The name Don Hayter was almost a legend to me during childhood. I knew he’d worked in some way on the streamlined coupe top of the Le Mans MGA Twin-Cam SRX 210, and that he’d been involved in the MGB, but at that time I didn’t understand just what a remarkable contribution he’d made to MG, and in fact to the British motor industry in general. I learnt more about him watching David Weguelin’s film, ‘MGB The Story of the Best Selling MG Sports Car’ (which is on a DVD available from BMIHT) and realised just how important he was to the MGB Story.
I finally got to meet Don in 1999 while working as a researcher on the TV series ‘Clarkson’s Car Years’. We made an episode entitled ‘Why do people like British Sports Cars?’, which ended, in Jeremy’s typically controversial style, by crowning the MX5 the best British sports car ever made. During the script meetings it was decided to do a scene lampooning the then popular morning TV talk show ‘Kilroy’, with Clarkson in the host role, under the title ‘Killjoy’. I was tasked with organising an audience of committed British sports car owners who could be questioned on why they wanted to drive around in damp cars while getting cold when they could have a much more comfortable and faster life in a Golf GTI.
To be honest quite a few of that audience were friends of mine, well up for debating their love of MGs or Caterhams with Clarkson, but I didn’t have quite enough friends to make a convincing audience so called the relevant clubs looking for volunteers;
these days, of course, you’d just put a post on some forums but gathering a crowd was more complex then. I called the MG Car Club and was amazed to be put in touch with Don, with a cheery: “I’m sure he’d love to come bring his V8 roadster”. So, my first contact with Don was to phone him, cold, and effectively ask him if he could come and stand up to Jeremy Clarkson!
He couldn’t have been nicer and it was obvious, even on the phone, that he totally ‘got’ the idea of the filming and would enter into it in the right spirit. I thought having someone so instrumental in the design of the MGB, which let’s face it, is the archetypal British sports car, perhaps even the archetypal classic car, was a great idea. Don stood up to Jeremy, though, and in fact was too good! His contribution ended up on the cutting room floor because he presented too convincing a case. Afterwards I was able to have a few minutes to chat with him and actually ask him about SRX 210, my ‘Uncle Ted’s’ (Lund) Le Mans car. I’d always sort of vaguely assumed that it had been wind tunnel tested in some way but Don licked his thumb and held it in the air as if testing the wind before saying “no, there wasn’t the time or the money for that. We just made it look right and it achieved pretty much exactly the speed Syd (Enever) had predicted.” Famously, of course, Ted Lund and Colin Escott won the 2-litre class at Le Mans in 1960, an enormous achievement in an era when MG were not officially allowed to race. The win was much aided by Don and Syd’s innate ‘feel’ for aerodynamics, which gave the car the performance it needed on the Mulsanne straight.
Having finally got my MGB GT back on the road a year or so after that first meeting, I saw Don quite few times at MGCC events and usually managed to have a chat. His unfailing charm and good humour shone through whenever he was involved, whether attending just because he was an MGB owner (and how many car clubs can claim to have one of the designers of the car they cater for coming to the meetings?) or appearing on panels for question and answer discussions. His training at Pressed Steel (one of his jobs there, working on the body tooling for the XK120, must have been an education in body design in itself) and then under one of the greatest British car designers of the mid-20th century, Frank Feeley at Aston Martin Lagonda, had given him a very broad understanding of the motor car from an engineering viewpoint as well as a stylistic one, something that was rare even then. His work on styling the MGB was essentially pragmatic because he was an engineer as well as a stylist but the finished car has stood the test of time remarkably well. It is still available to buy new with petrol or electric powertrains and, to my eyes at least, is every bit as beautiful as any of the Italian competition, but structurally far superior.
If the MGB had cost four or five times more than it did, it would be hailed as one of the most beautiful cars ever built.
When the MGB turned 50 I got involved, initially more by luck than judgement, in filming the MGCC club’s celebrations and the resulting film, ‘MGB50 A Year to Remember’, was eventually turned into a DVD that the MGCC shop still sell. The narrative spine of the film was a fantastic evening seminar organised by John Watson and the MGB Register. Don was, of course, a panellist. His fund of great, sometimes self-deprecating, stories charmed the audience as always, as did the warm tributes he paid to colleagues he had obviously enjoyed a great relationship with, such as Roy Brocklehurst, Jim O’ Neill, Syd Enever and others. It was, however, the sheer variety of his working life which was amazing. I never knew until then that, for instance, he’d also worked for ‘Comps’, effectively as a mechanic, looking after the rally or race cars on foreign trips. Can you imagine any other great car designers doing that?
With that in mind I called Don and asked if I could possibly come to his house to film a long form video interview, which he kindly agreed to do. There was no way I was going to interview Don in my usual Citroen Xantia filming vehicle, so my modified BGT was stuffed full of cameras, lights, tripods etc. So much so that the Britax sunroof had to be open for tripods to stick out and if it rained, well my camera kit and I were getting wet. The visit started badly because I kicked the coffee Mary had made me all over the carpet. I was mortified but Don and Mary were both lovely about it and things improved from there. I had a fantastic day and to me the highlight was driving Don to the pub in my BGT. I’ve loved MGs all my life and had MGBs for a good chunk of it, but I was worried he would be disapproving of the modifications to my car.
It’s a modern MGF colour, has a tuned engine with a fast road cam and larger exhaust, X25 brakes, stiffer antiroll bar, etc, etc. Nothing could have been further from the truth. Within a couple of hundred yards he’d correctly identified which cam my engine has just from the way it ticked over on start-up, and worked out the size of the front antiroll bar and said he’d fitted the same part to his own car. Later he discussed the Exacton alloys my car was then wearing and he was fascinated to learn about the 3-speed Clayton Heater, which he’d not seen before. He even approved of my louvered bonnet. He posed for a picture with the car and I treasure the memory of that absolutely brilliant day. He gave a fascinating interview and still had amazing recall of people and events from his life in the motor industry. At the end of the day I asked him to sign my copy of his book and rather than just sign his name he wrote me a lovely message, which I didn’t see until I got home, and which absolutely made my day.
The last time I saw Don was when I visited in 2019 to present him with the Corgi model of his V8 roadster, the last MGB made at Abingdon. I write Corgi’s catalogue copy and had campaigned inside the company to get the model made. Current owner Edward Vandyk brought the car along and Don sat in it for photographs, holding the model. While by then quite frail, when he sat in his old car he relaxed into the driving position and said “home” with a smile; a lovely moment.
MGB’s Imaginative Creator
Drive an MGB
It’s the best that can be
There is nothing greater
Designed by Don Hayter
Joined in 1956
Don was soon up to tricks
To take MG
‘From A to B’
He put curves and wings
onto mechanical kings
A vertical grille
Gave licence to thrill
Whether Roadster or GT
You can guarantee
That on the open road
Nothing’s better to behold
So, when you see an MGB…
It’s the code we uphold
To express that we bless
The beauty inside
Don’s incredible mind…
The imaginative designer
Could have made nothing finer.
It’s fortunate for us MG enthusiasts that Don joined MG in 1956 and became the ‘father of the MGB’, as he is so often called. Personally I think he would have done well in whatever field he’d entered because he was a really, really bright guy, able to process and solve complex problems quickly. Few practical engineers have such an innate sense of style and beauty as well though, that’s a rare gift. He was a charming and modest man with a great sense of humour and a twinkle in his eye, it was an honour to have known him just a little. Rest in peace Don, the world will never forget your achievements.
Thank You to Andy Knott, John Lakey and MGCC for allowing us to replicate the article originally published in the January 2021 Safety Fast Magazine.