12 Hours in a 1932 J2 Midget
August 16-18, 2002 - by Scott Fohrman
Midget is an apt name. The average Englishman of 1932 was 5’7” and I am 6’5”. But I have never let a stupid idea stop me before, so I set a goal of driving my newly revived ride to the Abington summer event. After all, how hard could it be? I was already used to driving in the right side of the car, and because it is so narrow, there is plenty of lane in which to wander around. I had perfected the “climb over the door with my knees angled out while sliding under the steering wheel—careful not to step on the starter button on the floor— holding myself up by hand on the tub and seatback, plunk down in the seat” move. I had even figured out where to store the tool box, extra oil and spare parts, shop manual -oh yeah, and some clothes.
Of course as the day approached (alright the night before), panic set in as I searched a map to find a route to reach the meeting place at Routes 34 and 59. I could leave at 4am to miss the outgoing traffic, but what could I do to get home through Sunday afternoon “I need to get home NOW” traffic? You see, if “leisurely” might be a word for a Yugo or a Kia with one cylinder out, “glacial” is more apt for a 847cc engine, fully non synchro gearbox, mechanical-braked 1300 lbs wooden tubbed car with 19” wheels that are a “massive” 2 1/2 inches wide. On the way out, Ann and Jake Snyder had offered to run interference once we were west, but how to get that far?
Fortunately, our fearless leader Cowboy Dave agreed to let me tow the car to his house and drive from there. Since the farthest I had driven this car was three sessions on the track at Blackhawk Farms (dead last) and around my neighborhood in Wilmette (lots of thumbs up, except from drivers behind me who used a different finger), I wasn’t really sure what to expect.
I was pleasantly surprised! I won’t say that the engine could spin the wheels at will, but with a little patience on the throttle and some practice double clutching on the way up through the gears, I was only slowing traffic down a little taking off from the lights. With a wonderful exhaust note and only an occasional grouch from the gearbox, I could get up to 55mph and stay there. I’m told I hit a top speed of 62mph at around 4000 rpm!
Speaking of which, speed and rpm are shown on the same chronographic gauge, using a series of concentric circle graphics (see picture). Being chronographic, the needle changes position in a series of steps. It’s not unlike an MGB with a sticky cable-great fun to watch, but being distracted by it too long is not recommended. For all the horror stories I have heard about how TA/TC’s make straightaways into white knuckle meanders between the yellow and white lines, the J2 tracked fairly straight. Hit a frost heave and all bets are off, however, and the steering on center tends to be a tad numb. But boy is turning a trip. I found out that turn-in is non-existent as I approached Starved Rock. A series of uphill switchbacks take the road from the river to the bluffs. Having run the car on the race track, I knew that it would grip quite well once in the turn-just don’t try to correct course mid turn. So I though, “hell, I’ll just carry a little of this momentum up the hill through this 20 mph first turn”.
Wrong. I believe the bench seat leather has an extra tuck in it from my optimism. I became very aware of how far forward my feet were as I rushed up on the concrete barrier at the outside of the turn. As a matter of fact, open the cowl to check out the engine and lo and behold, there are your feet (or at least the pedals). The bellhousing is what you set your clutch foot on between shifts! The entire drive train is pretty much right there next to you. In fact, the whole experience of driving this car could best be described as “mechanical”. The clutch pedal is attached to a shaft coming out of the the bellhousing, the brake pedal to a shaft under the floor (which lifts right out-no bolts) around which the cable which operates the brakes as in a bicycle. And the throttle is a series of arms and levers operating tiny 1” choke SU’s.
Realizing that the brakes weren’t going to save me, I jumped on the throttle. Now I won’t tell you that the torque from the 2 main bearing, 7.5:1 compression engine put me into immediate power oversteer, but at the 25 mph I was going, it was just enough to rotate the car to stay on the road.. Having learned my lesson, I finished the climb in second at a blistering 15 mph!
But I knew speed wasn’t what this car was about. England in 1932 was not exactly a spaghetti bowl of high speed tarmac, but instead full of narrow carriageways bordered by hedgerows. The joy of the trip was being out on a beautiful day in a motorized fingernail file (hang an arm out over a door and you’ll understand), burbling along at very moderate speeds.
The Abington summer party was great fun, especially with the addition of the MMM register cars, and I would highly recommend it to you. But of the drive there, my two favorite memories are of traveling a very back road Barney Gaylord had led us (read that as “gotten lost”) on and looking over to my right to see a flock of starlings circling a telephone pole on which sat a HUGE bird of prey. Like a human squatting there, it bent its knees and leap off into the swarm of small birds looking like a 747 in a group of Cessnas. Going so slowly and feeling so exposed to the air, I watched for a long time as it flew off surrounded by its hangers-on (or lunch).
We also drove through - I don’t think I’m exaggerating - millions of butterflies. I know because about half of them got stuck in the vertical radiator of the car. I hope Ann’s pictures of it came out!
Yes, I had trouble with dirty fuel filters due to a rusty gas tank, and a dead battery due to a generator which is questionable on a good day, but the quality of the experience was worth a lot more trouble than that. Would I do it again? Well….., as I say to my daughters, we’ll see.