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1938 MG SA - C'mon be a sport

In 1935, British motorsport enthusiasts were suitably miffed. The Nuffield Organisation, owners of Morris and MG, put a stop to MG’s racing activities – racing was, even in those days, an expensive business, and the parent organisation was in no mood to spend money on such a frivolous thing. Not just that. Like today’s concept of platform engineering and sharing parts bins, there was plenty of manufacturing reconciliation between marques like Wolseley, Morris and MG – enough for MG purists to turn up their noses against the cars that emerged from 1935 onwards. 

So when the MG SA was introduced late that year, there were enough detractors writing it off – how could the famous octagonal badge grace a luxury saloon like this, instead of a lithe, sporty number? Too bad for them anyway, because the SA established MG’s reputation as a maker of fine passenger cars, and more importantly, took the marque mainstream by attracting a larger audience. Attracting? That’s the word. 

Just look at this fine 1938 example, belonging to industrialist and car connoisseur Vijay Mallya. Painted in British Racing Green and black, and with a long hood and swoopy fenders, the SA is indeed breathtaking – it’s hard not to be impressed with the SA’s lines. Credit for this particular version – it was available as a four-door saloon and a four-door convertible tourer as well – goes to the coachbuilders, Salmons & Sons, who were based in London and Newport Pagnell. It is, for some reason, called the Tickford Coupe – maybe because it has only two-doors. In fact, the popularity of this body style ensured that you could order any other MG car to come in the Tickford Coupe mould. The attention to detail is amazing, the semaphore arms are lit, and the octagonal badge is carried on to the top of the oil dipstick, and over the levers for the hood louvers. Whether with the top or without it, this MG is a great example of the now-vanished coachbuilder’s art.
The Second World War interrupted the full life span of the SA, by which time 2,738 units were built. And in those four years it was around, MG kept upgrading it bit by bit and part by part. It first came with a 2288 CC pushrod OHC inline six for the first two years, which was expanded later to displace 2322 CC. This 1938 model has the bigger engine, and breathing through twin carbs,produces 78.5 bhp at 4200 rpm. Mated to a four-speed gearbox, power is transferred to the rear wheels. A great deal of thought went into making access to the engine and servicing it convenient, and the motor was noteworthy for being refined and smooth.

Time to check that latter claim out. Swinging those wide doors open, I plonk myself into what seems to be a well-upholstered sofa. I am confronted first by a large four-spoke steering wheel, and then by a curved wooden panel which serves as the dashboard. Surprisingly, all the instruments are turned downwards – somehow this doesn’t hamper visibility. It better not, as the instrumentation is gorgeous – the large dials look as if they belong to precious chronographs of that period rather than serve as a speedo and tachometer. Out there somewhere is the end of the hood, and from where I am sitting, I can’t see the left fender at all. Scary thought, considering you’re piloting a precious vintage car.  Sorry to sound repetitive, but the attention to detail is really amazing – the base of the gear lever is also octagonal in shape! The gear lever is set close to the driver, and the shift is conventional. But what’s remarkable is that you have to flip open a lock on the octagonal gate to engage reverse – it’s like one of those locks you flip open before pressing the missile button in a fighter aircraft. Feels good. 

I squeeze my right foot between the narrowly-placed pedals, and realise the only way I can actually use the accelerator pedal is to twist my ankle and press it sideways – did men have small feet in the UK about 70 years back? And thankfully I wasn’t wearing my boots. I depress the clutch, and the gear lever crunches into first, and the SA’s rolling. Then it crunches into second and the SA rolls even further. Later, I crunch into third... exactly. Leave your modern car driving manners home, old boy, because the synchromesh for the gearbox is available only on third and fourth gears (a feature which was not even there in the first two years of the SA’s life). It calls for delicate shifting, not because the gearbox is a pansy, but because it calls for double de-clutching.

Sure thing, and the SA gracefully picks up speed and I am now quite comfortable in it. The speedo is marked to 100 mph but I don’t have any intention of going anywhere close to the figure. As my twisted ankle lays a little more emphasis on the accelerator, the tacho needle goes upwards – not in the frenzied manner of today’s cars, but gently ticking on, like the seconds arm in a clock (is that why they called it Tickford? Cue: gentle laughter, polite applause).

Even with four adults, the SA pulls along the curvy and slightly inclined roads of Mandwa near Mumbai with ease, the engine barely whispering. The powerplant is quite tractable, but to my modern sensibilities, the SA feels bulky. Besides, that invisible left fender means I keep an unnaturally high safety margin too. And to add to my discomfort, to keep to my intended path, I needed to keep making little steering adjustments all along the drive – just holding on to the wheel doesn’t mean the SA will keep going straight!That’s not all. The hydraulic brakes are bureaucratic – want to shave off speed or come to halt? Submit a form in triplicate and wait for your turn for one year. The last thing I wanted now was an oncoming vehicle on this narrow road, I don’t know what I would have done. Thankfully, here in Mandwa, other than an odd-looking ancient car going up and down, nothing else uses the road. Hope it stays that way.

My passengers were quite happy behind me, not aware of my trauma. Sitting on leaf springs and 18” rubber, the SA’s ride quality was quite exemplary. For a car developed by a marque that was famous for its sports cars, the SA is proof of MG’s versatility in building luxurious, pampering automobiles as well. In fact, the reason for the success of the SA was that it offered the kind of ownership and driving experience that other more expensive marques like Lagonda and Alvis were famous for. Even the 3½-litre – the first Bentley that was launched after Rolls-Royce took the firm over – lost quite a few customers to the SA, which was priced at one-fourth of its cost and was still as sublime. 

Soon, WW2 would cut short the life of this refined MG, but the marque would become even more famous with the TC Midget, which perhaps  single-handedly began the European sports car cult in the American market. Old habits die hard, I suppose.