Madras Miscellany Motoring

MG: a favourite brand is back

An MG, the initials of Morris Garages, sports car of the 1940s. MG is a British automotive marque registered by the now defunct MG Car Company Limited, a British sports car manufacturer begun in the 1920s.  

It was a favourite brand of my youth. I was last in touch with it 50 years ago. Then, suddenly, I caught up with it again in the last few weeks in between watching cricket. The brand MG was being introduced to a couple of young generations of road-users as Morris Garages that was not a repair shop at all but the once-famous initials of a pioneering two-seater sports car that went under when it decided to become a rather posh sedan. The initials, it was being announced, were coming back to India — but in sedan shape. When is someone going to revive the sports classic?

To me that classic was for nearly 20 years part of my life. They was a couple I’d grown up with and he was as passionate about his MGs as he was about his wife. And in our youth we’d race down the 72 miles to Galle for the winter races, me squeezed rather incestuously next to her. Unforgettable. Both the drive and the car that made it possible, the latter quite a change from my chaste Lanchester, the ‘baby’ Daimler.

Never saw an MG Sports again on the road — except at vintage car rallies. And then even the sedan went out of fashion. But as it makes its entry on to Indian roads once again, it reminds me that the seeds of motor racing in India were sown by this classic in Madras.

As I have recorded elsewhere, a casual chat in 1952, while a 1948 MGTF was being cleared from Madras harbour, between the English owner and R de Souza on motor racing, rallying, etc. sparked the idea of an organisation to promote motor sports. The next year, two MGs just happened, without prior intention, to chase each other from Chesney Hall to the parking lot of Catholic Centre, in Madras, one driven by Rex Strong and the other by K Varugis the oarsman, the first Indian to row for the ‘Whites only’ Madras Boat Club. They got out of their cars and grinned at each other with the same idea in their minds that motor racing would be fun in a more organised manner.

In due course, these ideas crystallised as a motor racing club under the guidance of M A Chidambaram of the South Indian Automobile Corporation (SIAC) and the then Chairman of the Automobile Association of South India (AASI). It was called the Madras Motor Sports Club (MMSC) when founded in 1953, with GM Donner the first president, KV Srinivasan of Union Motors treasurer and K Varugis secretary. The initial membership numbered 40. The Rajkumar of Pithapuram the next year became its first Indian president.

A track suited for racing with specifications that would meet international standards was a pre- requisite for motor sports. Its beginnings in Madras were an old Air Force airstrip in Sholavaram, (25 kilometres from the city) that came to be used for 36 years as track for both two-wheeler and four-wheeler racing. The first motor sports event was held on this track in August 1953 and the second in October. Donner in his Mark F Jaguar and John Dye on a Triumph Twin were respectively the best performers in the two meets.

For the next nearly four decades, this L-shaped track was the venue for all major Madras motor races. Eventually, circumstances forced a change of location. The Sholavaram land belonged to the Military Estate Officer, and the track was built and owned by the Indian Air Force which wanted it back.

The Club got permission from Government to purchase agricultural land from over a hundred farmers in Irungkattukkottai village near Sriperumpudur, a bit further outside the City (50 kilometres). When 200 acres were found to be enough, the balance 100 acres were sold to members which enabled the Club to pay back the loans that were involved (₹ 10 lakh to the Indian Bank, among others). With contributions from McDowell, MRF and many others, enough funds were mobilised for track construction. A track of 3.7 kilometre length and 11 metres width was constructed with Gopal Madhavan supervising the design and construction.

MG, the initials of Morris Garages, is a British automotive marque registered by the now defunct MG Car Company Limited, a British sports car manufacturer which began in 1923 as a sales promotion sideline by Cecil Kimber who was WR Morris’s (Lord Nuffield’s) Oxford city retail sales and service manager.

The MG business was Morris’s personal property until July 1, 1935 when he sold MG to his holding company, Morris Motors Limited, restructuring his holding.

MG underwent many changes in ownership starting with Morris merging with Austin in the British Motor Corporation Limited in 1952. MG became the MG Division of BMC in 1967 and so a component of the 1968 merger that created British Leyland Motor Corporation. By the start of 2000, MG was part of the MG Rover Group, which entered receivership in 2005. The assets and MG brand were purchased by Nanjing Automobile Group (which merged into SAIC, a Chinese-government-owned motor manufacturing unit, in 2008) for £ 53 million. Production restarted in 2007 in China. India awaits manufacture.

Hush! Heritage thumb’s down

A two-year old, much needed Heritage Restoration Wing of the Public Works Department has recently been listing heritage buildings it is planning to restore or is restoring. But it is not talking of the ones it is giving permission to be pulled down. The latest is the Women’s and Children’s Hospital in Egmore.

The hospital building is not only unique in design but is also a pioneer in medicare in Asia. Popularly called the Women’s and Children’s Hospital (once the Maternity Hospital), this Egmore institution is today the Institute of Obstetrics, Gynaecology and Child Health.

The core of the hospital was designed in the shape of a female pelvis by Major General GG Gifford at the present site after the seeds were sown for it in 1847 at the Madras Medical College. That was when the College appointed Dr James Shaw Professor of Midwifery and Superintendent of the hospital. Despite two new wings being added in 1852, the 1870s saw a crunch for space. Work began on Gifford’s planning and the new hospital — the one now threatened — was completed in 1881.

In 1938, Dr A. Lakshmanaswami Mudaliar became the first Indian head of the hospital, the largest Women’s and Children’s Hospital in Asia at the time, with its 700 beds. When it grew into an Institute in 1952, Dr RKK Thampan was the first Director of an institution which delivered 22,000 babies annually.

When the Madras Medical College began to admit women, Col. AM Branfoot, who had in 1886 delivered the imprisoned ex-Queen of Burma, had refused to teach the women entering the College. He told the first, Mary Ann Dacomb Scharleib, “I cannot prevent you walking round the wards, but I will not teach you.”

Here in this building the history of Asia’s Medicare for Women was written from the end of the 19th Century. Is there any real necessity to destroy the memorial to those pioneering efforts?

The chronicler of Madras that is Chennai tells stories of people, places, and events from the years gone by, and sometimes, from today

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Printable version | May 7, 2021 1:44:53 PM |

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