Giles Chapman on the life and times of Cecil Kimber, the father of British sports cars
Published: 17 May 2005
In 1924, Cecil Kimber founded MG, the most popular British sports car marque ever. Surprisingly, his knowledge of car mechanics was scant. He preferred sailing or fishing to tinkering with engines, but his daughter, Jean Cook, now 79, recalls that her father “drove like the clappers”, having abandoned motorcycling in 1910 after a crash.
What Cecil Kimber lacked in technical nous he made up for with business acumen. Born on 12 April 1888, he went to Stockport Grammar and Manchester Technical schools before becoming an apprentice at his father’s printworks.
He began working for the car tycoon William Morris (later Lord Nuffield) in 1921, and just one year later was made general manager of Nuffield’s profitable Morris Garages chain in Oxford. Kimber quickly realised that turnover could be increased by offering special models, and so launched the £268 “Morris Garages Chummy” in 1923. It was a Morris Oxford or Cowley with a hood that could accommodate an adult or two children in the back – standard Morrises had a dickey seat whose occupants got soaked if it rained.
Kimber started to refer to his cars as “MGs” (for Morris Garages) in 1924, but only in 1925 was all mention of Morris dropped and the term “MG Super Sports” emblazoned on his publicity material. MG moved in 1929 to a proper factory at Abingdon, and in July 1930 the sports car enterprise that came from nowhere became the MG Car Company, with Kimber its managing director.
The development of MG sports and racing cars throughout the 1920s and 1930s defined this great British marque, but things changed in 1935 after Lord Nuffield sold his privately held Morris Garages to the publically quoted Morris Motors. MG’s racing department was closed, and design work was switched to Morris’s Cowley headquarters. Kimber was left simply to manage the plant, which is what he thought he was doing when he took on a contract to repair tanks there during the Second World War. Nuffield, though, grabbed the chance to sack him in 1941 for not seeking his permission first.
Cecil Kimber’s charisma had made him a tricky dismissal prospect, but it emerged after his sacking that Kimber’s ballooning ego had irked Nuffield for years. There was also lofty disapproval of Kimber’s private life. His marriage ended in separation in the spring of 1937; his wife Irene died soon afterwards, and within two months he’d married his “new” girlfriend.
So Cecil Kimber, the genius behind MG, was out on his ear. As Jean Cook says: “He didn’t show any emotion in front of me. He was rather Victorian in that way, but my stepmother told me that it broke his heart.”
On 1 December 1942 he joined a London engineering company, but after all his problems he quickly sank into depression. Work, despite his generous £5,000 salary, was tricky because colleagues resented his reputation. He weathered the storm, but his new career was to seal his fate.
It was bucketing with rain on the evening of Sunday, 4 February 1945. Cecil Kimber reached King’s Cross station from his home in north London, just in time to catch the 6pm train to Leeds. He was bound for one of the train’s early stops, Peterborough, for a sales meeting the following day.
The London and North Eastern Railways “Silver Fox” locomotive rumbled out of the station, but as the rain lashed down, its wheels slipped so violently that the engine stalled, and the train began to roll backwards.
The route for outgoing trains had already been re-set to allow the 7pm Aberdeen express to depart from platform 10. A signalman detected what was happening to the stricken Leeds service and tried frantically to divert the by-now runaway train back to platform 15. But one of the bogies of the last coach, containing a no doubt mystified Cecil Kimber, had crossed the points before they began to move. The last two coaches derailed and the very last one toppled over. Two men died – Cecil Kirk, a Blackpool fishing company manager, and Cecil Kimber.
In the Monday morning newspapers, developments from Berlin, Frankfurt and Manila pushed the tragedy to the foot of most front pages. Nevertheless, the severity of the crash meant that train sevices took 19 days to be fully restored.
The horrible irony of the affair was not lost on Jean Cook, whose father had been due to give her away at her wedding in April 1945. “The only reason he was on that train was because he couldn’t get the petrol coupons to drive to Peterborough in his own MG. His death was nobody’s fault, but MG had been his be-all and end-all. It was almost a merciful release – he never quite got over being fired.”