TC was manufactured from 1945 to 1949, it is this model that enthusiasts identify with the MG name. The entire T series, right from the 1936 TA to the 1955 TF, caught people’s fancy on both sides of the Atlantic but it was the TC that took the cake.

The TC was famous for what it was, which, relatively speaking, was not much. With its low and sleek design, it looked like it was doing 100mph just standing still when in fact it had a top speed that boasted all of 78mp . It was slow even by 1945 standards.
 
But, immediately after the war, in a world that was starved of new cars, the MG TC carved out a niche for itself even though it was not exactly a new car. It was basically a 1935 model re-launched in 1945 with a few modifications. The TC took the US by storm. The GIs who served in England during WWII took a liking to the TB, the predecessor of the TC, and took some TBs along with them on their return to America. Since Britain’s economy was shattered, the government ordered all manufacturers to export a certain amount of their output. And, for MG, the seemingly limitless American market was a boon. To the Yanks, used to the bulky and ungainly ‘sports’ cars that came out of Detroit, the MG TC was a revelation. They were small, light, low, sleek and easy to maneuver. The fact they were not very fast did not seem to matter.

 

From 1945 to 1949, 10,000 MG TCs were manufactured and of these approximately 2,000 were exported to the US. I don’t know how many of them landed on Indian shores but I am fairly sure it was nowhere near the US figure. Very few collectors in India have a TC in their stable and I guess I have seen no more than two or three TCs over the years at vintage rallies.

I have driven MG Midgets and a MGA, worked on a six-cylinder MG SV and have seen others drive the appealing TC but never had the chance to even sit in one. However, for some time now, especially in the winters, I have seen one particular red TC in immaculate condition on the streets of Delhi. I determined that it was one TC that I had to sample. I found out it is owned by Kishore Gidwani and, when Ramesh and I landed up at his place one hot and humid morning, I was delighted to see three MG TCs – all in excellent health.

 

Gidwani prefers to keep a low profile but his collection is very impressive indeed. Other than his red, yellow, and green TCs, his garage houses a 1928 Ford Model A, a 1947 1.5-litre four-cylinder Jaguar, a 1948 Dodge Sedan, a 1951 Mk V 3.5-litre Jaguar, a 1954 Desoto, a 1959 Dodge Kingsway, a 1959 Triumph TR3A, an MG Midget, a 1966 Ford Mustang and a 1967 Triumph Spitfire. He also owns an ancient horse-drawn carriage that once belonged to HH the Maharaja of Bikaner. Many of his cars belonged to erstwhile royal families. And some of them have star rating too, having been part of memorable films like Gandhi, Jewel In The Crown, Sea Wolves and, more recently, Gadar.

Driving a TC is pure, unadulterated fun. This is an out-and-out two-seater with no luggage space worth its name. The cockpit is quite comfortable and roomy but you have to get in first! It’s practically impossible for a fat man to drive a TC with any level of comfort.

 

In the first place, he will find getting in a problem and once he is in, the large steering wheel will constantly brush against his protruding belly! No such problems for me. The low seating position offers a lovely view of the impressively long and louvered bonnet that looks as if there is a six-cylinder power plant under it. The TC has deep cutaway doors, a beautiful body, a chrome radiator grille, a huge external petrol tank at the back that also doubles up as the spare wheel holder, and sweeping fenders. And the ‘knock-on’ wire wheels accentuate the classic look. The Jaeger meters on the dashboard are widely spaced out. The big revmeter is placed right in front of the driver, while the passenger gets the benefit of the speedo. I wonder how a weak-hearted passenger with an inexperienced driver would react if the needle swings to the wrong side of 60mph! Jumping out would be an option and not too much of a problem! There is also an amp meter and an oil pressure meter.

 

Nothing beats the wind-in-your-face experience of an open top and even though the TC is not a terribly fast car, it still gives you that high any time. The engine is nothing extraordinary: a simple four-cylinder, 1250cc pushrod powerplant that develops all of 54 bhp@5200rpm and the four cylinders are fed through two semi-down draught SU carburettors. Had the car been a bit bigger, the power would definitely have been inadequate to move it but the saving grace is its light weight and diminutive size. The TC is only 139 inches long and has a wheelbase of 94 inches and because of this it feels quite agile. One of the TCs had a wobble in one wheel and the manner in which it bobbed up and down digested my breakfast in double quick time.

Although it doesn’t have any great acceleration, it can still touch 40 plus on the speedo very comfortably. The four-speed gearbox with its stubby little lever is perfectly matched with the engine speed and short shifting through the gears easily let me keep up with the traffic on the DND toll bridge in Delhi (of course, nobody was driving at over 100kph!).

 

But don’t get any notions when I say ‘agile’. We have been spoilt silly with power steering so don’t expect silk-smooth steering. Having said that, you can still throw the TC around though it takes a bit of muscle power. The TC sported I-beam axles at each end of its simple ladder chassis at a time when many of the leading cars had already adopted independent suspension. The steering is far from vague and the car goes precisely where you point it. From lock to lock, the steering has less than two turns and you have to drive with your thumb resting against the big steering rim and using your wrist. The steering is relatively smooth when in motion but becomes rather heavy when steering from a standstill or at a very slow pace. The nine-inch hydraulic drum brakes are very effective and I never got the feeling that it might not stop in time.

 

The TC was meant for fair weather driving but since it rained often in England, it is also equipped with a waterproof soft top that can be put in place quickly. However, having the top up takes away much of the fun out of driving a sports car.

When you drive a car like the TC you feel a part of it. You can hear the components at work, unlike modern cars where you are truly insulated from the machinery. You really have to ‘drive’ the car and you feel you are one with the car and the elements. You cannot hurry anything. The clutch cannot be slipped and you have to wait for the engine revs to come down before you can shift gears otherwise the cogs will grate in protest.


MG, which produced tanks during the war, introduced the TC just four months after the end of hostilities in Europe and it came as a breath of fresh air in the automotive world. It might have

been low on technology but certainly scored very heavily on entertainment value and it epitomized the sense of freedom that the post-war world needed. And even to this day it is a head turner.
 

Gidwani bought his first TC way back in 1977 for a then high price of Rs 14,000, and his third TC in 1990 for Rs 1.50 lakh. He says he is game for another one. I wonder if he would find one now. They have become highly collectable and command premium prices.

Wordsmiths like me hardly make the kind of money that is needed to buy a TC. But, till fortune smiles on me, I will be content with an occasional drive such as this one. Because the high lingers for a long while. '