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

In the same way that the 1955 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.

1973 MG MGB roadster badge

MORRIS GARAGES

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, although Morris no longer played much role in its day-to-day management.

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 (RAC taxable horsepower) 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 bestseller 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 tolerated it only grudgingly. According to former Morris engineer H.N. Charles, Morris also resented the fact that MG — and consequently 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 Organization, which now encompassed Riley and Wolseley as well as Morris and MG.

1938 MG 2-Litre SA front 3q
Although MG’s international reputation was built on sports cars, the firm also built quite a few sedans. One of its most upscale efforts was the 2-Litre SA, launched in early 1936. With a starting price of £375 (about $1,900 at contemporary exchange rates), it competed in the same class as Jaguar’s SS90. The “2-Litre” name was slightly misleading; the SA had a 2,288 cc (140 cu. in.) six, expanded in early 1937 to 2,322 cc (142 cu. in.). MG sold 2,738 of these sedans before the outbreak of war ended production in 1939.

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 subordinate Kimber to Morris director Leonard Lord, who 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 Organization 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, allegedly following an acrimonious salary dispute with Lord Nuffield. Some Nuffield Organization employees saw the merger as a not particularly friendly Austin takeover; the new British Motor Corporation (BMC) was dominated by Austin executives. Lord Nuffield, now in his mid-seventies, retreated to an advisory role while Leonard Lord became BMC’s first chairman.

The BMC merger served to push MG even farther into the margins. 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 Lord’s attitude toward MG, but it meant that Abingdon would face an uphill battle in developing any new sports car models.

1952 MG TD front 3q
MG’s sports car offering at the time of the BMC merger was the TD Midget, launched in 1950. Although the TD retained the basic styling of the earlier TC (and the prewar TA and TB), it had a new independent front suspension based on that of MG’s 1947-vintage 1¼-litre (YA) sedan. It was powered by MG’s 1,250 cc (76 cu. in.) XPAG engine, initially making 54 hp (41 kW) with two S.U. carburetors.

Fortunately, few executives could have been better prepared for that struggle than John Thornley. Although he was an accountant by training (and had been a purchasing officer for the British army during the war), 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, 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 Organization board and later the senior management of BMC. 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, 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.

1955 MG TF1500 front 3q
Although sales of the MG TD sank alarmingly in 1953, the only replacement BMC was prepared to finance was the TF, basically a facelifted version of the TD Mk 2. Neither the press nor the public was fooled and sales were disappointing. Later in the run, the 1,250 cc (76 cu. in.) engine was replaced by the new 1,466 cc (90 cu. in.) XPEG, but sales remained flat. The TF 1500 was replaced by the MGA in mid-1955.

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, 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.”

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.

1954 Aston Martin DB2/4 front 3q © 2009 Mike Young (used with permission)
Former MG managing director John Thornley often said the original inspiration for the MGB was the Aston Martin DB2/4 Saloon, seen here in action at the Harewood Speed Hillclimb in 2009. As with the later MGB GT, the DB2/4’s tiny rear seats were not really big enough for human habitation, but it offered reasonable luggage space and hatchback utility. The DB2/4 was built by the coachbuilder Mulliner, with a price tag of around £2,600 with purchase tax (about $7,300 at contemporary exchange rates, the equivalent of nearly $60,000 today). (Photo: “hshc5609 Aston Martin DB2/4” © 2009 Mike Young; used with permission)

In 1957, Enever, O’Neill, and draftsman Peter Neal began developing concepts for a new MGA-based coupe. Apparently unimpressed with these early efforts, BMC managing director George Harriman commissioned Turin’s Carrozzeria Frua to develop an alternative concept, also based on the chassis of the MGA. The Frua concept was quite striking despite a heavy-handed grille/bumper treatment, but it found little favor in Abingdon. According to Hayter, the main objections to the Frua car concerned its size and weight, which would have translated into high production costs, but David Knowles speculates that MG engineers’ disdain for the Frua concept had as much to do with its origins as its practical merits. Only three years earlier, John Thornley had finally persuaded BMC to transfer MG design from Cowley back to Abingdon and no one at MG was eager to undermine that victory by endorsing an out-of-house design.

1959 MGA 1600 roadster front 3q © 2009 Brian Snelson CC BY 2.0 Generic
The first MGA roadster had a 1,489 cc (91 cu. in.) B-series engine, initially with 68 hp (51 kW), later 72 hp (54 kW). In 1959, it became the MGA 1600, with a bigger 1,588 cc (97 cu. in.) engine with 80 hp (59 kW) and standard front disc brakes. (Photo: “MGA” © 2009 Brian Snelson; used under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license)

O’Neill and Hayter subsequently developed a new in-house concept, the EX205, again based on concepts suggested by Enever. This progressed as far as the full-size mock-up stage, but even O’Neill didn’t like the awkwardly proportioned results. The EX205 was rejected.

By the time the EX205 mock-up was complete, Abingdon had decided that the MGA’s successor should abandon the platform frame in favor of monocoque construction. Ironically, Thornley had argued against unit bodies back in 1955, concerned about their high production costs, but he subsequently did a volte-face, in part because unitized construction offered both greater strength and superior space efficiency.

Since there was no longer any need to maintain the MGA’s chassis hardpoints, Enever gave Hayter permission to create an entirely new design with a new type number, EX214, taking as its starting point the EX181, a highly aerodynamic one-off that he had recently developed for record-breaking. In August 1957, Stirling Moss drove the EX181, powered by an experimental supercharged DOHC engine, to five International Class F speed records on the Bonneville Salt Flats, reaching speeds of more than 245 mph (395 km/h).

Hayter’s EX214 design, completed in June 1958, bore only the loosest resemblance to the EX181, but it was low-slung and very sleek, wearing a lower, wider modern interpretation of the traditional MG grille. Although the EX214 was a roadster, not a coupe, Thornley liked the design and approved it for production. Thornley still hoped to add a fixed-roof coupe, but he decided that in the short term, the roadster was a stronger bet for the crucial American market.

(Historian Wilson McComb suggests that some of the EX214’s final detailing was massaged by Pinin Farina, whom BMC had engaged to design its bread-and-butter sedans, but Farina’s contributions to the MGB roadster, if any, were apparently minor. In later interviews, Don Hayter indicated that his final EX214/12 rendering, completed in early 1959, was very close to the production MGB.)

1957 MGA coupe front 3q
Although the first MGAs were roadsters, a hardtop coupe bowed at the London Motor Show in the fall of 1956. With a steel roof and roll-up windows, the coupe was about 100 lb (45 kg) heavier than the roadster, but was notably more aerodynamic, allowing a top speed of about 101 mph (163 km/h). The coupe’s roof was designed without the input or authorization of MG chief body engineer Jim O’Neill, who never liked the shape.

V4 ENGINES AND FOUR-LINK SUSPENSIONS

While the exterior styling of the new roadster, now known by its BMC project number of ADO23, was largely finished by early 1959, its mechanical specifications were still in flux. Both Abingdon and BMC management hoped to make the ADO23 a much more sophisticated package than the MGA, although very few of those ideas ultimately came to fruition.

BMC’s plans revolved around an entirely new family of V4 engines. Inspired by contemporary Lancia practice, the V4 had a very narrow bank angle of only 18 degrees, making the engine quite compact. Valve actuation was still by pushrods, but the camshaft was driven by a then-novel rubber timing belt, as in the later Glas and Pontiac OHC engines. BMC envisaged two four-cylinder versions, one of about 1,100 cc (67 cu. in.), replacing the smaller A-series engine, the other about 2,000 cc (122 cu. in.), replacing the B-series; there were also tentative plans for a derivative V6. The V4 was a corporate project, developed at Longbridge rather than Abingdon, and Syd Enever was never particularly happy with it. V4 engines were tested in MGA mules for possible use in the ADO23, but BMC management finally shelved the project in 1960, concluding that it involved too much unknown territory for a mass-market engine.

Abingdon’s ambitions for the ADO23 involved updating the MGA’s somewhat rustic suspension. The A’s front suspension was still basically that of the 1947 Y-type sedan (itself based on a Morris design by Alec Issigonis), with old-style lever-action shock absorbers and Hotchkiss drive: a simple live axle on leaf springs. Few contemporary drivers seriously criticized the the A’s handling, but its ride comfort was another matter. Since the rear springs had sole responsibility for axle location, they were quite stiff. That was fine on a smooth racetrack, but less so on real-world roads, where the unyielding suspension and high unsprung weight made for a jarring ride. There was substantial room for improvement.

1964 MGB roadster front
Aluminum body panels were another lost cause of the ADO23 project. According to Don Hayter, MG originally hoped to use aluminum for the MGB’s doors, bonnet, and decklid, but found that the 16-gauge alloy was too easily dented. Only the aluminum bonnet made it to production and even then MG resorted to a concealed wooden brace to keep the panel from bending. The grilles of Mk 1 MGBs had stainless steel bars in an aluminum frame, replaced in mid-1964 with a cheaper one-piece unit. Both the grille and the aluminum bonnet disappeared after 1969 in the interests of cost reduction.

Enever and chassis engineer Terry Mitchell explored a variety of alternative suspension layouts in hopes of smoothing out the ADO23’s ride without sacrificing handling. The ideal solution would have been to reduce the rear unsprung weight with either independent rear suspension or a De Dion axle like that of the EX181, but cost considerations precluded either. As a compromise, Roy Brocklehurst, who had designed the original MGA chassis, came up with a four-link design that traded semi-elliptical leaf springs for coils, locating the axle with four trailing arms and a Watt’s linkage, later exchanged for a cheaper Panhard rod. The new suspension provided a much better ride, but the Panhard rod mounting caused structural problems and erratic handling.

Given time, those problems could undoubtedly have been resolved, but with the project already running well behind schedule, Brocklehurst and Mitchell decided to retain Hotchkiss drive. The production car’s sole concessions to improved ride quality were redesigned spring shackles and longer (and thus softer) leaf springs, the addition of which required the tail to be stretched about an inch (25 mm).

ENTER THE MGB

John Thornley very much wanted the ADO23 to be ready before the end of the decade, but the various false starts delayed construction of the first full prototypes until the spring of 1960 and they were not ready for testing until that fall. In the meantime, Abingdon launched the MGA 1600 Mk 2, a facelifted A with an unfortunate new grille. As Thornley had feared, MGA sales lost ground rapidly after 1960 as buyers gravitated to newer rivals like the Triumph TR4.

1961 MGA 1600 Mk 2 roadster front3q Lothar Spurzem
One of the last MGA roadsters, the MGA 1600 Mk 2. Introduced in June 1961, the Mk 2 added a slightly bigger 1,622 cc (99 cu. in.) engine with 90 hp (67 kW), an awkward-looking new grille, and various minor trim changes. It was not a great sales success, in part because it still lacked modern weather protection and amenities like outside door handles. (Photo: “MGA (2007-06-16) ret” © 2007 Spurzem – Lothar Spurzem; resized and used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Germany license)

There was still one final obstacle to overcome: the high manufacturing costs of the ADO23’s new monocoque shell. The normal procedure in the automobile business is to pay all tooling costs in advance and amortize that expense over the course of the production run. Amortization schedules are something of a juggling act, but the goal is to pay off the entire expense before the end of the model’s lifespan while still allowing a reasonable per-car profit. If volume is high enough (or costs low enough) to repay the tooling costs before the end of the model run, late models will obviously be even more profitable; conversely, a model that costs too much to tool and/or that sells in only modest numbers usually needs a long production run to pay off its initial costs.

When BMC’s finance people saw the projected tooling costs for ADO23, they concluded that there was little hope of the car making any profit even over what was then expected to be a seven-year run. According to Wilson McComb, BMC solution was to convince supplier Pressed Steel Ltd. to manufacture each body shell for a flat per-car fee; in that way, if the ADO23 didn’t sell well enough to recoup its tooling costs, the loss would be Pressed Steel’s, not BMC’s. At the time, this seemed like an eminently sensible solution, although we have to wonder if anyone had second thoughts after BMC acquired Pressed Steel a few years later.

The production ADO23 was named MGB, a designation Thornley originally wanted to use for the short-lived MGA Twin Cam. Pilot production began in May 1962 and the B made its public debut on September 20.

The MGB was somewhat smaller than the MGA, but its monocoque body made it significantly roomier and noticeably more rigid. Like many early American efforts at unitary construction, the MGB was actually heavier than its body-on-frame predecessor, particularly after an additional support member was added between the A-pillars to solve a cowl shake problem. In compensation, the MGB’s body shell was extremely stout, although owners later discovered the bane of many early British unit-body roadsters: a tendency for the complex sill structure to trap moisture, creating expensive rust traps.

While early prototypes had used the same 1,622 cc (99 cu. in.) four as the Mk 2 MGA, the 1.6-liter engine was hard pressed by the ADO23’s greater curb weight. To compensate, the engine of the production MGB was expanded to 1,798 cc (110 cu. in.), giving 94 hp (70 kW) and 107 lb-ft (145 N-m) of torque. As in the MGA, the engine was linked to a four-speed gearbox with unsynchronized low and the option of Laycock de Normanville overdrive, usable in both third and fourth gears. Abingdon originally hoped to offer a high-performance model powered by the DOHC four from the MGA Twin Cam, but that engine was costly and had developed a reputation for fragility, so it was canceled well before before the ADO23 went into production.

1963 MG MGB roadster front 3q © 2010 mick / Lumix (used with permission)
The early MGB 153.3 inches (3,893 mm) long on a 91-inch (2,311mm) wheelbase, weighing around 2,100 lb (953 kg) with a full tank of fuel. It was capable of 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) in around 12 seconds and had a top speed of 105-106 mph (169-171 km/h), mid-pack performance for sports cars in its price range. Like the MGA (or GM’s old “Knee-Action” suspensions), the B had Armstrong lever-action dampers front and rear; the front shocks doubled as the upper A-arms. Brakes were similar to those of the MGA Mk 2, with 10.75-inch (273mm) Lockheed discs in front and 10-inch (254mm) drums in back. Stopping power was adequate, although the optional brake booster was a useful addition. (Photo © 2010 mick / Lumix; used with permission)

MG advertising trumpeted the MGB roadster’s newfound weather protection and interior conveniences, which was perhaps overstating the point. The B did have wind-up windows rather than the MGA’s side screens, but the standard soft top was a cumbersome “pack-away” affair with a separate framework that had to be assembled by hand. A permanently attached convertible top cost extra, as did a heater, something many contemporary reviewers saw as an anachronistic touch. Although the B was a low-slung roadster, outward visibility was not great either; the seats were set low enough that some drivers found the car a trifle claustrophobic.

If the smaller exterior dimensions and lower spring rates suggested a cushy boulevardier, a brief test drive soon erased that notion. While the MGB was softer than the MGA, the driving experience was still decidedly rugged. The B was quite agile, but its controls were heavy and its ride was stiff-legged. Noted racing driver Ken Miles, who tested the MGB and several other affordable sports cars for the September 1966 issue of Car and Driver, concluded that the B sacrificed too much comfort for its capabilities. Nonetheless, the magazine’s editors ranked the MGB second overall, ahead of the Triumph TR4, Sunbeam Alpine, Fiat 1500 Spider, and Datsun SPL311.

1964 MGB roadster rear 3q
Roadster, tourer, or convertible? MG fans — and even the factory — have used all three terms to describe the open MGB. With its folding top and wind-up windows, we would call it a convertible or cabriolet; indeed, MG advertising frequently described it as the MGB Sports Convertible. This is a 1964 model, which still lacks back-up lamps (added in early 1967) and side marker lights (added for the 1968 model year). Mk 1 roadsters also had a banjo-type rear axle, replaced on the MGB GT and Mk 2 roadsters with a newer Salisbury unit.

If the MGB had a single, defining virtue, it was directness. It wasn’t particularly sophisticated or even very civilized, but it was free of gimmicks and it had no significant dynamic vices — it simply went where it was pointed with a pleasing alacrity. By comparison, rivals like the Sunbeam Alpine were more comfortable, but often felt more sedanish than sporty. The MGB behaved the way buyers expected a sports car to behave and made no pretense of being anything it was not.

BOX OFFICE HIT

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.

AN UNCERTAIN FUTURE

Instead of an all-new car, the 1970 model year brought a lightly made-over MGB, sporting British Leyland badges on the fenders and worrisome signs of cost-cutting. The attractive chrome grille was replaced with a cheaper (and, to many fans, uglier) recessed unit while the interior’s leather seating surfaces gave way to Ambla vinyl. Midway through the year, the lightweight aluminum bonnet was also replaced with a cheaper steel unit.

1970 MGB roadster front1971 MGB roadster Rostyle wheel
In addition to its unpopular recessed grille, the 1970-1971 MGB had more prominent side marker lights and rubber insets for the bumper overriders. Wire wheels (top) remained optional, but styled steel Rostyle wheels (bottom) had replaced the earlier cars’ plain steel discs. The Rostyle wheels looked a great deal like the styled steel wheels offered on contemporary U.S. cars like the Ford Mustang and Dodge Charger, adding a curiously American touch to a quintessentially English car.

Also gone was John Thornley, who retired in the summer of 1969. MG had come a long way since Thornley had first visited Abingdon back in September 1930. That year, MG had built around 1,900 cars, a record for the tiny firm. By the time Thornley retired, MG Cars had built over 600,000 cars, around 200,000 of which were MGBs. (The 250,000th MGB rolled off the line in May 1971.) That was an achievement worthy of celebration, but the merger had cast a pall over Abingdon’s previously upbeat atmosphere. As the seventies dawned, the mood was anything but jubilant.

As we’ll see in Part Two, the next decade would bring many more changes to both Abingdon and the B, few of them favorable.

# # #


NOTES ON SOURCES

Our sources for the history of MG, BMC, and British Leyland included: “1.5 Millionth MG is a Golden Jubilee TF,” AutoWeb, 4 June 2002, www.autoweb. com.au, accessed 3 October 2010; Keith Adams, “Company timeline,” “Formation of an Empire: BMC is created,” and “Humble Beginnings: The principal players,” AROnline, 19 September 2008, www.aronline. co.uk, accessed 21 August 2010; “An Interview with Don Hayter – Design & Development Engineer,” 2 January 2001, originally published in the Safety Fast Midget Newsletter August 2001, reprinted on the web at www.mgcars. org.uk, accessed 8 September 2010; the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide, “1953-1967 Austin-Healey 100 and 3000,” HowStuffWorks.com, 20 August 2007, auto.howstuffworks. com/ 1953-1967-austin-healey-100- and-30005.htm, accessed 21 August 2010, and “MG Sports Cars,” HowStuffWorks.com, 23 May 2007, auto.howstuffworks. com/ mg-sports-cars.htm, accessed 9 September 2010; “Birth of the Octagonal Badge,” The Electronic Telegraph [c. 1994], www.mgcars. org.uk, accessed 21 August 2010; John Baker, “History of the Company,” Austin Memories, 2006, www.austinmemories. com, accessed 21 August 2010; Don Hayter’s recap of his career, c. January 2008 (Houston MG Car Club, houstonmgcc. com/hayter.htm, accessed 8 September 2010); F. Wilson McComb, MG by McComb (Colchester, Essex: Osprey Publishing Ltd., 1978); “MG T-Series,” WWW Enthusiasts, n.d., MGCars. org, www.mgcars. org.uk, accessed 26 August 2010; “MG VA Saloon,” The MG Owners’ Club, n.d., www.mgownersclub. co.uk/ mg-va-saloon.html, accessed 21 August 2010; “Prewar MGs,” WWW Enthusiasts, n.d., www.mgcars. org.uk, accessed 21 August 2010; Peter Thornley, “Remembering J.W.Y. Thornley OBE, June 11, 1909-July 15, 1994,” MGB Driver June-July 1999, www.mgcars. org.uk, accessed 3 October 2010; “Who was William Morris, Lord Nuffield?” Britain Unlimited, n.d., www.britainunlimited. com, accessed 21 August 2010; and the Wikipedia® entries for British Leyland (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/British_Leyland, accessed 21 August 2010), Leonard Lord (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leonard_Lord, accessed 21 August 2010) and the MG SA (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MG_SA, accessed 18 September 2010).

Information on the MGA came from the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide, “1953-1967 Austin-Healey 100 and 3000,” HowStuffWorks.com, 20 August 2007, auto.howstuffworks. com/ 1953-1967-austin-healey-100- and-30005.htm, accessed 21 August 2010; “1953-1958 MG Magnette,” HowStuffWorks.com, 17 October 2007, auto.howstuffworks. com/ 1953-1958-mg- magnette.htm, accessed 20 August 2010, “1955-1962 MGA,” HowStuffWorks.com, 15 October 2007, auto.howstuffworks. com/ 1955-1962-mga.htm, accessed 5 August 2010; Rob Higgins, “The MGA: How it came to be,” MGA Register, www.mgcars. org.uk, accessed 21 August 2010; “The M.G. A 1600 Two-Seater (The Motor Road Test No. 21/59),” The Motor 2 September 1959, pp. 71-74; “The M.G. A Hardtop Coupé (The Motor Road Test No. 30/57 (Continental),” The Motor 7 August 1957, pp. 18-21; and John Price Williams, The MGA (Dorchester: Veloce Publishing, 1997).

Additional sources on the history, design, and performance of the MGB included: “40th Anniversary of MGB” [press release], 26 July 2002, MG Rover, www.carpictures. com, accessed 25 August 2010; “1962 MGB Sebring,” Sports Car Market, 30 November 2004, www.sportscarmarket. com, accessed 25 August 2010; Keith Adams, “B is for Bestseller,” AROnline, 19 September 2008, www.aronline. co.uk, accessed 5 August 2010, “Middle-market mainstay,” AROnline, 2 May 2010, austin-rover. co.uk, accessed 21 August 2010, “The Aston MGB,” AROnline, 12 February 2009, www.aronline. co.uk, accessed 8 September 2010, and “The MGB is reborn: the MG RV8,” AROnline, 19 September 2008, www.aronline. co.uk, accessed 20 August 2010; Yan Alexandre, “Pio Manzù: Catalogue Raisonnable,” BlenheimGang, 2 May 2011, www.blenheimgang. com, accessed 28 January 2012; “Autocar road test 1899: M.G. MGB 1800 1,798 c.c.,” Autocar 26 October 1962, pp. 737–741; “Autocar Road Test Number 2069,” Autocar 4 March 1966, pp. 429-435; “Auto Test: Costello MGB GT V8: Tiger Tamed,” Autocar 25 May 1972, pp. 34–37; “Auto Test: MGB 1,798 c.c.,” Autocar 5 April 1975, pp. 45–49; Rusty Blackwell, “Collectible Classic: 1966-1974 MGB/GT,” Automobile February 2009, www.automobilemag. com, accessed 2 August 2010; “Brief Test: MGB,” The Motor 22 January 1972, pp. 14-16; Anders Ditlev Clausager, Original MGB: The Restorer’s Guide to All Roadster and GT Models 1962-80 (Original Series) Third Printing (Bideford, Devon: Bay View Books Ltd., 1998); Mike Covello, Standard Catalog of Imported Cars 1946-2002 Second Edition (Iola, WI: Krause Publications, 2001); Dolbel Enterprises, “MG RV8 Story,” MGRV8. com, 2 January 2010, www.mgrv8. com/ story.php, accessed 21 August 2010; J.P. Donnay, “Prototypes expérimentaux et de records MG Ex,” Le site MG de JP, 27 June 2003, geomatique-liege.be/ MGJP/ Pages/ Prototypes.htm, accessed 1 October 2010; Robert Edwards, Aston Martin: Ever the Thoroughbred (Haynes Classic Makes Series) (Sparkford, England: Haynes Publishing, 1999); Enrico Leonardo Fagone, “Pio Manzù – Pioneer of Car and Transportation Design,” Auto Design, 1 April 2010, autodesign. socialblog.us, accessed 28 January 2012; “Giant Test: Capri RS3100, Lotus +2 130/5, MGB V8,” Car January 1974, pp. 30–39; Matt Gresalfi, “The Last MGB!!” JaguarMG. com, January 2004, www.jaguarmg. com, accessed 25 September 2010; Orin B. Harding, “MGB Production Modifications,” Autochart. com, 24 May 1994, www.autochart. com, accessed 3 October 2010; John Heilig, MG Sports Cars (Enthusiast Color Series) (Osceola, WI: MBI Publishing Company, 1996); “History of the MGB,” MGB Register, n.d., MG Car Club of Victoria, mgb.mgcc. info, accessed 5 August 2010; Curtis Jacobson, “MG’s EX186 Prototype: The Ultimate ‘Modified’ MGA!” BritishRacecar. com, n.d., www.britishracecar. com, accessed 25 September 2010; “Ken Miles and the editors of Car and Driver road test six sports roadsters,” Car and Driver September 1966, reprinted in Car and Driver on Datsun Z, 1600 & 2000 1966-84 (Brooklands Books), ed. R.M. Clarke(Cobham, England: Brooklands Books Ltd., ca. 1986), pp. 7-16; David Knowles, MG: The Untold Story (Osceola, WI: Motorboks International, 1997); F. Wilson McComb, “MGB GT: Last of the Bargain-Basement Gran Turismos,” Special Interest Autos #103 (February 1988), pp. 36-43; Mark J. McCourt, “Humanitarian on Four Wheels,” Hemmings Sports & Exotic Car #21 (December 2006); MGB LE, The MG Owners’ Club, n.d., www.mgownersclub. co.uk, accessed 22 August 2010; “MGB Convertible Roadster,” The MG Owners’ Club, n.d., www.mgownersclub. co.uk, accessed 22 August 2010); “MGB Restoration – MGB Tourer and MGB GT Technical Specifications,” n.d., www.middlebank. co.uk, accessed 24 August 2010; MGB GT V8 ad, Autocar 16 August 1973, www.britishv8. org, accessed 26 August 2010; “MGC GT,” MG Owners’ Club, n.d., www.mgownersclub. co.uk, accessed 13 September 2010; “More Safety Fast (‘Motor’ Road Test No. 7/66: MGB GT),” The Motor 19 February 1966, pp. 17-22; Jan P. Norbye, “Sports Cars of the World,” Popular Science Vol. 189 No. 2 (August 1966), pp. 46-53; Skye Nott, “MGB Performance Data,” The MG Experience, 2 April 2006, www.mgexperience. net, accessed 25 August 2010, and “MG Racing Results 1963-1978,” The MG Experience, n.d., www.mgexperience. net, accessed 3 October 2010; Rainer Nyberg and Gary Davies, “Marathon de la Route,” The AUTOSPORT Bulletin Board, 8 September 2006, forums.autosport. com/ lofiversion/ index.php/t46815-50.html, accessed 10 September 2010; “R&T Comparison Test: Four Sports Cars,” Road & Track June 1970, pp. 27-32; Robin Weatherall, “Ken Costello and the MGB-V8,” MG V-8 Newsletter Vol. IV, No. 2 (August 1996), reprinted at www.britishv8. org/ Articles/ Ken-Costello-MGB-V8-1.htm, accessed 17 October 2010; Rainer Wilken, “Special BGTs: The most historically important, exotic, spectacular and stylish MGB GTs packed into one page…almost,” garage24. net, n.d., www.garage24. net, accessed 8 September 2010; and Rene Winters, Dutch Rover Archives, n.d., www.rover-v8. nl/ dutchroverarchives/ index.html, accessed 26 September 2010.

Additional information on the MGF/MG TF and the EX234 and ADO21, the planned successors to the MGB, came from Keith Adams, “EX234,” AROnline, 19 September 2008, www.aronline. co.uk, accessed 24 September 2010, and “Project ADO21,” AROnline, 19 September 2008, www.aronline. co.uk, accessed 24 September 2010; the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide, “Replacements for the MGB: Triumphs Were the Corporate Will,” Cars That Never Were: The Prototypes (Skokie, IL: Publications International, 1981), pp. 73-76; Paul Bailey, “The return of MG!” Auto Express News, 9 April 2010,www.autoexpress. co.uk, accessed 26 September 2010; Tom Ford, “Spring tide,” CAR March 2002, pp. 76-84; Mark Wan, “Mazda MX-5 (1989),” AutoZine. org, 25 August 2010, www.autozine. org/ Archive/ Mazda/ classic/MX5.html, accessed 26 September 2010, “Rover MGF,” AutoZine .org, 21 February 1999, www.autozine. org/Archive/Rover/old/MGF.html, accessed 26 September 2010, and “MG TF,” Autozine. org, 17 February 2002, www.autozine.org/Archive/Rover/old/TF.html, accessed 26 September 2010; and the Wikipedia entries for the E-series engine (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/BMC_E-Series_engine, accessed 24 September 2010), the Mazda MX-5 (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mazda_Miata, accessed 26 September 2010), and the MGF/MGTF (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MG_F_/_MG_TF, accessed 26 September 2010).

Additional information on the Coune Berlinette came from Michiel van den Brink, “Coune MGB Berlinette,” Coachbuild, n.d., www.coachbuild. com, accessed 21 September 2010, Jörn-M Müller-Neuhaus, “No Waffle in a Belgian Tale,” MG Enthusiast February 2007, pp. 34-37; and emails between the author and Nicholas Lecompte of the Coune Registry, 21-24 September 2010.

The exchange rate values cited in the text represent the approximate equivalency in U.S. currency at the time, not the contemporary U.S. manufacturer’s suggested retail prices, which are cited separately. Historical exchange rate data for the dollar and British pound were estimated based on data from Lawrence H. Officer, “Exchange Rates Between the United States Dollar and Forty-one Currencies,” MeasuringWorth, 2009, https://www.measuringworth.org/exchangeglobal/; used by permission). Inflation estimates were calculated using the Bureau of Labor Statistics Inflation Calculator, data.bls.gov/cgi-bin/cpicalc.pl. Please note that all exchange rate and inflation values are approximate; this is an automotive history, not a treatise on currency trading or the value of money, and nothing in this article should be taken as financial advice of any kind!


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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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