MG proved its mettle in going quickly before the Second World War. The Reid Railton designed EX135 streamliner set the standard for MG’s record breaking and Goldie Gardner continued to set class records after the hostilities had ended.
EX181 was the pinnacle of MG’s record breaking programme. Abingdon’s engineering chief, Syd Enever ventured that an even more slippery shape than previous MG record breakers was required to go faster again. His complex mix of a teardrop shape and a Polish aerofoil section resulted in a fluid profile which was soon nicknamed the ‘Roaring Raindrop’, proved by extensive wind tunnel model testing. Colleague Terry Mitchell refined the engineering design, penning over 200 drawings for the car.
With a height of just shy of 39 inches, the driver reclined in front of the engine, with his feet ahead of the front axle. The fully enclosed driving position was claustrophobic, with just the head visible in a small Perspex canopy. This ‘bubble’ also proved a convenient place for hot exhaust and fuel fumes to congregate, as Phil Hill would later find out.
One aim was to promote MG’s new supercharged MGA twin-cam engine, built up by Eddie Maher. Mid-mounted in the car and driving through a Riley RM-series gearbox to the chassis mounted differential, the Shorrock blown 1489cc unit produced almost 290bhp. The chassis was tubular with MGA front and de Dion rear suspension, together with quarter-elliptic leaf springs and braking consisted of a single disc at the rear.
The American, Phil Hill took the wheel for the first runs at Bonneville in August 1957. He recalled that the experience was in measure thrilling and frightening but soon quickly confidence in the car. EX181 soon reminded him of the perils of record breaking. Lifting off to ease the speed had little effect and lifting off further resulted in the canopy filling up with fuel vapour. With just one brake, it took another three miles to come to a stop, by which time Hill was on verge of being unconscious!
After a few days Stirling Moss arrived to make the primary runs, having just celebrated victory at the Argentine GP. To keep him on course on the otherwise unchanging white salt flats, a black line of old engine oil had been drawn for several miles, which had to be renewed for each run. Moss achieved a top speed of 245.6mph on the Utah Salt Flats, breaking five international Class F (1500cc) records in the process. It was also another string to Moss’ motor racing bow, taking him more than 50mph faster than he’d ever driven before.
Both Stirling Moss and Phil Hill were due to pilot EX181 again in 1959. Bad weather resulted in delay, however, in turn meaning that Moss had to return to his Grand Prix driving duties, so Hill was left to make the running. The team had slightly enlarged the engine to 1506cc, adding another 10bhp and nudging it into the Class E (two litre) bracket. With tweaks to the profile of the car, removing what had proved to be an unnecessary tail fin, Hill reached a record breaking speed of 254.9mph and exceeded Enever’s dream top speed of 250mph.
This run by EX181 was the last successful MG speed record attempt and the company retired on a high. Despite the aborted EX255 project by the modern MG company in 1999, EX181 remains an MG unbeaten.
EX181 now sits in the company of its streamlined predecessors, EX135 and EX179 at the British Motor Museum. A beautiful form, testament to MG’s engineering skill and innovation and a piece of leading international industrial design.