(MG returns to the Bonneville Salt Flats)

24 Aug 2014 | Author: | Comments Off on (MG returns to the Bonneville Salt Flats)


Text from The Daily Telegraph Saturday 30/8/97)

THE Bonneville Salt Flats lie eight miles out of a town nestled 99 miles from the nearest McDonald’s. This might truly be the middle of nowhere. Smeared between Utah’s biscuit-brown mountains, the Flats present a barren landscape which has, indisputably, passed the Persil Challenge.

A pared, glaring white surface underscores a baby-blue sky.

It’s harsh even through sunglasses which evade all but eight per cent of visible light and sufficiently reflective to make SPF30 sunblock simmer like cheap cooking oil. Careful with those shorts, too: sunshine bounces off the salt with enough gusto to give rise to a condition which locals laconically refer to as dry roasted nuts.

And yet, every August for the past 49 years, Bonneville becomes the focus for a curiously laid-back subset of American car culture. This is a place where everyone is a dude, dude. Corralled out on the salt is a posse of cars, trucks and motorcycles, home-built and – in the vernacular – hopped-up.

Their mission is as simple one. to go fast, to go veryfast!

Ask the guys with the 1943 International truck about their long, madly green machine’s engine. It’s a diesel, from a tugboat. Horsepower? About 4,000. Speed?

Wellњ smiles one, scratching his head, we’d be real happy with 220mph.

Al Teague turned up in his streamliner, the world’s fastest wheel-driven car, looking like nothing less than a giant propelling pencil – which can hit 432mph, pointed end first.

Mass-produced cars aimed at America’s youth – Chevrolet Camaro, Ford Mustang – are plied with ridiculous power units and flit past 200mph in a dribbly exhalation of exhaust noise, a thrilling rumble bouncing irrepressibly along the salt.

Into this heaven for hot-rodders came MG. The car, by comparison with the heavy metal competition, was meek. It could probably fit in the glovebox of the 4,000bhp truck.

An MGF, a car Americans know nothing about (at one point the two course commentators debated its specification and decided that it was mid-engined and front-wheel drive). And not a costly, ultimate-specification MGF, a facsimile of the road car stuffed with all manner of prime racing components, but modified using Rover Maestro diesel van hubs, Rover 100 steering gear and curiously skinny rims, actually space-saver temporary spare wheels from the Rover 800, swathed in what looked like preternaturally aerodynamic cymbals.

The Crew?

Blokes from Rover Group.


A Land Rover mechanic from California.



I told everybody, ‘Don’t come to me with big ideas – come to me with bits that work’, explained engineer Wynne Mitchell. Twelve months ago, Rover engineering director Nick Stephenson and sales chief Tom Purves mulled over going back to Bonneville, reclaiming a little heritage for MG. A Stirling effort, you might say.

But would the project be chaps-in-sensible-slacks or techno-overkill? At one point, Mitchell located a Hart Grand Prix engine and transmission to slot into a purpose-built replica of an MGF to try and break 300mph. That idea didn’t get past the spitballing stage: instead, management’s final edict was constructed around mechanical simplicity, using standard parts and unleaded pump fuel, to shuffle past 200mph.

The first sketch from designer David Woodhouse included a tiny mugshot of the late actor John Le Mesurier: Woodhouse also thought the team uniform should include pith helmets. Instead, finishing the car in glossy British Racing Green and applying a pair of Union flags had to suffice. Even the white lightning-flash graphic along the side of the car – echoing the prewar MG EX135 record-breaker – irritated the engineers: the EX-F, as the car became known, had to spend an extra day in the paintshop.

Jeff Howell is Rover’s manager for aerodynamics, responsible for the wind-cheating characteristics of all the company’s products since the Rover 800. He worked on shaping EX-F, slicing the coefficient of drag from CD 0.37 to CD 0.24. Phil Turner, in charge of the chassis concept for the MGF road car, honed the record-breaker’s underpinnings.

This approach typified Rover at Bonneville. It would be easy to turn up with a phalanx of technicians, a gaggle of cars, racks of computer monitors and a mountain of self-aggrandisement to underscore a clumsy attempt in turning Bonneville into the worst kind of promotional event. Instead, Rover judged the timbre of Speed Week perfectly.

This is an event with no prize money on offer – you race for a tiny sliver of computer print-out showing speed to three decimal places, looking like nothing more than a credit card receipt for a particularly ambitious restaurant bill. The car was everything. Hype consisted of issuing all team members with an MG polo shirt and an economy-sized tub of sunscreen.

EX-F retained the MGF’s standard bodyshell, into which was inserted a roll-cage as specified by the Southern California Timing Association, the event organisers. We made the decision fairly early on that it had to be a long-tail, Spyder kind of vehicle, explained aerodynamicist Howell.

During 32 hours of windtunnel testing, the tail was extended by 400mm to improve stability, withnew steel panels hand-made in Rover Design’s prototype shop. Closing off the air intakes at the front of the car cut drag and lift and Howell painstakingly taped over the car’s panel gaps before each run. Why?

Because he had discovered that minimising the tiniest surface imperfections yielded an extra 1.5mph at 200mph.

The bubble top was blow-moulded by a glider canopy specialist. The chassis retained the standard Hydragas suspension, but discarded its anti-roll bars: cornering was irrelevant at Bonneville. The rear tyres were narrower than the fronts – but not by choice, smiled Phil Turner.

These are the only sizes Goodyear makes.

If the car was created by selectively raiding the Rover corporate parts bin, the engine poached rom a wider range of sources. The Garrett urbocharger is identical to the unit used in the Ford Escort RS Cosworth, the intercooler comes from an Aston Martin DB7. (Has any car ever previously melded components from the DB7 and a Maestro van?)

Developed in co-operation with tuning specialist Janspeed, the 1,433cc Rover K-series engine produced a startling 328bhp at 7,000rpm -compared with the 143bhp of the 1,796cc standard car.

Even more impressively, one of the six engines built for the project ran for an hour on the test-bench at full throttle.

If it were a race or rally car we really could build it with our eyes closed, explained Wynne Mitchell. We’ve been working flat out on the build since April – we could have used another month. But the arcana of the SCTA regulations – the smallest part of the hex of a lug nut must be larger than the largest part of the taper of the mounting hole – suggested that Rover should recruit expert assistance.

Terry Kilbourne is a mechanic at a Land Rover dealership in Simi Valley, California. His hobby is driving fast on salt; his personal best at Bonneville is 226mph. He guided Rover through the SCTA rulebook and was nominated to drive the EX-F.

Once air-freighted to Los Angeles, the car would be completed on his driveway.

It’s a sweetheart. It’s been put together extremely well – the way I’d build a car if I could afford it, he said.


His first run was at 168mph.

Good, but not good enough to move from the short three-mile course to the seven-mile run. That required breaking a threshold of 175mph.

Then it rained. Water sluiced across the salt. One day’s running would be lost as the salt cookedonce more and turned sufficiently crusty to drive on.

The place is just a lottery, grimaced Wynne Mitchell. If you come here and the salt is dry, I reckon you can find 30mph over what you get when the salt is damp. But I don’t think that, when it’s dry, it’s got anything like the grip of Tarmac.

Rover’s calculations estimated a top speed of 220mph on smooth, progressive asphalt. Slimy, vaguely soggy salt was less easy to predict.

Then there was the sheer complication of running at Bonneville.

Drivers can run as often as they like during the week.

Fine in theory, but queuing is endemic with 250 cars entered.

When waterlogged salt shut down one track, Speed Week became Slow Day. The Rover guys, including mechanics Alan Reid and Roly Allen, waited in line for over five hours, in 100 degree heat, to complete one three-mile run. The EX-F got so toasty that the gas in the suspension units expanded, arbitrarily hiking the ride height.

But the speed still came. From 168mph to 183mph, 183mph to 195mph and then an unexpected 217.4mph.

Why unexpected?

The team was expecting to shave the 200mph barrier, not shatter it. Under SCTA rules, Kilbourne had to complete a second pass to verify his speed – then it became an official record.

The two-way average was 215.24mph.

Rover had returned to Bonneville.

Kilbourne eloquently described the track as butt-smooth.

It was a dream, he smiled from beneath a warm champagne shower.

It could not have gone any better. Even out in the middle of nowhere!


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