Vintage Minor Register
The OHC Minor 1928 to 1931
William Morris with a prototype Minor in the summer of 1928
The vintage Morris Minor had its origins in early 1927, by which time W. R. Morris had determined that he must produce a car to compete directly with the Austin Seven. The Seven had been in production for five years, and was selling in increasing volume. The chief reason why Morris did not produce a competitor to the Seven earlier is that, while it would certainly have captured sales from Austin, it would also have adversely affected sales of the hugely popular Morris Cowley, which was easily outselling the Seven in the then more popular 12 h.p class. However, by 1927, demand for cars in the 8 h. p. class was booming. In 1926, 25% of all new cars were in the 12 h.p class. In 1927, this had slipped to 21%. In the same period, registrations in the 8 h.p class had risen from 5% to 14%. The time was right to launch the Minor, and plans were put into hand with some urgency.
To save time, Morris tasked Morris Commercial Cars and Wolseley Motors to commence design work in parallel. Due to bankruptcy William Morris had acquired Wolseley from Vickers in February 1927 for £730,000 of his own money. Oliver Boden, who had previously headed Morris Commercial, was responsible for the Minor’s engine. Boden subsequently took over Wolseley Motors in July 1933 when Leonard Lord moved to take charge of Morris Motors. In 1936, he was promoted from Managing Director of Wolseley Motors to vice-chairman of Morris Motors when Lord left after a row with William Morris (by then Lord Nuffield). Boden was an outstanding engineer with a background at Vickers. He died in March 1940 when directing Spitfire production at Castle Bromwich. His early death has been attributed to overwork in these dark days.
The engine for the Minor was to be a radical departure from the usual Morris sidevalve offerings. A number of new features were jointly patented by Wolseley Motors (1927) Ltd. and Oliver Boden, including patent no. 318,031, dated October 5th 1928 for an improved method of mounting and driving dynamos. During the war, Wolseley had built large Hispano-Suiza overhead camshaft V-8 aero engines for the SE 5a scout biplane under the Wolseley Viper name and post war, this configuration was used in their car engines. This ‘Hisso’ engine had a pair of vertically arranged camshaft drives driven by spiral bevel gears, and the Minor arrangement placed a vertical dynamo where the Hisso’s cam drive shaft was placed. Since Morris bought Wolseley Motors in February 1927, the date of this patent would suggest that Wolseley had not, as is commonly believed, designed this dynamo configuration prior to the purchase of Wolseley Motors by Morris.
While Wolseley Motors were primarily responsible for the Minor’s engine, Morris Commercial Cars created the chassis. Morris Commercial Cars, at Soho, Birmingham, had come into being in February 1924 to take over the bankrupt E. G. Wrigley & Co. Ltd. Many of the skilled Wrigley staff were retained. In addition to commercial vehicles, Morris Commercial Cars undertook prototype development for Morris, including the Empire Oxford.
Percy Rose headed Wolseley Motors at Adderley Park, having joined Morris Motors in 1922 from Royce & Co. (fore-runners of Rolls Royce), Belsize, Crossley, Willys-Overland and Gwynnes. Once the prototype chassis was completed, it was delivered to Morris Bodies in Coventry for the fitting of the first fabric saloon body.
In the spring of 1928, rumours abounded in the motor industry that Morris was about to announce a new small model. The announcement of the Minor came in May 1928. The Motor immediately printed the following verse:
Ox and the Morris Cow
Full details of the new model were printed in the Autocar in August 1928, which proclaimed:
“At last a day long awaited has arrived when it is possible to give a full description of a car that may well make history, not only in the land of its birth, but throughout the world.”
While the appearance of the Minor might not have immediately made motoring history, this sentiment may be justified when one considers that the Minor led directly and swiftly via the ‘M’ Type MG to the advent of a long and illustrious line of MG Midgets.
They went on:
This concept distinguished the Minor from the Herbert Austin’s Seven. While the Seven was a baby car, the Minor, which shared the same track and wheelbase, was a full-sized car scaled down. Unlike the Seven, it featured a conventional full-length channel-section ladder chassis with full semi-elliptic springing, providing a suspension that worked, fully-coupled brakes and a cast steel monobloc engine with greater power by virtue of its greater capacity and overhead valve arrangement. It was altogether better built with a solidly mounted radiator, Wilmot-Breeden bumpers front and rear and a wealth of other design refinements usually found in larger cars. And unlike the contemporary Seven, it was also a full four-seater. Indeed, the Morris sales brochure for 1929 stated that:
“While the Morris Minor incorporates certain features of design that make for unusual economy, hardiness and comfort, it is, first and last, a conventionally tested lay-out with no freakish features. In other words, it is a true motorcar, with all the fine features that have made Morris cars so popular and reliable in the past.”
The reference to the lack of freakish features was, no doubt, not only intended to elevate the status of the Minor above that of the cycle car that had had its day by the late 1920’s, but was also a thinly veiled reference to the baby Austin, against which the Minor was primarily intended from the outset to compete.
If further evidence of the soundness of design were required, the adoption of the Minor chassis by Cecil Kimber for a new small sports car provides it. The frame itself was sturdy and low slung with the side rails kicking up over both front and rear axles. However, it was also the new engine that caught Kimber’s eye. Well-designed, readily tunable and with an excellent torque range, this overhead cam unit was a distinct cut above the prevailing sidevalve unit fitted to light cars of the day.
With a price tag of £175, a prototype MG 8/33 (subsequently becoming known as the ‘M’ Type Midget) was presented to the public at the Olympia Motor Show in October 1928, along with the new Minor models. Two Minor models were launched – a fabric saloon at £135 and a four-seater tourer at £125. A further £2 paid for an optional Triplex screen on the tourer, while £6/10/- would pay for Triplex glass all round on the fabric saloon (Triplex was to become standard from September 1929). The tourer was offered at the same price as the Austin Seven tourer, while the fabric saloon was £10 more expensive. While the Midget’s initial production had to wait until March 1929, Morris had already prepared the Minor production line at Cowley, and production commenced immediately, some 2,000 chassis being laid down before Christmas, representing a very creditable launch. Morris liked to have his distributors and dealers stocked with cars by the time of the Motor Show.
In addition to the MG Midget, the neatly-designed and lively Minor chassis inevitably attracted the attention of specialist coachbuilders. These went to Maddox of Huntingdon, Hoyle of Weybridge, Maltby of Folkestone, A. P. Compton of Merton, South London, who produced the Arrow, Spear, Dart and a coupé, Coventry Motor & Sundries (CMS) with their Sports and Super Sports models, Jarvis of Wimbledon, Boyd Carpenter with their B. C. Special, Sunrayn and Gordon England, who produced the Stadium 2-seater and a saloon with ‘Tecalamet’ centralised lubrication systems. However, very few specials found their way onto the road compared with the MG – only 137 chassis being despatched from Cowley for the home market during the life of the OHV Minor.
One other modified vehicle should be mentioned. The Duple coachworks took standard Morris Minor tourers, carefully sliced off the rear of the body above the rear wings, and provided a custom van body with a C-cab design that could be clipped on to the rear of the car. In this way, the vehicle could be changed from a tourer to a van, and vice versa in a few minutes. Happily, one of these charming vehicles has survived, but few other specials have been so lucky. Known survivors include three or four CMS specials, only one of which is currently roadworthy, and a Maltby 2-seater with dicky which is currently undergoing a long-term restoration.
Of these specials, only the Arrow benefited from engine tuning of any sort. The compression ratio was raised, the ports polished, the carburettor tuned and the ignition timing advanced. Combined with the car’s lightweight fabric 2-seater body, these modifications gave a sprightly performance with a quoted top speed of 61 m.p.h.
Perhaps the reason why so few Minor specials were produced was that, although the chassis was inexpensive at around £100 ex-works, the finished specials were offered at a considerably higher price than the standard Minor range, ranging up to £187/10/- for a Jarvis coupé. For this sum, the potential owner could buy an MG Midget with considerably enhanced performance, and still save GBP 20 – which was no small sum in 1930. Remember that, in 1929, when the chassis sold for £100, a standard tourer could be had for £125, from which we can deduce that the complete tourer body with windscreen, hood, sidescreens and seats could be provided for just £25.
From the outset, Minors were exported around the world. In all, just over 2,000 vehicles and chassis were exported, most of which found their way to Australia, with a few going to New Zealand and the rest of the world. A good proportion of those going to Australia were exported as bare chassis, being bodied by a number of local organizations.
During the course of production of the first 3,000 chassis, a number of subtle modifications were made to the Minor specification, including a much-improved carburetter, replacing the original and unreliable SU 2M unit with it’s concentric float chamber with a more conventional unit. Also modified were the bevel pinion bearings, the handbrake ratchet, the front dumbirons and the track rod ends. In addition, a less deeply dished steering wheel, providing more room for the driver, replaced the original Bullnose pattern item.
The new Minor immediately began to cut into the sales of the Austin Seven, but the depression of the early 1930’s was already looming. Overall UK car production fell substantially in 1928. Nevertheless, Austin still managed to sell 22,000 Sevens in 1928, a figure that actually rose to 26,992 in 1929, indicating the growing strength of the small car market which offered practical and economic motoring. For the first time, the proportion of cars registered in the 8 h.p category exceeded 20%, but such encouraging figures could not be maintained in the face of the rapidly worsening economic climate with its soaring unemployment.
On 29th January 1929, Austin raised the price of the Seven tourer and saloon to £130 and £140 respectively. Now the Minor models were both £5 cheaper that their Austin counterparts, and this differential remained until the 1930 Motor Show in October, when Morris matched the Austin price rises. The price war had commenced.
The Minor coachbuilt saloon
was introduced in September 1929
The 1930 season Morris brochure confidently stated:
“Creating at its introduction more interest than any small car in the last decade – not only in this country but throughout the world – the Morris Minor, over a period of twelve months has justified the confidence with which an eager public has waited for it.”
This claim was justified by production figures - by the end of 1929, Minors accounted for 20% of Morris production, confirming the success of the model.
The new season saw the introduction of a coachbuilt saloon with ‘Kopalapso’ folding head (sometimes referred to irreverently as a Kolapso folding head!), and a 5 cwt van. The coachbuilt saloon was offered at £149, and the van for £135, and the chassis was now £105. Meanwhile, both the tourer and fabric saloon were to remain in production at £130 and £140 respectively.
Although the 1930 brochure claimed that the new season’s models would feature chromium finish, the early coachbuilt saloons retained their nickel radiators. This was almost certainly a result of Morris using up their stock of delivered components. Triplex safety glass became standard.
In October 1929, the small dynamo was replaced with a larger unit, and the cylinder block and engine nosepiece were modified to accept the new unit, which provided more charging capacity.
September 1930 saw the introduction of the first 2-seater Minor model - the Semi-sports. Unlike Herbert Austin, William Morris was not known for promoting his cars by way of entering them in sporting competition. While it is true that he sanctioned MG’s sporting undertakings, he had no enthusiasm for copying Kimber’s approach with his own more pedestrian offerings. However, the tremendous competition successes, and consequent good publicity which accrued to the ‘M’ Type not only guaranteed the car a place in motor sporting history, but also generated very satisfactory sales figures that put MG in the quantity production market for the first time.
The prototype Morris Minor
This success was not lost on Morris or Austin, for they both produced ‘M’ Type look-alikes for the 1931 season. Austin Sevens were, of course, very firmly established in the sports competition, but the semi-sporting 1931 Austin Seven 2-seater with a steel paneled boat tail, was a new body style for the Seven chassis. Similarly, Morris had no intention of producing a sporting model, but was prepared to (literally) go half way with the Semi-sports. While mimicking the sports car boat tail of the MG, the car retained the wings and running boards of the standard production models.
Initial announcements in the motoring press were made as early as July 1930 and pegged the price of the Semi-sports at £135. Morris adverts were also quoting this price in August, but this was reduced in early September, prior to the Olympia Motor Show (as were all other Minor models) to £125. At this price the Semi-sports was now £40 cheaper than the ‘M’ Type, and many aspiring Midget owners settled for a Semi-sports as a result.
At the same time, a fire engine was introduced and sold in very small numbers at £170. This tiny vehicle was intended for use by “large private institutions and small communities, or as a tender to the more pretentious fire-fighting vehicle.”
The 1931 Motor Show coincided with unemployment rising to 2 million as the depression began to bite. Overall UK car production fell 5% in 1930, but paradoxically, production in the 8 h.p class actually rose by a very healthy 18.3% - the economy of this class of car placing light cars at a distinct advantage over their larger and more expensive counterparts.
The economy of the Minor was emphasized in the 1931 Morris brochure, which stated:
“Morris Minor cars represent the very acme of economical motoring. With their roomy bodies, sparkling road performance, absolute reliability extensive equipment, low first cost, and equally low upkeep cost, this range has brought motoring pleasure within the reach of many thousands who hitherto considered the possession of car transport beyond their means.”
Late in 1930, the price war took on a new urgency when newspaper rumours appeared claiming that Herbert Austin was about to launch a £100 version of the Seven. Austin strongly denied the story, stating that rumours of this sort were damaging to the industry, which was busy enough trying to sell its cars at current prices, without people being encouraged to hope for decreases. At the same time, it became clear that Ford were about to launch the Ford 8 at just £100. Faced with these commercial pressures, Morris reviewed the Minor design to see where costs could be cut. The Wilmot-Breeden bumpers could be removed, the sidelamps could be removed, chromium plating on the radiator and windscreen could be replaced with black enamel, but the biggest single saving could be made in the engine department. A sidevalve engine would be far cheaper both to manufacture and assemble. Of course, it would produce less power for the same capacity, but this could be compensated for at least in part, by the lowering of the rear axle ratio. This then was the thinking behind the surprise launch of the sidevalve Minor in the last days of 1930, with production getting under way by February 1931. The result was a new range of Minors, the cheapest of which was a new 2-seater offered for an even £100. Perhaps understandably in hindsight, the cheaper, more basic sidevalve Minor sold no better than its overhead valve forerunner.
In October 1930, a major modification was made to the Minor braking system, replacing the inefficient transmission handbrake, and connecting the handbrake lever to the main brake cross-shaft, such that both foot and hand brakes operated via the same mechanism on all four wheels.
Aware that, unlike the competing Minor, the Seven was still not a full four seater, Austin had lengthened the chassis of the Seven for the 1931 season. Morris followed suit with the introduction of the Morris Family Eight in August 1931. Unlike the Seven, the new Eight had four doors and a relatively spacious interior. However, the new body was depressingly heavy, and consequently the Eight’s performance - even with the overhead camshaft engine, was pedestrian to say the least. While the Eight initially retained the overhead power unit, and the chassis numbering of the vintage Minor continued in sequence, the Eight was an altogether different and more humdrum vehicle.
The trend to increase passenger capacity at the expense of performance and the introduction of the cheaper but less powerful sidevalve engine characterized the early ‘30’s. The sidevalve Minor and long wheelbase Eight continued in production until 1934, the Eight adopting the sidevalve unit for the final season.
In keeping up with the fashion of the day, the resulting models lost forever their vintage light car charm, both in terms of outward appearance and road performance.
Production of the OHV Minor ended in July 1931, allowing Cowley to concentrate on the sidevalve models, and the start of 1932 season Morris Family Eight production, prior to its official launch at the 1931 Motor Show.
The vintage Minor remained in common use up to the war, and many were kept on the road during the conflict, since their frugal fuel consumption provided more miles per petrol coupon. Others were laid up for the duration, and joined their more active counterparts after VE Day. Spare remained available through Remax and Brivec for a while, but supplies were dwindling steadily. As a result, many vintage Minors had their OHV engines replaced by sidevalve units, which were simpler and cheaper to maintain.
Along with so many other pre-war cars, numbers of running Minors were dramatically reduced in 1963 by the advent of the Ten Year Test – or old crock’s test as it became known. If the condition of cars found over the recent years is anything to go by, spares must have been virtually non-existent by the early 1960’s, although one firm, run by John Wrigley, plied a trade in Minor and Morris 8 spares in Hounslow for many years.
In recent years, many surviving cars have been cannibalized to provide valuable spares for M Type and other MG’s, and more than a few have actually been turned into M Types!
Now, at the turn of the century, a lowly handful of vintage Minors survive – perhaps no more than 200 worldwide, representing less that 1% of total production. However, these cars are now largely in the hands of enthusiasts who are willing and able to treat these venerable and historically significant motor cars with the respect and affection that they now richly deserve. They stand as a tribute to William Morris and his team who, along with Herbert Austin, helped bring motoring to the million.
Sad end for
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