Morris Garages began life in Oxford in 1923 when Cecil Kimber began designing bodies on Morris chassis. The actual date is a matter of conjecture but the following year has generally been considered the official start of MG when the first cars were produced.
The South East Centre originated a few years afterwards and is the oldest centre in the MG Car Club and can trace its origins back to the formation of the Club itself in 1930. A letter was published in “The Light Car” magazine suggesting that MG owners get together and an inaugural rally was held at the Roebuck Inn in Stevenage. The new membership had grown to 210 by 1932 and the club appointed officials to help run it. The Southern area was officially formed in 1933 along with the Scottish, Midland and North Western Centres but was originally known as the “Main Centre” and subsequently changed to the “South Eastern Centre”.
Pre-war club activities were predominantly centred on competitions – trials and sprints mainly with an annual dinner held in London. Many of these early competitions are recorded on the “Banana Trophy” which is still awarded today.
The club was part of MG itself with John Thornley the club secretary and Cecil Kimber himself as an early key member providing works support.
The area covered in the late 60s stretched from The Wash in East Anglia down to Southampton Water with committee meetings held in London to try and attract members from all parts of the region. When British Leyland took control of MG the club was nearly forced to close. John Thornley turned to the South Eastern Centre to save it as a club independent of Factory support. This was achieved under Gordon Cobban as chairman. At this time, now shorn of MG’s funding the club created a subsidiary selling spare parts – C.K. Spares which lasted from 1973 to 1981.
By the early eighties it was recognised that the South Eastern Centre was too big and in 1982 SE member David Saunders began discussions to create an East Anglia as a sub-divided Region. This came about and in 1986 it became a full “Centre” in its own right – the Anglia Centre. This left a large area to the West including Abingdon itself. Similarly, the Abingdon Works Centre was formed in 1982 to cover those counties north of the Thames not covered by Anglia and also those south to the coast not covered by the South East Centre now consisting of Surrey, Sussex, Kent and Greater London – which it still does today.
Activities resumed slowly after WW2 and the South East Centre didn’t organise its first race meeting at Silverstone until 1951. This was the beginning of the Silverstone International event, later to become MGLive! The Centre continued organising these race meetings until the main club took them over.
The first “natter” after the war took place at The Steering Wheel Club in Marylebone followed by another at The Sugar Bowl in Banstead. Natters at The Fairmile in Cobham and Godstone area can also trace back to this period.
Social natters and competitive events then ran side by side for the next thirty years. Events the centre organised or took part in included:-
- Sprints at Heston, Bruntingthorpe, Goodwood, Wroughton and Wormingfold
- Race meetings at Brands Hatch, Goodwood, Castle Combe, Snetterton and Silverstone
- Hill Climbs at Firle, Bodiam and Westerham
- Driving tests at Blackbushe aerodrome
- Production Car Trials
In the late 1960s social and concours events became more popular with events such as the Rookcross and Speldhurst concours and participation in local charity events. A Gymkhana and Concours was run at Beaulieu on behalf of the main club for many years during the 70s and 80s.
A printed SE Centre Bulletin was produced bi-monthly at this time to run alongside the main club’s Safety Fast magazine. This was the forerunner to today’s email newsletter, website and social media.
The competitive motorsport events such as sprints, hill climbs and racing were taken over by the main club as it became harder for a local centre to organise with rising costs and regulations. The last motorsport event organised was Goodwood Sprint in the late 80s. The club itself withdrew from racing for the 2024 season due, once again to rising costs, and dwindling fields.
The Modern Era
The Centre then concentrated more on social gatherings incorporating competitive events such as Pride of Ownership, Concours, Gymkhana and autotests.
Events you know from today began during this period began. The Spring Gathering was first held in 1982 at Syon Park and ventured as far as Knebworth and Hendon RAF Museum which were both still technically part of the SE Centre. In 1987 the Spring Gathering moved to Brooklands for a long run at that venue. The Regency Run also used Brooklands as a start point with SE members providing marshalling but after ten years there was an appetite to make a change. Chatham Dockyard, Singleton Open Air Museum and Goodwood House were the next three locations.
A weekend event at Hucking, known as the Wealdon Weekend was started by John & Jean Tadman in 1972 and ran for several years. When this ended it was replaced by the Autumn Gathering which moved around country houses in the area such as Penshurst Place, Hever Castle, Groombridge and Chiddingstone. Autotests and/or Gymkhanas were often held at these Gatherings alongside Pride of Ownership and Concours competitions. The Summer Alternative Pride of Ownership competition organised by John Morgan is a long-running three-venue event designed as a light-hearted competition and still takes place today.
Today, the Centre continues these traditions with other events such as a Summer Gathering, day trips and visits. Over the years the Centre has been awarded the prestigious Nuffield Gold Club at least thirteen times and its members have held numerous senior positions with the club as a whole.
Acknowledgements: Syd Beer, Safety Fast, Alan Scott, John Morgan