Oh the MGB, the last great British Sports car?
A motor that refused to die even though British Leyland simply couldn’t stop messing around with it. The MGB is an example of a car that went from one of the most loved and lovable cars in British motoring, to what many describe as an empty husk broken and bent for legislation purposes. But the MGB would have its way in the end!
The story behind the MGB begins in 1962, when the car was designed to incorporate an innovative, modern style utilizing a monocoque structure instead of the traditional body-on-frame construction used on both the MGA and MG T-types and the MGB’s rival, the Triumph TR series. 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 vehicle strength. Wind-up windows were standard, and a comfortable driver’s compartment offered plenty of legroom. A parcel shelf was fitted behind the seats.
The car was powered by a BMC B-Series engine, producing 95hp and giving the car a 0-60 of 11 seconds, perhaps not the briskest acceleration, but of course this car was more a comfy little cruiser, ambling about the countryside in sedate fashion admiring the views. The MGB was also 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 (200 ton).
The roadster was the first of the MGB range to be produced. The body was a pure two-seater but a small rear seat was a rare option at one point. By making better use of space the MGB was able to offer more passenger and luggage accommodation than the earlier MGA while 3 inches shorter overall. The suspension was also softer, giving a smoother ride, and the larger engine gave a slightly higher top speed. The four-speed gearbox was an uprated version of the one used in the MGA with an optional (electrically activated) overdrive transmission. Wheel diameter dropped from 15 to 14 inches.
Upon its launch the MGB was given almost unanimous acclaim, largely due to its advanced and innovative design combined with its beautifully and sleek styling. Previous sports cars of the same calibre had always been levied with a reputation for their ropey nature, with a majority of previous models being simply remodelled versions of the MG’s and Triumphs that dated back to the end of and in some cases even before World War II. But the MG was different, and if I’m honest, a large part of its appeal is due to its small, low body, and it’s poky round headlights that make it look rather cute. It’s the kind of car you could give a name, preferably a girl’s one. Either way, the MGB sold in hundreds, disappearing off to all corners of the globe, touring the South of France, storming across the deserts of Southern California on Route 66, or dodging its way through the bustling Indian traffic, these things were adored.
However, the only version available was a soft-top roadster, which didn’t appeal to everyone, so in 1965 MG took the B to Italy, and the great styling firm known as Pininfarina, and asked them to pop a roof on their windy little sports car. What resulted was a roof fixture that blended its way perfectly into the rest of the body, a smooth greenhouse cabin that was spacious but still maintained the styling that enthusiasts had come to know so well, going on to be dubbed “The poor man’s Aston Martin.”
Although acceleration of the GT was slightly slower than that of the roadster, due to its increased weight, top speed improved by 5 mph to 105 mph due to better aerodynamics.
However, tweaks were starting to be made to the MGB formula to try and give it a wider ranging market. Intended to replace the Austin Healey Sprite, the MG MGC was launched in 1967 as a reworked version of the classic MGB, but featuring a 2.9L BMC C-Series engine to up the power.
The problem was that the revised design of the car to incorporate the engine was nothing short of lazy. Instead of redesigning the whole car, MG chose to simply create a huge bulbous lump in the bonnet. The heavier engine also required modifications to the suspension which spoiled the handling. As well as that, the engines were quite poorly built, and later tuning by enthusiasts has proven that the car has the ability to run with 30% more power by carrying out simple modifications to head, exhaust and cam release.
However, the MGC did find some love, in the Royal Family of all places, as 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!
But soon problems came roaring over the horizon like the four horsemen of the apocalypse. A whirlwind of legislation, corporate incompetence and plain old lazy design came right out of nowhere and would soon engulf and attempt to destroy the MGB, but not before stripping the poor thing of its dignity and its good name.
The first disaster to befall this plucky little car, British Leyland, which was formed in 1968 by merging all of Britain’s major automotive firms including Rover, BMC (Austin/Morris) and Triumph (which was part of the Leyland Group). To save on costs the lavish chrome grille of the earlier models and spoked wheels were the first to go, but the B could survive without them.
Next up, fitting the car with a Rover V8 that had been developed from a series of Buick Pickup Truck engines. Although this could have been a good thing, this wasn’t British Leyland’s idea, but in fact belong to professional engine tuner Ken Costello, who, although had been commissioned by British Leyland to create a prototype, had already created a series of MGB’s with V8’s placed under the hood. British Leyland half-inched this idea and started fitting their own V8’s, but went about it all wrong. The powerful 180bhp engine used by Costello for his conversions was replaced for production by MG with a more modestly tuned version producing only 137bhp. Although the car’s 193lb-ft of torque meant it could reach 0-60 in 7.7 seconds and go on to a reasonable 125mph top speed, it was a thirsty beast, with only 20mpg. A bit of a territorial hazard admittedly, but it’s not a good idea to develop such a gas guzzling car when it was about to smack headlong into the Oil Crisis of 1973. Barely anyone went out and bought it, and the money simply disappeared down the nearest drain.
But so far, the car’s lovable external dimensions had yet to be compromised, but we haven’t got to the legislation yet, one of those many apocalyptic horsemen I was mentioning earlier. 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. The height of the headlights, the bumpers, the smoke emissions, the recess of the switches, all of these things were scrutinised and had to be taken into account by car builders.
Indeed America can be owed with introducing many safety features and pieces of legislation we take for granted in modern motoring, but the British manufacturers almost seemed to go out of their way to redesign the cars completely and 100% wrong. In 1974 the glistening chrome was replaced by a gigantic bulbous rubber bumper that protruded from the front of the car like someone’s bottom lip!
Other signs of their poor design included the removal of leather seats for something much more mundane, the use of dials and switches from other products such as Austin Allegros and Maxis, as well as door handles that came straight from the Morris Marina.
Internally, British Leyland had botched it with their laziness, choosing not to redesign the car like everyone else so that the headlights were at the required height, but instead placing solid blocks under the suspension to raise the lights to the desired level, but at the same time making the car look like it was going permanently downhill as well as making the handling so light it would slide constantly at speed. The engines were tuned down for emission regulations which made them woefully underpowered and thus they, to use a contemporary phrase, ‘couldn’t pull the skin off a Rice Pudding!’
Numbers dropped, but British Leyland went to that old trick in the book by using product placement to get by, putting one of their new MGB’s in the New Avengers to be driven by Joanna Lumley’s character Purdey. As far as I recall though, low slung sports cars aren’t the best things to drive if you’re in a miniskirt, because getting in and out of them can be quite revealing!
But this wasn’t enough to save the MGB’s deteriorating sales, in America cars would languish in stockyards and storage warehouses for months on end waiting to be sold, but to no avail. For this, the MG division was making losses of up to £400,000 per week, a clear sign that the ailing MGB had to go the way of all good cars, out of production. On October 21st, 1980, the last MGB rolled off the production line after 18 years, no pomp, no circumstance, just quietly slipping away into history.
After this, the MG brand was lost from its own original cars such as the Midget and the MGB that dated back to the 60’s, instead being placed on tuned and slightly modified versions of British Leyland’s family cars, including the MG Montego, the MG Maestro and, to the everlasting horror of MG purists although I personally don’t think it’s that bad, the MG Metro. The factory in Abingdon-on-Thames, where the MGB had been built, closed its gates immediately afterwards as part of the company’s rationalisation, striking a blow to the economy of the region and the esteem of those who had been proud to build cars with those two simple letters, MG.
But all was not lost for the MGB, as soon afterwards the cars became fashionably retro, especially in the 1980’s and 90’s, when 60’s examples were bought up largely by foreign markets due to their quintessentially British nature and their synonymous relationship with our country and way of life. Japan especially was a hotspot for old MG products, with Midgets and MGB’s being shipped out there by the dozen. So popular were these that Rover Group, the descendants of British Leyland, went on to create a limited edition retelling of the MGB in the form of the MG RV8, constructed in 1993 with 2,000 examples built, the first original MG car to be built since the original MGB ended production in 1980.
Here in the UK, the MG craze kicked off with enthusiasts taking scrapyard shells and run down models and turning them into their own little put-together projects. The MGB has now become one of the most popular little retro sports cars of the modern era, and despite all its faults, even the rubber-bumper British Leyland models make some fantastic kit cars if you want good, wholesome sport fun on a budget!