The history of the MG Workshop
‘Founding father’ Bart Spoelstra (1946-2013)
A rather eventful time in school -think ‘60s, in The Hague quite a few youngster were somewhat out of control and would rather ride around on their Puch mopeds than do what they were told- made Bart decide to become a driving instructor at 18 after his own instructor, Mr. de Vries, offered him a job on the spot when he passed his test. Long before he became of age, Bart had gained plenty of experience taking out his Dad’s car on all sorts of nightly adventures. Whether Dad knew about these outings is unknown … Bart bought himself a white Citroën Dyane and set about his new job. Pupils paid 9,90 guilders for a lesson which paid for the car, the radiotelephone and the driving school. He soon set up another business called the ‘Haagsche Rem & Frictie Service, repairing people’s car brakes (‘rem’) and shock absorbers (‘frictie’) from an old bicycle depot in the Galileistraat in The Hague. He then moved to an old greenhouse in Den Hoorn from where he acted as general mechanic working on all sorts of cars.
A few years later, in 1968, Bart gave up his entrepreneurship and started a new job as a surveyor for Fugro. Now a multinational, but then a tiny company still where he was employee number 46 or thereabouts. He was to stay there for four years, but when he was obliged to take someone along on one of his jobs on location who officially ‘outranked’ him, he gave up and went back to his beloved cars. He borrowed a small sum from his Mum and bought a tiny little workshop right in the centre of The Hague where he simply started his ‘Autobedrijf (Car Company) Bart Spoelstra’.
In the meantime, in August 1970, Bart had bought his first M.G., a TD. By that time he had owned many cars already, ranging from a huge Mercedes and a Ford Fairlane hearse to tiny Fiat 5- and 600s and Austin Mini Sevens, but none was as wanted as this TD. When still a toddler, he once pointed out a TC parked by the road to his teacher, saying how he would one day own a car like that. Or so the story goes anyway. And though this M.G. was not the much desired TC, a TD was most welcome too, as long as it was an M.G.!
From then on he actively took part in many club events. The M.G. T-Type Owners (‘TTO’) had been founded in 1968, but the MGA-Type Owners were still non-existent. In 1973, together with his wife Madelon, he was involved in founding this youngest of the three Dutch M.G. clubs. Of course he also joined the MG Car Club Holland.
Specialising – The MG Workshop is born
Though still operating as ‘Autobedrijf Bart Spoelstra’, Bart started specialising in M.G.s from when he moved to the Blekerslaan. When a Flemish customer demanded a VAT receipt, he first had to take it up with the local Chamber of Commerce to officially register his business. With retrospective effect, he chose the name ‘MG Workshop’. The official date of registration is 1 February 1972, but the opening reception took place on the 12th. Some people say it was on the 9th, but during the past twenty years or so the 12th seems to have stuck as the day to celebrate, so the 12th it is!
1973. Bart has only just started when an oil crisis hits the world. Unsure of what this would mean for his business specialising in sports cars, he just kept going and it was soon clear that he wasn’t to be affected. There was work aplenty for him to keep his growing family out of the poor house. Many M.G.s were then still every day transport for most and so less of the luxury product it has become over the years.
During the 1970s MGAs specifically were being thrown away by the bucket loads, not being worth a penny. Rumour has it they were actually stacked up in the Blekerslaan at one point, ready to be melted down by the local scrapper called Pametex. However, a few customers were determined to keep their MGAs on the road and had them restored or at least kept them going. Some of these people not only still have their survivors, but are also still customers.
Parts for the older M.G.s were only sparcely available in the 1970s and ‘80s unlike spares for the MGB which was then still in production. Every two weeks, Bart boarded the ferry to visit all the regular suppliers and pick up his pre ordered bits. Shortly before leaving, he’d pay one last phone call to hear if everything was indeed ready for his imminent arrival as he would only have a short time at each supplier before he had to hop back on the ferry. ‘Of course we do, Bart, not to worry!’ was the standard reply. Reality, however, was always quite far from that and more often than not Bart had to go all out to make it back to the harbour in time. However stressful at the time, it did leave us with one or two exceptionally memorable stories.
1979. Another oil crisis. Again, no reason to worry. M.G.s drivers turned out to be quite determined to drive their cars and there was still work aplenty!
The M.G. Car Company Ltd. Shuts its doors!
1980. The factory closes down. Bart panics. Now what? He decides to simply just continue, the only thing to do really. This turned out to be the right thing indeed for the late ‘80s had quite the change in store! Overnight it seems, old (sports) cars were suddenly classics. Specifically from the drier parts of America, MGAs and Bs were shipped to the Netherlands by the hundreds. It was then that keeping an old M.G. as a hobby or second car became the rage and so far, it seems it won’t go out of fashion any time soon!
The 1980s and our ten year anniversary
Our ten year anniversary was organised by a team of loyal customers: a night rally. Many such events followed. As a rule, at the early morning finish in the Blekerslaan, contestants were warmly welcomed back with a full English breakfast.
Through entering all sorts of events himself, Bart managed to enthuse many of his customers to do the same. Amongst them the weekends which ‘MG Noord’ organised at the TT circuit in Assen during the 1980s, a real highlight on the events calendar. Gymkhanas, driving tests, sprints, races and a barbecue in the evening; fun packed weekends for the amateur enthusiast which the MG Workshop annually attended with a large group of customers, friends and family.
Every day life goes on
Garages usually attract all sorts of colourful characters and the MG Workshop is no different. Men of all ages and backgrounds used to help out Bart, some stayed a year, others came by once a week, some were volunteers, some earned a little extra, all adding to the ‘boys adventure book’ feel of the place.
MG Workshop Racing
In the second half of the ‘80s, two customers walked in who wanted to go racing. One had an MGA prepared by Bart, the other an MGB. Both to ‘FIA spec’. MG Workshop Racing was born.
The odd customer entered his Midget, Metro or V8 in ‘rally sprints’; rallies on closed roads like the way we know from the WRC. With nothing but a toad bag full of tools, Bart ‘serviced’ his customers’ cars at grand events like the Tulip Rallye (not yet for historic cars back then), the ‘Nacht van Achtmaal’ and during HARC races at Zandvoort.
Eventually the MG Workshop Racing team consisted of three MGAs and three MGBs for track racing and the aforementioned Midget, Metro and V8 for rally sprints. With a large red and white marquee and a huge following of drivers, ‘pit crew’ and fans in bright red T shirts and overalls, the team were a great focal point inside the paddocks of several European circuits.
Because the MG Workshop received frequent mentions in the press due to the team’s successes, the company gained a certain reputation which inevitably called for growth; a customer, known by the nom the plume of ‘Sir Francis’ and by definition dressed in tweed, took on ‘MG Workshop Spares’ in his spare time. According to period ads, there was even a 24 hour phone service. The answering machine had been invented …
Our 20th anniversary was celebrated in grand style in the spring of 1992. A whole team of customers and friends assembled in secret and organised a huge do on the ‘Schelpenpad’ of the ‘Lange Voorhout’, The Hague’s most stately avenue where normally only the royal family are allowed on with motorised transportation. There was rocker box racing, a concours, food, drink, a gymkhana with a radio controlled MGA and so on. The Spoelstra family were brought in by way of a horse drawn carriage and later, with the TD tied behind it, taken to a beach club at Scheveningen by party tram for the evening’s festivities which included an auction of M.G. and MG Workshop related memorabilia, several speeches and a playback show.
Thijs de Groot (1974) joins the troups
Introduced by Cathelijne, Bart’s younger daughter, 19 year old engineering student Thijs de Groot first set foot in the MG Workshop in 1993. He maintained Cathelijne’s old Puch moped and where better to do this than in her Dad’s workshop? When Bart asked him to ‘remove the starter motor from that car over there’ one time, he was only too willing to oblige. This proved to be the first step towards a new future in which M.G. was to rule. Employment started in earnest in 1996 from when Bart no longer had to face things on his own. He had finally found someone who was as driven as a mechanic as he himself was.
Halfway through the 1990s the racing scene died down a little as far as the MG Workshop was concerned while at the same time historic rallying was up and coming. When, in 1993, the famous long distance rally SLS (Scheveningen-Luxemburg-Scheveningen) was first organised as an historic event, Bart looked on and decided there and then he’d enter the 1994 edition. No longer fulfilling the role of ‘team boss’, he was now to compete himself in very many regularity rallies all over Europe over the next 15 years or so. The whole family, daughters and sons-in-law, were all heavily involved doing both one day events and long distance rallies such as the Tulip Rallye, SLS, ‘Venice of the North’ and the ’12 Hours of the Flemish Ardennes’. Many customers were bitten by the bug too and so the ‘MG Workshop Rally Team’ came into being entering several events ‘en masse’ with as many as 20 or sometimes even 30 cars. Amongst ourselves we annually challenged each other in our own ‘Battle of Belgium’ where about six equipes took part in a set number of events.
The Flemish ‘Memorial Gilbert Staepelaere’ (Belgium’s greatest rallying hero of all time) was a very popular run amongst MG Workshop customers. Three years in a row the MG Workshop Rally Team took home the team prize after which we were finally allowed to keep the cup!
In 2007 the Spoelstra sisters won an entry to the prestigious Winter Trial taking competitors to the snowy hills of the Czech Republic. A dark blue MGB GT was prepared and, kitted out with snow chains and shovels, the girls took to the east for a week of rallying bringing home both the Ladies Cup and a first in class. The stories they came back with were bound to enthuse others and so for 2008 a team was formed consisting of two MGBs and two BGTs. Taking in Germany, Poland, the Czech Republic and Austria, the battle for the Team Prize was on between our team of M.G.s and a bunch of Porsches, Volvo Amazons and Alfas. None of them ever stood a chance against our ‘poor man’s sports cars’ and we took home the team prize plus a number of firsts and seconds in class and again the Ladies Cup.
Cathelijne Spoelstra (1976) keeps the books
Meanwhile the government called for further professionalism from its entrepreneurs. You may have gotten away with a tenner for the dustman in the 1980s and even with tipping your leftover oil over the neighbours’ fence, companies were now required to actually keep a record of all such doings. The 1980s and ‘90s were clearly over and a new age dawned. With the turn of the millennium, Cathelijne, 24 and by then sort of done with trying to make her college career work, took it upon herself to structurise the lot from whence Bart and Thijs could focus entirely on their beloved jobs as engineers.
Quite apart from keeping the accounts, planning, ordering and invoicing, Cathelijne soon developed a knack for organising events. Annual trips to ‘MG International’ (now ‘MG Live!’) at Silverstone and to the Kimber Classic Trial in the South West of England, entering customers for rallies, organising camping and barbecue parties at the British Car Festival on the TT circuit of Assen (the continuation of the MG Noord events of the 1980s, to MG Workshop customers simply known as ‘Assen’), the 30 and 40 year anniversary parties, touring assemblies to the M.G. Show & Spares Day in Houten, autosolos at the Lelystad karting circuit; all sorts were arranged. Having a whole team of customers and friends completely selflessly willing to help set up camp, get the shopping, marshall, cook breakfast, serve drinks, carry stuff, plot routes and what not, obviously helps loads and long may it continue!
Celebrating 30 years of the MG Workshop
Our 30 year anniversary was celebrated by a modest party inside the premises whereby the ramp took up service as the bar, manned, of course, by one of our customers.
After 35 years in the Blekerslaan right in the town centre of The Hague, the MG Workshop moved to the ‘Westland’ village of Monster, just south of The Hague. Formerly occupied by Westland Classics, we took over a 1950s machine shop and an old smithy dating back to the 1880s.
Again, a whole team of people voluntarily gave their time and efforts to first clear out the Blekerslaan, paint the new premises and then help move spares, ramps, lathes, tool chests and what not.
As it transpired, plenty of M.G.s were scattered throughout the Westland and in no time at all the clientele doubled in numbers.
Apprentices & students
For some reason or other the MG Workshop has always had plenty of youngsters amongst its clientele. In the early 1980s students from the business faculty of Rotterdam University infected each other and drove around in their Midgets and MGBs which most of them still have and drive to this day. The mid 2000s saw a bunch of students of the world famous Tech Uni of Delft enter the MG Workshop. Students in those days had to do a minor apprenticeship of a few weeks to get a feel of what life is like on the shop floor and somehow or other quite a few of them went home with ‘not-quite-ready-to-be-scrapped’ MGBs and GTs making their student days ever more special.
Of course many of our customers are rather on the wrong side of 50 or even 60 to be honest, these young wolves do help keep the average down!
The 40th Anniversary
In December 2012, somewhat later in the year than usual, we celebrated 40 years of the MG Workshop by way of a rally through the Westland which included an actual splash and was finished off by ‘boerenkoolstamppot’ inside the Workshop, a very hearty and very Dutch winter meal. Our ‘founding father’ Bart was then presented with a memory bench for him to sit down on at the end of the day and do some reminiscing and reflecting, sometimes about the past, sometimes about the future and what it would bring for ‘his’ little garage.
The end of an era
2013 though, turned out quite different from what he had had in mind and Bart struggled immensely with his health. He managed to take part in a couple of very tough rallies, but these literally weighed too heavy on him. In the end, come December, he had to give in and quietly passed away. Regardless of the fact that he had reached retirement’s age, he had no inclination to quit work. He did contemplate staying home one day a week or so, but retire entirely? Not in a million years! Ever since he was a little lad, Bart has always done as he pleased and enjoyed life to the fullest.
Customers and friends brought along their M.G.s to his funeral to pay their last respects to their very special garage keeper and friend making this a day the attendants are not likely to forget any time soon.
A new dawn
And so we enter a new era. One without Bart, but with Thijs and Cathelijne. Having used the first few years after Bart’s passing to reconsider our possibilities and wishes, there is now a steady team of helping hands to help carry the load of work formerly done by two and which now had to be done by just the one. It never ceases to amaze us how incredibly caring and unselfish people are when it comes to helping out in the MG Workshop. Under Thijs’ watchful eye, some of ‘the team’ help work on the cars, others pick up and drop off cars, engines from the machine shop, brake cleaner from the local automotive supplier, lunch in the village, and what not. We couldn’t do without our merry band of helpers!
The MG Workshop anno domini 2021
Today, 41 years after the factory closed down, M.G.s are still immensely popular. Spares for T-types, As, Bs and Midgets are readily available in a whole range of qualities. We try to keep stock of all the regular stuff and what we don’t keep, we can usually have supplied within a week without having to travel to the UK for it. True enough, Brexit and Covid-19 do not make things easier, but not impossible either!
The past ten years or so, the range of models we cater for has been expanded by the so called Triple-M M.G.s, the Midgets, Magnas and Magnettes of the early 1930s. These oldies with a technical sepc ahead of their time call for a somewhat different approach with spares hardly readily available and then when they are the rule ‘if it fits, send it back’ applies more often than not. But what a privilege to be transported back to those fascinating pre war days through these beautiful cars!
Whenever Thijs is not seen working on customers’ cars, he enjoys racing his bright orange 1934 P-type. He’s done Zandvoort of course, but also further afield tracks such as Silverstone and Brands Hatch in the UK and the Circuit des Remparts d’Angoulême in France. And not entirely without success either; he brings home a cup every now and then too! Hopefully travel restrictions will be lifted for the summer and the ‘Orange Clog’ can go racing again!
In turn, Cathelijne spends her spare time researching M.G.’s 1930s history with the aim of writing a book on the Montlhéry Midget, M.G.’s most successful racing car. After having volunteered for a spell as Sports Secretary for the Dutch MG Car Club, she then took on the role of Yearbook Editor for the Triple-M Register, part of the English MGCC, for eight or so years while she is currently active as ‘Scribe’ for Safety Fast! (the English Club’s monthly magazine), as administrator for the Triple-M Register and Triple-M Register Members Group on Facebook and as Registrar for the C, J3, J4, Q and R-types within the same Register. Plenty to keep her occupied during lockdown!