Ask anyone with even the most cursory knowledge of classics to name their favourite cars and you can guarantee that the MG name will come up time and time again.
Keith Adams takes a short tour through the history of this great marque…
A potted history
Despite being one of the most recognised marques on the planet, the beginnings of the MG marque are actually steeped in confusion. Not, you understand, because we don’t know the company’s creator or where it all started – but which of the cars was the first to be produced at the famous Morris Garages in Abingdon.
One thing we know for sure is that the first genuine MG was not ‘Old Number One’, the Hotchkiss-engined competition car sporting the magic registration number FC 7900 and currently in residence at the British Motor Museum, at Gaydon in Warwickshire. Despite this beauty not being the first example of the breed, the special first produced in 1924, makes a good focal point for the earliest beginnings of the celebrated sportscar producer.
Cecil Kimber was the General Manager of Morris Garages in Oxford and, in 1922, he commissioned six Raworth-bodied two-seater sportscars to be built on the chassis of the Morris Cowley. The first of these cars was sold to a young man named JOA Arkell in June 1922 for the princely sum of £300 – and this car, which bore both MG and Morris logos, probably has the strongest claim to fame as the world’s first MG.
Whatever the case, the MG phenomenon was quick to take off and, within a few short months, demand for these cars produced by Morris Garages went through the roof. The first example of the breed to be built in significant numbers (around 400) was the 14/28 Super Sport and came in a number of forms, featuring two or four seats and open or closed ‘Salonette’ bodywork. That car developed into the 14/40 and then, in late 1928, Kimber launched the 18/80, a new car powered by the 2468cc overhead camshaft engine for a still-born upscale Morris.
Competition revolution in Abingdon
However, MG’s future direction took a radical leap into the modern era in 1929. The car that set the company on its way was introduced – the MG M-Type Midget, and the company moved to the former Pavlova leather works in Abingdon in order to expand production to meet the ever-growing demand for 847cc Morris Minor-powered sports car.
The factory happily served MG’s needs – and the company remained there until 1980, when it was closed down as part of one of BL’s terminal contractions in later years. Happily, MG saw plenty of good times during the intervening years – spearheaded by the Midget. The car was a clear example of how to launch the right product at the right time and, as a result, people clamoured for it for two simple reasons – it was cheap and it was good to drive.
From the M-Type Midget, the impressive racing C-Type was developed – and, in supercharged form, it could pull all the way to 90mph; an impressive achievement for a sub-1-litre car… even today. In 1932, that car became the J-Type, and featured an innovative crossflow cylinder head and twin carburettors.
In 1933, the legendary K3 Magnette made an appearance – in its first year, the six-cylinder supercharged 1100cc screamer won the team prize in the Mille Miglia race and, in the hands of Tazio Nuvolari (yes, him!), it won the Ulster Tourist Trophy at an average speed that was unbeaten until 1951.
It’s clear that, in terms of competition, these were MG’s halcyon days – not bad going considering just how active in motorsport the marque has been since then. These cars reached their zenith in with the blown Q- and R-Type models – the latter featuring an innovative Y-shaped backbone chassis and all-round independent suspension.
All that came to an end in 1935 when the works ceased racing and turned its attention fully to the burgeoning road car business. That year’s range was looking not only busy, but rather desirable, too – with the TA Midget joined by the 2.0-litre SA, the 2.6-litre WA and the delectable 1½-litre VA.
These successes carried MG rather nicely into the war era…
Immediately after the war, MG offered a lightly revised line-up of familiar models, starting with the TC (it differed from its Thirties predecessors, by offering a slightly wider cockpit). Despite the ageing underpinnings, the Midget went on to be a massive success, especially in the USA – with a generation of visiting American servicemen insisting on buying their own examples once they returned home.
In an era that the British industry desperately needed to export as much as it could, the Midget’s success was not only good news for MG, but the British economy as a whole.
The 1250cc Y-Type, available as a saloon or Tourer – and a pretty export-only drophead – appeared in 1947 and, with its launch, the process of updating the MG range began. When the 1949 TD appeared, it used much Y-Type hardware, making it an improved drive over its predecessor. MG had already picked up a healthy fan base in the USA, but the arrival of the TD widened that considerably – helped in no small part by MG taking the team prize in the 1952 Sebring 12-hour race.
That coincided with the formation of the British Motor Corporation (BMC) – a merger between the Austin Motor Company and the Nuffield Group, and for many the beginning of a new era of MG component sharing.
With British Motor Corporation
The 1960s heralded front-wheel drive and advanced engineering – and buyers loved it, as the success of
the MG1100 clearly demonstrated
MG within BMC started off slowly – we saw the final flowering of the T-Series Midget concept with the launch of the TF in 1954, while the Y-Type was replaced by the ZA Magnette (an example of Nuffield, not BMC, badge engineering). If it looked like MG was playing safe, it’s fair to say that these cars were the calm before the storm…
In 1955, MG’s second revolution was ushered in by the arrival of the sleek and beautiful MGA at the tail end of the year. It looked about a million miles away from its predecessor, the TF, and was clear evidence that under BMC, MG would enjoy the rudest of health.
The pretty new car came of age (technically, if not in terms of dependability) with the arrival of the twin-cam version in 1958, just on the eve of the Farina-styled Magnette saloon – possibly the least sporting MG ever made. Sales continued to grow, and exports to the USA bolstered Abingdon’s output at a time when BMC was still the fourth largest car manufacturer in the world…
Austin-Healey production joined MG in Abingdon, and the company’s new A35-based Sprite was badge-engineered into the MG Midget in 1961. It seemed apt to name this small sportscar after the original cars – like its predecessors, it was well-priced, fun to drive and turned a basic set of components into something special.
The big news came in 1962, though. For many, the sheer beauty of the MGA would never be topped, but the MGB of 1962 came pretty damned close. Originally introduced to satisfy customer demand for a more modern and comfortable sports car, the MGB was powered by a 1.8-litre version of the BMC B-Series engine and, like the Midget, used a number of components off the shelf – but the end result was pretty special.
Exports continued to grow, as did the MG range – by the mid-1960s, not only were the MGB and Midget sports cars on offer, but badge-engineered versions of the BMC 1100 and Farina saloons were on sale, making this possibly the most comprehensive MG range since the Thirties. With sales ballooning nicely, the MGB roadster was joined by the GT version with its Pininfarina-styled roof in 1965 – a poor man’s Aston Martin if ever there was one. After that, the car received a C-Series engine to become the short-lived MGC – an underwhelming car that never realised its early promise.
Into the Leyland era
The decline of MG began as a direct result of the formation of British Leyland in 1968. The deal saw Leyland (Rover-Triumph) ‘merge’ with BMC to form an unholy alliance of wildly divergent marques – all with their own vested interests. The newly-formed corporation was headed by Donald Stokes – a man who did well by Triumph during Leyland’s best years – and that immediately disadvantaged the Abingdon marque.
The MG and Triumph sports car ranges overlapped drastically – the Midget directly competed with the Spitfire, and it’s probably fair to say that any single young man’s shopping list from 1968 would have contained cars from both sides of the camp.
However, when it came to producing a replacement for the MGB, no resources were forthcoming from BL management, as the company’s sports car needs would be handled by the new ‘corporate’ car that would later emerge as the TR7. One good thing that came from the BL tie-up was the arrival of the MGB GT V8 – a Rover-powered road-burner that arrived just as the 1973/74 fuel crisis was at its height. Sadly, it lasted only three years.
That left the Midget and MGB to soldier on through the Seventies – receiving a few necessary updates, such as rubber bumpers and improved equipment. The Midget received the 1.5-litre Triumph Spitfire engine in 1974 in order to get it through US emissions regulations – and, for many MG enthusiasts, this was something of an insult to the marque. But this was the way that things were within the big, happy BL family.
However, the rationalisation came to nought – Abingdon was closed in 1980, taking the MGB and the Midget with it, and the marque went into abeyance for the first time since the war. The reason the doors were closed on Abingdon was because BL’s management, headed by Sir Michael Edwardes, knew the company needed to contract in order to survive, justifying the action by claiming that currency fluctuations had made selling cars in the USA a loss-making exercise – that was a short-term view…
The impact of Abingdon’s closure was massive – especially on the local economy and, with the best industrial relations within BL, it’s not hard to understand why MG’s loyal staff were aggrieved by the closure. Plans were briefly drawn up to produce an MG-badged version of the TR7, but these were abandoned when it became clear that further retreat would see the closure of the Solihull factory and the death of the Triumph sports car.
From the highs of being the world’s biggest sports car producer at the turn of the Seventies, ten years later, BL had completely abandoned the market that was once its own.
BL was canny enough not to sell the MG name to Aston Martin’s Alan Curtis after he made a generous offer, though, and in 1982, introduced the Octagon-bedecked Metro – complete with appealing pepper-pot alloy wheels, red seatbelts, and a livelier A-Plus engine. Although the Metro and subsequent Maestro and Montego weren’t the sportscars that MG enthusiasts clearly wanted, they kept the marque alive during tough times and sold well.
The final curtain?
In the early 1990s, Rover management finally had the wherewithal to make good its desire to attach the MG marque name to something more sporting than the Metro, Maestro or Montego. The saloons were quietly dropped and, once again, the MG name disappeared from the new car price lists. However, this time, MG would definitely return on something sporting – something guaranteed since the launch of the Mazda MX-5.
In 1992, thanks to the availability of new British Motor Heritage bodyshells, the MGB was re-born as a restyled V8-powered grand tourer – and even at the time of its launch, Rover’s management confirmed an all-new roadster was on its way.
That duly appeared in the form of the MGF in 1995 – and, in true MG spirit, it used a great number of off-the-shelf parts (mainly Metro and Rover 200), and clothed it in a pretty body to produce an accessible and likeable new sports car. The future briefly looked good for MG – BMW had bought the company in 1994, and money was pouring in… However, that arrangement lasted a mere six years and, once the Germans pulled out, MG was left on its own.
The MG name was then passed to warmed over (and surprisingly capable) versions of the Rover 25, 45 and 75 ranges, as well as the roadster – now known as the MG TF. These formed the bedrock of the MG Rover range until its fall into administration in 2005.
However, the name lived on to survive the beginning of another new chapter – bought by the Chinese manufacturer Nanjing Automobile Corporation and then SAIC Motor. What would Cecil Kimber have thought of that?
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