The cars : MGA (EX175) development story

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

MGA 1500

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.

MG TC 1945

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.

MG TD 1949

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.

MG EX175 prototype (UMG 400)

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.

Austin Healey 100 (1953)

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.

MGA 1500 (02)

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.’

MGA interior

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.

MGA Twin Cam coupe

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.

B-Series improvements

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).

Conclusions

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.

MGA 1500

Keith Adams

22 Comments

  1. Lovely car, but shame the twin cam failed because of the usual British manufacturer issue, poor development. It,s a good unit which if it hadn’t had the failures in the US would probably have increased sales, and would have given BMC an engine that could have gone on to power the company for the next 30 years.

    • I sort of agree but, at the same time, patchy development wasn’t unique to the British. The American manufacturers had just as many but, like the British consumer, the American customer was more prepared to forgive them for it than some overseas brand. A major advantage all the American manufacturers had was the sheer scale of the American market in terms of volume opportunity – production runs are far larger and you have the chance to a) iron out issues faster and b) the income to do it!

    • Agree, the sad thing is that the MGA Twin-Cam’s issues were said to be correctable in hindsight. That said, even with the Alfa Twin-Cam in mind not entirely sure about the MGA Twin-Cam engine lasting over the next few decades.

      Can see an early O-Series / B-OHC type revision in the mid/late-1960s being required to replace the B-Series (as well as ideally by extension the revised C-Series – had an equivalent UK spec 2.4-3-litre B-Six been schemed), which would have of course benefited equivalent Twin-Cam successor in making it more suitable for mass production and less specialized over its B-Series Twin-Cam predecessor (years before the real-life M/T-Series).

  2. When they have wire wheels I reckon this is one of the best-looking open sports cars of the 1950s-’60s. At the risk of being struck down, I think a wire-wheel MGA looks better than an E-type… a car which I don’t find as visually amazing as many people seem to.

    • I thought I was the only one to find the E-Type a bit of an ungainly thing – especially the early models (which most people think are the best looking), with that tiny little grille aperture and a narrow track under those over-bulbous wings.

      I’ve always felt the screen is too upright (and too tall on the coupes). The doors look rather awkward, with so much of their length at the front, which means the side windows seem ridiculously short. Later models, with their wider track, had a much more purposeful look – although the later rear light treatment, shoving them under the bumper on a flat panel, always looked a bit will-this-do to me.

      But anyway, I digress!

      The MGA is a very good example of how to design a good-looking sports car. The only criticism I can make is that the Mk2 cars’ horizontal rear lights, mentioned above, were actually (and obviously) Mk1 Mini lights turned sideways, which always seemed a bit naff to me. But then, with the MGA nearing the end of production, I suppose designing a whole new rear light cluster wasn’t really practical.

      • I agree that the MGA is a lovely car, and that the change to horizontally configured rear lights was a misstep. I wonder though if your dismissal of the E-type is in part driven by over exposure. I’m not the biggest fan of the E-type by any means but I suspect the fact that there have been so many magazine articles and photo spreads, appearances in period films and tv shows and other coverage, if we haven’t become a bit jaded about the Jag. Sixty years ago it must have been a sensation. Even today on the very rare occasion that I see one in the flesh, I can’t help but linger over it.

  3. I’m sure an MGA was used in later series of Hi De Hi, as the personal transport of Squadron Leader Dempster.

    • Well, that trumps my offering of Elvis using one in the film Blue Hawaii and liking it so much that he kept it, after filming.

  4. Lovely looking car. While the MGB was clearly a major step forward over the MGA, I wonder if part of the reason it’s so much better known is because it was kept in production for so much longer. If the MGB had the same production life as the MGA and been replaced in 1969, when maybe the MGB wouldn’t be so clearly “THE” classic MG.

    Akin to the Routemaster becoming THE classic British Bus by being in service for so long.

  5. Beautiful little sports car, the best looking MG imo.

    That Ghia-Aigle concept is very interesting too imo. Very vaguely reminds me of the Rover P5. Imagine if the Magnette saloons resembled this concept, would have been far more interesting than a simple grill swap on the farina body.

    • I have to agree it is a good looking car for the time, but being a coach built special, it may have cost to much to put in production. We are probably lucky these specials were not taken on by BMC, as it may have extended the life of the T cars longer and we may have never progressed.

  6. Leonard Lord’s instinct to kill the MGA before birth because it would compete with the Austin Healey was probably correct. Duplication of models, brands, factories and so on was much the source of the inefficiency and financial struggle of BMC and BL. However, he would perhaps have been better off proceeding with the MGA rather than the Healey because of sales numbers. Of course, come the late 60s Healey was dead and MG lived on

    • But were the big Healey and the MGA direct competitors? I’d have said the Healey was in a higher price/performance class and they could have happily co-existed as indeed they did from ‘55 to ‘62
      The Austin Healey name died out as a result of BL management not feeling it necessary to use outside consultants nor to pay them royalties to use their name

      • I’d agree. To use the old classes, Lord was comparing a Sixteen (Healey) with something more akin to a Twelve (MG). You wouldn’t have compared saloons with such disparate-capacity engines. I reckon he was still suffering from Morrisodium, and hadn’t got it out of his system. Or did he really thing MG could do with one and a half litres what Austin needed 2.7 for? 🙂

        • The original Healey 100-4 was actually shorter than the MGA, so I suppose that might have looked awkward to Lord. Once the longer Healey 100-6 arrived then that issue went.

      • There were other competing proposals Leonard Lord commissioned from Frazer-Nash and Jensen that the Healey and MGA EX175 prototype faced in 1952.

        The former was a Frazer-Nash Targa Florio with the same 2.6 Austin engine as the Big Healey prototype, the latter meanwhile was an 1.2 A40 based proposal known as the Jensen 501 prototype that remarkably bore some visual similarities with the MGA (more so after a crash years later mean it was rebuilt with MGA parts including the 1.5 engine).
        https://www.jensenmuseum.org/austin-healey-jensen-motors-contract/

  7. The G&H Perl and Allied Swallow are new to me. You could easily add to that list the Arnolt by Bertone,the Zagato Panoramica, and Gerald Palmer’s design that came in both a traditional “wings” style, and a full width design.

  8. The top pic of the red MGA looks great, but that Austin Healey 100 pic also looks a beaut! Great nostalgia

  9. Interesting article and yes the A is absolutely lovely. The wind tunnel designs really paid off. My 1956 is indeed lovelier than an e type. Set up to look like a ‘Sebring’ model with tiny windscreen and no bumpers sets the heart racing and is much admired.
    Years to complete with years of enjoyment ahead, well done MG!

  10. It’s amazing how much better the black MGA at the end of the article looks from behind with just the red tail lights, and without the tacky indicators above them. Those indicators remind me of the aftermarket flashing units which most surviving pre-1962 Morris Minors had gained on their rear wings by the early 1970s.

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