I went to the Salt Flats at Bonneville in Utah for the first time in 1957. John Thornley from MG invited me to come and make an attempt on the International Class F record. MG had been there in 1954 when one of the MGA prototypes had been fitted with a Goldie Gardner streamlined body, and had set records in several categories. This car, EX.179, had managed 120.74 mph for 12 hours and reached 153.69 mph for 10 miles.
Goldie Gardner had broken many records both before and after the war, and I had read a great deal about him as I was growing up. MG was sending a new car, the EX.181, which was to contest records in the 1101 cc to 1500 cc class, and I was fascinated, as I had never done anything like this before. The target was to reach 240 mph, so a new streamlined machine with a mid-engine and superb teardrop shape was built to try for a new record. The engine was a 1.5-liter with twin overhead cams based on the BMC-B unit, and a Shorrock supercharger. The engine managed to produce 290 bhp, which in those days, was amazing, and benefited from 32 psi of boost. It had a very narrow rear track and was only a foot wider at the front, with a wheelbase of just eight feet. The body had a lovely shape, but I am not so sure how sophisticated it was aerodynamically. It didn’t seem to have much drag at all, but I don’t know whether it had lift or down-force. Those were the days when we knew relatively little about aerodynamics.
I remember clearly two things about that experience. One was the environment which was so strange to me and seemed unreal. The intense heat created mirages, and in the distance, the telegraph poles seemed to be floating in the air. The huge expanse of salt was amazing because you could see the horizon in opposite directions! The other memory is, of course, the car. That MG made me feel in a way no other car had before. The car was very low and built to minimal tolerances, so I had to lie on my back with the steering wheel horizontal over my lap. When it came time for a first run, I was not enjoying the experience very much. The mechanics closed the canopy over me and locked it with Dzus fasteners, so I knew I would not be able to jump out.
We had about eleven miles of the salt to use, five miles to reach our speed, one mile flying for the record, and a further five miles to stop. We had one hour in which to do the same in the reverse direction, as a record must be done in each direction to be established. It was incredibly noisy once the engine started, and although I had driven cars at 180 mph before, this felt much faster, partly because the environment was so strange. I had been going very quickly in the Maserati 450S in the Mille Miglia just before the brake pedal snapped, but that was very different than this.
The MG team had been running another car, the older EX.179 in 1-liter form, trying to break the 12-hour record, which Tommy Wisdom and David Ash did – raising it to over 118 mph, then they put the supercharger on it and Phil Hill got it up to 143.4 mph. I arrived in late August, but by that time it had been raining so we had to sit and wait until the surface was dry again. I finally got some practice runs in, but it was difficult to get used to all that noise and the confined space in the car. I really didn’t like it too much.
I had been told to “take it easy” until I got used to the EX.181. It was a matter of being locked in and then easing away from the start, being very careful not to give it too much throttle or I would spin the tires. We were using 15” tires with no tread and they were quite small, and as they were pumped up to 75 pounds, there was hardly any contact with the ground – well under one square inch. I was told to take it up to 200 mph gently, and when I got to it, I should then push it into top gear. One had to be careful not to get wheelspin. They also said I should cut the ignition after I had gone through the measured mile, but to put my foot on the accelerator so if there were any flames it would suck them through the exhaust and out the back!
The first run went well, and I do remember taking top gear at about 200 mph, which was impressive, as that was the fastest I had been in a car up until then. They had also warned about the braking, but I didn’t know what to expect. There was only the single inboard disc brake at the rear connected to a small flap, which opened to improve the cooling. That was about the most sophisticated thing on the car. I knew I had to brake very carefully and smoothly so the brakes wouldn’t lock up, and I wasn’t to use the gearbox to slow it down. Phil Hill had also warned me that the cockpit tended to fill up with methanol fumes, so I should take a deep breath when I turned it off. None of this was very inspiring at the time.
It took me the first runs to get used to the braking. One of our mechanics was standing down at the turnaround area where you came back for your second run. He was waving for me to brake and stop by him, but I had to brake a lot harder than I thought I would, and I went sailing past him as he stood there waving. It was partly due to the type of brakes on the car but also to how deceptive the environment was with no features there to judge your speed by. The rolling resistance on the car was minimal… it really had a perfect shape for what it was meant to do, and the tires offered so little drag. I got used to it after the first runs, but you don’t actually steer it. You sort of wish it to go in the right direction, and ease it where you want it, and you put on the brakes comfortably and carefully, and keep a close eye on the instruments.
Even though I lost third gear and had to shift from second to top, it ran very well, and I was touching 6500 rpm at the start of the mile and getting to 7000 rpm by about five miles. We managed to take five records, including 245.64 mph for one kilometer, 245.11 for one mile, five kilometers at 243.08 mph, 5 miles at 235.69 and ten kilometers at 224.70 mph. It was something I remember clearly because it was a weird experience, with the car following the long black line and passing the occasional pole in that featureless and amazing place.