The cars : MGB development history
The MGB is probably the world’s best-loved classic car – and if you’re looking for a weekend toy, you’ve probably already considered one.
However, we take a contemporary view of the legendary sports car, and trace it’s long history, and how it slipped out of view in 1980.
B is for Bestseller
o this day, the products of BMC (later British Leyland) are regarded with mixed emotions – most of them not being particularly flattering to the company. On the one hand, people openly deride such products as the Austin Allegro and Maxi, while on the other, cars like the Range Rover and Mini are still regarded with great fondness and respect. The MGB sits somewhere between these two extremes, being regarded with great warmth and a sense of nostalgia by MG enthusiasts, especially those who have owned one, while elitists in car circles tend to dismiss it for its mechanical crudeness. The facts tend to suggest that more people belong to the former group than to the latter: during the car’s long production life (1962-1980), over half a million MGBs rolled out of Abingdon’s factory gates. Unlike many of BMC’s contemporary products, it was also a great success in the US and Europe, where its mechanical simplicity, good looks, low price and honest charm were seen as
Back in the late Fifties, the MGB had been conceived by MG’s chief engineer, Syd Enever, to replace the beautiful MGA which was suffering from a drop-off in sales. The MGA was clearly losing out to the newly-launched MG Midget (a badge-engineered Austin-Healey Sprite), but it was also painfully obvious by this time that new rivals such as the Sunbeam Alpine and Triumph TR4A were proving to be very stiff competition. The MGA was still more than competitive in terms of its performance and handling, but its bone-shaking ride was thrown into sharp relief by the newer rivals: while boasting performance and roadholding on a par with the MGA’s, they could also offer a degree of comfort and civility that was alien to the MG.
Replacing the MGA
So, during the MGB’s development, the emphasis was placed on retaining the driver appeal of the MGA, while adding an element of comfort and accommodation that had been denied to owners of the older car. The MGB would have a lot to live up to: the MGA was quite simply the most successful sports car of its time, with over 100,000 having been produced by 1962. The MGB would also prove to be a success – though the extent of its success must have surprised everyone, not least the management at Abingdon at the time. The basic mechanical make-up of the MGB remained pretty much as before, but the structure was completely new. For the first time on an MG roadster (discounting the badge-engineered Midget), the bodyshell was an immensely strong monocoque, very effectively styled by MG’s Don Hayter, with assistance from Pininfarina.
The front suspension and rack and pinion steering were carried over from the MGA, the whole assembly being mounted on a detachable crossmember. Of course, by 1962, this componentry was rather long in the tooth, being derived from that of the 1947 MG YA saloon, which was itself effectively a pre-war design. Not that this mattered, because the set-up had proven to be a delight in the MGA and continued to be so when installed in the MGB. For the rear suspension, various kinds of coil spring arrangements were tried, but in the end the old enemy of cost management won the day, and the traditional arrangement of a live rear axle, sprung and located by simple leaf springs, was employed. This somewhat agricultural solution was deemed to offer the best overall compromise between cost and effectiveness. The springing rates were much softer than the MGA’s, in order to achieve the comfort and civility the engineers were chasing.
The MGA’s B-series engine was enlarged from 1622cc to 1798cc for use in the MGB, and thus provided enough power to offset the extra weight of the heavier monocoque structure. In fact, with a suitable increase in torque as well, the MGB proved to be usefully quicker than its predecessor.
A successful launch
So, at the 1962 London Motor Show, MG wheeled out their new car to considerable praise – and as they had with the MGA before it, the company made sure that marketing and sales emphasis was placed firmly on the US market. The UK press lauded the car; Motor magazine, for instance, commented that the MGB was a “delightful modern sports car with a marked bias towards the ‘grand touring’ character · a pleasure to drive.” In those days, car magazines tended to be a little more circumspect in their language than they are today, but reading between the lines, it would appear that the road testers saw it more as an inexpensive GT roadster than an out-and-out sports car.
And so it was that the MGB’s long and successful career as the quintessential Englishman’s sports car was born.
Although the MGB’s appearance changed little during its long production run, like its stablemate the Mini, the car benefited from a continuous development programme, designed to ensure that it remained not only saleable but competitive.
In 1965, the MGB engine received the five-bearing crank bottom end that had been introduced for the ADO17 saloon cars, which made it slightly more driveable, if a little slower. Three years after its launch, the MGB was still seen as a highly desirable car; Motor magazine continued to shower praise on the little roadster, citing its ability to cruise “effortlessly around the 100mph mark”, still legal on the M1 in these pre-speed restriction days.
Late that year, the most significant addition to the MG range thus far was made. The MGB GT was a closed coupŽ version of the roadster, styled in part by Pininfarina – no doubt as a result of their close work with BMC on the range of family cars. Mechanical changes were limited to the addition of a front anti-roll bar and Salisbury type rear axle (items which would become standard on the roadster in November 1966 and July 1967 respectively). OK, so the GT’s rear seats were really only suitable for the smallest of children, but luggage capacity and versatility were vastly improved over the roadster’s. The GT version of the MGB was certainly seen as a useful upward extension of the range and was justifiably viewed as a “poor man’s Aston Martin”, with its handsome styling and excellent (for the time) ride and handling characteristics. However, as always, time was catching up with the MGB and what were seen as quirks back in 1962 – such as the oddly-spaced gear ratios, non-sychromesh first gear and optional interior heater – were being viewed as seriously irksome by 1966.
Expanding the range
At the same time, the Healey prototype of the MGC was also prepared, incorporating a bold-looking Healey grille, but was dropped when Donald Healey vetoed the plan, feeling that the ‘C was not a suitable car to be badge-engineered.) This, the first of two attempts by MG to market higher-powered versions of the MGB, was doomed to failure, due to the unsuitability of its engine.was launched, in an attempt by BMC to fill the gap in their range left by the demise of the Austin-Healey 3000. (A
The engine chosen for the MGC was the BMC C-series, as found in the Austin 3-litre. What set this application out as being a failure from the start was that the seven-bearing-crank engine was lugubrious in the extreme, being decidedly unwilling to rev. And because it was such a heavy, straight-six power unit, it upset the weight distribution of the little car, making it an understeerer of the most determined kind; to make matters worse, the Press cars given to road testers had incorrectly inflated tyres that exaggerated the fault. Now, it would seem that Abingdon were given incorrect dimensions for the C-series engine – an amazing mistake, all told – and the planned redesign failed to a degree because of this oversight by Longbridge. So, not an ideal recipe for a sports car, even if it was meant to be a tourer rather than a sportster. Like its Austin 3-litre cousin, this unsuccessful MG only remained in production for only two years, with a total production run of just over 9000.
In 1969, further improvements were made to the MGB, but the cosmetic changes managed to upset the purists, who found the bold-looking, recessed plastic grille an affront to the memory of its chrome predecessor. This was the first “Leylandized” MG, but whereas British Leyland merely offered cosmetic improvements, Japanese car producer Nissan offered something completely new – and better – when they launched the similarly-priced Datsun 240Z sports car in America. This car moved the game on significantly, offering Goertz styling and Austin-Healey 3000 levels of performance. MG had no answer to this new threat and as a result, the Datsun 240Z became the fastest-selling sports car in US history. In fact, in order to meet the ever-tightening federal emission laws, later MGBs were sold in de-toxed form and could only muster 82bhp from their ‘clean’ B-series engines, which saddled the car with less-than-adequate performance (0-60mph in 18seconds and 90mph maximum speed).
Needless to say, British Leyland politics began to bite, and the company’s management team, led by ex-Triumph man Donald Stokes, began to make their presence felt. The problems were deep-rooted, as the company had no ‘clean’ four-pot engine to use in the MGB – a laughable situation when one considers that BMC had as much notice of these impending laws as any other car company. Obviously, throughout the Sixties, BMC had been concentrating on expanding its capacity and becoming a world leader in the car producing stakes, but the MGB was a massive export success for them, and to take their eye off the ball in their biggest market was a criminal mistake. Although these mistakes were attributable to the management team of a previous regime, Stokes nevertheless compounded the problems by making new mistakes of his own. The first of these came in 1968, when he pulled the plug on the development of a replacement for the MGB, the EX234 – a pretty, front-engined car styled by Pininfarina (as were most of the successful BMC products).
In 1970, when British Leyland embarked on the development of a new, corporate sports car, tailored as much for export markets as for the UK, it was decided that it would use a Triumph engine and be designed by Austin’s head of styling, Harris Mann. This car, the TR7 would live for barely six years, compared with the MGB’s run of eighteen years.
When the first major reorganisation of British Leyland was undertaken in 1971, the company’s car producers were split up into Austin-Morris and the Specialist Division (i.e., Rover, Triumph and Jaguar). It can only have come as a major blow to the MG management at Abingdon that they were not incorporated in the latter division: unlike Triumph, who produced a range that included medium-sized saloons, MG produced only sports cars at this time, surely giving them “specialist” status? Not in Donald Stokes’ eyes, it seems.
Adding a V8…
Be that as it may, the MGB continued to be produced in large numbers during and after the Stokes years, but as an Austin-Morris offshoot, MG was now neglected in the most blatant way. No replacement for the MGB was forthcoming, and development of the existing car was limited to keeping it appealing in the marketplace and profitable for the company.
One such development came in response to the strong demand for a more powerful MGB, a demand that the MGC had failed so spectacularly to meet. Independent tuning firms, particularly that of Ken Costello, had long since been making a tidy living by fitting Rover V8 engines into the MGB, and in retrospect it seems amazing that after the 1968 merger which saw MG and Rover become part of the same company, it still took five years to get a V8-engined MGB into production, in the form of the MGB GT V8 (a roadster version was never officially produced).
Unlike the C-series engine of the standard MGB, Rover’s Buick-based aluminium V8 was a compact and light unit, perfectly suited to its sports-car role. Performance was excellent (0-60mph in 8.5 seconds, 125mph maximum speed), certainly enough to see off the all-conquering Datsun 240Z, but due to the kind of mismanagement that was rife within the company, the GT V8 was never sold in the US – surely a monstrously bad decision. Somewhat questionably, BLMC also chose to install the low-compression version of the V8 engine, which delivered 137bhp, as opposed to the more acceptable 143bhp of the “premium” version, as found in the Rover P6B. Furthermore, the car was launched just as the effects of the oil crisis began to bite deeply – any V8-powered car was going to be seen as a bad thing when the national speed limit had been dropped to 50mph and petrol queues were once more a fact of life.
Still, things could get worse – and worse they got the following year, when British Leyland rolled out the ‘federalized’ version of the MkII MGB, resplendent with huge, 5mph-impact absorbing rubber bumpers and raised ride height to comply with the new US impact laws. It wasn’t until 1977 that the MGB was once again made to handle well, when rear anti-roll bars were fitted in order to counteract the effects of the raised ride height.
The MGB GT V8 is often viewed as the optimum MGB (to date), with its smooth, torquey engine and excellent road manners. The 3.5-litre engine truly felt at home in this car, which makes it all the more surprising to learn that it took five years from the formation of BLMC for this car to enter production.
A year later, the V8 model was quietly dropped – there was simply no demand for it in the UK, and the Ford Capri 3000 did everything the MGB GT V8 could do, but at a lower cost and with much greater practicality and, arguably, better styling. Moreover, supplies of the ex-Buick engine were tight in the run-up to the launch of the Rover SD1, so the new executive saloon would have to take precedence over the MGB. The final insult for MG with regard to the V8 model came when the Oxfordshire police force (Abingdon is in their manor) stopped using it in favour of the V6-engined Ford Capri. In the end, 2591 V8s were sold, but this figure could – and should – have been much, much higher. If only the GT V8 had been launched back in 1967, instead of the MGC…
The decline begins
After that, the MGB, along with the Midget, was left to wither and die. As What Car? magazine concluded in their 1979 road test of the MGB GT, “The MGB has long been the butt of countless saloon-bar jokes and the object of derision in the motoring press. We feel, nevertheless, that it has appeals besides those of tradition and its much-vaunted period charm – it is cheap to buy and run and is surprisingly comfortable for two people even though time has clearly passed it by in terms of performance and interior design.” So obviously, the MG’s charms were not lost, even in the face of the increasingly sophisticated opposition.
When the UK economy suffered the ravages of an international recession and terrible inflation in the mid-to-late Seventies, the exchange rates brought about such pressure that it became impossible to sell UK-manufactured cars in the US at a reasonable price and still make a profit. Of course, the US prices of MGs had to be kept at a reasonable level in order to maintain sales, but BL claimed that as a result of the currency crisis that followed the election of the Conservative government in 1979, they were losing £900 on each MGB sold in America. It is debatable whether this figure was strictly true, because of internal component sharing, but it was nevertheless used as an argument to justify the actions that BL’s chairman and managing director, Michael Edwardes, felt were necessary.
In fact, Edwardes would prove to be as guilty of misunderstanding MG as Stokes had been before him. MG had been forced to lose a major part of its identity under Derek Whittaker, and although Edwardes was conscious of this and made amends, he refused to include Abingdon or the MG marque in any future BL policy documents. This had a predictable effect on the already demoralized Abingdon workforce, who always felt that since the advent of the Ryder report and the subsequent appearance of Triumph as the corporate sports car marque, their own factory’s days were numbered. It therefore came as no surprise, with all that was going wrong within BL at the time, that Michael Edwardes made the decision to close the Abingdon factory, thereby bringing to a halt the production of all MG cars.
Actually, the announcement of closure was subject to another unbelievably insensitive and badly-timed decision. September 1979 marked the 50th anniversary of MG Cars, and BL celebrated the event very publicly, lauding the company for all its achievements, such as the successes at Le Mans, sales in the US and the fantastic industrial relations enjoyed by the Abingdon workforce. The town of Abingdon saw celebrations the like of which they had never seen before, including the flying-in of 150 US MG dealers and their families – invited in recognition of their outstanding achievements in selling the car across the Atlantic.
The week-long celebration culminated on Sunday, 9 September in a carnival through the streets of Abingdon, and was rightly viewed as a grand event that managed to lift the spirits of all involved with MG at the time.
The very next day, Edwardes made public the plans for BL to close the MG factory by June 1980, and to stop production of the MGB and Midget. Vague promises were made regarding the future of the marque, but in essence, the workers and their families were given a right-royal kick in the teeth by the management that they had served so well, unlike their counterparts in Cowley, Longbridge, Solihull and Speke. Michael Edwardes has since stated that his one main regret while running BL was to totally underestimate the strength of feeling associated with MG and his handling of the factory’s closure. This may be so – and for Edwardes to admit to any mistake must be seen as a rare event – but it does not excuse the absolute humiliation that the MG workforce suffered at his hands: the basic lack of briefing by advisers is something that should not have been allowed to happen, when he was responsible for the running of such a large and important company.
One can only assume that in planning the date of the closure announcement, the American head of Jaguar-Rover-Triumph (JRT), William Pratt-Thompson, pencilled-in 10th September while blissfully unaware of the celebrations due to be held on the 9th. This probably came about because MG had only been brought into the JRT fold in July 1979 and Pratt-Thompson had not been fully briefed on the MG situation at this point.
A consortium of businessmen, led by Alan Curtis of Aston Martin Lagonda, negotiated with BL in order to buy the Abingdon factory and the MG marque – they actually got as far as issuing pictures of their facelifted MGB prototype and talking of future model plans. Curtis had begun dealing with BL in October 1979, but the lengthy talks had proven unsatisfactory; it all looked rather forlorn. Edwardes himself had doubts about the ability of this group to raise the required £30 million in order to buy the facility – and the MG name – from BL. These plans were scuppered when BL management suddenly recognised the value of the brand and restricted the sale to the production facility alone, which of course would have left Curtis with nothing but an outmoded factory. The deal quickly fell through after that and the factory was left to become derelict – a sad end to the Abingdon story. As events transpired, Aston Martin Lagonda soon fell into their own financial crisis and nearly went bankrupt.
These were bad years for BL, and especially so for their sports cars, exacerbated by the neglect of MG, the failure of the Triumph Stag and TR7, and the company’s inability to launch a direct replacement for the Jaguar E-Type. But what makes the MGB story all the more lamentable is the fact that Leyland had an undoubted success on its hands, a car that gave the entire company a higher profile in the world’s biggest car market; yet a succession of ‘dynamic’ managers allowed the car – and the marque – to die. So who were the culprits? Well, the BMC management, because they were looking elsewhere (at how to achieve their ambition to grow into a million-a-year company); Stokes, because of his Triumph bias and his misunderstanding of the sports car market; and Edwardes, because he saw sports cars as being frivolous, and a side-issue to running a car company (although it has to be acknowledged that he inherited a mess from his predecessors).
However, MG did not quite die, but was left on life support until the arrival of the new MG RV8 in 1992.
With thanks to David Jacobs for his contributions to this article.
Proofed by Declan Berridge