Celebrating the Magnette’s 60th

Photo for Celebrating the Magnette’s 60th

Not long after the MG Car Club Z and Farina Magnette Register announced their international celebration of the Z Magnette’s 60th anniversary, Steve and Allen began planning. Ultimately, their wives begged out; it was a “guy thing.”

On the schedule was Lou and John Shorten’s open house August 3rd and 4th, another weekend of celebrations at Wroxall Abbey Estate, near Warwick on the 9th through 11th, and a whole glorious week in between to check out wonderful MG sites and British car museums. We figured on three or four venues per day with time to hang out in some iconic British pubs for leisurely lunches, right? Wrong! While we had wall-to-wall fun, we never had time to visit more than two sites or events per day. Pub lunches? Fuhgeddaboudit!

Meeting at Chicago O'Hare on August 1st for our flight to Heathrow, we renewed our friendship, getting a headstart on the beers we had promised each other over the years. Steve had done the math: the count was 45,599 to 45,601

As with all flights across the Pond, Friday the 2nd was a wash. Previously, we had naively told Lou Shorten that we’d probably show up at their MG Specialists shop in Lenwade, near Norwich, sometime around two p.m., but when the clock struck two, we were still signing our lives away at the Avis/Budget desk at Heathrow. That was before entering the M25 Ring Road parking lot. As we crept along, eventually we came to a toll bridge across the Thames. Oops – we had neglected to acquire any U.K. currency. The nice lady at the toll booth could not accept our American cash or credit cards, but she could stop about four lanes of angry traffic so we could exit in search of an ATM...which we did.

We rolled up in front of Elm Farm B&B in Horsham St Faith about 9:30 p.m. – exhausted, hungry, and looking forward to that quaint little 17th century Bed and Breakfast we had reserved online. Well, the name and location were the same, but quaint? Is there a Motel 5? This was less than a Motel 6. I will say that the rooms were inexpensive, my room was fundamentally clean, and the full English breakfast was good, but we never saw the ducks, let alone the pond…. Nor did we stay in the 1604 farmhouse.

Visitors navigating in the U.K. should remember to double their most generous estimates of time and distance. That’s because you will get lost and you will have to turn back - routinely. Strangely enough, inquiring of the natives doesn’t help. Generally they don’t know any more than you do. But lest we dismiss our navigationally-challenged British friends, we must acknowledge that they rely on our American Google maps that direct them the wrong way to nonexistent roads.

Despite a loud drunken wedding party going on at Elm Farms, Friday night did bring much needed sleep and we decided that our vacation officially started Saturday morning. First agenda item; navigate to Lou and John Shorten’s MG Specialists in Lenwade. Rising fresh with a full English breakfast under our belts, we made the nine miles in less than an hour! Lou and John had opened their home and shops for the open house and we soon found ourselves in a yard-full of stunning Magnettes. Nirvana! Handshaking began, and legendary names previously seen only on the masthead of Safety Fast magazine suddenly became connected to real living faces. We felt honored, a feeling that persisted throughout our visit and lingers yet.

A special word about the Shortens; we Magnette folk are fond of citing our relationship with them as a singularly sufficient justification for owning a Magnette. We are the privileged few. Sorry, but MGA folk don’t get to deal with Lou and John. Nor do the B folk, T-series folk, Minis, Y-types, Triple M…. Wonderful cars all, but we Magnette folk get Lou and John all to ourselves. We are Lou’s children and she knows every one of us by name. Very special people, these Shortens.

The ShortensThe Royal Couple of the Magnettic Universe - John & Lou Shorten

John ShortenJohn, the Master, at work.

We entered John’s very modest shop where he was restoring a car for a customer. “Say John, is this where you make the body panels?” we asked. You’d think we had asked a seven year old about his favorite toy. John simply lit up, showing us all his tools and proceeding to make several sample panels for us. “Nothing to it,” he said as he hammered down the flange on a cowl-vent cover. But notice how many different hammering techniques he uses. He’s just done it for so many years he’s probably unaware of all the specialized techniques he employs. This is the only place in the world you can get ‘em – body panels for the Z Magnette.

Of course, any visit to the Shortens includes the purchase of as many Magnette goodies as can be stuffed into one’s luggage. These are housed in two buildings on the Shorten property akin to the 4 X 8 wooden utility buildings we purchase from Lowes or Home Depot. One contains NOS Magnette parts and irreplaceable original used parts, and is known as “Fort Knox.” The other, containing mostly modern replacement parts is “Fort Worth.” How modest, this true Magnettic Center of the universe.

The day quickly disappeared, and in the evening most of us went into the nearby market village of Reepham for a wonderful meal at a historic pub, King’s Arms. The thrill of the night came as John fired up his 1930 F1 Magna, and gave Allen a ride into Reepham. We observed that John drives “spiritedly,” and loves a pint or three when relaxing. We further observed that the road into Reepham is a single lane, bordered by thick hedgerows. A great meal, camaraderie including our fellow Americans, Doug and Kaye Campbell from Virginia, and a few pints of great English beer followed. On the way back, Steve got the F1 ride home on this moonless night. Definitely the thrill of his MG life, as John barreled down this wee tiny lane, enjoying himself tremendously— showing us just what a 1930 six-cylinder Magna could do. The sound of that six going down that narrow lane was one we’ll never forget. Equally unforgettable: the smile on John’s face. Steve recalls that coming around a blind curve, he briefly thought “this is it,” as a large truck approached with practically no room to move over. But John’s skill prevailed, and soon Steve, John, and the F1 were safely back in the garage.

After the RideAllen, after an exhilarating ride in John's 1930 Magna.

The next day, John Shorten led us to nearby Bressingham Gardens for a Magnette mini-car-show. The weather was perfect for the picnic that Grant Howlett and his very elegant mother shared with us. For Grant and Allen, it was a heart-warming reunion from days when both lived in Virginia. For Grant and Steve, it was the beginning of a promising new friendship. We had hitched a ride to the event in an 1800 five speed Magnette (a rare conversion in the U.K.). Our return ride in Lou Shorten’s very own Magnette, piloted expertly and enthusiastically by John, proved that Magnettes do not require any modification to please the spirited driver. Allen began to question all the go-faster mods he had incorporated in his own car!

RecordbreakerMonday morning, time to check out of Elm Farms and head down to Beaulieu – with a stop at the historical Brooklands racetrack and museum. The many motor museums we visited and loved soon became a fascinating blur that we cannot begin to dissect here. There were exceptional moments, like Gaydon, where we actually saw “Old Number One” – up close enough to touch it, although we didn’t, and the three MG record-breakers; EX135, 179, and 181. Were they just models? No, they were the real thing! Overwhelming.

Old Number One"Old Number 1"

The Mill House in Beaulieu is the quintessential British B&B. What’s more, it’s within walking distance of the National Motor Museum, and it’s the epitome of charm and gracious hosting.

This brings us to the Wroxall part of our trip. Which was greater: Wroxall itself and all its incredible history, or Grant Howlett himself, who took a derelect 19th century structure and turned it into this magnificent five-star hotel? Our American imaginations, sparked by TV episodes of Downton Abbey, were totally blown by the elegance and comfort of Wroxall; right down to details like the octagonal coffee table in Allen’s room, and the most thoughtful, skilled, and superbly educated employees, Wroxall is the embodiment of Grant’s imagination, creativity, and integrity. The Abbey was built in 1141, although the stained glass altar window dates from 980. A Priory was attached to the Abbey, ruins of which remain, and Isabella Shakespeare was Prioress here, along with other members of the Shakespeare family. Beginning in 1713, the famed architect, Christopher Wren (Monticello, St. Paul’s Cathedral), and five generations of his family, lived on the estate. One of the members of the Wren family was a Vicar of the Abbey. Today, honoring the contributions of the Wren family, the Abbey, now re-consecrated as a Methodist church, has been named Wren’s Cathedral.

Wroxall AbbeyMagnettes on display at the Wroxall Abbey Estate

Grant had invited us to dinner upon our Tuesday evening arrival at Wroxall, but we were very late; we had called ahead to let him know we would not be in time for dinner. We arrived at Wroxall just seconds before 9 p.m. and a gracious receptionist asked if we were hungry. We said, “Yes, could you direct us to a pub, nearby, so we could eat?” “No, Grant is expecting you, and I’ll instruct the Chef to stay.” This is how our time at Wroxall Abbey proceeded. It’s worth a trip to the U.K. just in itself. As we were served this incredible gourmet meal, with but a few lingering guests in the large, formal dining room, and with a view to die for, we began to drift into a dream world that lasted the entirety of our visit.

Wednesday started with a leisurely trip to the Cotswold Motor Museum, ending in dinner, and a personal tour of the Abbey, the grounds, and actual hotel, courtesy of Grant. Retiring to the bar, we truly enjoyed getting to know Grant, the history and culture of the estate and area, his passion for what he does, and his love of MGs.

MapThursday morning in paradise started off in the dining room with the classic English breakfast. Our goal was to practice-run the tour to Packwood House, planned for Sunday. The Google-mapped route was prepared for Grant. We were off to reconnoiter the route in Grant’s extraordinary Magnette, 'Lord Peter.' But this morning proved again that these folks are truly, truly directionally challenged. First, there were nonexistent roads, turns, and lanes on the Google maps. We stopped perhaps a dozen times asking for help, and although folks were extremely pleasant, they often had no clue where we needed to go, or where we’d been! Hilarious, really. A man in a pub drew a detailed map, which only led us to a microbrewery owned by a man from San Diego. Not a bad destination, but Grant was convinced he needed to go back to the drawing board.

Allen Bachelder & Steve Kirby with "Lord Peter"

Grant then drove us to the magnificent British Heritage Centre in Gaydon: “Mecca” for followers of the Octagon. They have a Magnette on display, which they erroneously claim to be the nicest original Magnette in existence. They have not seen Grant’s Lord Peter, apparently. Returning from Gaydon, we had superb fish and chips at the Hatton Locks Pub overlooking Britain’s Grand Union Canal. Back to Wroxall, we concluded the evening in...guess...the bar with more great fun and fellowship.

Friday morning, we awoke to find Magnettes filling the reserved space in front of Wroxall What a site to behold. About 10 a.m., all cars proceeded down to Abingdon for a visit to Kimber House, part of the original MG works. We were given a special tour, and it was most encouraging to be guided by a bright young man, immersed in MG history. Seeing so many Magnettes in the car park was fabulous. One of the staff took us to see the famous building we always see in early factory photos. Now converted to apartments, it has been re-clad with wood siding. . . sad. But you can easily visualize where the famous “MG Car Company” sign was, and the route the cars drove down the lane. Our guide then walked us to the other end of the building, where the original bay windows remain largely intact. The second level of windows marks Cecil Kimber’s offices, from which he could survey the entire operation. Lunch was at the Boundary House, the former home of Cecil Kimber. Sadly, it is now a chain restaurant, and we’d bet the average customer hath nary a clue what the place once was. Only an octagonal brass plaque down in the bushes denotes its history. A pity. Steve then insisted that we see the Abingdon Town Council building. Here, with a great feat of engineering, the externally-stripped final MGB roadster from Abingdon was lifted through an upstairs window with two mm of clearance on either side – then reassembled for permanent display inside. How easily we might otherwise have missed this unique piece of MG history.

Returning to Wroxall, we encountered the planned BBQ in the stable grounds. The “stable” now houses its own bar, a banquet room, and over twenty guest rooms. Steve had brought a banner showing his Magnette, “Millicent Rose,” and it was hung with pride in the stable area where many folks enjoyed it. More Magnettes continued to arrive during the day and evening. Many countries were represented, including U.S., U.K., Mexico, Portugal, Belgium, Germany, New Zealand, and Australia. Grant decorated the “Stables” bar with his own splendid collection of

MG memorabilia . . . thereby making it the MG Bar. During our time around it, we met Celia Palmer, daughter of Gerald Palmer, whose notable designs included the Magnette, the Wolseley 4/44, and the Jowett Jupiter. She shared many fond memories of her father. Great conversations ensued around this too-perfect setting. All-tooquickly, the evening ended . . . but not before drinks at the “other” bar – more great fellowship and MG stories.

Saturday was the centerpiece; we all traveled to Coventry, a vastly important city during the heyday of the British car industry – home to Jaguar and others. We set up in the car park in front of the Coventry Transport Museum, where the cars were displayed for the show. In the end, we counted thirty-nine Magnettes. This was not the total as cars came and left the several events. Estimates are that over fifty Magnettes attended one or more of them.

One highlight of the day was meeting Don Hayter, designer of the MGB. He was sitting alone in the coffee shop area, talking with another man, who turned out to be Harold Brooks. Steve introduced himself, and asked Mr. Hayter to sign the program. We both spent quite a few minutes chatting with him. What a great gentleman, and a treasure trove of MG knowledge. He recalled accompanying Syd Enever down the MGB production line and observing workers spiritedly “adjusting” doors using large hammers, blocks of wood, etc. Looking toward Don Hayter, Mr. Enever observed: “Those blokes could put a kink in an anvil.” We were left wishing for so much more.

The afternoon sessions were breath-taking, with three speakers who spanned sixty years of rallying with MG Magnettes: Harold Brooks, who campaigned Magnettes in the 1950s; Jan Pearce, who campaigned Magnettes for over twenty years; and then the incredible couple, Jose Ramao DeSouza and his wife Maria, who have campaigned for over twenty years, covering eighty countries. Some of their rallyes include Peking to Paris (twice), 1000 Millas Sport Argentina, Mille Miglia Retro, London-Sydney Marathon, London to Casablanca, Nile Trial, Trans America Rallye, and the Great South American Challenge. Their rallyes literally circumnavigate the world. And talk about adventure!

All-too-soon, it was nearly 4 p.m., and we hadn’t even seen the museum! The entire city of Coventry was pretty much destroyed in a one-night blitz during WWII. The museum’s powerful interpretive full-size diorama depicts the havoc. We almost ran through the exhibit, doing in twenty-five minutes what should have taken several hours. But the message was not lost on us. We arrived back at the Magnette display just in time to miss the presentation of awards. Back to Wroxall in Lord Peter, and time to get ready for the banquet. Steve went into the main bar briefly to take advantage of the wifi reception – or so he says! Actually Trevor Jones offered to buy a pint. Two hours and a few pints later, Steve barely had time to get ready! The banquet was fabulous. First, of course, a few more pints and great conversation around the MG Bar . . . and then the bagpipes summoned us to a scrumptious dinner. The occasion was crowned with an address by MGCC president, John Day. A perfect end to a perfect evening.

CourtyardCelebrants enjoying a pint in the Wroxall courtyard before the final banquet

Sunday morning, a light breakfast was served in the “stables,” where Allen gave a tech session about the many upgrades he has done to his Magnette: disc brakes, 1800 five main engine, Nissan five-speed gearbox, but mainly - air conditioning. By now, Magnettes were totally filling all available spaces in front of the hotel. About 10 a.m. the group headed out for the tour, with re-written and checked directions, although several “locals” pointed out they were still not correct. Oh well. Having “already done the tour . . . and more” on Thursday, we headed directly to the final destination to help set up for the picnic at the end: a National Trust Property called Packwood House in Warwickshire.

One-by-one the Magnettes trickled in, with many a story about the route. Wroxall Abbey had prepared picnic lunches for us, and we spread out on a blanket to share them. There we were, eating our picnic on the blanket, with a row of MG Magnettes behind us, in front of incredible topiary trees from the Packwood House estate. Does it get any better than that? But then folks began departing and we knew the end was imminent. We stayed long enough to say our goodbyes to all. Returning in Lord Peter to Wroxall, we stopped at a pub for a pint . . . or two.

Dinner then sounded terrific, but it was Sunday night, and the pubs had already stopped serving food. Alas, where to eat? Grant called ahead, and made sure the Chef would stay over, and we had our final elegant meal at Wroxall.

It was an experience we will never, ever, forget. Incredible, thanks to Lou and John, Grant and his family, the staff at Wroxall Abbey, and all the incredible folks we met along the way. As we say in NAMGAR, the cars brought us here; the people will surely bring us back.

MG Bar WroxallThe MG Bar at the Wroxall "Stables"

Photos by Allen Bachelder, Steve Kirby, and Leighton Joskey

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Last updated on November 30, 2017.