The cars : MGC development story

The replacement for the Austin-Healey 3000 never took off, thanks in part to a poor press launch, says Keith Adams.

First published in The Independent, 4 July 2006.


Classic boo-boo

BRITAIN in the 1960s was a brilliant place for a single guy with money in his pocket and a hankering for something sporty to park outside his bachelor pad: he was surrounded by miniskirt-wearing, leggy dolly birds, was torn between The Beatles and The Stones, and had literally dozens of convertibles to choose from.

The only dilemmas our man about town would have faced were how deep his pockets were, and just how long a bonnet he preferred to sit behind. The daddy of this halcyon market was the British Motor Corporation. Between Austin-Healey and MG, every sporting niche from 1.3- to 3-litres was covered. The corporation’s products truly were the stuff of legend. If you were particularly hairy-chested, the only option to go for was the Austin-Healey 3000 – the sonorous rally winner that demanded physical commitment from its driver. It might have seemed just a little antediluvian compared with newer offerings, yet despite this it was loved by a legion of fans across the world.

In short, the Austin-Healey 3000 was a car that needed special consideration when it came to the thorny subject of replacement.

The ill-fated Austin-Healey 3000 replacement. Codenamed ADO51, the new-generation's Austin-Healey's grille was styled by Don Hayter. (Picture: MG - The Untold Story, by David Knowles)
The ill-fated Austin-Healey 3000 replacement. Codenamed ADO51, the new-generation’s Austin-Healey’s grille was styled by Don Hayter. (Picture: MG – The Untold Story, by David Knowles)
Unlike the MGB GT V8, the MGC was available in Roadster form, too... (Picture: Ian Nicholls)
Unlike the MGB GT V8, the MGC was available in Roadster form, too… (Picture: Ian Nicholls)

Originally, BMC worked on a tailor-made replacement codenamed ADO30, but the proposal didn’t go very far before being abandoned, and that left the company scratching around for a suitable car to fill the rapidly approaching void in the range. However, as MG was working on a 3-litre version of the highly popular MGB (called the MGC and codenamed ADO52), the solution was obvious for students of corporate rationalisation: the re-engined B could be the new Healey.

On paper, it seemed like a plan, and once the Austin-Healey/MGC plan came to fruition, it then seemed logical to produce a Healey-fronted version (codenamed ADO51) to sell to those who didn’t care for the octagon. However, this plan came up against problems – not least the fact that Donald Healey didn’t like it, and rejected the idea out of hand. The Austin-Healey 3000, therefore, would not be replaced – even if BMC overlords said it had been.

The MGC should really have been a roaring success as, on paper, it had everything going for it. A lusty 2,912cc, straight-six upfront, and beautiful roadster and coupé body styles meant that the new MGC should have had the world at its feet – and an orderly queue of Terry-Thomas wannabes desperate for a piece of the action. With 145bhp to play with, it certainly went well, and MG engineers did a great job of counteracting the weight of this heavy power unit when installed in the lithe MG roadster.

Austin-Healey 3000 proved devilishily difficult to replace...
Austin-Healey 3000 proved devilishily difficult to replace…

However, BMC didn’t have a great track record when it came to product launches. If it wasn’t wearing down journalists with multiple unveilings of the same car wearing different badges, then it released cars to the public with a whole host of teething problems. In the case of the MGC, the launch was banjanxed by the press office incorrectly pressuring the tyres. This might seem a minor problem, but when the car in question has a heavyweight truck engine and a tendency to understeer, imbalances in tyre pressures can make a world of difference.

With a paucity of air upfront, “slight” became “epic” in the understeer department, and polite road-testers were left to find new and inventive ways of slating the handling without resorting to barefaced insults. Potential buyers soon caught on, and, further discouraged by heavy steering and indifferent performance for the money, sales weren’t particularly forthcoming.

Further problems for the MGC loomed on the horizon: BMC was about to be swallowed up by the Leyland Motor Company. That particular portfolio of companies already had a very capable range of Triumph sports cars – and the TR6 and MGC would be direct rivals. One of them would have to give. No prizes for guessing which was abandoned in a combined company dominated by Triumph management: it was goodbye, MGC.

University Motors produced this special edition MGC in order to add appeal (and performance)... (Picture: Ian Nicholls)
University Motors produced this special edition MGC in order to add appeal (and performance)… (Picture: Ian Nicholls)

Did the MGC deserve such an ignominious fate? Was it really that bad that it deserved to live a shorter life than the CityRover? That’s a tough one to answer objectively, because, as a classic today, sitting on modern tyres and dampers, and tweaked to deliver a little more power, the C is actually a fine drive.

Not great, thanks to its set-in-concrete steering and lugubrious engine, but charismatic in a lazy-summer-evenings-in-the-countryside kind of way. Overall, though, it looks good, and makes a great open tourer. It can also be fixed by anyone with an ounce of technical savvy, or someone who has access to the million-and-one specialists in the UK.

Going back to 1966, though, was this car the winner it should have been? Not really – but even if the press garage had got the tyre pressures right, the MGC wouldn’t have hit the spot. It wasn’t the new Austin-Healey 3000 the world wanted, and that meant that its faults were doubly unforgiven.

It seems that our swinger about town wasn’t ready to retire to the easy life of grand touring just yet.

The 3-litre engine was not a winner in standard form... (Picture: Ian Nicholls)
The 3-litre engine was not a winner in standard form… (Picture: Ian Nicholls)
But in Downton form, it could be tweaked to deliver 200bhp... (Picture: Ian Nicholls)
But in Downton form, it could be tweaked to deliver 200bhp… (Picture: Ian Nicholls)
Keith Adams
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27 Comments

  1. Was Donald Healey’s rejection of ADO51 (aka the “Austin-Healey 3000 Mark IV”) to do with the C-Series being too heavy or the fact that it looked too similar to the MGC (ADO52) despite the front grille?

    On the C-Series weight, one can only imagine if how better the car would have been if efforts at reengineering the C-Series (and making it 29% lighter) were successful.

    If the issue was about ADO51 being too similar to ADO52, then one can only Austin-Healey’s version resembling something along the lines of the coachbuilt Coune MGB Berlinette.

    Btw, does anyone have info / specs on stillborn proposals to fit the 1.8/2.5 V8 Coventry Climax engines into the MGB (prior to later on settling with the Rover V8)?

  2. Much as I love my MGC GT, I’m realistic enough to know that it was an under developed liability when launched. Wooden steering, lacklustre handling and performance that didn’t really give it enough of an edge over the MGB – allied to looks that made many think that it was just a “B with a bonnet bulge”.

    Sure they can be made to work better but if the management of BMC had even half a clue what they were doing this car would have been a real jewel in the crown rather than a blot on the landscape.

    On the plus side, I just thank God that they kept Issigonis away from it otherwise it would have been fitted with a transmission in sump E6 and hydrolastic suspension!

  3. The underlying truth about the ill fated MGC seems to be the same old money story that the merger of BMC/LEYLAND could not get around – red ink!

    Donald Healey’s 3000 was no longer manufactured because it was costing the company a 2 UKP royalty per car that rolled off the assembly line which was paid to Donald Healey.

    And that caught up with the Mini Cooper a few years later because John Cooper was getting a 2 UKP royalty for every mini with his name on it and at some point in 1971, there were no more minis with the Cooper name on them.

    Leyland’s solution to replace the Austin Healey was to offer the MGC which was didn’t measure up.

  4. Syd Enever desired an oversquare version of the C-Series for the MGC, so as to reduce both the height and weight resulting in a more sweetly revving engine, which was rejected by Issigonis.

    While reading that Enever sought to reduce the stroke from about 89mm to around 57.1mm, is it known how much he wanted to increase the bore by from 83.36mm?

  5. Recently someone told me MGCs struggled when cornering over 40mph, was this due to the weight of the engine & front suspension?

    • I have owned an MGC with downton engine upgrades for the last 20 years and I can confirm that due to weight of the engine & front suspension the handling when cornering over 40mph is indeed shocking with bags of understeer but fabulous for it and wouldn’t swap it for anything else.
      You definately need to pay attention especially in the wet but great fun !

  6. Many of the University Motors Specials were well sorted cars and are much valued today. Most had Downton tuning and handling packages transforming the cars into the grand tourers they should have been in the first place.
    I recall that UM purchased the last remaining C’s from BL, selling standard and converted cars until at least 70/71.

  7. Was the fact that the underdeveloped C-Series was originally a Morris conceived engine, what ended up holding back BMC from developing their own home-ground 2.4-3.0-litre 6-cylinder equivalents of the “Blue Streak” B-Series engine?

    Have read only good things about the 2.4-litre “Blue Streak” B-Series 6-cylinder engine trailed in a few MGC prototypes before BMC settled for the C-Series unit, being both lighter and more compact then the latter that it is difficult understand why BMC dismissed the idea.

  8. True the C was underdeveloped, but to a point that makes it a blank canvas as the degree of modification is a matter of personal owner choice. I can state that with upgrades the C can be transformed from a GT cruiser of laid-back character to a seriously punchy sportscar with handling as good as any 60s fast car. It does take effort – the geometry of the front suspension needs adjusting, spring rates changed, and dampers improved. No more terminal understeer. A quicker steering rack is helpful. The engine needs a lot of its inertia removing (lightened & balanced components), faster cam with vernier, head gasflowed, free flowing exhaust. Changing the carbs is not necessary but optional, a change of metering needles suits road use. Not an insignificant amount of work but nothing here that car tuners would find either difficult or unexpected. This sort of effort can knock more than 3 seconds off the 0-60 time – as stated above quite a punchy performance. What is lost is some of the wafty civilised effortless cruiser nature – its personal choice of course, but as I bought a sportscar I prefer to make the thing go well; if I’d preferred the wafty civilised thing I suspect I would have gone for a large engined saloon instead.

  9. Something to consider.

    A Marina was almost as quick as an MGB with the 1.8 B-Series engine, a Marina featuring a 110-121 hp 2.6 E6 was capable of 0-60 in under 9 seconds, while a the 137-190 hp Rover V8 gave the MGB / RV8 a 0-60 of 7.7-5.9 seconds and a max speed of around 125-136 mph.

    Surely a MGB / MGC with a 2.6 E6 (assuming it could fit like it did in the Marina) even in its softly tuned 110-121 hp state, would have been almost as quick as a 137 hp MGB V8 with the derestricted 150+ hp version providing almost similar performance to the more potently tuned MGB V8/RV8s?

  10. One thing I don’t understand.

    If the MGC was too tough for Triumph to compete with, how did the MGB stay in production so blasted long?

    • If MGC wasn’t tough for Triumph to compete with, Triumph sold 91000 TR6s compared to 9000 MGCs.

      The B kept going so long because BL made an absolute hash of its replacement, the TR7. Not launching the convertible till 1979 and not sorting the build quality till they move production a second time.

      Which is a shame because the later TR7s are decent cars and with either a Sprint 16V head or Rover V8, also had the potential for decent performance.

      • The TR6 was in a different class to the MGB anyway

        The separate chassis made it easier, but Triumph were very good at updating the looks of their cars to keep them fresh. The MGC looks like an MGB, whereas the restyled front and rear ends make the TR6 look much more modern than the TR5.

  11. Even though the Healeys distanced themselves from the MGC-based 3000 successor due to it being essentially a rebadged MGC, why couldn’t the exterior styling from ADO30 or more specifically the 1962 Austin-Healey 3000 Pininfarina concept by Pio Manzù have been carried over to the ADO51 Big Healey replacement to at least remedy the Healeys criticism of it being not exteriorly differentiated enough from the MGC (leaving only the Healeys issue with the underdeveloped revised C-Series and lack of suitable alternative to resolve)?

    The same goes with making the MGC itself more distinct in terms of styling compared to the MGB, with a version of Pio Manzu’s concept that possibly carries over the front of the Coune MGB Berlinette (or other as yet unknown tasteful MGB/MGC-derived rebodies).

    After all the Innocenti Spider / Coupe was signficantly different from the MG Midget / Austin-Healey Spitfire in terms of styling, which could have been justified in the Big Healey successor’s case as an upmarket car.

    • The real problem was that by the time these cars ( TR / MGB / AH3000/MGC came up for replacement , the proposed USA safety regulations were perceived to be the end of open cars, and since the USA was the biggest market, it was ( not unreasonably ) thought that substantial new investment would be money down the drain . And indeed so it has proved to be – although the Mazda MX was introduced to USA and Europe and has, largely because it has no competition even though it is a very dull little car , been perceived to be a success , it has in fact sold rather poorly particularly in Europe . For once it is probable that the BL management got it right

      • OTOH the MGB itself was the subject of a few rebody proposals up to the William Towns rebody of the Aston MGB (that was later reused for the Towns styled Reliant Scimitar SS2 / SST) with the ADO30’s exterior also a Pininfarina design, it would have been logical for BMC to put 2+2 together carry over the ADO30’s styling onto ADO51/ADO52 at relatively low cost compared to pursuing expensive blind alley projects.

        That obviously would not remedy the issues with the MGB and MGC or the eventual need of replacing both (despite the underpinnings of EX234 making for a very decent Midget/MGB successor with scope for switching to Hydragas), though justifying the extra cost of the IRS during the MGB’s development (and early-60s 2-litre B-Series / 2 B-OHC) would have definitely helped matters and paid for itself. Leaving the matter of the MGC’s engine to rectify.

      • I’ve never driven an MX5 so can’t draw on experience here. I seem to remember though that the little Mazda got lots of rave reviews when it first hit the market, except for maybe a slight lack of outright pace. Wasn’t there a later 1.8 version that at least partially remedied that failing? Is it really “very dull”? The MGB was never that exciting was it?

        • I think you have a fair point about the B , although having owned 3 they were actually very competent cars . The MX5’s problem is that it has been overtaken by legislation which has destroyed much of the attraction of small sports cars like the Spridget, which were lightweight, handled nicely, were not all that fast , but felt fast because of the noise and wind in the hair feel . The MX5 has just about sold 1 million in 30 years against virtually no competition and with a far bigger overall market than the UK sports cars ever had . The B sold about 500,000 in 19 years at a time when there were far fewer sales overall . I suppose in fairness one should also say that a large part of the MX5’s intended market was collared by the hot-hatch revolution, and some of those, particularly the Golf GTi Mark 1 and the 205GTi were much more exciting than it could ever be

          • At the risk of appearing argumentative I seem to recall that much of the motoring press lauded the MX5 as a superbly drivable car, comparable in its handling prowess to the Lotus Elan by which it was so obviously inspired. Granted it has a bit of a “girly car” image and has never really been given the power it deserved. Wasn’t there an aftermarket turbo conversation available at one time? Anyway I feel that the convertible sports car had possibly had it’s day by the time the MX5 was introduced, in the mass market at least.

          • The market problem for upgunned versions of the Miata is that Mazda is a volume producer of modest passenger vehicles, not a prestige or sports brand. A Mazda sports car is unsalable at a price near similar BMW or Porsche cars, even if it is fractionally superior in performance. The Boxster and Z4 are a hard ceiling that Mazda can’t approach.

      • Starting from a very modest sporting heritage (about ten years of making a small closed sports car), the Miata matched the lifetime sales of the MGB and its variants in its first 12 years.

        At this point, the Miata’s main market competition is … used Miatas. Almost everyone who wants a Miata already has one. With 30 years of production, generally good construction, and the reality that most people don’t buy new sports cars and then run them into the ground, there are plenty of cherished used Miatas available for less (or much less) than the price of a new car. A used Miata makes a lot of sense as a fun extra car.

        As noted, Miata had the world market for two seat roadsters to itself at the beginning of its life, when it achieved its most sales. The biggest drag on sales was the entry of Porsche, BMW, and M-B into the small two-seat roadster market. While they were more expensive, they carried brand kudos and resale value that justified the extra cost.

        European Miata sales significantly increased over the first ten years of production.

        The market for small two-seat roadsters is nearly dead. Notably, BMW’s Z3/Z4 has fallen even farther than the Miata since the 90s peak.

  12. While the MX5 is nice car to own and has earned Mazda a fair bit of kudos, I imagine Mazda have made far more money over the last 30 years from their mainstream cars. Same with the RX rotary engined sports cars.

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