Few British sports cars have enjoyed the popularity of the MG or had such a strong influence on American drivers and amateur racers. MG introduced the joys and quirks of traditional sports cars to American enthusiasts in the 1950s.
MG actually descended from a line of large cars starting with the 1923 Bullnose Morris. The 14/40 of the 1920s carried a 1.8-liter engine. Later Mk I/II/III series were powered by 2.5-liter Morris overhead-cam sixes. In 1928, the sporty M-type Midget appeared and was followed by similar C, D, J, PA and PB models. Tazio Nuvolari drove a supercharged K3 Magnette to win the 1933 Ulster Tourist Trophy. Over five years, MGs won 37 major international events. MG made the first 750-cc car to reach 120 mph and was the first to top 200 mph.
The predecessors to MGs most familiar to Americans arrived in 1936 and mark their 75th anniversary this year. The TA and TB Midget sports had 1292-cc (then 1250-cc) fours. By 1936, the overhead-cam engines gave way to a pushrod (overhead valve) design that continued into postwar MG models. Through its long life, MG was used an octagonal badge with two letters that stood for “Morris Garages.” Its motto was “Safety Fast.” M.G. Car Co. Ltd. (part of Nuffield Exports) was based in Cowley, Oxford with a plant in Abingdon-on-Thames.
Cecil Kimber of Morris Garages is credited with creating the first MG sports cars. Production of the TA started in 1936, one year after Lord Nuffield—the owner of Morris Garages—sold his firm to the Nuffield Organisation Development of the MG T-series was the responsibility of Morris Garages.
The TA used a long-stroke four-cylinder engine. Unlike prototypes, the production models had a slab-shaped gas tank. Longer in wheelbase (94 in.) than the former P-series, the TA had a wider tread, but wore the same 19-in. wire wheels. Lockheed hydraulic brakes were used. Initial TAs had a “crash box” transmission, but soon a gearbox with non-synchro first was used. With the windshield folded down, a TA could do 80 mph. It hit 60 mph in just over 23 sec.
For 1939, the TB Midget turned to a shorter-stroke (but still nearly an inch longer than the bore) overhead-valve engine, known as the XPAG. It developed 54.4 horsepower at 5200 rpm. Only 3,003 TA and 379 TB models were built; but MG production, by the time World War II broke out, totaled about 22,454.
The TC bowed at the 1945 London Motor Show. It was only slightly modified from last TB. Few prewar MGs reached America, but the TC changed that and created a fondness for sports cars in the 1950s. American servicemen returning from England took a powerful fancy to the traditional-styled roadster and brought many home. By 1947, MG had an expanding distribution network in the U.S. MG called the TC “the sports car America loved first.”
The TC had right-hand drive and a fairly modest price. It was economical to drive and easy to maintain. TCs had rigid front and rear axles with short semi-elliptic springs and lever-type shock absorbers. Wood framing held the car’s steel body. The 1250-cc four hooked to a four-speed gearbox that emitted a lovely sound adding to the car’s charm. The XPAG engine had twin S.U. carburetors, three main bearings, solid lifters and a 7.25:1 compression ratio .American road tests claimed a 82 mph top speed, but 78 mph was promoted in Great Britain
TC production of 10,000 units included 3,408 sold in Britain and 2,001 exported to the U.S. by American distributors Motor Sport Inc. of New York City, British Motor Car Distributors Ltd., of San Francisco, and later Hambro Trading Co. of New York City. Many cars were simply brought here by individuals.
Created by Cecil Cousins, the TD “MG Midget” replaced the classic TC. Syd Enever and Alec Hounslow built the mock-up in two weeks in 1949. They cut up an MG YA chassis and fit a cobbled up TC body. The engine was the same used in the TC, with a new gearbox. The first TD—TD0251—was completed in November 1949. The “251” in the serial number represented the digits in the factory’s telephone numer, a rather odd tradition until MG became part of BMC.
The TD was designed with America in mind. Smoother, more modern lines replaced the TC’s vertical look. The TD’s 15-in. tires replaced the TC’s 19-in. tires. Wire wheels were no longer available. Early TDs came with solid steel disc wheels. Steel discs with round vent holes were used on most. Cars with the later 8-in. clutch assembly used August 1951 on are known as TD2 models.
Rectangular taillights were used until October 1952, then replaced with round ones. Sales brochures called the TD “the one you’ve always wanted to drive.” The roadster “Goes like a flash . . . grips the road like a limpet.” A 1953 American advertisement promised a new MG for $2,157. “No other sports car can boast such bloodlines. It brings the fun back to driving,” said ads. A total of 29,664 TDs were produced from 1949-1953 and 23,488 were sold in the U.S.
The MG TF bowed in October 1953 as a facelifted TD. The TF’s mechanical underpinnings were initially unchanged, except for bigger carburetors and valves and a higher rear axle ratio. A new XPEG engine was gradually introduced, between July 1954 and November 1954, for the TF 1500 model.
A slanted-back chrome grille with a curvier shell and fewer vertical slats, swoopier swept-back front fender lines, and dummy radiator cap on top of the grille characterized TFs. The headlights were blended into the fenders with large fairings. Behind the lower grille was a lower, more sharply sloped hood line.
A total of 6,200 TFs were produced and it was reported that about 20,000 MG roadsters had been sold in America since the TC. During its lifespan, the TF was widely criticized and this inspired MG to bring out a new MGA for 1956l. MG fielded a pair of aluminum-bodied cars called EX.182s at Le Mans in 1955. They were MGA prototypes and finished fifth and sixth in class. Like the production MGA, the prototypes had swept-out frame side members to allow lower seating.
MGAs assembly started in September 1955. It was totally restyled and had a modern, rounded look. Except for the front suspension and emblem, everything was new. When the production version of the car appeared, Motor Trend opined “At long last MG abandoned its old-but-handsome lines for new and handsomer ones considerably slicker than its Le Mans prototype suggested.”
A revised chassis had deep box-section steel side members that swept outward, placing the occupants between the frame rails, not above them. Six tubular crossmembers added rigidity. The front suspension used twin A-arms with coil springs. The rear had semi-elliptic leaf springs. Two Lucas 6-volt batteries sat behind the adjustable leather-trimmed bucket seats.
The MGA’s bonnet used a modified 1489-cc BMC B-series overhead-valve four. The three-main bearing engine had twin S.U. carbs. It was rated for 68 hp. Top speed was pegged at 98 mph. Runs from 0-to-60 mph varied in time from 14.5 to 15.9 sec. The quarter mile could be covered in 19.6 to 20.4 sec. at about 68 mph. A factory-backed team won at the 1956 Sebring 12-hour race.
A fixed-head MGA coupe with roll-up glass windows and small vent wings was introduced in 1957. Late in 1958, a 1600 series was introduced. Not only was the 1588-cc. dual-overhead-cam larger; it delivered a whopping 108 hp. Eventually, the Twin-Cam engine developed a reputation for reliability problems, including premature detonation and piston burning. The engine’s drawbacks were noticed especially when the cars were run at higher rpms.
The MGA 1600 MK I debuted in May 1959. In essence, it had a pushrod-operated, overhead-valve version of the Twin-Cam with much lower compression. A revised Mark II edition of the 1600 series arrived in 1962, but then the MGB bowed at the London Motor Show in October 1962. The new roadster had been under development for four years. A prototype by Frua (of Italy) had been rejected, so the final design was done by MG itself, under the direction Syd Enever. A GT coupe was in the works, but the roadster came first.
The new slab-sided car had a shorter 91-in. wheelbase and measured 153 in. in length. Its profile was more rectangular, with a horizontal upper line, full-length body side trim moldings and flattened rear wheel openings. Its low, full-width horizontal-style grille contained a pattern of tightly-spaced vertical ribs. The headlights sat back a bit from the grille The windshield had a greater wraparound curve. It had vertical taillights. The pancake-type hood was hinged at the rear.
Also arriving in 1962 was a new Midget. It was built at the Abingdon factory where the Austin-Healey Sprite was produced and was a “badge-engineered” version of the Sprite MK II, introduced in 1961. The two differed only in grille and trim details. The Midget had a 948-cc overhead-valve four-cylinder engine like that used in the Morris Minor. With twin S.U. HS2 semi-downdraft carburetors the engine produced 46.4 hp at 5500 rpm. The car sold for $1,939.
The 1963 MGB roadster listed for a $2,658 New York Port-of-Entry. The “B” became the best-selling MG of all time and is immensely popular today. More than half a million MGBs (387,675 roadsters and 125,597 GT coupes) would be manufactured between 1962 and 1980. During that period, a total of 300,274 roadsters were distributed stateside by Hambro Automotive of New York City.
Inside the MGB were two individual, leather-upholstered, adjustable bucket seats. Though called a “roadster,” the MGB was a wind-up window convertible. Behind the seats was an open luggage area to store the soft top. A tonneau was provided to cover this area when the top was not in place. Although the new car was shorter, overall, than the MGA, it was roomy inside.
The MGB had unibody construction with double-box-section sills below the doors making it lighter, but stronger than earlier MGs. Control arms and coil springs were used up front, with semi-elliptic rear leaf springs. Lever-type shock absorbers remained. Under the hood was a 1798-cc version of the BMC B-series four with twin S.U. carburetors and 94 hp at 5500. The MGB had a top speed of 105 mph. It did 0-to-60 mph in 12.5 sec. and the quarter-mile in 18.5 sec.
Front disc brakes were added to the 1963 Midget. It also got a larger 1098-cc engine. The diameter of the clutch was enlarged, too. With the larger engine, top speed increased to nearly 92 mph. Fuel economy was in the 32 mpg range. In 1964 a Laycock de Normanville overdrive unit became available.
A MK II version of the MG Midget was introduced in mid-1964. Roll-up windows and vent wings were the major changes. Semi-elliptic rear springs replaced the former quarter-elliptic units, but MG stuck with its traditional lever-type shock absorbers. Horsepower was upped to 59.
In 1965, the MGB got a new five-bearing crankshaft, an oil cooler and a revised rear oil seal. Output inched up to 98 hp. For 1966, the MGB GT hatchback coupe arrived. Styled by Italian car designer Pinin Farina, it had a small kid-sized rear seat that folded flat to form a luggage bay. Although heavier than the roadster, the GT’s aerodynamics aided road performance. The GT became very popular with those who wanted a sports car, but not a roadster.
By the late 1960s, the MGB was “America’s largest-selling imported sports car and the obvious choice for the man who wants to be different.” Late in 1967, a MK II appeared. The biggest change was a new transmission with synchromesh on all four gears. A dressed up MGB GT Special was also new. A recessed black-out-style grille, with a center emblem, was adopted in 1970.
The MG Midget MK III was introduced in 1967 with a larger version of the BMC A-series four with 65 hp. An air-injection system was added for emissions control and an oil cooler was optional. The look-a-like Sprite was dropped in 1971 and thereafter only the MG Midget version remained through 1979.
Mark III MGB/MGB GT models were introduced in 1972. Changes were modest, except for a new center console and armrests. A restyled instrument panel incorporated a locking glove box. The GT coupe had leather seat inserts. New colors were added. The engine was modified for low-lead or regular fuel and rated for 78.5 hp. As in the past few years, twin S.U. HIF carbs were used to lower emissions. The ’73 grille was restyled and thick bumper guards were seen.
In the summer of 1973, a MGB V-8 debuted in England with a Rover 3532-cc aluminum-block V-8 that actually evolved from a 1960s Buick design. Production of the V-8 lasted longer than production of the earlier six-cylinder MGC, a car that looked basically like a “B,” but carried a “C” designation. However, the number of V-8-MGBs was smaller than the MGC production total.
The MK IV MGB appeared at the London Motor Show in October 1974, but didn’t arrive in the U.S. until late 1975. It remained until 1980. The MK IV series’ big change was a large, matte-black, polyurethane nose and matching tail section. Chrome bumpers and grilles would not be seen again.
MK IVs switched from twin S.U. carburetors to a single Zenith-Stromberg 175CD5T model and horsepower suffered. The 1798 cc. Four now had a lower 8.0:1 compression ratio. It produced just 62.5 hp at 5500 rpm. The transmission gear ratios were changed as well, to give better gas mileage.
The MG Midget Mk IV or “1500” was introduced in October 1974. Production of this series continued into the summer of 1979. A black rubber nose was added. The 1493-cc Triumph Spitfire engine was used with a single Zenith CD4 carburetor and made 55.5 hp. An all-synchro four-speed was adopted.
MGB sales continued into 1980 with minimal change. Twin electric cooling fans were added, but horsepower remained low and prices jumped to $7,500. Production halted in October 1980. The last MGB sold here was the 1980 “Limited Edition.” It was all black with gunmetal-gray stripes along the bottom of the body. The final 1,000 “Limited” were produced for England. Of these, 420 were bronze-colored roadsters and 580 were pewter-colored GT coupes.
Rumors of a revived MG persisted for years. The appearance of an EX-E experimental prototype in the mid-1980s sparked excitement. As the 1990s began, speculation about a modern MG continued. In early 1994, Britain’s Rover Group was taken over by BMW. On March 16, 2000, a “fundamental reorganization” created MG Rover Holdings Limited, an independent, medium-sized British company based in Longbridge. In 2001, a new range of MG sports saloons—the MG ZR, MG ZS, MG ZT—as well as the MG ZT-T sports wagon arrived. A high-performance MGTF two-door sports convertible was also built.
MG predecessors like this 1933 L-1 Magna police car were larger cars.
One of the later large MGs was this 1938 VA with Tickford coachwork.
One of the early Midgets was this 1933 J2 OTS model.
This MG TC is set up for vintage racing and many are still raced.
A line up of early postwar MG TDs at a “Gathering of the Faithful” event.
This is a special competition version of the MG TD.
The 1953 MG YB is a rarely seen sedan variant of the MG TD.
MG TF was shunned when new, but is the most popular T-Series today.
Magnette ZA sedan was introduced with MG TF and was also unpopular.
MGA followed the T-Series and lasted until 1962 with several updates.
Magnette ZB was introduced in 1956 and this is a fancy Varitone model.
Most popular MG of all time was the MGB, like this ’72 roadster.
MGB GT hatchback coupe followed the roadster to market.
MGs have a strong club following and show up at many fun hobby events.
Gathering of the Faithful at Sheboygan, Wis., attracted many MG TCs