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When Kjell Qvale met the MG and gave sports cars a foothold in America

Published in blog.hemmings.com

Photo by Jim Donnelly.

[Editor’s Note: We’ve been looking forward to checking out Peter Grimsdale’s High Performance: When Britain Ruled the Roads for a while, and now that it’s been published, Peter sent along this excerpt from the book detailing a pivotal moment in sports car history: When Kjell Qvale stumbled across his first sports car, the MG TC, and made a deal to sell them in America.]

The young ex-U.S. Navy pilot had arrived from California by train. He was early for his appointment, so he hung about on the sidewalk in downtown New Orleans that January morning in 1947, watching the traffic go by. Kjell Qvale (pronounced “Shell Kervahley”) was twenty-eight and living the American dream. Born in Norway, he had arrived in America at the age of ten. “The only words I knew were ‘yes,’ ‘no’ and ‘stick ’em up.'” His family settled in Oregon and in the depths of the Depression he delivered the Portland Oregon Journal and sold vegetable graters and phonograph needles door to door, making enough to buy himself a bicycle.

An athletic blond with piercing, steel-blue eyes, he became a track and ski star at school and won a sports scholarship to the University of Washington, but when the Second World War intervened, Qvale enlisted in the U.S. Navy, trained as a pilot and flew every kind of machine going. But it was cars that became his real passion. Back in civilian life, he needed to make some money. With the $8,000 he had managed to save plus some help from a friend’s father, he leased premises in Alameda, California, and opened a Willys Jeep dealership. But he soon decided he needed a sideline. One of his mechanics had heard of a foreign motorcycle that was going cheap. So Qvale bought a ticket on the Sunset Limited train from San Francisco to Louisiana, with the intention of tracking down the agent. “All of a sudden, this cute little car pulled up. I had never seen anything like it. The driver got out and I asked him what it was. He said it was an MG sports car. I asked him where it was from. ‘Made in England,’ came the reply.”

Qvale with a TC. Photo courtesy the author.

Qvale had never heard of MG. The only foreign marques he knew of were Rolls-Royce and Mercedes-Benz. In fact, even the term “sports car” was alien to him. Qvale asked if he could take a ride. It was only a ten-minute spin, but it was enough; he was hooked.

There was nothing new about the MG TC; in fact, quite the opposite. Its design was an evolution of the 1932 Midget, one of the first affordable sports cars to be built anywhere in the world. It was wilfully archaic, a basic primitive machine. But what Qvale saw in it was a more sociable version of the motorcycle: “It had no bumpers, no roof, its steering wheel was on the right, but it gave me the biggest thrill of my life.” Its vintage-style 19-inch wire wheels, cutaway doors and open top offered a bracing, wind-in-the-hair ride. He was immediately besotted. And, happily, the driver turned out to be the son of the man he had come to see.

In downtown New Orleans, Jocelyn Hambro cut a most unlikely figure. Born in 1919, he belonged to the third generation of a City of London merchant-banking dynasty who divided their time between Mayfair, Sussex and an estate bordering Loch Ness. When he was thirteen his mother was killed when her motorboat exploded on the loch; her body was never found. Despite this tragedy, he developed an early appreciation of the good life. At Eton he became the school’s de facto bookmaker and after going up to Trinity College, Cambridge, he was more often to be found at Newmarket or on a grouse moor. When war was declared he enlisted in the Coldstream Guards. He proved to be an unexpectedly capable soldier and rose to the rank of major. As a tank commander he landed at Juno Beach shortly after D-Day and won a Military Cross for his part in the capture of Hill 309 in Normandy. But then a stray Allied anti-aircraft shell blew off his left leg. For Jocelyn, the war was over, so he joined the family bank.

Pulling in dollars to shore up the post-war British economy was the priority for the City. But the Hambros had no presence on Wall Street; their interests were all in Europe and the Far East. So they decided to bypass New York and go west.

In the summer of 1945, Jocelyn set sail for New Orleans, the largest port in the Deep South, armed with a $10,000 float to establish a trading post from which to import British goods. On no more than a hunch and his own personal enthusiasm, he began with Scottish kippers, but these were judged too small for American plates, rotted in the warehouse and had to be dumped in the harbour. Undaunted, he moved on to jars of honey, which overheated in storage, fermented and exploded. Then there were crystal-glass ornaments, which got smashed en route. Finally, he tried MG sports cars.

Photo by Jim Donnelly.

There was no reason to expect that these undersized, anachronistic vehicles would be anything other than yet another disaster. American cars in the mid-’40s were all about bulbous curves and chrome; the MG’s minimal bodywork had straight sides and sharp edges that had more in common with a veteran Model T Ford. And even in Louisiana, in the Deep South, Hambro soon discovered that established dealers all had franchises with Detroit’s big corporations which forbade them to sell imported autos alongside domestic brands.

To begin with, the one-legged former guardsman’s modus operandi was more Bishopsgate (London’s equivalent of Wall Street) than Baton Rouge. According to Hambro legend, one illustrious ancestor refused credit to a man with the “wrong colour socks.” He went bust shortly after. Since many of Jocelyn’s potential recruits hereabouts didn’t wear socks at all, he had to adopt a more open mind. In Dallas, he signed up a jukebox salesman; elsewhere a beer distributor and a man who sold refrigerators door to door.

The cut was generous: He offered 33 per cent for the distributor against the 20 per cent domestic dealers received. It was still an uphill battle. The MG was just too strange to many American eyes. One potential dealer Hambro approached dismissed the little MG as “two sheets of tin and a bundle of firewood.”

Not so to Kjell Qvale; for him, it was love at first sight. Then and there, on the strength of that one run round the block and sealed with no more than a handshake, the young ex-Navy pilot became the MG agent for the whole of northern California. When he headed home he took six cars with him – and sold them all in a weekend. So he ordered fifty more.

It looked like an extremely rash move. The friend’s father who had invested in Qvale’s start-up Jeep business was furious and the Bank of America refused to give him the same short-term finance to cover his first order of stock. They had never heard of MG, or so-called “sports cars.” But Hambro rode to the rescue. Since he was also a banker, he was willing to await payment until after the cars had been sold.

Qvale’s hunch was right. “It was the most significant moment in my life,” Qvale wrote later. “The beginning of everything I would do.”

[Peter Grimsdale’s High Performance: When Britain Ruled the Roads is available on Amazon.]