Essays: The MGB – The ultimate starter classic sports car?

Carole Nash Classic Insurance Specialists

The MGB GT – possibly the cheapest and most cost-effective first step into classic sports car ownership

Even though it’s celebrating a half-century, the MGB is still a common sight if you look hard enough. Syd Enever’s answer to affordable sports car motoring sold in colossal numbers with well over 500.000 units trundling out of the South Oxfordshire plant in Abingdon before the sad and well-publicised factory shutdown in 1980.  The smaller Midget also sold in massive numbers but, for me, the MGB is the better bet by simply having more cubics under the bonnet, a cockpit that doesn’t require a shoehorn to enter and styling that still makes a grown man gaze awhile.

Many will remark that MGBs are too commonplace to be regarded as a serious classic car, but I would disagree on that score – they are very much a serious classic in every sense of the word for various reasons. The MGB to the sports car scene in 1962 was everything like the Mini was to the populace in 1959. It put Joe public behind the wheel of a car they thought they could never afford and, in the modern world, its aftermarket support puts many of today’s cars to shame.

Carpets, seat trims, door handles, engines, pedal rubbers – even brand new, complete body shells are off the peg and, above all, affordable. Are you a socialite? Well, should you wish to embrace the owners’ community to the hilt, you can join either the MG Car Club or the MG Owners’ Club – its all there readily available and some of the club events are genuinely good fun too. However, there is one key factor which makes MGB ownership so very different to other classic sports car ownership and that is cost.

Take, for exanple, a Jaguar E-Type – pretty as they are, an overheated engine will cost you thousands to put right whereas an overheating MGB driver pulls to the side of the road, whips out the thermos flask, gives it 20 minutes to calm down, adds a splash of water and tries again. Snapped the door handle on your Ferrari 400? Frenzied calls will locate one with a three figure bill, do the same on a ‘B and the MG Owners’ Club will post one out same day for less than the price of a meal for one.

The beating heart of the B – The BMC-designed B-Series is a dependable and gutsy engine. Spares are cheap and plentiful

Get down to oily bits and, again, the MGB is a shining example of laughable simplicity. The 1798cc BMC B-Series may be as technologically advanced as conker but it’s as tough as a schoolyard ‘sixer’ too. All the routine servicing requires nothing more than an old washing up bowl and some rusty AF tools – trust me, it’s that simple. Setting the valve clearances with a trusty 0.13 feeler blade is one of the most satisfying jobs you could imagine and the slightly offbeat tappetty burble on tick over makes you feel so nostalgic.

Out on the road, the MGB holds its own rather well, too. The brakes, when in good order, are more than up to the job of anchoring while the bottom end torque of the engine keeps up with modern traffic. Flick in the Laycock overdrive and cruising becomes fairly relaxed and, providing your right foot is sensible, fuel economy is agreeable. The stubby gear lever slots in and out of the ranges with a superbly defined snick while the rorty exhaust makes you forget there is barely 95bhp under the long, curved bonnet.

Take your pick ,as Michael Miles once told us, between the sleek-looking GT or the achingly pretty roadster. The GT has the edge on space though, being able to take two passengers in the rear – albeit in the foetal position. Chrome bumper or rubber bumper, the choice is yours and MG even supplied an automatic option, though these are very rare cars indeed. There seems to be no real standard on price either but, as a rule of thumb, £1000 will get you a rough useable example whereas a car ten times more will probably be ten times better than anything that ever came down the production line.

There’s even a soul-stirring V8 version, identifiable from a distance by the pretty alloy wheels, but the standard 1.8 MGB is the perfect way of gaining a solid foothold on the classic car ladder without starting a divorce or selling a kidney to pay for it. Rust and bodges are really the only killers and be wary of the partially restored car – take a man in the know, buy the best example you can afford, steer clear of rogue traders passing off old tat as a flawed diamond and have some classic English fun – it’s all so amazingly affordable. All you require is a tool box and the phone number of chap who can weld!

Your mother wouldn’t like it? Actually, I wouldn’t bet on that!

Mike Humble

Upon leaving school, Mike was destined to work on the Railway but cars were his first love. An apprenticeship in a large family Ford dealer was his first forray into the dark and seedy world of the motor trade.

Moving on to Rover and then PSV / HGV, he has circumnavigated most departments of dealerships including parts, service and latterly - the showroom. Mike has owned all sorts of rubbish from Lada to Leyland and also holds both Heavy Goods & Public Service Vehicle licences, he buys & sells buses and coaches during the week. Mike runs his own automotive web site and writes for a number of motoring or commercial vehicle themed publications

27 Comments

  1. This is weird…only yesterday I was thinking about these. While I’m not a fan (yet) I can’t help but be drawn to simpleness and sense of fun of these cars. And insurance is attainable, as well.
    Anyone got any buying advice 😀 😀

  2. @ Frankie:

    Yes, check the sills for rust as it is a very big job to replace sills on one of these, which usually involves jigging the body.

    Rubber-bumpered ones are cheaper and the location of the Overdrive switch of top of the gear-knob is much better. The GT is actually quite a practical car and will easily hold its own on a motorway.

    For ultimate individually drive it regularly for enjoyment and don’t become too heavily involved in the Show ‘n’ Shine ritual (or the MG clubs).

  3. I forgot to mention, if you want to see plenty of MGBs in the same place and at the same time, then be sure to visit the MGB’s 50th Anniversary event at Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire on Sunday, 23rd September.

    I am going as a passenger in one – a rather nice 1972 chrome-bumpered GT finished in Silverleaf metallic, which might be not be a period colour for the MGB (it was actually offered on the front-wheel drive MG saloons from 1982 – 1988), but it certainly does suit the car.

  4. I have restored a couple of these and im not a huge fan myself,but if you are a hobbyist/enthusiast then you can get anything for these and it can be a bottomless pit,the engines nearly always need a full recon just for peace of mind,and the welding can get you down as well.They are simple and easy to work on but some of the brightwork is pricey,i would recommend a fast road conversion as well and someone extremely conversant in setting up the twin SU’s unless you change them as well-superchargers on these are getting popular.

  5. I don’t think any other straight- four, even the famous Fiat Twin Cam, sounds as soulful as an MGB B Series in standard-tune.

    This car represents amongst the ultimate in automotive alchemy- by any objective measure, the B was too slow, too ponderous in the bends, too primitive down below, and often temperamental. However somehow none of that matters too much, because the whole package was beautifully crafted and deeply, intensely characterful in the way that more than compensated for it’s shortcomings.

  6. i had two of these both chrome bumpered and did very many happy miles in them including several trips to the costa brava—including for my honeymoon the first cab98h was a better built one than the other anp 68m which was quite troublesome with a poorly affixed rear axle—i think it eventually suffered related brake failure and was badly damaged in the ensueing accident i do have happy memories of my time with the mgb,s prior to the family friendley cortina mk4 that followed–that was an awfull vehicle

  7. There’s no denying the popular appeal of the B – the roadster is probably the more desirable, but for me an early 70’s chrome bumper BGT is a thing of beauty – Pininfarina at his 60s best IMHO. The engine noise has always been distinctive – there is nothing like a ‘B’ on overrun. Would I like one though? No, not really, for multiple reasons. Maybe an RV8, but I’m afraid my classic cars need to be made in Italy, not Abingdon.

  8. great looking cars, and pretty much the holy grail of the 70’s cool dude and hot chick , the M-G-B-G-T-V-8 was a popular tongue twister! how many times can you say it in a minute when youve been drinking?. ive never driven one my self or even been in one I dont think, but often considered one and I know several people who had them at least one had the GTV8 hardtop and another had the 1.8 four (my old boss actually). apparently they used cart psrings in the rear, which made thier handling a ittle unpredictable with the power on, and they benefit from a suspension conversion to coil springs / trailing arms. I was also quite interested in the later Rover MG RV8 car with the Disco 3.9 engine. REALLY nice to look at an listen to if nothing else 🙂 alex

  9. The MGB still looks super even all these years down the line. One former colleague had a 1972 B GT in Teal blue as his company car then replaced it with an orange MGB GT V8 in 1975 – great cars… great times!

  10. Surely the most unimaginative classic car anyone can own? Apart from a Morris Minor?

    A lot of them are owned by people who are not enthusiasts but just want a classic car, but don’t realise the amount of TLC an old car requires. Hence the reason why classic car magazines like having an MGB on the cover as it reaches the wider demographic who wouldn’t ordinarily buy classic car magazines.

    Saying you own an MGB is a bit like saying you drink tea. A bit boring.

    Parts are expensive too considering the amount that are around.

  11. Rovamota

    Your comments hit the nail on the head at the start of your 2nd paragraph.

    But expensive parts?

    Under 20 sovs for a head set
    Under 60 sovs for a clutch kit
    Pads & discs for around 60
    Full service parts with change out of 40 notes?

    Somehow, I find that a bargain. True, trim parts can be pricey but there again… All readily available off the shelf. Can the same be said about an SD1 or Princess?

  12. And what is wrong with ‘Just wanting a classic car’?
    The fact that magazines put the B on the cover for their generic classic car appeal shows what a true classic the B is, surely. The very definition of a classic British Sports car. A fact to be proud of and celebrate, not sneer at.

  13. Nothing wrong with owning an MGB or a Morris Minor- in fact my ideal ‘dream garage’ would contain both- not because either is a ‘default purchase’ but because both are tremendously characterful cars that are also practical and are not so ‘precious’ that they can’t be used everyday. Neither car is boring. If I wanted a boring classic I’d go for an early Escort or similar.

    And for a non-mechanic like me (although I do dabble) having a simple and well understood car that is relatively easy to maintain without recourse to voodoo rituals is actually part of the appeal, it does not detract from it.

  14. Hmm… looks nice but it’s bloody awful as a sports car… as a cheap little GT type car however it’s really not that bad. The sporty starter would actually be a Triumph Spitfire Mk4 1500

  15. It’s the MG Beard club that is to be avoided like the plague with these though. I notice more & more rubber bumper versions being converted to chrome, and the space hopper suspension putting where it belongs, in the bin

  16. Find a rusty MX5, and transplant the oily bits to the B shell as well, just to be different, not one of the sheep

  17. I’ve seen a Volvo T5 lump in a 1950s Standard 2 door saloon, so anything is possible. The MGB though is over-rated for what it is, and just too damn common, just like Routemaster buses seem to be the default choice for so called ‘bus preservationists’. They are just too bland for my tastes, and woe betide anyone who dares modify them when the ‘beardy anoraks’ find out. And the reborn ‘B’ is an MX5 underneath remember.

  18. I have a 1964 B . The curious thing is I never liked them when they were new , but now they have enormous character, have a lovely gearchange with the early 3 synchro box , are quite fast enough with a decent head and twin HS6s , are really quite economical and make a lovely noise. Out of my stable of 7 which includes some really quite distinguished cars, ( albeit all of the 1960s ) the B is still probably my favourite

  19. |’m not a fan of the MGBeard club, but I do love either an early BGT on steel wheels, or a later steel bumper BGT V8 on Rostyles.

    A particularly neat Pinin design…..

  20. Chris @24, 104 mph was very respectable in the early seventies when most two litre cars struggled to reach this speed. Unless you’re a Gene Hunt wannabe, an MGB is surely a far more desirable car to have than a rep’s Cortina, which is rarer and has less back up from owners clubs. Also reliability was always quite good due to the B series engine.

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