An MGF for a monkey?
The lack of cars had started to gnaw away at me since sending the dearly detested C6 back to Citroën and getting possibly the most wonderful, forgettable car in return – a C3, which I suspect, I’d have trouble drawing if I wasn’t actually looking at it, let alone become emotionally attached to it). My last aborted project was a Scimitar SS1, jettisoned when it became clear that I’d never, ever be satisfied with the previous owner’s welding on the chassis no matter what else I did to it – and I’d had no inclination to get another.
However, every time I drove home, I saw a green MGF parked under trees, growing an ecosystem. You can’t help it… that involuntary turn of the head as you go past. It’s the same one that gets you into trouble when it’s summer and short-skirt season; unfortunately my girlfriend knows that she should be far more worried when it’s a mouldy old car…
I first saw the F when collecting a parcel from a neighbour. Something about the way it was parked maybe… something said ‘This car is not wanted.’ I didn’t ask, it was still taxed, and I couldn’t think of any polite way to say ‘is it broken?’ Then work, and winter, and snow… cars were the least of my worries.
When the thaw came, there it was. Under trees, behind the wheelie bins, looking distinctly neglected. There is, of course, the quantum theory of head gaskets with the MGF and, as with a certain cat, until observed an MGF’s engine exists in a quantum state – maybe the head gasket has gone, maybe it hasn’t, but you won’t know until you open the box. With the new MLS, metal dowel, revised thermostat, the theory is that, if you get one with HGF, fix it with all of these good new parts and a smattering of good intentions and patience, it should then be the car it was always intended to be.
Mind you, if the gasket’s gone… well, maybe I could have it for scrap money. The wheels turned in my head and stayed resolutely still on the F.
A few weeks later, the sun’s out, it’s a lazy day. I stop to enquire about it… Simon, the car’s owner, says the engine is fine and it’s just been parked up because they’ve done so few miles in it. Thinks it should be worth £1800 in parts, but considerably less as a whole – perhaps, but as it is, I offer £400 for it. Rather than come away with a flea in my ear, we agree that I can take it, put it in the heated garage and set about cleaning it up – whilst I research, learn, tinker… and discover that, at least for a project car, £400 is not that unusual for an MGF even in decent shape.
I’m getting ahead of myself. Friends are over, so I rudely excuse myself to go and help wheel the poor thing the 50 yards or so to the house. The interior resembles a fine cheese, the exterior is the same uniform shade of British Abandonment Green (including the roof, which looks like an Ent’s loincloth)… and then Simon, keen to demonstrate that the engine is working, has discovered that whilst that bit did want to behave the relatively new alternator didn’t – so there are bits of alternator belt everywhere.
Prioritising socialising over tinkering, the friends are invited to look at the wreck (nicknamed Fungus), and do so at a safe distance before everyone hides in the house. However, come the morning, I can’t help myself – I’m up at 8am with the Dyson, removing the leaves… and forgetting the security beep that I have on the garage, as part of the house alarm. A few minutes later a very cross girlfriend appears as I’ve woken everyone up with an incessant beeping in the house every time I move.
A couple of days later, the little car looks nothing like the wreck pushed into the garage. Oh, cleaning away the cobwebs has revealed a lot of history on the body: a repainted quarter panel, a dented one, a dropped door, a rusty wing and a bootlid cruelly bent out of shape to recover locked-away keys. The exhaust is hanging off on one side, merely resting on the bumper, and the windscreen has those infuriating shallow scratches from inattentive wiper replacement. It’s also revealed something an MGF anorak might already have spotted from the wheels – it’s a VVC model. The alternator is stuck fast despite the new appearance of it… but it feels like the car is almost there. The new alternator belt is fitted in record time, remembering to get WD40 onto it, and perhaps the application of WD40 (not directly, but to the mounting bolts) results in the alternator spinning freely again.
Spurred on, the next week or so sees the car – now re-named Millie (as the most Thoroughly Modern car I’ve tried to resurrect) – cleaned up and running. The alternator belt is easy, the bodywork begins to take on a shine and, at the end of the week, with the price of the MG agreed at my original offer despite the vast improvements over the original condition (thanks to several sub-£500, clean looking project cars on the MGF/TF Register’s classifieds), I spend the first money on it. £20 for a mobile mechanic to come out with a hydragas pump – if the car pumps up, joy, if it doesn’t, it’s time to strip it for those lovely new tyres, rear calipers and shiny headlights.
Mark pops over – he’s spent a fair bit of money on the tool, aimed at getting Metro owners back on the road and appreciates being told of a register of Hydragas services – and spends a good couple of hours on getting the car to the right height. The suspension sits low until driven, when it all frees off and up it goes. With 400lbs in each side it sits nice and level, compensated for temperature, though the driver’s side wasn’t as well-balanced – it’s good enough. No leaks, there’s movement, it’ll do for MOT checks.
Before the MOT, I go over the car – not a full service (bear in mind that it could still have to be deemed scrap), but a new air filter to replace the mouldy, clogged original and some wires checked. I find a dent on the engine bay aperture that suggests the head’s been off and, with the new ride height, I peer underneath. New coolant pipes! I’ve been eyeing up Mike Satur’s stainless ones, so I’m unusually annoyed to find that this improved part isn’t needed. The handbrake is a bit floppy and the light stays on when it’s released unless you push it forward but, of more concern, are the wires so close to the recalcitrant clutch mechanism. The small loom for the temperature and O2 sensors seems badly routed and I find the gauge sensor’s plastic connector is missing (though the metal internal connector is intact on the loom, so it should be easy to repair).
The O2 sensor – which on this era of F, is in the manifold and used for fuelling optimisation; it lacks a post-cat one – is of more concern. The wire jiggles. ‘That’s not right’ would be a good translation of what I said, though realistically it was the beginning of finding the first of many “F-words” (a term which Keith has inspired, it could be quite apt!). I jack the car up. More F-words – that sensor is an absolute git to remove at the best of times but, in this case,it looks like a perfectly good (and quite recent) one has snapped in half!
Maybe it’ll still pass. I shove it together, finding some tape where someone’s tried exactly the same trick in the past, and drive to the MOT station. On the way there, there’s a “ping-rattle” under the car… I look but nothing obvious. A different Mark – Mark White, who runs Kidderminster MOT and specialises in classic cars (in the workshop there’s a 1930s Lagonda, whilst the area around the car is littered with an Alvis, E-types and one of the Pink Cadillacs from the eponymous film) – gives Millie the once over and awards the dreaded red certificate. Gah.
Emissions… well, I should have expected that. He did try his best and recommended taking a longer route if I come back for a retest. Hand brake efficiency and the offside front ARB droplink? We look and there’s a freshly sheared eye on the lower part. Fortunately, there’s no damage to the wheel, but that must have been the ping noise – so close!
This is the point, really, where the MGF/TF Register’s forum becomes invaluable, as they put up with my increasing frustration with the lack of a good Dealer Network and the car’s lack of maintenance and history. I decide to take it up a notch and overcome my fears of stripped threads, sheared studs and wrecking the car. At this stage, even if the manifold studs are a disaster, I can break the car and won’t lose out. It looks so much better than when I found it – I can’t really bring myself to scrap a good car even if it does make financial sense.
Amazingly, whilst a couple of studs come out with the nuts, everything proceeds in a relatively straightforward manner with the manifold. I appear to be missing a heatshield on one side and I find one broken stud on the downpipe so it’s held with only three (later Fs have a six-stud downpipe, which you can fit if you change the downpipe too). It’s awkward for access on stands, with strange angles making the extension bar placement crucial so I question the sanity of the designers/engineers every so often, but several hours of making tea and soaking in WD40 (the car, not me) really translates into 20 minutes of spanner twiddling and cursing. The manifold goes off to an engineering firm (a first for me, I rarely trust the results I get when handing stuff over so tend to buy new parts) and I get to work on the front droplink. This’ll be done in a day or do!
Except there are locking wheelnuts. It takes a week to source the correct type of key, having tried the extractor tools (the nuts are too small), with the MG/TF Register full of advice about trying my local dealer as they’ll have them on the shelf. Unfortunately, there’s no local MG Dealer here now, they’re Kia and Seat and disposed of their MGR tools long ago. A new set of nuts, key and cover remover from Metro & Mini Spares near Kings Norton works out nicely, and I replace three damaged wheelnuts with new and correct chrome spinning ones to make all the wheels look tidy. The droplinks I’ve gone for are secondhand ones and I would be more inclined now to have Mike Satur’s uprated parts with polybushes – at £36 for a set they compare very well to £28-odd each for new originals.
The old droplink does not wish to come out – the upper bolt (which, apparently, you can’t extract without removing the hub) bends the mount slightly with the torque needed to get it going but thankfully the nut comes off cleanly. The lower one won’t budge – I wedge the ARB, I try hammers, then a nut splitter (whilst muttering about which of the people specifying such cheap materials on the F I’d use the nut splitter on, given a chance) and end up diverting a lot of irritation into a hacksaw. Next, it’s the nut splitter on the remains of the sleeve THEN molegrips. Eventually, the one solid jump of rust returns to the three parts it started out as, ARB, bolt and sleeve, and the new part goes on easily. With copaslip and, of course, the correct torque procedure.
Rimmer Bros. are given the order for new studs and gaskets, having collected a manifold from the engineer with the snapped stud extracted and a new O2 sensor boss fitted for £30. That seems reasonable. However, because I don’t want to encounter ANY problems, I order MGR bits from Rimmers despite the much greater cost and get all the studs, nuts and gaskets I need plus oil filter and sump washer as well as the missing spark plug lead guides. Apart from the new studs being shorter than the ones that came out, everything goes back like a dream – possibly the most satisfying job I’ve done on a car came to an end with the “click-click” of the torque wrench as I tightened up the four downpipe nuts.
Finally, with the handbrake adjuster in the console taking up the slack in the lever, it’s off to the MOT station – and she passes, albeit with an Italian tune-up first. The O2 sensor is the most expensive single part, at £52, but it’s good to know it’s fitted properly. The original title of this was MGF for a Monkey – if I reused the bolts from the manifold, I could probably have just about done it. Anyway, with cars on eBay and MG F/TF Register forum classifieds cropping up for similar money, I feel that this one reflects what you could be taking on but, whilst the MOT is done, there are still several issues.
The lack of use and lack of lubrication,contribute to a sticking clutch release. This makes it slow and it makes it slip, too – when cold. Obviously, when taking on an MGF the idea of clutch replacement is enough to fill anyone with dread, so it’s worth bearing in mind – I expect to replace the clutch sometime soon with nearly 90,000 miles on the car. Additionally, I’ve still to replace the boot lid, the nearside front wing is rusty, the roof is tatty (but has a good back window) and the door has dropped – another Satur special in the form of uprated bushes will fix that, but not without removing the door and it’ll need the sill repainting where it rubbed.
The headgasket has clearly been done but not necessarily to my standards (broken wires, dent on the cover and other things). However, this makes me think that taking on an MGF with signs of headgasket failure could be a worthwhile exercise, as long as the rest of the car is up to scratch. It’s annoying, but nevertheless relatively easy to work on – I’d look for one with nice clean subframes as well as a good roof and windscreen and happily give updating and uprating the engine a go. Millie’s got a little cough in the mornings, a touch of blue smoke, that says ‘valve guides’ to me – and taking on the job at the beginning would be preferable to replacing a windscreen, repainting a quarter panel and so forth. All the fans and cooling system issues look good on Millie so I suspect the failure is due to the coolant pipes leaking in this case.
Overall, though – the £500 MGF has proven to be a reality, even if to do things my way made it more like a £600 MGF. It’s ready to go for a year and buying randomly still gave me a car which has had many new parts – new tyres, wheels in good condition, new alternator, new rear calipers, new headlights, recent brakes, new coolant hoses – parts that alone would exceed the initial purchase price. Mind you, if I wanted to spend more, it looks like £1200-1500 is a good sweet spot for late Fs and early TFs, sometimes with hardtops included (having seen secondhand ones going for as little as £100-150, I plan to add one), so if I found something with the tyres etc. in comparable condition and a more detailed history, I think that’d be a better long-term proposition. The F is worth the effort becuase it’s another example of the ingenious engineering and loaves and fishes tricks which Rover could occasionally pull off and it’s a shame it’s let down by cheap materials and shortcuts here and there. To drive, it’s brilliant, and even this old neglected example reminds me why I preferred the F over the early TF.
The values of the F may well continue to fall, but in 1992 my father’s advice (never heeded, of course) was that I’d never get a good car for under a grand. Dad said that right after generously buying my first car for £150 – an Allegro 1.5HLS which never made it onto the puclic highway in my ownership because I found a Fanta can being used as a structural part of the floorpan and the suspension popped a couple of days before I turned 17. You can find plenty of F’s for under a grand at the moment and they represent a great opportunity for summer fun whilst still look good and respectable today so, as they hover between classic and banger status, grab one before the bad ones have gone and the good ones are being cherished.
Insurance is also proving a slight problem, with many of the usual suspects for classic car insurance rejecting the F as too new (despite having previously had a cap of 10 years which, for example, enabled me to insure a 1992 Granada in 2003). Mainstream insurance is cheap though, only a little more than an old Fiesta for me.
With the DVLA’s plans for CIE (Continuous Insurance Enforcement) coming up in combination with increasing policy costs, it will make projects less appealing – if it’s not SORN’d, then it’s going to have to be insured. Hence, if like me, you would be inclined to tax a car when it’s got to go on the road, but place it as a temporary additional vehicle when you need to use it, that route will have gone and you’ll either need to cash in the tax disc and SORN it (then retax later) or sort out a proper policy even if you don’t know for how long the car will be unroadworthy or kept off the road. That’s because, as with SORN, uninsured cars under CIE are going to get the default fines even if no “crime” in any rational sense has been committed.
Is the Editor of the Parkers website and price guide, formerly editor of Classic Car Weekly, and launch editor/creator of Modern Clsssics magazine. Has contributed to various motoring titles including Octane, Practical Classics, Evo, Honest John, CAR magazine, Autocar, Pistonheads, Diesel Car, Practical Performance Car, Performance French Car, Car Mechanics, Jaguar World Monthly, MG Enthusiast, Modern MINI, Practical Classics, Fifth Gear Website, Radio 4, and the the Motoring Independent...
Likes 'conditionally challenged' motors and taking them on unfeasable adventures all across Europe.