In the Rearview Mirror: Bringing the MG EX181 to the Meadow Brook Concours d’Elegance

Stirling Moss drove the MG EX181 to a land speed record in 1957. I set a record of sorts too when I brought the EX181 to the Meadowbrook Concours d’Elegance in 1996.

Stirling Moss With MG EX181
Stirling Moss with the EX181 “Roaring Raindrop” in 1957
Photo Credit Unknown

Stirling Moss drove this MG to a land speed record in 1957. Somehow he got roped into drinking a Coke to rehydrate and pose. I set a record of sorts too bringing the EX181 to the Meadowbrook Concours d’Elegance in 1996. The MG needed a wash, it was hot, so here I am rehydrating.

Peter Pleitner With MG EX181
Peter Pleitner with MG EX181

A couple of years before, Don Sommers, the founder of the Meadow Brook Concourse d’Elegance (inspired by Pebble Beach), invited me to join the selection committee for the Meadow Brook Concours d’Elegance in Michigan to prepare for the 100th anniversary celebration of the automobile in America with the MG as the honored foreign marque. I organized the display of MGs in three circles, one to showcase different MG racers, the others to tell the pre- and post-war story of “Safety Fast, the Sports Car Americans Loved First.” All were available in North America, brought to Meadow Brook at the owner’s expense, except one. The EX 181, the last MG land speed record holder from 1957 and 1958, was in England. It first claimed records for the under one and a half liter class (90 cu. in.) driven by Stirling Moss (245 mph) then Phil Hill (255 mph) on the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah. The latter record was for the 1.5 to 2.0 liter class F achieved by honing the four cylinders to a whopping 1508 cc! Both racers declared it completely stable. A large part of MG’s reputation since 1930 was its many world speed records for small-displacement engines. MG even helped inaugurate Germany’s Autobahn for pre-war record runs with Auto Union and Mercedes.

A crane had to remove the EX181 from the British Heritage Motor Center’s display in Gaydon to fly it to Detroit. The crane had to be rented, ground transport hired, and the EX181 secured onto an aviation pallet, etc. All had to be scheduled and paid for coming and going. That came to around $18,000 US. It was more challenging than for a car because of the unusually low ground clearance and extreme aerodynamic body.

I decided not to cover it for transport for two reasons, additional cost and it’s safer for the freight handlers to see what they are moving. I inspected it at Emory Air’s freight terminal next to the DTW airport and had it trucked to Otto Rosenbush’s house near Meadow Brook Hall. There we washed, studied, and admired our trophy. Never before had a land speed record car been displayed at a concours d’elegance. We soon learned why. It doesn’t like soft grass and uneven ground is even worse. So it set another precedent, display it at the entrance, in front of the hall.

The following winter I suggested we make land speed record (LSR) cars a featured class. No was the answer from our autocrat Don Sommers. I suggested station wagons, hearses, and flower cars be a special feature, someone else suggest famous vintage hot rods and customs. Don got louder, “no!” Our alt-concours preceded Pebble Beach by two weeks. Just a few years later, Pebble Beach featured hot rods. I’ve also heard of station wagons and commercial custom-bodied cars at some of the important new concourses, but no LSR cars yet, probably because of risky logistics. Fair enough. Six years after the EX181’s showing, the Henry Ford Museum purchased the Goldenrod, a very long four-hemi monster built and driven by the Summers brothers at 409 mph in 1965. It’s tubular frame was broken in transit which delayed its debut four years. The EX181 weighed less than three of those engines and it was built as a monocoque.

I’m compelled to also share a seemingly unrelated but important “sidebar” of automotive history which might escape if I don’t include it here. It concerns an infamous Cadillac that looked like it wanted to fly (with two fins instead of the EX181’s single fin) the 1959 model I’m sure you know without being shown a photo. On our selection committee was David R. Holls, a GM designer since the early 1950s. Probably because the Centenary of the American Automobile was the dominant topic of our monthly meetings, Dave was asked one evening why no designer’s names were ever associated with the tail fins and lights on the ’59 Caddy. He was there. His answer was no one ever would claim them because they’re all embarrassed it was produced. What? Yes, he said. Those fins were a prank by young designers including himself who wanted to “roast” and tease Harley Earl about his jets and fins fetish at his retirement/Christmas party in 1957. They burned the midnight oil in a studio for a week before the party to add those outrageous fins to a styling buck. In January they learned that Harley had turned the table on them and got Cadillac to sign off on those fins for ’59, his last official act of his career as GM’s first Chief of Design.

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