All the Way from A to B: The History of the MGB, Part One

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The MGB was an immediate commercial success, quickly eclipsing even the early MGA. By family-cars standards, the B’s 25,000-odd annual sales were modest, but it was the best-selling model Abingdon had ever offered. It breathed new life into MG’s total volume, which had sunk considerably in the early part of the decade.

Sports car flavor notwithstanding, the MGB owed much of its popularity to its attractive price. In the UK, it started at £690 (a bit under $2,000 at the contemporary exchange rate), £60 cheaper than a basic Triumph TR4 and £5 cheaper than the Sunbeam Alpine. Of course, that was without purchase tax, which at launch added £259 15s 3d (about $730) to the MGB’s bottom line. Fortunately for British car buyers, the chancellor of the exchequer cut the tax rate significantly only weeks after the B’s introduction, so by the 1964 model year, advertised price had fallen to £836 6s 3d (around $2,350) with purchase tax even though the base price had not changed. In the U.S., the MGB’s base MSRP was $2,658, about $200 cheaper than the TR4 and within $75 of the blander Alpine.

As with the MGA, most MGBs were sold abroad. North America absorbed something like three-fourths of production, but the B also did well in other markets. To avoid import tariffs, MG developed CKD (completely knocked down) kits for local assembly in Belgium, Ireland, and Australia; more than 9,000 MGB roadsters were built down under between 1962 and 1972.

1966 MG MGB roadster engine © 2010 Andrew Bertschi (used with permission)
The MGB was powered by BMC’s familiar B-series engine, a 1,798 cc (110 cu. in.) OHV four. Early MGBs had three main bearings, but in late 1964, Abingdon substituted the newer five-bearing 18GB engine from the new Austin/Morris 1800 and Wolseley 18/85 sedans, which was somewhat smoother. This is a 1966 model, which was rated at 98 hp (73 kW) and 110 lb-ft (149 N-m) of torque with two S.U. HS4 carburetors. (Photo: “IMG_0701m” © 2010 Andrew Bertschi; used with permission)

COMPETITION PEDIGREE

Since the original M-type Midget of three decades earlier, the other great allure of MG sports cars had been the fact that it took only a little fiddling to make them competitive for racing. Of course, only a comparative handful of owners actually did so, but even those who didn’t liked knowing that they could if they wanted to.

It didn’t take long for MG to issue a lengthy list of competition parts for the B, including stiffer springs, anti-roll bars (not standard on roadsters until late 1966), and different ratios for both the gearbox and differential. The factory’s “Special Tuning” booklet, meanwhile, described seven stages of engine tune, providing up to a claimed 131 hp (98 kW).

The factory’s involvement with racing had been on and off since the merger with Morris in the mid-thirties. Leonard Lord had canceled MG’s racing program in 1935, but in 1948, MG managing director S.V. Smith had authorized limited factory support for record-setting attempts. BMC organized a Competitions Department in the early fifties, but MG’s racing activities were sharply curtailed again in 1955 following the tragic Mercedes-Benz crash at Le Mans, which killed a number of spectators and overshadowed the debut of the prototype MGA. The A saw extensive competition use, but it was primarily in private hands.

In early 1963, the Competitions Department put together two modified MGBs for the 12 Hours of Sebring, one driven by Christabel Carlisle and Denise McCluggage, the other by Jack Flaherty and Jim Parkinson. It was not an auspicious debut: Neither car finished the race, sidelined by engine bearing failure. Paddy Hopkirk and Alan Hutcherson did somewhat better that June, driving a long-nose MGB to a class victory at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, scoring 12th overall. The following year, Hopkirk and co-driver Andy Hedges managed only 19th place at Le Mans, but Don and Erle Morley won the GT class at the 1964 Monte Carlo Rally.

The MGB’s complete racing history is beyond our scope, but it was consistently a strong competitor, if not an outright winner. A few other highlights include class victories at the 1966 12 Hours of Sebring and the 1966 Targa Florio. BMC’s Competitions Department closed in 1970, but private MGBs ran at Sebring as late as 1978.

MGB MARK II

With the MGB selling well, BMC had little desire to tamper with a winning formula, particularly since the corporation spent most of the 1960s with a distressing shortage of development capital. Nonetheless, the MGB underwent a gradual mechanical evolution. The five-bearing 18GB engine replaced the original three-bearing unit in late 1964; pushbutton door handles replaced pull-type units in early 1965; roadsters got a standard front anti-roll bar in late 1966; and back-up lights became standard in early 1967. Along the way, there were also various minor changes to trim, gauges, and switchgear. A more significant milestone was the belated arrival of the MGB GT coupe, which we’ll discuss at length in our second installment.

In the fall of 1967, the MGB received an extensive interior makeover, prompted by new U.S. regulations that took effect in January 1968. The new MGB Mk 2 looked little different on the outside, save for federally mandated side marker lights on North American cars, but it got a new padded dashboard with rocker switches instead of toggles; a negative-ground electrical system with an alternator rather than a generator; a Salisbury rear axle (already standard on MGB GTs); and a new fully synchronized four-speed gearbox. U.S.-bound cars also had separate front and rear brake circuits, a collapsible steering column, and an air injection system to meet federal emissions standards. The 1968 model year also brought the introduction of the six-cylinder MGC, which we’ve covered separately.

1967 MGB roadster dash
1969 MGB roadster dash
The dashboards of two LHD MGB roadsters illustrate the interior differences between the Mk 1 (top) and Mk 2 (bottom). The Mk 2 has new gauges, rocker switches instead of toggles, and a reshaped transmission tunnel to accommodate the all-synchro gearbox. The most obvious change, however, is the deletion of the glove box in favor of a padded slab (colloquially known as the “Abingdon pillow”). The Mk 2 car’s leather-wrapped wheel and wood shift knob are not stock, nor is the accessory center console.

One other noteworthy new option for the Mk 2 MGB and MGC was a three-speed Borg-Warner 35 automatic transmission. Surprisingly, it was not aimed at the American market; while some U.S. MGCs had automatic transmission, BMC never officially offered the automatic on North American MGBs. Priced at £104 (around $290), the Borg-Warner transmission was not very popular in the UK and fewer than 1,800 were built before the option was quietly dropped in 1973. Automatic Bs are quite rare today.

THE EX234 THAT WASN’T

Thornley originally planned to replace the MGB by 1970, so work on the B’s successor began in early 1964. Known internally as the EX234, the new car was a 2+2 roadster, riding a shorter 87-inch (2,210mm) wheelbase. Intended to replace both the B and the ‘Spridget,’ the EX234 would have offered a choice of either the 1,275 cc (78 cu. in.) A-series engine from the Mk 2 Midget and Mini Cooper or the existing 1,798 cc (110 cu. in.) B-series four. The EX234’s most important feature was a new fully independent independent suspension, trading the MGB’s Hotchkiss drive and lever-action shocks for Roy Brocklehurst’s adaptation of the corporate Hydrolastic spring/damping system.

The EX234 was a pretty little car with exterior styling by Pininfarina. We’re not sure how eagerly MGB fans would have embraced its smaller, more delicate shape, but the performance of the prototype suggested that the EX234 would be a worthy successor.

1969 MGB roadster front 3q
The external changes to the Mk 2 MGB were much subtler than the interior revisions: tacked-on side marker lights, repositioned turn signals. The MGB’s standard wheels in 1969 were still plain steel discs, but wire wheels were a popular option, costing about £30 in the UK, $100 in the U.S. (The early knock-on type disappeared from many markets by 1967, as they were now illegal in Germany and America.) Federal emissions standards were already beginning to take their toll on MGB performance; the North American Mk 2 dropped from 98 to 92 hp (73 to 69 kW).

Sadly, BMC’s financial and political imbroglios soon rendered that a moot point. While MG was quite healthy in the mid-sixties, its corporate parent definitely was not. BMC chairman George Harriman, who had succeeded Lord as chairman in January 1962, had pursued a policy of expansion, shooting for an annual production of 1 million units. Although this plan was enthusiastically supported by the Labour government of Harold Wilson, Harriman’s production goals were not terribly realistic; the expansion effort left BMC with excess capacity and even less money than usual for new product development. Meanwhile, the corporation was making little (if any) profit on popular cars like the Mini, while models it expected to be cash cows, like the Vanden Plas Princess 4-litre R and Austin 3-litre, were commercial flops. To make matters worse, labor relations could be politely described as tense, leading to frequent strikes. By 1965, BMC was losing money at an alarming rate.

In late 1966, BMC merged with Jaguar in a new holding company called British Motor Holdings. This did nothing to stem its losses and by the summer of 1967, BMC was lurching toward either a complete collapse or a foreign buyout. The Wilson government, which saw either prospect as politically unappetizing, decided that the solution was to merge British Motor Holdings and the successful Leyland Motor Corporation, hoping that Leyland’s profits would resuscitate BMC. Leyland, originally a truck and bus manufacturer, had moved into the passenger car arena with the acquisition of Standard-Triumph in late 1960. The purchase of Rover in 1967 had given Leyland roughly a sixth of the total UK market and the corporation’s ambitious chairman, Sir Donald Stokes, wanted more. A merger with BMC, whatever its problems, promised to create a new industrial giant to rival the major American automakers.

The merger was announced in January 1968 and in May, BMC and Leyland reformed as the British Leyland Motor Corporation (BLMC). Just as BMC had been dominated by Austin personnel, Leyland executives were firmly in charge of the new entity. Sir Donald Stokes became chairman with Standard’s George Turnbull as head of the new Austin-Morris division and Triumph’s Harry Webster as technical director, replacing Alec Issigonis.

1970 MGB roadster British Leyland badge
The British Leyland Motor Corporation was huge, encompassing dozens of previously separate companies, ranging from small automakers like MG to truck and bus manufacturers. A fair number of the corporation’s travails in the seventies and eighties were a result of its sheer size — just keeping track of everything tested the skills and endurance of even the most competent and resourceful executives.

The Leyland merger made MG once again the poor relation. Triumph, which had previously been one of MG’s primary rivals, was now its corporate sibling — and often the favored sibling to boot, although Triumph would suffer its own indignities in the 1970s. In the short term, MG products that competed with Triumphs tended to be either canceled (like the slow-selling MGC) or left to languish.

The EX234 was among the first such casualties; it was canceled in the fall of 1968. Even without the merger, the EX234’s prospects would not have good. Development work had been pushed to the back burner in late 1966 and the prototype had mostly gathered dust as BMC concentrated its limited resources on regulatory compliance. BMC’s plans for its future mainstream products were in disarray, so replacing two low-volume sports cars was hard to justify, especially since both existing cars were still selling well.

4 Comments

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  1. Just checking!!!

  2. I’m trying to learn about the different body styles for the 1970 MGB. I have a 1970 with the split rear bumper and the less attractive front grill. I see some 1970 models for sale with the chrome grill and no split bumper. From what I understand, the split bumper was only available in 1970 and only in the US. Anybody know why there were such differences within the same model year?

  3. Along with the lack of rear-independent suspension, it is a shame the MGB never received a 106+ hp 2.0-litre B-Series let alone a version of the 2.0-litre with Overhead-Cam (and possibly even fuel-injection) putting out 112-115+ hp, at least before the B-Series tooling was completely worn out.

    The 1.8 B-Series would have been better off in late-model MGAs or serving as a entry-level engine in the MGB, especially since it would have also justified more powerful versions of the smaller MG Midget.

    The same goes with the related 2.0 O-Series engine later intended for the MGB (capable of as much as 127 hp) that were it not for BL ordering new tooling for the old B-Series engine and being limited to using the B-Series’s crankshaft, would have not at all been related to the old engine.

    As for the EX234 prototype apparently even with a 1275cc Cooper S engine it was significantly slower then the MG Midget (0-60 in 14 or so seconds), so would have been better off with 1.6-1.75-litre E-Series or 2.0-litre B-Series engines featuring an output of around 85-106+ hp.

    1. On the engine front, to some extent, it’s perhaps just as well, since by the time they would have installed the O-Series, the MGB was really quite a relic compared to more modern sports coupes. The O-Series would have brought U.S. cars back up about the same level as late British MGBs, but if BL did any market research on the subject, they likely would have concluded that it would make no real difference in American sales (I think U.S. buyers by then had long since given up expecting an MG to be a real car) and that sales on the other side of the Atlantic had grown too small to be worth the bother. It was a reasonable conclusion, if that’s what it came down to, but they spent an awful lot of time and money on installing the O-Series before reaching it, which says something about the managerial chaos of the time.

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