Ah, the MGA. The good-looking sports car that sparked the real kick-off of MG’s expansion in the 1950s and, for a while at least, became the best-selling sports car in the world.
Keith Adams tells the story of this pretty roadster and coupe, and how they would end up underpinning some rather impressive competitive records of their own.
MGA: The big leap forward
It’s an interesting oddity that, in any roll-call of the greatest UK sports cars, the MGA tends to get rather overlooked. Significantly outsold by its replacement, the long-lived MGB, and the T-Series models that came before it, the A is the in-betweener of the Octagon stable.
And yet, the two-seater MG which was in production from 1955 until late 1962 was probably the most beautiful of the lot, as well as being one of the most significant models ever built at Abingdon.
Apart from its obvious importance as the MG sports car with its roots in the post-War era design-wise, it was the first of the firm’s models in two decades to be designed specifically as an MG, by an MG Design Team located at Abingdon – and presided over by the firm’s own Chief Engineer. Let’s also remember that it became the world’s first sports car to sell more than 100,000 – even if that total would be subsequently dwarfed by the MGB’s.
The T-Series – an unexpected success
The T-series MGs – the darling of export markets – were, in fact, designed by Morris in Cowley. The quintessential MG was actually conceived and engineered following Morris Motors’ takeover of the MG Car Company in 1935, which initially resulted in the closure of the Abingdon Design Office.
When war work ended and the Abingdon works returned to car production in 1945, materials were so scarce and money so tight that the first post-War model, the TC Midget (above), had to be a very close relation of its pre-War predecessor.
Being such a throwback, it was not expected to sell well overseas – but it did, sparking a boom in demand for UK sports cars in the USA, where the vast majority of these cars ended up. Consequently, this led to a demand for a roomier, more comfortable sports car to take its place – leading to the introduction of the traditional-looking TD (below), with its independent front suspension, pressed-steel wheels and the option of left-hand drive.
T-Series development – baby steps
When the TD first appeared towards the end of 1949 it might have been what the market wanted, but tastes were changing rapidly at this time and it was already looking like an anachronism – despite strong sales. Once sleeker-looking sports cars such as the Austin-Healey 100, Jaguar XK120, and Triumph TR2 hit the market, the writing was on the wall for the venerable MG T-Series.
Despite its running boards and side screens, it still cut the mustard on the road. The little MG performed heartily with its modestly-sized 1250cc pushrod engine, with the brick-like aerodynamics only affecting it when it approached the ‘magic ton’ (100mph). The problem is – that’s exactly what enthusiastic buyers wanted.
As the 1950s progressed, the sales of the MG TD began to tail off. This was especially the case in overseas markets, which was the lifeblood of Abingdon. MG Director and General Manager John Thornley was acutely aware of the problem, and commissioned the development of a new full-width and streamlined body to bring it up-to date.
Clipping the T-Series wings
Several coachbuilders had tried replacing the TD’s body with a lower-drag design to reduce the frontal area and modernise its appearance. And it has to be said, they were achieved with varying degrees of success. The Special by G&H Perl, Ghia-Aigle and the Allied Swallow Coupe (below) were cases in point.
Motor racing was also responsible for a number of rebodied TCs and TDs and, although most were ugly, they made it faster. One of the most effective was a rebodied TC raced by George Phillips, Chief Photographer at Autosport magazine, who campaigned it with some success in 1949 and 1950.
John Thornley paid attention and MG’s Chief Designer, Sid Enever, penned a new TD-based challenger, codename EX172, for the 1951 Le Mans race. The car, registered UMG 400 (below), was an attractive two-seater with full-width bodywork, and its mildly-tuned 1250cc engine would propel it to almost 120mph, a 50% improvement over the standard TD.
In the race, with Phillips behind the wheel, it dropped a valve early on, but the point had been proven. More streamlined bodywork could transform the performance of the T-Series, while being a practical road car.
From Le Mans, the MGA emerges
The issue with EX172 was that the driver sat too high, and that was a by-product of using the narrow TD chassis frame – further development would be needed. That came via Syd Enever, who evolved the EX176 into the EX175, with the main difference being a new and wider frame and tidied-up styling. The driver and passenger were now between the side-members and the propshaft, a far more sporting position.
The EX175 emerged, looking even better, with only the bonnet hump to accommodate the tall 1250cc engine spoiling its svelte lines. The prototype was registered as HMP6 and tested in 1952 – the MGA was coming increasingly into focus.
In the background, politics would play its part in the story. During 1952, the Nuffield Organisation was taken over by Austin Motor Company, led by ex-Nuffield employee Leonard Lord. It’s fair to say that he harboured a long-standing grudge against Lord Nuffield, so as the British Motor Corporation began to take shape, MG’s project would come into direct conflict with the Austin-Healey 100 (below), unveiled at the 1952 London Motor Show.
Overruled in favour of Austin Healey
Given what he thought was a straight choice between the Austin Healey and the nascent EX175 prototype, unsurprisingly, Lord gave a firm thumbs down to Abingdon’s effort. It had been presented to the management as the sort of MG that MG should have been building to maintain its leading position in the sports car market, but it wasn’t to be – or so it seemed…
With a firm ‘no’ from Lord, MG gave the TD a hasty facelift to transform it into the TF, and readied it for the 1953 Motor Show. The TF would subsequently be greeted with a resounding sigh of indifference from the market – so much so that renowned land speed record breaker Captain George Eyston, recommended that a new record attempt at the Salt Flats at Utah was in order to boost MG’s flagging reputation in the USA.
So, Syd Enever took a spare EX175 chassis frame, fitted it with a TF engine bored out to 1500cc, and bodied it with a streamlined shell. This new machine was designated EX179, and in 1954 as part of a series of record-breaking MGs, was successfully driven by Eyston and Ken Miles to 153.69mph. This impressive achievement, along with the TF’s continuing dismal sales Stateside sent Leonard Lord a stark message – MG needed a new sports car, pronto.
The green light is given
Thornley responded by re-establishing the MG Design Office at Abingdon under Syd Enever with the first job to develop EX175 into a new production MG two-seater. In addition, he agreed to the formation BMC Competitions, and the entry of a three-car MG team for the 1955 Le Mans 24 Hour race.
With that, the Le Mans cars – codenamed EX182 – would the forerunners of a new production model, and Thornley made it clear that that the aim was to finish the race at an average of more than 80mph. It was also intended to also enter the same race cars for the Alpine Rally as well and, for this reason the cars were surprisingly close to standard road trim, aside from their light alloy bodies.
Le Mans was a success – two of the cars finished at average speeds of 86.17mph and 81.97mph, although the race was married by the horrific Mercedes-Benz crash that involved many spectators. All post-race advertising was cancelled, and the Alpine Rally was abandoned.
The MGA finally takes shape
The power unit chosen for the new MG sports car was the B-Series engine, as fitted to the MG ZA Magnette, and already being developed by BMC Competitions for it’s racier application. On 26 September 1955, the new car was launched officially at the Frankfurt Motor Show as the MG Series MGA, and was given that label because the firm had already run through the alphabet with its previous model types.
Due to a delay with body tooling, the MGA didn’t go into full production immediately, and cars weren’t available for testing until late in 1955. They were greeted with considerable enthusiasm by the press. The earliest cars may have only developed 68bhp, but the MGA was quick enough to be interesting with a 0-60mph time of 15 seconds, and a maximum speed of 100mph. Fuel consumption was also impressive, with an average of almost 30mpg. For context, the MG TF took 19 seconds get to 60mph, it topped out at 80mph and could do 25mpg. A new world had arrived…
Motor Sport‘s Bill Boddy was most impressed, concluding: ‘The MGA is every inch an MG and Abingdon has obviously exercised considerable ingenuity in blending various standardised BMC components into a sports car which is a worthy descendant of the race-bred cars which preceded it. It possesses impeccable road manners and adequate performance, combining these with an eye-stopping appearance.’
Sales success rapidly follows
Abingdon production figures soared. The number of MGAs built during the new model’s first full year, 1956, exceeded the total output of TC Midgets. In its peak year, 1959, MGA production in 12 months outnumbered the entire pre-War production of all MGs!
It was a car with a dual personality. It was roomier and more comfortable than the T-Series MGs and because it also had ample luggage space, it proved popular as touring car for the less hardcore sports car fanatics.
For those who liked to keep dry, the 1956 London Show saw the début of the fixed-head coupé version with winding windows instead of sliding sidescreens, a larger windscreen and other refinements in the GT style. It added an extra string to the MGA’s armoury, even if it was outsold by its ragtop cousin.
Twin Cam lights up the MGA
However, the pinnacle of the MGA’s production run sashayed into view in July 1958 with the arrival of the Twin Cam. It was quite a transformation, with the 1.5-litre engine being enlarged to 1600cc, and topped by an alloy twin-cam head with chain-driven camshafts.
Maximum power was 108bhp, exactly 50% more than the pushrod car, and that translated into an easy 115mph maximum and acceleration to 80mph from zero in half the time. Keeping it all in check, its Lockheed drum brakes were replaced by Dunlop discs, front and rear, with peg-drive centre-lock wheels like those of the Jaguar D-type.
However, as effective as it was, the Twin Cam proved too fragile for its own good, being all-too easy to overrev. It also required meticulous servicing, with particular attention to mixture strength and ignition timing, and 100-octane fuel being absolutely essential. The result was a barrage of failures, especially overseas, and the Twin Cam was discontinued after two years. Later it was discovered that most of the troubles could have been avoided, with the fitment of lower-compression pistons.
In May 1959 the B-Series was expanded to 1600cc and, although it was little faster at the top end, the new engine was easier to drive with more torque for improved mid-range acceleration. At the same time, its drum front brakes were replaced by Lockheed discs, the pedal layout was improved, and a better hood and sidescreens were added to the equipment roster.
Finally, in April 1961, the capacity rose again to 1622cc for the MGA 1600 Mk2. Few people appreciated that this was not just a quick boring-out of the existing block but a new engine altogether, with a new big-valve head, new block, pistons, conrods, crankshaft and flywheel. Even the gearbox had a new casing, which was ribbed for greater strength.
A power increase from 80 to 93bhp was largely concealed by a simultaneous change in the final-drive ratio from 4.3 to 4.1:1, making for quieter cruising but little improvement in acceleration. The Mk2 was mainly distinguishable by its horizontal rear lights mounted on the body instead of on the rear wings.
The Twin Cam was dropped on the advice of Marcus Chambers, the BMC Competitions Manager, after he returned from the 1960 Sebring 12 Hours Race with tales of woe from the USA. The problems with the car were mounting up and costing the importer dear. That left a number of Twin Cam chassis left over, and these – fitted with 1600cc B-Series engines – were sold as the MGA 1600 De Luxe and De Luxe Mk2.
MGA in motor sport
The MGA didn’t have a stellar motor sport career, with BMC saying no to official participation at Le Mans after 1955. However, an MG Car Club syndicate entered a Twin Cam for the 24 Hours in 1959, 1960 and 1961. The first run was ended by a collision with a large dog, and the third by mechanical. failure, but the car won its class in 1960, beating Triumph, AC-Bristol and Porsche.
It also scored a class two-three in the 1956 Mille Miglia, which was was repeated in 1957, with privately-entered cars, and four Twin Cams filling the first four places in their class in the 1959 Silverstone GT Race. More impressive, perhaps, was the class third behind two Porsches in the 1958 TT.
In international rallies the MGA had successes in the ladies’ category of the RAC, Scottish, Alpine, Liège and Lyons-Charbonnières events that helped Nancy Mitchell to win the Ladies’ Championship in 1956 and 1957. And when the model was nearing the end of its production life, a Mk2 De Luxe coupé won the 2-litre class of both the 1962 Monte Carlo Rally (driven by Don Morley) and the 1962 Tulip Rally (driven by Rauno Aaltonen).
The MGA was just what the firm needed to survive and flourish within BMC and, following Lord’s U-turn in allowing it to go into production, it went on to succeed with a run of 101,081. It successfully modernised its maker’s output and paved the way for the brilliant MGB in 1962.
Most importantly, it allowed MG to throw off the shackles of its T-Series Midgets, which were so clearly rooted in the pre-War era. With a bold – and beautiful – look, it provided MG with all the armoury it needed to fight the Triumph in the all-important US market.