While some of the old premises remain empty and virtually derelict, at least one portion remains in the best of condition and has returned to its original function of engineering manufacture.
The premises of Abingdon Engineering now occupy what was formerly the MG Development Shop and it was here some 32 years ago that the first prototype MGC to be built off-tools, Chassis Number GCN1/100, first saw the light of day.
Exclusive features from the MG world Fast forward to 1997 and that same MGC is back outside the very same building, thanks to the enthusiastic co-operation of Abingdon Engineering. A photograph that would have seemed impossible in the dark days of the early 1980s is set up and another MG circle is completed.
The fact that MGC prototypes were built as early as 1995 may seem surprising, but thoughts were already being given to a successor to the Austin Healey 3000, or Big Healey as it was generally known, as early a 1964.
This project carried the number ADO 51 for an Austin Healey and ADO 52 for an MG, the car being based around the MGB. Significantly, neither John Thornley at MG or Donald Healey considered this was the correct approach, but neither was able to influence BMC planning.
Originally, the thinking about the power unit for the cars was that it would be an Australian built Light Six, with a capacity of 2433cc. Essentially this was a B Series engine, of 1622cc capacity with two cylinders added. To fit the engine into an MGB bodyshell, the starting point of the design study, a tubular crossmember had to be fabricated to make the engine fit, although its height did not prove to be a problem with the existing MGB bonnet line.
Another necessary change was torsion bar suspension. A prototype was built with an Austin Healey front end treatment, but this was not sanctioned by Donald Healey and so the ADO 51 project was laid to rest in 1996. ADO 52 would proceed however and this would become the MGC.
It would not be unfair to describe the engine choice forced upon the MGC as its achilles heel, not for its performance, but for its weight. Whereas the Light Six might have proved to be the right choice - the fact that it was not built in the UK effectively ended its chances - the compromise of a six cylinder three-litre engine designed for a new big Austin Saloon being built at Longbridge, was assuredly not.
Its weight of 567 lbs was some 209 lbs heavier than the B Series engine used in the MGB and no successful weight reduction was ever achieved. Clearly there was to be a tough development programme ahead for Abingdon to turn ADO 52 into a marketable project. It was time for the prototype testing to start.
FRX 692C was to be the first of the MGC prototypes to be built off-tools. Always finished in metallic blue paint - it is believed that it was the first production - based prototype to be sprayed in other than a solid paint - the car was finished to an exceptionally high standard. It had a blue leather interior with blue carpets and a black Works hardtop.
The role for this first MGC was to carry out the bulk of the pre-production road proving, of which it did some 90 per cent. This included 24-hour high speed test runs at the MIRA Proving Ground’s banked circuit and specific programmes of high speed road work on the German Autibahn network. The programme was carried out by MG Development Department test drivers, Tom Haig and Pete Owens.
There is no doubt that this prototype led a hard life, probably covering in excess of 200,000 miles. In addition to its demanding stints at MIRA, the programme for the Autobahn testing was to drive it at 140mph all day. This testing revealed problems of very high underbonnet temperatures, particularly with the proving of US-specification engines.
Every area of the engine was monitored and the centre radio console in the cockpit was removed to allow the installation of an instrument panel containing nine separate gauges. Among the information provided by these instruments were such details as water temperature into and out of the radiator.
To cope with the heat problem, the front wings were modified with slots cut in the top, on similar lines to those of the MGA. But extracting the hot air was a problem and at one stage the car was fitted with heater blower motors working in reverse, to suck out the hot air. Although the original wings have long since been replaced, two aluminium patches riveted to the inner wings bear testimony to the testing programmes undertaken before the car’s launch.
Bodily, the car is standard MGC, with just a couple of changes. The rear wheel arches are flared to allow for different tyres size - a 1970s modification - while a further recognition point of a pre-production car are the pull-door handles of the contemporary MGB.
It is interesting to record that this particular MGC was very much a favourite run-around for the Development Department. Workshop boss and MG racing legend Alec Hounslow enjoyed driving the car, which says a great deal more about it than contemporary road tests of the press cars.
Syd Enever recalled the car in conversation with Bob Neville, who was then working in the Development Department, as being far from a bad car. The problem was, he said, that people wanted MGB levels of comfort and Austin Healey performance, an impossible combination within the design parameters that had been set by BMC.
When its Development Department days were done, FRX 692C was offered for sale, along with all the pre-production MGCs. It was sold to Bob Neville, who had a choice of all the cars. “I wanted this particular car because it had been built so well and its performance and handling were exceptional. I bought it for £350 from MG on May 14th 1969.
“That was certainly a lot of money, but the car was worth every penny. I owned it for a couple of years, frequently using it to tow my race Midget. I then sold it to Mike Lewis of WSM fame.”
After the car left Bob Neville’s hands it underwent Downton tuning, this being one of the foremost performance tuning names in BMC days. The cylinder head has been reworked, there is a three-branch exhaust manifold and a twin tailpipe exhaust system fitted, all modifications that the car carries with it today. Although no formal output figures are available, power is probably around 170bhp, an increase of some 25bhp on the standard car.
A further change to the car’s specification was that it acquired a set of steel Borrani wire wheels and during a limited competition career in the 1970s, confirmed by Malcolm Beer, the car also lost its leather seats in favour of a pair of Corbeau competition seats. A period steering wheel was also fitted and the car has also been resprayed, albeit retaining its original colour. Otherwise it remains as it left Abingdon, including the well weathered hardtop, which has never been repainted. There are even traces of the original blue carpet around the gearbox housing.
When the car was offered for sale some time ago, Bob Neville came to hear of it and with Charles Dawkins - who also jointly owned the Sebring MGB GT with him - decided that this was a car that must be re-acquired. So, with Bob Neville as the registered keeper of the car, his name appears twice in the car’s history.
It is rare to find development vehicles that have survived, particularly when so many were cut up by the factory for purchase tax reasons. FRX 692C remains a time warp in that it bears the evidence of its development work, but has been systematically and sensitively modified through its life without losing any of its character.
It remains an essentially drivable car as Bob Neville and Charles Dawkins confirm. By no means a concours example, it represents a typical development vehicle of its time.
Very reluctantly, the car is being offered for sale through Abingdon Specialist Cars Ltd, a three-person company set up by Bob Neville and two other ex-Abingdon apprentices, Rod Lyne and Mark Hale. The proviso is that anyone purchasing it must respect the car’s origins as an important piece of Abingdon history.
This article is copyrighted and courtesy of MG Enthusiasts Magazine