Whilst browsing through Gwulo recently I came across the section dealing with Hong Kong registration numbers and the post by fivestar that mentioned XX2795 which was allocated to a Morgan.
As you may recall, I was in touch not so long ago about Austin 7’s in post war Hong Kong and you kindly posted a picture showing one of them sitting at the rear of the starting grid of the 25th Macau GP, Classic Car Race (1978)........parked next to the Austin in the pic is the Morgan bearing the number XX2795 that fivestar was referring to. I have been that car’s owner since February, 1968.
Of late I have been contacted by a couple of Macau GP enthusiasts who did so because they had heard about there being a survivor from the first race still around. Given that this November will be the 70th Anniversary of the Macau event, they wanted to learn a little more. It also crossed my mind that some of your wonderful website’s followers might also be interested in the Morgan’s story…..so far.
The car, known to most of the folk that know her as “Betsy”, is a 1953 Morgan +4 (4 seater). She was collected from the Morgan factory in Malvern, England by her first owner, Mr Gordon John (“Dinger”) Bell (later Director of HK’s Royal Observatory). He used her on leave and then shipped her back to HK. Shortly afterwards, Dinger entered her in the first ever Macau GP (Race Number 7) which was staged on 31st October, 1954.
First pic shows the drivers running towards their cars at the Le Mans Start. In pole position (Race Number 9) is the Austin Healey 100/4 whose driver, the late Roger Pennell’s (who was then employed by the Austin agent in North Point (Metro Cars?) and later by Zung Fu) was my son, Tim’s, Godfather. Second in the line-up is Betsy (race Number 7).
The second pic (above) shows Dinger and Betsy getting away first at the start. They led the race for the first four laps, during which the pair set the record for the fastest lap time of the day (4m 12 secs, which, I have been told, stood for the next 3 or 4 GP’s). Betsy lost a wheel at ‘R’ Bend on the fifth lap and........retired. The offending wheel bounced high into the air and caused spectators some distance away to think it was Dinger being thrown out of the car! There was apparently much relief when he later turned up in the pits.
Dinger did not actually keep the Morgan for very long. He was a keen member of the Auxiliary Air Force and through that he met a regular RAF officer who was serving in HK at the time. That same officer later bought the car from Dinger. I know that as about a five years ago that same (ex) RAF officer left a note on Betsy ‘s windscreen here in the UK telling me he was a former owner and promising to send some photos taken during his ownership in HK....
I bought the car from Warren Rooke, an SCMP and RTHK journalist, in early 1968 just before marrying my wife Carol. Apart from a period of about a year when, just prior to going on long leave, we sold her to an American businessman before buying her back on our return, we have owned her ever since. Warren, incidentally, always seriously regretted parting company with the Morgan and over the years wrote a number of articles about her and her Macau GP connection. In the earlier Gwulo post about Austin 7’s, I made mention of the Classic Car Race held during the 1978 Macau GP weekend to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the first GP. When the organisers heard that Dinger Bell’s Morgan was still ‘on the road’, they sent a hurried invitation for her to make a re-appearance on the track. As mentioned in previously, Betsy and I managed 2nd place in the 1978 event and also set the fastest lap of the race.
Here is a picture of Betsy in the pits (Race Number 16) taken on the day of the race with my late wife, Carol, standing next to her. Immediately behind is the winning straight 8 supercharged Alfa Romeo (Race Number 10) that belonged to Mr Hayashi of Japan.
The other pic shows the final race results of that race - from the timings one can see that it was pretty close battle for 1st and 2nd places. Third place went to Mr Hayashi’s chief mechanic driving his boss’s beautifully restored 1930’s SS100 Jaguar. The Jag, interestingly (if that’s the right word), proved to be the most difficult car of all the entrants to get past when Betsy and I, having overtaken all the others, came across it lying in second place immediately behind his boss in the Alfa…………..
After the race, flushed with Betsy’s success, I asked the Clerk of The Course, Phil Taylor, if such an event for old cars could be repeated the following year. Phil’s answer was basically as the classic car grid had proved so difficult to fill (most of it had come from Japan) that if I was prepared to organise the entry he would be happy to support it. There was no Classic Car Club in Hong Kong (CCCHK) at that time so yours truly set about organising one. The rest, as they say, is history. One could say that Betsy is truly the mother (some say “Mama-san”)of the CCCHK which, following the first meeting of about 18 Hong Kong old car enthusiasts that I managed to contact and invite to a meeting in PHQ, the fledgling club was formed and has, happily, gone from strength to strength. In that latter connection the pic below shows Betsy doing her bit at the opening of the club’s 1992 Chater Road Classic Car Display. The Club’s Chairman that year, my old pal and fellow Morgan owner, Tom Surrency, is sitting the front passenger seat with the sponsor and his young ladies in the back. Tom is now well into his eighties and is still racing Morgan’s in Arizona, USA.
To date, Betsy has taken part in 5 separate events on the Macau GP circuit and only during her last outing there, in 1985, did she finally manage to beat the lap time that her first owner, Dinger, had set at the first GP race. In that last outing Betsy and I were placed second in the handicap section. We did it on a largely newly laid tarmac circuit ........whereas Dinger had done it some forty years earlier on mostly dusty, unpaved or cobblestoned surfaces!
Picture below shows part of the grid for the 1985 race with Betsy in the foreground.
Given HK’s heat and humidity and the tin worm that just loves those conditions, only very few cars survive for long. Mainly for that reason Betsy is one of only a tiny handful of such vehicles from her era that are still around. In Betsy’s case, in January, 1985, after collecting a large number of parts from the factory in UK including a body tub, she was completely stripped down and rebuilt in the garage of “Cathay”, our since demolished bungalow (directly opposite “The Lookout” in Lookout Link, Tai Po Kau, NT). The work took about 11 months and apart from the engine rebuild, the new brass radiator and the re-spray most of the work was carried out by myself …..quite a learning curve as I’d never done anything like that before. Fortunately, I had help from my two children, Annabelle and Tim (see pic below).
Pic below show Betsy on “Cathay’s” front lawn not long after the restoration had been completed.
Together with her now historical connections with Macau, Hong Kong and the CCCHK, she is truly a unique and significant part of Hong Kong’s motoring history. Over the years she has starred in numerous films, advertisements and newspaper/magazine articles etc, won many concours prizes, spent 3 years in the UK with her owners before returning to HK and living on Lantau Island (long before the bridges or airport were built) for another similar period.
One of the highlights of her life must surely be that she was, in March 1986, a participant in the first ever Classic Car Rally into the People’s’ Republic of China. I was Chairman of the Classic Car Club of Hong Kong that year and well remember how hard and long two of our members, Tom Surrency and Fred Manville, had worked with the Chinese authorities to set up the event. It literally took years. How very different the road to Guangdong was then to what it is now! Upon our retirement in early 1997, Betsy accompanied Carol and I back to the UK where she is well known in Morgan club circles and continues to play a very active part our local classic car scene. She has also made numerous trips to France, Germany, Belgium and Holland. Pic below taken during a UK Morgan club Christmas rally.
A true Hong Kong and Macau motoring survivor! Betsy (XX2795) second row, third from left. Picture taken just prior to the building of the City Hall adjacent to the old Royal Navy Dockyard and one of the then new “multi story” car parks. Picture courtesy the 1958 Hong Kong Government Yearbook.
Betsy is probably the only car in the picture that is still around. Interestingly, the oldest car is probably the little Standard Flying 8 convertible (about 5th from the left in the 5th row) that, if my memory serves me correctly, belonged to Dr Eric Vio (known by many in Hong Kong at the time as the ‘best surgeon this side of Suez’ ) of Vio and Partners who had their offices in the nearby old HSBC building.
There is little doubt that Betsy will be around for much longer than I am and I therefore very much regard myself as only being her “current keeper”. I therefore cannot help but think how fitting it would be if one day she were to return to Hong Kong and Macau where she spend so many of her 70 years. It is really where she belongs. Who knows?
(Betsy’s Current Keeper)
Some additional photos of Betsy at the 1958 Macau Grand Prix: