A day of sleuthing…

Beaulieu One Hundred Member, John Mayhead, popped over to our archives to do some searching…which turned out to be very good for the soul. Here’s his story…

7 June 2021

My friends know that I’m not necessarily a fan of classic British cars. It’s not that I have anything against them, but with a background in Alfa Romeos and a more recent obsession with a couple of Porsches, it just means that most of my automotive back catalogue has been continental in flavour.

That said, like any classic motoring enthusiast, I’m a sucker for a good story, and a few weeks ago I chanced upon a car with such a good tale that I ended up buying it. I edit the UK Hagerty Price Guide, and part of my job is to visit various auction houses, talk to the staff and look at the lots. Last month, I was at the Stoneleigh Park site of the recent Silverstone Auctions sale, and I discovered a wonderful 1946 MG TC. This was no concours queen – it had been raced by MG T Series Register founder-member Ken Cheeseman back in the 1960s and had been hillclimbed in the 1970s by another owner, but it was the name of the first owner in the original buff logbook that intrigued me.

Back in March 1946, this car had been given by the MG factory to Lt Col Alfred Goldie Gardner MC, a successful pre-war racing driver and prolific record breaker, mostly driving the streamlined MG EX135 that Cecil Kimber built for him in the late 1930s. Now that the dust had settled after World War Two, Gardner, at the sprightly age of 54, had decided to revive his record-breaking career. It was to be a very successful return: by 1952 he had broken over 120 international speed records and was a minor celebrity with even a Dinky toy being made of his speed-record car.

The car really made an impression on me. Whether it was the story or the fact that earlier this year I had the pleasure of driving an extremely rare pre-war MG K3 Magnette racing car, the vehicle kept popping into my head. I registered for telephone bidding, but still wasn’t sure whether this was the car for me. On the day of the auction, I was actually with my family at Beaulieu, and when the call came I was queueing for the monorail. I apologised to the caller, but said I’d decided not to buy the car. I felt dejected, but it was the sensible option: I had no garage, I knew really very little about them, and what would I do with it? The car had no seatbelts, and my wife told me that she would not allow our children anywhere near it.

Then, a week later, the auctioneer telephoned me. The car had failed to sell, and he wondered whether I was still interested. Actually, that week I’d had dinner with a friend who told me he had a spare garage and would love to join me on rallies. It seemed like the practicalities were resolving themselves. I agreed a price with the auctioneer, and the car was mine.

In the days that followed, I did some research on Gardner and found that Beaulieu had a huge archive of his items. I quickly dropped Patrick Collins, the Research & Enquiries Officer, an email and last week I arrived, ready to sort through the boxes.

What a day it was. Patrick was a phenomenal guide, helping me navigate the frankly overwhelming quantity of photos, memorabilia and documents that are held by the museum. Then, early in the afternoon, there she was: ‘my’ car, with number plate clearly visible, in a number of shots. Combining these with Gardner’s pencil annotations in the albums and the notes in his book, I made sense of what I was seeing. In July 1946, he had driven across Europe in convoy with another MG and a lorry containing EX135 to the outskirts of Brescia, where an Autostrada was to be the location of his first post-war record attempt. It failed – mainly due to a rather large ‘hump’ in the middle of the course – but the album was full of other evocative photos including a dinner with Count Johnny Lurani, who Gardner had raced against at Brooklands in the 1930s. Later, at end of October 1946 the car travelled overseas again, to Jabbeke in Belgium. This time, Gardner was much more successful, setting international Class H records for the flying kilometre, flying mile and flying 5 Km. Then, I found another gem: an Auto Car press clipping including a photo of my car being driven down the Jabbeke road, with a title that read: ‘Goldie Gardner proves the test route in his sports M.G.’

Finding evidence of a car’s life 75 years before you owned it is a very special experience, and something I will treasure for a long time. Owning an old car isn’t always about the performance, or really much about the way it drives, no matter how many times I tell people it’s about a more analogue driving experience. No, for me, owning an old car is about being part of the wonderful story of a machine that has meant so much to so many different people for so long. I’m extremely grateful to Patrick and to the Beaulieu archive that they helped me understand my car and discover so much about its fascinating story.

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