Lt. Col. John W. Thornley (1909-1994)
As we went to press with the fall issue of “Moss Motoring,” we were saddened to learn of the passing of “Mr. MG,” John Thornley, during July. We promised that we would give a fuller appreciation of this remarkable individual, and the contribution John made to the most famous British marque of all.
We here at Moss Motors would like to pay tribute to this remarkable gentle man, for John William Yates Thornley lived MG from the day in 1931 when he was elected as the first ever Secretary of the MG Car Club, to the day he retired in 1969 as Director and General Manager of the MG Car Company.
John’s first MG was an M-Type he bought in 1930, and soon after he met with two other enthusiasts and formed the MG Car Club. John went to Abingdon and managed to get Cecil Kimber to authorize the MG logo for the club’s badge. He was at this time an accountant in London, but he then persuaded Kimber to give him an office at the MG Factory to run the fledgling MGCC and he moved to Abingdon. However, another part of the job at MG was as assistant to the service manager, John Temple, who was shortly afterwards appointed competitions manager, and John thus inherited the Service Manager’s position.
Serving in the army during the war, JWT attained the rank of Lt. Colonel and returned to Abingdon in 1945, where he became Sales and Service Manager for MG. He was involved deeply in all aspects of the competition and record-breaking efforts of the Octagon. In 1952 he was appointed General Manager, 21 years to the day after he joined the company! MG was now headed by a no-nonsense enthusiast who battled against the corporate hierarchy of BMC and later BL. He handpicked his staff and jollied them along with his sense of humor into vast achievements which no other small auto factory could ever have dreamed of.
He envisaged the MGB, and saw into production the MGB GT—the “poor man’s E-Type” as he put it, and many other MG successes achieved against the odds. He also remained convinced to the end that the Triumph “suits” who gained control of BLMC were responsible for the ultimate demise of the MG in 1980. During his tenure as head of the company, the MG Factory became the world’s largest producer of sports cars. Even when in retirement, John still retained a great interest in MG and he was outraged at the decision to close the MG factory and personally wrote to MG dealers around the world—especially here in the US—to request their support to protest the closure.
John was always a gentleman in the best sense of the word, and your Editor was privileged to meet him on numerous occasions—he always had a kind word, but did not suffer fools gladly! He held the position of President of the MGCC until the end, driving his special blue MGB GT sporting V8 wheels, and the MaGic number plate “MG 1”!
We all owe a great deal to this remarkable man—you wouldn’t be driving the modern MG you have today were it not for JWT!
As a footnote, we thought you might be interested to read John’s thoughts on the MG movement taken from a letter written to Richard Miller in reply to a letter of appreciation thanking John for what he had achieved for MG.
“I must say it isn’t everybody who writes to thank me for what I have put into MG over the years, so when it happens, it is very satisfying.
Not, you will understand, that it has called for any great effort. My life with MG must have approached the apogee of ‘doin’ what comes nat’rall’ee.’ It has been effortless. I have enjoyed myself. And it is my good fortune that my enjoyment has rubbed off on the MG owners and created the legend to which you refer.
May I, in turn, thank you and your colleagues for your enthusiasm. It is you, and many of the same mind who fuel the present day MG flame.
(For those interested in learning more about this remarkable individual, we recommend that you obtain a copy of his great MG book—“Maintaining the Breed”—you’ll be amazed!)