In the same way that the ’55 Chevy defined an era of American cars, the MGB was the archetypal English roadster of the 1960s. It was not the fastest, the most sophisticated, or even the cheapest of its kind, but for nearly 20 years, it was the default choice among inexpensive sports cars. This week, we look at the history of the ubiquitous 1962-1970 MGB roadster.
Although MG did not formally exist until 1928, the company can trace its history back to 1910, when a 32-year-old former bicycle mechanic named William R. Morris founded the first Morris Garage in Oxford. As the name implies, the firm was not an automaker but a commercial garage with a sideline selling new cars and accessories. The shop was successful enough to allow William Morris to build his first car in 1912 and the following year to establish a new company dedicated to making cars rather than simply selling them: W.R.M. Motors Ltd., which became Morris Motors in 1919. The profitable garage business continued, but Morris now left its day-to-day affairs in the hands of others.
The Morris Garages (it became plural in 1913) naturally sold Morris automobiles, but in 1922, it also began offering cars of its own, starting with a re-bodied version of the utilitarian 11.9 HP Morris Cowley. These proved very successful and by 1928, the Morris Garages had established a new subsidiary, the MG Car Company, to handle its design and manufacturing operations. MG quickly outgrew its small factory in Cowley and moved in September 1929 to new quarters in Abingdon-on-Thames, where it would remain for the next 51 years.
Despite what you might think, MG didn’t only build sports cars. It had dabbled with more sporting bodywork as early as 1923 and managing director Cecil Kimber had driven a much-modified example in the 1925 Land’s End Trial (a car subsequently nicknamed “Old Number One,” leading to the later misapprehension that it was the first MG), but many of the company’s products were touring cars or sedans. MG’s reputation for sports cars really began in the fall of 1928 with the debut of the six-cylinder 18/80 Sports Six and, more importantly, the first M-type Midget. The Midget, based on the new Morris Minor, was a speedy, affordable little car powered by a clever 847 cc (51 cu. in.) OHC engine. The Midget quickly became MG’s best seller and the basis of some quite-successful race cars.
MG’s competition record, which is too extensive to adequately summarize here, won it many fans and helped to keep the company alive during the depths of the Depression. It also created considerable friction between general manager Cecil Kimber and the company’s owner. Sir William Morris (created Lord Nuffield in 1934) had come to consider racing both dangerous and pointless and he tolerated it only grudgingly. Former Morris engineer H.N. Charles told historian F. Wilson McComb that Morris also resented the fact that MG — and consequently, Cecil Kimber — had far greater international recognition than Morris Motors ever did. Lord Nuffield was more interested in building his automotive empire, subsequently known as the Nuffield Organisation, which now encompassed Riley and Wolseley as well as Morris and MG.
While MG Cars had technically been a public company since 1931, Lord Nuffield was still its sole owner, controlling most of the shares through a holding company called Morris Industries Ltd. In 1935, he decided to sell his private interests in MG and Wolseley (which he had held on a similar basis) to Morris Motors. Aside from consolidating his holdings, this move served to rein in Cecil Kimber, subordinating him to Morris director Leonard Lord. Lord immediately put the brakes on MG’s factory competition efforts and greatly reduced Abingdon’s autonomy. MG development was transferred to the Morris design offices in Cowley, which brought new pressure for lower costs and increased commonality with other Nuffield products. From then on, MG would be only one small cog in a much larger corporate machine: usually an asset, but seldom a priority.
THE BRITISH MOTOR CORPORATION
In early 1952, Lord Nuffield agreed to a merger between the Nuffield Organisation and its longtime nemesis, the Austin Motor Company. Herbert Austin had died in the early forties, leaving Austin in the hands of its managing director — none other than Leonard Lord, who had left Morris in 1936 following an allegedly acrimonious salary dispute with Lord Nuffield. Some Nuffield Organisation employees saw the merger as a not particularly friendly Austin takeover and indeed, the new British Motor Corporation (BMC) was dominated by Austin executives. Leonard Lord became BMC’s first chairman, while Lord Nuffield, now in his mid-seventies, retreated to an advisory role.
The BMC merger served to push MG even farther into the margins. Leonard Lord had never had much regard for sports cars and what limited interest he did have was focused on Austin’s new partnership with Donald Healey. John Thornley, who became MG’s managing director in the fall of 1952, later told author David Knowles that there was no particular malice in Leonard Lord’s attitude toward MG; it was strictly business. Nonetheless, it meant that Abingdon would face an uphill battle in developing new models.
Fortunately, few executives could have been better prepared for that struggle than John Thornley. Although he was an accountant by training (during the war, he had been responsible for electronics purchasing for the British army), Thornley was more than usually sympathetic to MG’s sporting heritage. Before joining the company in November 1931, he had served as the secretary of the newly formed MG Car Club and in 1950, he had even published a book on the company’s competition history, Maintaining the Breed: The Saga of MG Racing Cars. At the same time, Thornley’s business acumen and financial expertise had won him the respect of the the Nuffield Organisation board and later the senior management of BMC; he was the sort of man with whom they could deal. Thornley could be stern, even severe, but the staff at Abingdon — many of whom had been with the company since the beginning — could hardly have hoped for a better chief.
FROM A TO B
One of Thornley’s first challenges was replacing the aging TD Midget, whose sales were sinking rapidly in the face of newer rivals. While BMC authorized a replacement for the even older 1¼-litre (Y-type) sedan, Len Lord was very reluctant to fund an all-new MG sports car, having only recently signed off on the new Austin-Healey 100. When Lord finally relented, the resulting MGA, designed by MG chief engineer Albert Sydney (Syd) Enever with a chassis by a young draftsman named Roy Brocklehurst, proved to the marque’s biggest hit to date. The A eventually sold more than 101,000 units between 1955 and 1962, more than than four times the combined total of every prewar MG.
As popular as the MGA was, the rapid decline of TD sales and the poor public reception accorded the follow-on TF Midget served as an object lesson in how fleeting success could be in the fast-evolving sports car arena. Even as the MGA went on sale in the fall of 1955, John Thornley and Syd Enever were already thinking about successors, ranging from a bigger 2+2 version of the MGA roadster to a stripped-down entry-level car powered by BMC’s smaller A-series engine. Both ideas proved impractical, although MG later received a different entry-level model, the 1961 Midget, based on the Austin-Healey Sprite Mk 2, which Abingdon engineers christened the “Spridget.”
John Thornley’s thinking soon shifted from roadsters to fixed-head coupes along the lines of the Aston-Martin DB2/4 Saloon, which he had seen in action at Silverstone several years earlier. Thornley felt that the added practicality of a liftback 2+2 like the DB2/4 would be a great marketing advantage; although MG fans claimed to prefer the rugged minimalism of the old TD and TC, customers and critics were frequently annoyed by the MGA’s leaky side curtains, sub-par heating system, and mediocre luggage space. Coincidentally, chief body engineer Jim O’Neill had recently hired a new senior draftsman, Don Hayter, who had worked on the DB2/4 during a previous stint at Aston Martin.