“At twenty-one, with a year at Lehigh University behind me, and having inherited a small trust fund, I started out to see the world. I booked a passage on a Dutch freighter, the Beemsterdyke, for England. It was incredibly slow and took a full three weeks to arrive.
Once in London I fell in with a lovely little ballet dancer whose friend, Ham Johnson, owned a wheat barge on the Thames. Ham insisted I stay on the barge with him while I was in town, which seemed like a fine idea to me. We talked of all the places we’d like to go—and Ham suggested a trip through the British Isles, Scotland and Wales, which also seemed like a fine idea to me. (The Continent would have been my choice, but the war on Poland had started and visas were unobtainable.)
Pooling our resources, we bought a used MG Magnette sedan for $700 and took off on our journey. Now this car was not in the best of shape. The engine and gearbox were fine, but the steering and suspension were horrible, and it leaked oil at an alarming rate. Also, the starter was inoperative, and we were forced to push-start the car all through our trip. After several thousand miles ,this became routine. At a thousand yards our educated eyes could spot the slightest incline on which to park for a coasting restart.
On a particularly twisty stretch through Wales we overtook a brightly painted Model 328 BMW (a phenomenal road car of its day) being driven with enterprise and obvious skill. The driver saw us approaching and accelerated away. I was at the wheel of our MG and set out after him, sliding in the turns and using up all of the road to keep him in sight. Johnson was literally green on the seat beside me, and thinking back on the condition of the Magnette’s suspension, I can well understand why. But I was having a grand time in my first all-out “dice,” too enthralled to be discouraged by Ham’s discomfort.
Finally, however, the BMW simply outdistanced us and we resumed our trip at a more sedate speed. (Before I am branded an outlaw and mad dog of society I must point out that these roads were deserted and that no speed limit existed on the open roads on the British Isles. Citizens, even foreigners, are assumed to possess sufficient juddgment to regulate their speed according to their abilities, without resort to a stifling edict based on the presumption that all cars are of uniformly poor design and bad construction and that all their drivers are equally incompetent.)
I’d seen formal road racing (in which cars must compete over real or simulated roads, with sharp turns, high-speed bends and straightaways, testing engines, brakes and suspenstion to the fullest) for the first time in my life at Brooklands that year and my motoring appetite was whetted by the sight of Prince Bira flying around the high bankings in the E.R.A. Pushing the crippled Magnette at speed was the closest I had come to realizing my growing ambition to race at the time, but I had already determeined to possess a responsive, nimble sports car of my own someday.
However, the war intervened, and I was not to achieve this until 1948, three full years after I was liberated from the Nazi POW camp.*
[*John Fitch was shot down while strafing a German supply train. After parachuting from his burning P-51, he was captured and spent three months in a prison camp, becoming the leader of its 200 occupants near Nuremberg, and an active member of the Radio Club, in which each man had a different part of the radio and all would meet, assemble the radio and listen for news of the American Army getting closer. Among Fitch’s group was the son-in-law of General Patton, and it was Patton who sent the Seventh Army in to liberate the camp.]
I bought my first sports car—on a loan from the National City Bank—early in 1948: a spry, lemon-yellow British MG-TC. And I was so enthusiastic that I immediately set up shop as an automobile dealer, beginning with a few square feet of space in a sporting goods store in White Plains, New York. The TC sat in the middle of the floor, surrounded by outboard motors, fishing rods and bicycles. MGs were then selling for $2395—and to the average American motorist it seemed ridiculous to put out this kind of money for a little wire-wheeled “toy” automobile.
When I told Elizabeth that I intended to enter a sports car race at Bridgehampton in June she wanted to come along. She’d never seen one and I’d never competed in one, so this made us even. Road racing was being revived in the States after many years, Watkins Glen, New York, having held the initial event the previous fall, and not since the era of Barney Oldfield had sports cars raced on public roads.
In an MG-TC borrowed from one of my customers (I’d sold out my stock of new TCs by then), I lined up with the other drivers, many of whom also drove MGs. I was well to the rear of the starting grid, but soon found to my amazement that I was moving up car by car through the pack as I grew accustomed to the speed and the road. I write this calmly, but I was anything but calm in the dizzy whirl of initial impressions in my first race.” –John Fitch
Excerpted from They Started in MGs: Profiles of Sports Car Racers of the 1950s by Carl Goodwin, Transportation Catalog p. 4. Click here to order the book and click here to view the transportation catalog. Through August 1, 2015, get 30% off your order of two or more transportation books. Use coupon code TRANSPORTATION on the McFarland website, or call toll-free 800-253-2187 (Mon-Fri 8:00 am to 4:30 pm Eastern Time) to order and ask your customer service representative for your discount.