IF you were asked to describe the archetypal classic British car, it would have to be a convertible, have two seats and a lumping great engine upfront.
First published in Classic Car Weekly in March 2006, RICHARD GUNN pitted two of the UK’s most famous sporting convertibles to fit straight into that mould, and came up with a surprising conclusion in a close-fought contest…
IS there anything better than a six-cylinder classic British sportscar? Well, actually, yes, quite a lot really. And not all of it legal. But this isn’t the place for that, so we’ll just concentrate here on two prime cuts of motoring machismo unveiled at the tail end of the Sixties, just prior the start of the grand decline of the UK automotive industry. Some might even say that these two cars might even have had a little to do with that as well…
The case for the prosecution is strongest with the MGC. Here was one of the first times that a genuine MG sportscar came in for major criticism from both the public and the press alike…and consequently failed badly in the marketplace and lead a short production life as a result. By the mid-Sixties, it was clear that the time was getting near for the big Austin-Healey to be put out to grass. The basic shape had been around since the early Fifties and there were concerns about the ability of the Austin Westminster-derived engine to meet future US legislation. BMC came up with a plan to replace the Austin-Healey 3000 with two cars based on the MGB, but with six-cylinder engines and badge engineering tweaks like a different nose and different marque badges. One would be an MG, the other would be an Austin-Healey.
However, when the Healey family objected to the use of the name on something that was so clearly an MG, plans for an AH version were silently dropped and so when the project finally got its public release in 1967, it was as an MG, logically enough badged as a C to carry on from the ubiquitous B.
Although the MGC still looked very much like the MGB, it was almost completely different under the skin, with new independent torsion bar front suspension, bigger wheels and, most significantly, a new three-litre engine that was a complete redesign of the old Austin-Healey engine. And thereby lay one of the MGC’s main Achilles’ heels. The new engine turned out to be much heavier than intended, and threw the balance of the car right out, drastically affecting its handling. Any speed and power advantages the MGC might have had over its smaller-engined brethren in a straight line were almost completely negated by how cautiously it had to take corners. Any car attempting to take over from the much-loved Austin-Healey was bound to have a tough time with the critics, but it was even worse for the MGC because it wasn’t actually that good. Few people were that surprised when the car became one of the first victims of British Leyland rationalisation in 1969, having sold well under 10,000 examples.
Just as the MGC was passing on, so the Triumph TR6 was coming into being. Possibly mindful of the MG debacle, Triumph adopted a different tack for its continuation of the TR theme. So the engine was kept the same as in the previous TR5 but a new design was knocked up by German coachbuilder Karmann. Actually, ‘new’ is something of a strong word, for what was actually done was a strictly-to-budget redesign of the front and rear ends of the TR5 hull. It may have been cynical, but it was also surprisingly effective, as the new TR6 didn’t just look completely different but also came across as very fresh and modern.
Success for the TR6 was easier to come by than it was for the MGC, with healthy sales of 94,619 up until the end of its life in 1976. Nevertheless, it came in for a few barbs because however good it looked on top, underneath it was the same old formula that had been going for years. And potential buyers were starting to notice that other rivals were now starting to surpass what the British had to offer.
THINK you know all about MGB character? Think again. What the MGC lacks in overall dynamicism it makes up for in gruff British grunt – and it is a very different beast to the B on which it is based. It does come across almost as a curious mismatch of MGB and Austin-Healey, a blend of primitive pleasures and more sophisticated refinements. And the fact that you often have to fight the car on corners to make it do what you want can add to the enjoyment – it’s not a car that gives everything to you on a plate. Of course, it can also add to the panic too.
There’s little pretence at cultivation with the TR6. It’s a blunt tool, a TR in the true sense of the letters. Despite the modern-looking body, it displays all of the traditional personality that made this range of sportscars such a success. It’s a driver’s car, one that rewards those skilled enough to tame it properly with the sort of old-fashioned charisma that makes it easy to remember why we all like classics so much.
BECAUSE there is so little difference in looks between a standard MGB and an MGC, it’s easy to dumb down your expectations before you get into the car. Do so. Because if you do, it makes the boomy rumble of the big six-cylinder engine when it fires into life all the more of a pleasurable surprise. Right from the start, this car sounds so much more potent than its lookalike wimpy sibling, the confident throb of the exhaust promising so much more than a four-cylinder MG can.
But not necessarily a lot more than a six-cylinder Triumph though. The MGC has very worthy competition in the form of the TR6, the last of the ‘traditional’ TRs, and the final one of the breed to feature six cylinders. Performance is broadly similar to the MG, but the Abingdon car does lag behind the Coventry one in a number of significant departments.
Despite having slightly less power than the MGC and being over 400cc down in size, the TR6 has a slightly higher top speed – not that you’ll ever reach it these days in either car – and also does the sprint from standing to 60mph significantly more quickly – which is something that may at least be more realisable today.
Still, you’re not going to notice that too much in either car, because both are able to summon up the impression of real speed thanks to being open top, low slung and having engine and exhaust notes that play the traditional bass role to great effect. Suffice to say, they feel like they’re doing everything an old British sports car should do…
ONE of the original major criticisms of the MGC was that it handled atrociously, thanks to the heavier than expected engine completely unbalancing the delicate poise of the MGB chassis. Nowadays, perhaps, we take classic foibles with a pinch of salt…in fact, we even look upon such traits as character. But even giving the MGC a little leeway because of its age, it does have questionable handling if you try and use it like a proper sportscar. Its appetite for understeer is obvious right from the start, and the faster you attack a bend, the greater it becomes.
Try to match the abilities of the TR6 and you’ll find yourself coming a cropper very soon, as the MG chooses to try and plough on, regardless of which way the wheels are pointing and whether or not there’s a large and potentially very damaging tree imminently ahead. The heavy steering and low gearing all contribute to the problems – and on top of that, there’s also the big steering wheel too. Many MGC owners have taken the step of fitting a smaller wheel, which doesn’t just look better, but does make it easier to steer as well, giving the front end less of a leaden, bulldozer feel.
It’s oversteer you have to be wary of with the TR6. Despite the best intentions of Triumph in fitting independent rear suspension and making this series much-better behaved than earlier incarnations of the breed, this is still a car that displays many traditional handle quirks…that quirky traditionalists seem to love. If you change your mind about the speed you’re doing halfway through a corner and attempt to sort things out, you will find yourself in just the same sort of trouble as an MGC would put you in, with the rear end breaking away. But overall, the TR6 comes across as a lot more of a docile beast if you drive it with an ounce of sense or skill.
NOW, this is where it all gets a bit choppy. Neither car offers a comfortable ride…but then again, neither would you expect them to. They’re old classic British sportscars, and so anybody should expect the rides to be firm and bouncy. And they are. Hit a big bump in the road, and you’ll feel it straight away in the cockpit. This isn’t such a bad thing of course – the ability to feel what the road is doing beneath you and the provision of excellent feedback from the steering is something desirable in machines that carry an MG or a Triumph badge. But if you’re looking for a drive that will leave you feeling fresh and relaxed by the end of the journey, then look elsewhere, because these cars don’t do subtle.
BOTH the transmissions have to cater with a lot of power and torque going through them – the MGC gearbox in particular gets a particularly brutal dose of it from the engine it’s coupled to. So slickness and feel isn’t something either of them worry about too much. Hence they both come across as somewhat agricultural in their operation. You need to be firm, when you engage the clutch and when you slip – well, more shove – the stick up and down the gate. That’s equally true of the MG and the Triumph, although to us, the MGC felt like it was slightly more user-friendly.
Fortunately, the cars do offer an alternative to using the conventional gearstick. Both sport overdrive as standard, operating on the top two gears. It’s a useful fitment to have on cars that are as torquey as these ones are, because if your speed doesn’t drop too low, you can quite easily drive around just diving in and out of overdrive when you need a little bit of a lower ratio. There really is that much grunt from the engine being translated through the transmission mechanicals.
It’s just a touch easier to drive the TR6 using this method than it is the MG. The overdrive switch for the MG is a small toggle over on the right-hand side of the dashboard, beyond the fuel gauge. It takes a little longer for your hand to reach, find and engage this then it does to tug down on the stalk that sticks out of the Triumph’s steering column. Somehow, too, it’s more satisfying too to use the TR6’s system. The means of engaging the overdrive on the Triumph somehow just doesn’t seem impressive enough.
THE standard Sixties/early Seventies set-up of discs at the front and drums at the rear adorns both these cars. There isn’t much to comment on actually. They’re well-specified fitments, which do their jobs well enough with the assistance of a servo unit. You press the middle pedal, both cars stop within reasonable limits and without causing the driver to break out into a serious sweat unless he has left things far too late!
Cabin and Controls
SO, if MG didn’t bother to do anything much on the outside of the C to differentiate it from a B, then surely all the changes are on the inside? Um, well, no actually. Only a marque expert can tell the difference between the contemporary MGB and the more powerful, more expensive MGC. For the benefit of the uninitiated, there’s a speedometer that goes up to 140mph and a rev counter that red-lines at 5500rpm. And that’s it. Not much over and above the standard car, is it? You can see why some buyers – actual and potential – were a little bit disappointed.
That said, the good-looking MG cockpit is an environment known and loved by thousands, and well-laid out to make the most of the available space – which isn’t too much, incidentally. The speedo and rev counter sit behind the steering wheel – which, on original cars, had thin bars to hold the rim to the hub, so there was never any chance of them obscuring vital information – while the smaller fuel gauge sits off to the right and a rather natty combined oil and temperature dial settles in on the left. Watch those twin needles rise. Then fall. Then rise again. And wonder why they’re alternating quite so quickly…
All of the controls are nicely grouped together in a row over in the centre of the facia, underneath the radio – or that nice blanking plate with the MG octagon in the centre of it if a previous owner decided he preferred the burble of a six-cylinder exhaust to the sound of crackly, indistinct music. The only stalk emerging from behind the steering wheel is that of the indicators, as the headlamp dip is operated by a foot switch down on the floor.
No surprises from the inside of the TR6. Yes, it’s the trademark Triumph slab of wood in front of the occupants, beloved of TR enthusiasts the world over and no doubt also regularly burnt in disgust at environmental action group meetings across the planet. Oh no, hang on, they wouldn’t do that kind of thing. Think of all that nasty smoke… The TR dashboard is as neatly organised as that of the MGC, although it prefers to have its instruments in the centre and put the knobs and switches grouped together around the steering column. Because the Triumph has slightly larger dimensions, there’s a bit more space inside, but both cockpits try their best to envelop any passengers and make them feel as if the car has shrunk around them.
With their hoods up, both cars are on the claustrophobic side, but that’s easily solved by taking them out on days when it isn’t raining. And you can fold the hoods away.
WELL, the obvious place to casually sling any items is in the small luggage area behind the seats. There isn’t a lot of space here – rather less in the MG than there is in the Triumph, but it’s handy enough for just somewhere to put things when you’re in a rush. Of course, subsequently then forgetting about them and going off with the roof left down is possibly not a great idea…
For those moments when a little more security is called for, there’s always the boots. That on the MGC is a very shallow affair indeed. A couple of bags and maybe a fairly substantial suitcase are practical, but anything further is out of the question thanks to the spare wheel sitting on top of the boot floor. Boot racks have always been popular accessories for this shape of MG and now we know just why.
The Triumph is more generously endowed, albeit still with a few sportscar limitations. It’s commodious for a car of this nature, and certainly more capacious than what the MGC offers. However, when Karmann revamped the TR5 into the TR6, one of the things it did was add a large lip at the rear, so you have a bigger lift upwards to get anything inside that you did with previous TRs. Still, that aside, extra points to Triumph for managing to incorporate such a useful boot on a convertible sports car. And none to MG, because the MGC’s effort really isn’t very good at all by comparison. Still, there’s always the hatchback GT version…
IT’S the initial purchase cost that will take the lion’s share of your cash when it comes to owning and enjoying one of these cars. Once you’ve got the car safely back to your garage or driveway, then it can get a lot cheaper. MG and Triumph enthusiasts can both tussle for the title of best-served classic marques when it comes to specialists. Parts suppliers and those with an expert knowledge of looking after cars like the MGC and Triumph TR6 are positively oozing out of the historic woodwork. Want anything for either of these cars? You won’t have far to look, and the healthy competition within the marketplace should keep prices relatively low, although for the costs of maintaining and looking after these six cylinder machines is slightly above what it would be for four-cylinder models, but that’s just part of British sportscar life. If you don’t like a price at one place, look somewhere else. There will be plenty of options to choose from.
Because neither of these cars have that much complicated technology in them, there’s little to be frightened off when contemplating home maintenance. The fuel injection system on the TR6 can be a little off-putting when compared to the twin carburettors of the MGC, but elsewhere, it’s little more than bolt on, bolt off stuff. In fact, Triumph actually advertised the TR6 as such in America, trumpeting such features as the ability to change wings easily so you could have different looks. Psychedelic-coloured Triumph anyone?
As befits any traditional six-cylinder British sportscar, petrol consumption is on the high side, but reasonable enough when you consider what’s on offer from the cars. The MG should return a few more miles per gallon more than the TR6, but don’t expect anything excessively kind to Greenpeace. This is still one of those cars capable of killing the planet single-handedly in the eyes of many holier-than-though sandal-wearing vegans… Which is probably one of the best reasons to go out and buy one.
ALTHOUGH I’m of the opinion that the best MG ever built had red seatbelts and bore an uncanny resemblance to the Austin Maestro, the MGC is nevertheless a very tempting car. But it would be even more tempting if it didn’t just look like an MGB with a swollen bonnet. If I’d just spent a few extra thousand on a classic car, I wouldn’t want people then confusing it with the lowlier four-cylinder version.
So, for that reason, it’s the Triumph I’ll opt for. Well, that reason and the fact that the TR6 is actually a more enjoyable car to drive with less of the inherent bad handling habits that the MGC displays. The big brother of the MG may be fast in a straight line, but it lets itself down when it comes to bends. As the ultimate development of the TR breed before things went wedge-shaped, the TR6 was a mature and well-rounded performer that still retained a lot of the character of the old school Triumph sportscars. But it could never be confused with just a four-cylinder Triumph TR4A…
At a glance
Scores out of ten
|Cabin and controls|
How they compare
|Actual car tested||1968 MGC Roadster||1974 Triumph TR6|
|Engine||2912cc 6-cyl OHV||2498cc 6-cyl OHV|
|Power||145bhp at 5250rpm||142bhp at 5700rpm|
|Torque||170lb/ft at 3500rpm||149lb/ft at 3000rpm|
|Gearbox||4-speed manual with overdrive||4-speed manual with overdrive|
|Steering||Rack and pinion||Rack and pinion|
|Dimensions||12ft 8in x 5ft||12ft 9in x 5ft 1in|
|Unleaded fuel?||No, needs head conversion or additive||No, needs head conversion or additive|
Article originally appeared in Classic Car Weekly – for the back issue this test appeared in, call 01959 541444, or click on www.classic-car-weekly.co.uk.