In 1979 Morland Brewery was approached by MG Cars to produce a commemorative ale to celebrate 50 years of the company in Abingdon, Oxfordshire. The company selected an obscure model from the manufacturer’s past as a name for the resulting beer, and inadvertently hatched a world famous brand that’s going strong today. This is the case of Old Speckled Hen.
It’s well known that MG started in 1910 as Morris Garages in Oxford, and had moved to the Thames-side town in 1929 having outgrown its old facilities. There’s debate as to when the MG name first appeared and badged cars produced, but it appears that inspiration of this curious brew dates back to 1927. However, there are conflicting stories as to whether the car’s appearance was by happy accident, or a deliberate attempt to gain notoriety.
The popular view is that it originates from an MG saloon used by the factory for running around locally, doing odd jobs. The car was kept outside the paint shop and got splattered with paint, which gave rise to it being called the "Owd speckl'd un".
However, a more complex history is documented in several marque-specific books. These identify the car as the first ever original production MG from 1927 called a 14/40 featherweight, based on a Morris 14/28. The car appears to have been a prototype of sorts, and employed some new ideas.
The name ‘featherweight’ was down to an optional, and specially designed, lightweight body, using cellulosed fabric stretched over a wooden frame. Designed to improve the power-to-weight ratio of the car, ‘the Hen’ also featured a polished and ported cylinder head, generating more power that the standard version. There’s also evidence that the car was present when MG as a brand made its first ever motor show appearance in 1928.
In this more considered version of events, the peculiar colour scheme appears to be down to the then General Manager, Cecil Kimber. Keen to make the car stand out when it was first developed, he wanted some alternative colour schemes. For the car in question that meant it was deliberately finished in grained tan with specks of gold.
What does appear certain is that the car made the move the Abingdon factory, and stayed a while to be used as a demonstrator and test car of sorts, undergoing development work. Over time it’s likely that the fabric body wasn’t at its best, having become blotchy and discoloured. It’s not hard to imagine that the Old Speckled Hen could be seen cruising the town and so passing into local legend.
The factory in Abingdon continued producing cars until 1980 when it was closed after the discontinuation of the Midget and MGB models. Over the intervening years it had manufactured a number of different brands, all part of British Leyland. This included Riley Austin-Healey, Morris Minors and Vanden Plas.
Today Old Speckled Hen is known around the world and Green King, who now own Morland, export to 40 different countries. As an interesting footnote, you may not yet have noticed the inspiration behind the ale’s distinctive logo. MG originally started using octagonal instruments and motifs to distinguish its cars from others, and the idea transferred just as well to bottles of beer.