How a half-century racing career began with three MG specials

Photography Courtesy the Bill Wonder Collection

Story by Carl Goodwin

Bill Wonder is one of those people who has been in the sports car scene since its beginning, and is still in it. His SCCA 50-year pin just arrived in the mail. 

When he was a young man, the Japanese invaded Pearl Harbor. Bill joined the Marines and flew Corsairs as a combat pilot in the Pacific Theater. Then he became a commercial pilot for American Airlines (“a nice company,” he says) for 38 years, ending up rated for the 747 on international routes.

Soon after the first traditional sports cars arrived in the U.S., he became intrigued and bought an MG with an interest in racing it. “In 1953, we went to Sebring to race the MG,” says Wonder. “It was Wonder and Wellenberg—my friend, Bill Wellenberg. We placed 16th overall in a TD and we beat both the Motto MGs.” 

Little Joe” Giubardo had gone through the engine and blueprinted and balanced it while shot-peening the rods. Otherwise, the powerplant was still stock. That was the year that John Fitch and Phil Walters, driving a lone Cunningham C-4R, beat the Aston Martin team—the first of very few all-American victories at the 12-hour enduro.

We drove the car down from Flushing, Long Island, raced it 12 hours, and drove it all the way back,” Wonder recalls. “Larry Kulok gave me a license right there. I didn’t know you had to have a license but Alec Ullman told me to get one. He said, ‘go out to that airplane hangar over there and find Larry Kulok.’ 

When I went there, it was raining heavily and Larry was in a Mercedes with a beautiful woman. He said, ‘did you ever drive this track?’ I said, ‘no.’ And he said, ‘go out and do five laps and then come back.’ I did that and it took a little time because the course was 5 miles long. When I came back, he said, ‘did you crash?’ I told him I didn’t. He said ‘that’ll be $20.’ I found out later it was only supposed to be $10, but I was glad to have the license so I could race.”

Building Something Special

Then came the specials—as soon as they got back from Sebring, Wonder quips. He and his friend, Joe Giubardo, built three of them, all interesting and all based on MG TD chassis and mechanical components. (Wonder would like to find them, too). 

“The first one,” Wonder notes, “was built out of a wreck that we bought. It was an early ’51. We took off the fenders and the bumpers. We got rid of all the stuff we wouldn’t need in racing. We didn’t do much to the engine. It ran in the F Modified class.” The car was only raced once, at Floyd Bennett Field in 1953. The race at Floyd Bennett will be remembered for the terrific battle between Phil Walters in the Cunningham C-4R and Bill Spear in the 4.1 Ferrari; Walters won by more than a lap. 

Bill Wonder stripped down an MG TD to build his first special in 1951. That car only ran once, competing at Floyd Bennett Field. The big battle at that race was between Bill Spear’s 4.1 Ferrari and Phil Walters’s Cunningham C4R. Spear temporarily held the top spot. 

Adding a touch of drama, Masten Gregory’s C-type Jaguar burned in practice due to a split gas tank He bought another one on the spot from Henry Wessels. “I was standing right there,” Wonder says. “Gregory didn’t have any money—he gave Henry a promissory note.” Gregory led the race for four laps and then went out with differential problems. 

“Duke Donaldson promoted that race,” says Wonder. “About five weeks before, he had open practice on the base. People would come out and run up and down the runways. It built a lot of goodwill. He let the base commander use his Frazer Nash, and he was right out there with the rest of them. There were a lot of spectators and most of the money went to the Navy Relief Fund benefiting servicemen.” The spectator count at Floyd Bennett topped 50,000.

Refining the Idea

The second MG special was something like an East Coast version of Ken Miles’s famous Flying Shingle. It was nearly as light and with similar construction, although not as dramatically fast. 

“The second MG had a tube chassis,” Bill says. “The frame was 3-inch 4130 chromemoly, with electrical conduit for the hoops that mounted the body.”

Wonder’s aeronautical background shows through on this one. “Did you see the gussets in the picture?” he asks. “That was a stiff frame. I’m an airplane guy and it was like an airplane. We used explosive rivets—this was before pop-rivets. You’d put them in a hole, put a big soldering iron on the head and in 3 to 5 seconds they would go ‘bam!’ You could get them in small sizes—1/8 inch, 1/16 inch—but they were expensive little devils. You should have heard Joe complain—and you couldn’t just buy a few of them, either.”

This second car took the concept of big-engine-in-a-lightweight-car a couple of steps further. Thanks to the aluminum body and svelte cycle fenders, the car only weighed about 1200 pounds.

“We had a 1330cc engine with Lincoln Zephyr pistons, a Harman & Collins cam, Mallory dual-point ignition, tube headers and Ford carburetors,” Wonder continues. “We put Ford carburetors on it from the early six-cylinder engine. They had good throttle response. SUs were notorious for poor throttle response. 

“The engine was balanced by an old midget guy, Dick Simonek in New Jersey. That’s what he did, balance the engines. And he wouldn’t add weight to get them in balance, he’d remove it. When you got an engine back from him, it was 3 pounds lighter. He also made us an aluminum flywheel. We could twist that engine to the clock on the dial—in other words, 7000 rpm.”

Wonder drove that car a couple of times and did pretty well. One of these events was the 1953 Callicoon race in southeastern New York state. Bill entered the 1250cc to 2000cc race and took a third in class, finishing behind the second-place Lake Underwood modified MG and the first-place ex-Giulio Cabianca OSCA driven by Al Garthwaite. “They gave us a big trophy,” Bill recalls. “It was 3 feet tall!”

Wonder’s second MG special was built from the ground up—no heavy MG frame here. The chassis was made of chromoly tubing, while hoops of electrical conduit were used to tie the body to the frame.  This second special featured a 4-into-1 exhaust header and U.S.-built Ford carburetors.

That car also ran at a few other Northeastern tracks, including Thompson, Bridgehampton, Watkins Glen and Marlboro. “One of those I remember was an oval track at Speonk Stadium out on Long Island where they had a sports car race,” Wonder recalls. “I forget who was first, but Fritz Koster was second in the HRG, and I was third. It was very bumpy there. I was coming around the corner with the tail of the car hung out and I saw the bottom of the HRG crankcase on the track. I thought ‘the poor bastard’—but not for long, of course. I didn’t see the car right away—it was stopped further down the track.

“Later on, Joe took the MG out and boffed it. The car was repaired but wasn’t raced. We decided that Joe wasn’t cut out to be a driver.”

Before its retirement, Wonder found that the car could beat the smaller, sub-1500cc OSCAs plus the 1300cc Porsches—the production cars, he notes, not the Spyders as they had not yet been introduced. “And we could beat most of the modified MGs, including the Lester MGs, the David Ash MG specials, the Motto MGs and others.”

One Last MG

Where the first two specials clearly showed their MG roots, the third one was sleeker and more modern looking. “The third car, built in 1954, had an envelope body,” Wonder explains.

“We got smarter each time,” he continues. “We had a Porsche front suspension, an MG engine and a Porsche transaxle in the back. We had big brakes from a Porsche on it, too. The MG engine was 1300cc, with a Porsche crash box.”

One of the car’s defining characteristics was the bodywork, an all-aluminum skin. Aerodynamics were finally coming into play.

“The body was done by Mario Hernandez in Long Island,” Wonder says. “He had a little shop in Jackson Heights. He used to do all Chinetti’s repair work. I would drive the cars over from [Luigi] Chinetti’s to his place. I could drive Ferraris that way.

Bill Wonder wouldn’t have gotten far without his crew. Builder Joe Giubardo has his hand on the wheel of their second car, while “Frank the Crank,” machinist for the project, is standing in the center of the group. Bill Wonder is on the left. The third and final MG-based special was built in 1954. It wore a smooth, aluminum body. The drivetrain was trick, too, featuring a Porsche transaxle and brakes.

“The body had big fender cutaways. We saw them on the Kimberly Ferrari and made ours bigger.”

Where today’s race cars often start as a computer-aided design, things were a little simpler back then. “I drew the body with chalk marks on the floor of his garage. It was an active place so I had to come back every day to redraw them where they were scuffed away. He made the body in a week. It cost us $1000. We never painted it—left it bare aluminum.”

Unfortunately the phrase “third time’s a charm” doesn’t apply here. Even though the team’s third special appeared to have it all, the car never saw competition.

“It had a lot of potential, but we never raced it,” Wonder recalls. “We got sidetracked on Austin-Healeys. We got a 100M. Joe complained ‘you’re spending my money too fast.’ I said, ‘that’s all it’s good for.’”

Moving Away From Specials

An early race for the Healey was at the Suffolk County races at Westhampton Air Force Base on May 9, 1954. “We didn’t do very well there,” Wonder says. “We decided we would be in the modified class—D Modified—so we bored out the engine to 2770cc and went to the next size up on the SUs—I think it was from 11/2 inch to 13/4 inch.”

The engine wasn’t the only part of the drivetrain that was upgraded, as the transmission and differential were also touched. “We used a ring and pinion from an Austin A90 and unblocked first gear so we could have a real four-speed transmission,” Wonder explains. (The Austin A90 Atlantic donated its four-speed transmission to the 100M model line, but since first gear was too low to be useful it was blocked off.) The car also received Alfin brake drums and a 35-gallon fuel tank that was ordered from England.

“It was cold at Westhampton—I remember that,” Wonder recalls of one outing with the Healey. “I think one of the Koster brothers won my race in his Maserati A6GCS. I was black-flagged in the race. Jackie Cooper chopped me off a couple of times and I gave him a little bump. ‘It just got away from me,’ I explained.”

In the 1955 Sebring event, the team entered two Healeys, and Joe was driving again. Why not? He did own the cars. One car was for Joe Giubardo and co-driver Fred Wolf, and the other for Bill Wonder and Bill Wellenberg. The cars were numbered 38 and 39, respectively. 

After trying his hand at home-built specials, Wonder went back to production-based cars, including an Austin-Healey 100M. One of his first outings with that car was on Long Island.

“The rules were different at Sebring,” Wonder recalls. “All your spares had to be carried on the car. We thought we were well-prepared and didn’t carry any. They figured production and modified cars differently than SCCA.” The Giubardo/Wolf car came in 22nd overall and ninth in Class D, and the Wonder/Wellenberg car was 24th overall and 10th in Class D.

The Class D winner was the Ferrari 750 Monza of Phil Hill and Carroll Shelby, edged out for first overall by Phil Walters and Mike Hawthorn in the Cunningham-entered Jaguar D-type. The Maserati 300S of Sherwood Johnston and Bill Spear finished second in class and third overall; they probably would have won overall if the car had not run out of gas so that Johnston had to push it into the pits. With competition like this, it was pretty tough for the Healey from Long Island to win anything. 

Later that season, Wonder moved to a Frazer Nash, a Mille Miglia replica powered by the great Bristol engine. “A friend owned a Frazer Nash from new,” he explains. “I thought it would be a neat car for E Modified so I was able to buy it from him.” He continues, “One of my first events was the Reading, Pa., hill climb, May 1955. I was first in my class and set an E Modified record that lasted two years.”

Wonder also road raced the car, continuing to visit the Northeast’s tracks. “I have some pictures of going to Cumberland in 1955, but to tell you the truth I don’t remember much about that race. I ran a lot of them.”

Looking back on half a century of sports car activities, Wonder’s only accident involved the Frazer Nash. “At Beverly, they had a standing start. They put the smaller-engined cars in the back—my 2-liter Frazer Nash was at the back. 

“At the green flag, someone in front broke a U-joint and there was a big pileup. I hit a C-type Jaguar. It was right in front of my wife. I was in second gear at the time. There were a lot of damaged cars—eight or nine. I only had two sprained wrists. Some of the East Coast crowd wanted to blame me for the pileup—they wanted to take away my license. 

“I was flying LaGuardia to Chicago at the time, so I went to the Kimberly-Clark building. I told the receptionist, ‘I’d like to speak to Jim Kimberly.’ He was the president of SCCA at the time. She called him and then told me ‘go right on in.’ I explained the incident to Kimberly and said, ‘I don’t think I should be penalized for something caused by another car.’ Kimberly paused for a moment and then said, ‘I don’t, either.’ That was the last I ever heard about anyone taking my license.”

Shortly afterward, the Frazer Nash went to automotive editor and author Karl Ludvigsen. “He traded me an Alfa Giulietta and some cash for it,” Wonder says. “Ludvigsen went on his honeymoon in it, in the middle of winter.”

Looking Back

After the Frazer Nash, Wonder finally got the chance to run a truly world-class machine. Joe Giubardo bought the Maserati 300S that had just finished third at Sebring with Bill Spear behind the wheel, while Wonder bought the Maserati 200S from Briggs Cunningham.

“We were suddenly in the big time,” says Wonder. “I took it to Lime Rock and the car ran good. Then the flywheel and clutch wrung off of the crankshaft and came up through the dash. It was lucky it didn’t get my legs. After that, I was scared of the car. I repaired it and sold it. And Joe put the 300S on its head at Bridgehampton.”

Wonder and Bill Wellenberger shared this Healey at Sebring in 1955. They finished 24th overall and 10th in Class D. Later that year, Wonder ran a Frazer Nash at Cumberland (top) and Beverly (above).

Following the Maserati, Bill Wonder has owned and raced a succession of interesting cars, including a Ford GT40, McLaren 8F, Ralt Formula Atlantic, a Ferrari 333 SP, a couple of Formula 1 cars and a very nice 1936 Ford business coupe in gleaming black. 

He’s driven just about every series there is, from USRRC to Can-Am. He’s still at it; before this article was finished, he and his son went out to Pocono with their March Formula Atlantic car. He’s thinking about a new car or two. We don’t know where it will end, but we sure know where it began: with three MG specials out on Long Island.

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