Today’s car came from humble origins, but ended up being a machine that simply refused to die. Through fuel crises, strikes and corporate bungling, this plucky sports car was twisted and contorted from a classical design of the late 1950’s to a road-going incarnation of Frankenstein’s Monster. But despite all their efforts, the mighty ‘B’ was destined for fame beyond anything the designers could ever have envisaged. It may not have been built to be a classic, but it certainly became one.
The story behind the MGB begins in 1962, when MG chose to design their next sports model to incorporate an innovative, modern style that utilised a monocoque structure; replacing the traditional body-on-frame construction used on the preceding MGA and MG T. Most of all, it was a step above the contemporary Triumph TR3; MG’s sworn rival. However, components such as brakes and suspension were developments of the earlier 1955 MGA, with the B-Series engine having its origins in 1947. The lightweight design reduced manufacturing costs while adding to overall strength of the vehicle. Wind-up windows were standard, and a comfortable driver’s compartment offered plenty of legroom, with a parcel shelf fitted behind the seats.
The car was powered by a BMC B-Series engine producing 95hp; giving the car a 0-60 time of 11 seconds. While that doesn’t count for much by the standards of today, one must remember that the Morris Minor of the period took nearly 50 seconds to get to 60mph; the MGB was a rocket by comparison. At the same time, it wasn’t built to be an out and out racing machine, in the same vein as the Jaguar D-Type or the Aston Martin DB4. Instead it was a simple cruiser, a car you’d drop the top of and amble through the country lanes on a summer’s evening.
The MGB also had the distinction of being one of the first cars to feature controlled crumple zones designed to protect the driver and passenger in a 30 mph impact with an immovable barrier.
Initially, MGB’s were only available in roadster configuration, with a fabric cover for use when the weather turned distinctly British. The body was a specifically designed as a two-seater, but the option was there for the fitting of a small rear seat behind the two front seats; though it would only be suitable for someone who’d been amputated below the ribs. The space in the rear, though, was best suited for carrying luggage, as the car, unlike most sports cars, was built to be used practically; be it for business trips or driving holidays to the south of France. The result was the car being 3 inches longer than the previous MGA, though improvements over the preceding model also included softer suspension for a smoother ride. The engine was enlarged for a higher top speed, and a four-speed manual gearbox, uprated from the MGA’s unit, was made available with the option of an electrically activated overdrive transmission.
Upon its launch, the MGB received almost universal acclaim for its advanced and innovative design; combined perfectly with a low, smooth and sleek body. While previous sports cars of this type had always been levied with a reputation for their ropy nature, being essentially warmed-up versions of designs that dated back to the 1920’s, the MGB was a very different breed of animal; thanks largely to its absolutely charming styling. The MGB is a very personable machine, in many ways comparable to a pet dog. It was dependable, chirpy and a pleasure to drive; whether it be negotiating the hairpin turns of the Corniche or storming across the deserts on Route 66.
However, the MGB’s lack of a hardtop option didn’t appeal to everyone. Britain is notorious for its wretched weather conditions, therefore the idea of a buying a convertible that was only useful for about 5% of the year left people wondering why they don’t just buy a regular hardtop. MG weren’t unaware of this face, and in 1965 they took the car to Pininfarina of Italy, a legendary styling house which has given us some of the most beautiful and sought after classics in automotive history. The result was the MGB GT, a hardtop that blended perfectly into the rest of the body with a smooth greenhouse cabin that was spacious but still maintained the styling that enthusiasts had come to know so well. The MGB GT was a fantastic success, with many coming to dub the car as “The poor man’s Aston Martin.” Though the weight of the new roof made acceleration slightly slower, it did have the effect of making the car more aerodynamic; upping the top speed by 5mph to 105mph.
However, by 1967, MG were starting to make amendments to their winning car, essentially adding to perfect. What resulted, though, were modifications that were either improperly planned, poorly implemented, or served to make the car less attractive than it already was.
First was the MGC, which was built to replace the Austin-Healey 3000 Mk. III by fitting an MGB body with a 2.9L C-Series Inline-6 engine that was good for 145hp. However, it was found that the C-Series engine was too big for the MGB’s engine bay, and thus a rather unsightly bulge was added to the bonnet lid to accommodate it. The result was a not particularly attractive car that improved the 0-60 time by only 1 second, but upped the top speed to 120mph. The heavier engine also required modifications to the suspension, which had the side effect of ruining the handling. As well as that, the poor build quality of the engines meant they worked far less efficiently than they were actually capable of. Later tuning by enthusiasts found that simple modifications to the head, exhaust and cam release could provide an extra 30% more power.
However, the MGC did find some love when in 1967, HRH Prince Charles took delivery of an MGC GT (SGY 766F); which he passed down to Prince William 30 years later. At least one car had a happy ending!
Soon, though, the clouds started to brew when in 1968, British Motor Holdings (BMH), the parent company of MG, merged with the Leyland Group to form British Leyland, the UK’s largest car manufacturer. While changes had been made cosmetically to the car, as well as the questionable mindset behind the MGC, the MGB’s time under BL was mired in one bad decision after another, one that would ultimately lead to this plucky machine’s downfall.
Firstly, BL got the idea in their head of fitting the MGB with Rover’s reliable and powerful 3.5L V8 engine; which was essentially a license built version of a Buick V8 used on their contemporary pickup trucks. The result was the MGB GT V8, which, on its own, could’ve been a good idea for a car. The engine was compact enough to fit in the engine bay, therefore not requiring any contortions to the bonnet, but was also endlessly tuneable and would quite happily run forever. However, the idea to fit the V8 to the MGB was not BL’s idea, the concept actually being the brainchild of professional engine tuner Ken Costello.
Costello was commissioned by British Leyland to create a prototype, and had already created a series of MGB’s with V8’s placed under the bonnet. However, BL decided that once the prototype was built, they’d take the idea as their own and started fitting their own V8’s to the car; but ended up going about it completely wrong. The powerful 180bhp engine used by Costello for his conversions was replaced with a more modestly tuned version producing only 137bhp. Though the 0-60 time was slashed to just 7.7 seconds, and the top speed was upped to 125mph, the car was incredibly thirsty; with an average MPG of only 20. This could’ve been not that big of an issue, if it hadn’t been for the arrival of the 1973 Fuel Crisis the same year as the car’s launch, making the idea of owning a gas guzzling V8 deeply unsatisfying.
The worst, however, was yet to come, as BL’s fanatical desire to sell their cars en masse in the USA saw the MGB turned from the car you wanted to the car you didn’t.
Throughout the 1960’s, the death of James Dean had resulted in a gradual increase in safety legislation on US Highways; and in order to have a market there cars had to conform. From the height of the headlights and bumper rigidity to its emissions and the recess of the switches; everything that could be scrutinised was, and car builders were forced to oblige.
While we owe it to this period of motoring for requiring so many of the safety features we take for granted today, the way in which manufacturers modified their cars to meet the legislation ranged from the mysterious to the insane.
On the MGB, the glistening chrome, which had slowly been on the way out during the late 60’s, was pretty much removed completely, replaced with a bulbous rubber bumper that protruded from the front of the car like someone’s bottom lip! Leather seats were removed, dials and switches were carried over from the Austin Allegro and Maxi; while door handles came from the Morris Marina.
In terms of mechanics, the car was absolutely butchered, primarily due to the requirement to raise the height of the headlights. Rather than redesigning the car to suit, BL chose instead to put solid blocks under the suspension, which did increase the height of the headlights, but completely ruined the handling by making it so light it would slide constantly at speed. Engines were downgraded in order to meet emission regulations, resulting in the car becoming woefully underpowered; making it less a sports car and more a convertible Mini.
Sales numbers hit the floor, and even product placement of the car in the New Avengers to be driven by Joanna Lumley’s character Purdey wasn’t enough to reverse its dwindling fortunes. In America, cars would languish in stockyards and storage warehouses for months on end waiting to be sold. The cars had lost their British charm, therefore there was really no reason to buy one. Because of this, MG were losing up to £400,000 per week, and it was very clear that this terminal dip wouldn’t see a recovery with the MGB.
In the aftermath of BL’s bankruptcy in 1975, the new chairman of the company, Sir Michael Edwardes, set about a massive restructuring plan that would cut as many costs as possible from the firm’s books. The MGB, and its sister the MG Midget, were singled out as among the biggest loss makers, and it was therefore decided to discontinue these models and close MG’s factory at Abingdon-on-Thames. On October 21st, 1980, the last MGB rolled unceremoniously off the production line after 18 years; slipping quietly away into the pages of history.
With the last two traditional MG’s now gone and the Abingdon plant shut, the MG brand entered its darkest era; being placed on tuned and slightly modified versions of British Leyland’s family cars like the MG Montego, the MG Maestro and, to the everlasting horror of MG purists, the MG Metro.
But even though the MGB was gone, the car almost immediately had its renaissance, as this charming British sports car became a fashionably retro machine during the 1980’s and 90’s. Its simple mechanics, its gorgeous styling, and its English charm meant it was a cheap but popular alternative to more expensive classics such as the E-Type or the DB5. The love of the MGB and the Midget wasn’t just limited to Britain, but was a worldwide phenomenon; with second hand MGB’s being exported to Europe, America and Asia in their droves. The Japanese were particularly fond of these old MG’s, with Midgets and MGB’s being shipped out there by the dozen.
Such was the popularity of the MGB revival, that in 1993 Rover Group created the MG RV8, a limited edition homage to the classic MGB with altered styling, upgraded mechanics, and the sublime 3.5L Rover V8. Only 2,000 of these cars were built, but much of the technology behind the RV8 would end up in the first true MG since the end of the MGB, the MG F of 1995.
Here in the UK, the MG craze is still going strong, with enthusiasts taking scrapyard shells and run down barn finds and restoring them into their own put-together projects. The MGB has now become one of the most popular retro sports cars of the modern era; even the rubber-bumper British Leyland models make some fantastic kit cars if you want motoring fun on a budget.
Overall, the MGB is a car that proves there can be life after death. After becoming a staple of the British motor industry, being brought to its knees and ultimately sacrificed at the hands of British Leyland, and eventually finding new appreciation years after it was discontinued, the MGB has truly stood the test of time. It is truly the quintessential British sports car, filled with quirks and charms that many other models of its range don’t have. When looking back at the slew of sports cars that came from the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, the final roll call of classic machines before the rot set in and the style faded, the MGB stands up there with the E-Type, the DB5, the Spitfire and many more as a true piece of English motoring heritage.
- Looks – 7/10 – Forgoing the later rubber-bumper models, the original MGB was a charming and classic machine with styling endemic of the early 1960’s
- Comfort – 3/10 – Not its best attribute, with low sports suspension and cramped seats making for a hard ride
- Practicality – 5/10 – Fairly spacious for a sports car, with a decent sized boot and space behind the passenger seats. But it’s only good for two, so family trips will be troublesome
- Features – 2/10 – If you wanted luxuries back in the day, you should’ve bought a Rolls-Royce!
- Reliability – 2/10 – While spares are abundant, these cars were notorious for their poor reliability, even before British Leyland
- Efficiency – 4/10 – At 22mpg, the car is one of the more efficient classic roadsters you can get from this period
- Quality – 4/10 – Seats and surfaces do feel rather cheap, but needed to be hard wearing for the harsh UK elements
- Speed – 2/10 – 0-60 comes in 11 seconds and it will do 105mph
- Handling – 3/10 – Even without British Leyland’s ridiculous modifications, the MGB didn’t exactly handle properly, with understeer and bodyroll that would make you seasick
- Price – 9/10 – Most MGB’s you can pick up these days for less than £15,000, thanks largely to brand depreciation and the abundance of these little cars
- Value – 1/10 – The MGB was a mass-production sports car and not nearly as delicate or significant as contemporary Ferrari’s or the E-Type Jag. British Leyland models won’t see prices rise above £10,000 even with the best will in the world. However, I have seen earlier examples from the 60’s sell at auction for up to £24,000; but I somehow doubt selling it higher than that would be advisable.
- Total – 42/110 – Among the most popular classics on the road today, but very much an enthusiasts car.