2 December 2007

World of MG

MG introduced America to the joys of the sportscar.

University of Pennsylvania student Jim Carson was driving his 1942 Plymouth when he saw a “wonderful-looking car” suddenly appear coming from Bryn Mawr Avenue. He had no idea what it was, so he took off after it. But his old Plymouth was no match for the mystery vehicle on the winding back roads outside of Philadelphia. “It lost me,” Carson says. “It just plain disappeared.”

Finally, an article about a new MG TC told Carson all he needed to know and in early 1948 he trooped off to buy one of his own. In the intervening 60 years, that TC went from daily driver to Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) race car to vintage racer – all with Carson at the wheel.

He is just one of the many Americans whose world changed the first time he saw an MG. The small, rough-riding and noisy cars lacked the power or comfort of the most basic Ford or Chevy. MGs, devoid of proper windows, leaked like colanders, had no luggage space and lacked such essential creature comforts as heaters and defrosters – unless you installed them yourself. Yet, they were responsive, fun to drive and a form of four-wheeled rebellion.

The intrepid young drivers bundled up in the winter – sometimes driving with the top down – and went to races and rallies in the summer. Chances were, most of their friends drove “funny foreign cars,” too, and not one of them would have considered passing another MG without a hearty wave. From 1950 to 1980, MG was the ubiquitous sports car in the United States. In places like New York, California and New Jersey, they were virtually everywhere. However, the roots of MG date back all the way to the mid-1920s, even though few MGs made it to North America prior to 1946.

In the beginning

The first MG was little more than a 1923 Morris modified at the behest of Morris Garage general manager Cecil Kimber. MGs were based on production components available from the parent company’s parts bins. The large sporting and touring cars soon gave way to the smaller Wolsely-based, four-cylinder M-Type Midget, and MG was well on its way to fame as a dedicated producer of sports cars.

The M-Type’s immediate popularity and success in trials and rallies prompted MG to modify a team of them, which excelled in the 1930 Brooklands Double 12. As new models were introduced, MG would soon follow with competition models, which quickly became the small cars to beat. In the showroom, the four-seat D-Type Midget joined the M-Type in 1931, which coincided with the release of the six-cylinder F-Type Magna. Those six-cylinder MGs evolved into the giant-beating supercharged 1,100cc K3 of 1933 and 1944, while the four-cylinder line culminated in the indecently fast supercharged J4, R-Type and Q-Type racing Midgets.

But the car that really defined the MG line was the J2 Midget of 1932. Although initial cars were built with cycle fenders, when swept wings and running boards were added in 1933, the J2 established the classic MG look that would remain until 1955.

For 1936, MG introduced the 1,292cc TA. Gone were the high-revving overhead camshaft engines in favor of bigger pushrod units with greater power and torque. The TB of 1939 featured an entirely different 1,250cc pushrod engine with a shorter stroke and slightly more power, but few were built before the war stopped production. With modest changes, the model would evolve into the TC, which started the sports car revolution in America.

Conquering the world

The TC, with its upright grille and spindly wire wheels, was unlike anything on American roads. Of the 10,000 built from 1946 to 1949, only 2,000 were shipped to North America. However, they had an impact totally out of proportion to their numbers, helping spawn an entire sports car culture.

It started with MG owners waving, and soon there were clubs that organized road rallies or convoyed to sports car races. Many TC drivers soon found themselves racing from Pebble Beach and Torrey Pines in California to Watkins Glen and Bridgehampton in New York. In late 1949, the TC yielded to the TD. Many were shocked by its less graceful appearance, but the new MG was a vastly improved car.

Gene Faust was with his dad the day he bought a new MG TD. Almost immediately, Faust’s father joined SCCA and became a frequent corner worker at race tracks throughout the Northeast. In short, sports cars became such an integral part of his life that he never sold the TD, which Faust still has – resplendent in its original paint and leather.

By 1950, MG wasn’t the only game in town. Jaguar had introduced the fast, gorgeous and more expensive XK-120. Although there was no money for an all-new model, MG introduced the TF Midget in 1954.

A break with tradition

With sales slumping and competition from Austin-Healey and Triumph, MG needed a new car, which finally arrived with the MGA in late 1955. The sleek sports car was designed by MG chief engineer Syd Enever and built on a new chassis that positioned the passengers low between the frame rails. To control weight, aluminum was used for the hood, trunk lid and doors of the otherwise steel body. Power came from an Austin-derived 1,489cc pushrod four-cylinder engine rated at 68 horsepower and reached the rear axle through a four-speed transmission.

If the MG’s straight-line performance wasn’t quite up to that of the competition, build quality was at least equal, and handling and comfort were superior. The MG was also less expensive. The initial reception to the MGA was positive and a tidy coupe was added a year later. With the more aerodynamic shape, for the first time a production MGA topped 100 mph.

Like the T-Series MGs before it, the MGA was rallied and raced from the start, winning the team prizes at Sebring in 1956 and 1957. But it was too heavy and underpowered against increasingly fierce competition from specialist sports cars. MG sought to change that with the twin overhead camshaft MGA Twin Cam of 1958. Unfortunately, the Twin Cam was still too heavy and was afflicted with an engine that was very sensitive to timing and over-revving. As a result, it acquired a poor reputation for reliability. Just 2,111 were built before it became just a memory in mid-1960.

Unlike the Twin Cam, the pushrod MG was a resounding success and in 1959 the displacement was increased to 1,588cc and horsepower jumped to 80 bhp. Revised parking and taillights visibly distinguished the new MGA 1600. The final changes to the MGA came with the 1600 Mk II of 1961, which used a 1,622cc engine rated at 93 bhp, and had an inset grille and revised rear lighting.

With its 1950s styling, sturdy components and performance that allow it to keep up with modern traffic, the MGA has proven incredibly popular over the long haul and has a dedicated following today.

Abingdon revives the Midget

In 1961, MG introduced a small new roadster to slot in below the MGA. Based on BMC’s Austin-Healey Sprite, the Midget boasted unibody construction and a tiny 948cc engine producing 46.4 horsepower. Selling for approximately $2,000, it was one of the least expensive sports cars available anywhere.

 Hardly quick, the Midget was cheap and fun and offered go-kart– like handling. And because Sprites had been raced so extensively, a large number of tuning and race preparation parts were already available. As the Sprite was continually updated, so was the Midget. In 1964, the Midget Mark II arrived with roll-up windows and a larger 1,098cc engine. It was followed by the Mark III version in 1967 with a more powerful 1,275cc engine.

The most prolific MG

When production of the MGA ended in 1962, it was replaced by the MGB. Almost everything about the MGB was bigger. And no one at Abingdon – not even general manager John Thornley – imagined the MGB would last for 18 years and more than 500,000 units.

In 1965, a five main-bearing version of the B-Series engine and more robust rear axle were introduced along with the new MGB/GT coupe that joined the roadster late in the year.

As BMC – soon to become British Leyland – phased out the big Austin-Healey 3000, the company introduced a new MG model to replace it. The MGC looked much like the B but used a torsion bar front suspension, rolled on 15-inch wheels and harbored a 2,912cc straight six under its bulging hood. Never strong sellers, the MGC and MGC/GT models were discontinued before the start of the 1970 model year.

About the time the MGC faded away at the end of 1969, all MG sports cars were revised with new blacked-out grilles, styled steel wheels and vinyl seats. Although the post-1969 MGBs have a massive following, the earlier cars with chrome grilles and leather interiors are considered the most collectible.

Beginning of the end

From 1970 to 1974, changes were limited, as the struggling British Leyland Motor Corp. tightened all purse strings. Power also declined in the face of tightening federal emissions regulations.

Midway through the 1974 model year, the MGB’s traditional grille and chrome bumpers vanished, replaced by hefty black rubber safety bumpers front and rear and a raised suspension. These transition models were known as the 1974½ models and were externally similar to the 1975s.

For 1975, the Midget was also blighted with rubber bumpers and it received the Triumph Spitfire’s 1,500cc engine and all-synchromesh transmission. The Midget soldiered on until 1979 and the MGB lasted a year longer until the MG works was shuttered in 1980.

Although the performance of these final Abingdon-built MGs may have been reduced, sales were good and thousands found North American buyers. Today, these rubber-bumpered MGBs and Midgets are incredibly affordable and usable cars that are can be easily serviced and repaired.

A lasting legacy

MGs haven’t been imported into the United States since 1980, yet enthusiasm for the British marque remains high. American MG guru John Twist says it’s because “they are the least expensive authentic sports car in the world.”

Although MGs are rarely seen as daily transportation, there are many active clubs across America and virtually any import or general car show will feature one or more. Just as Ford or Chevy owners can be fiercely loyal, so, too, can MG owners. It’s not uncommon to find garages with a half-dozen examples of the sports car jammed into the space intended for three or four vehicles.

Often decried as fussy, MGs are incredibly simple cars that are easy to maintain. However, “You can’t take shortcuts,” according to Twin Cam and P-Type authority Jim Alcorn, one of the many restoration specialists and parts suppliers who continue to support the tens of thousands of MG owners in North America.

Miatas and Corvettes may rule the sports car roads of the 21st century, but many MG owners still remember the days when they couldn’t drive 10 minutes without waving to another MG.
To see this article in its original format, view the pdf version of the Winter 2007 issue of Hagerty magazine.

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