As we saw in our first installment, by the mid-sixties, the MGB had become one of the world’s best-selling sports cars. Not even its most loyal fans, however, would have imagined that it would survive for 18 years — or that it would rise again barely a decade after its demise. This week, we present the second half of our history of the MGB, including the 1971-1981 MGB, the 1966-1981 MGB GT, the MGB GT V8, and the MG RV8.
POOR MAN’S ASTON: MGB GT
Considering that the MGB was originally inspired by the Aston Martin DB2/4, it took the factory a curiously long time to develop a fixed-roof version of the B. Indeed, from 1963 to 1965, BMC’s Competitions Department was obliged to fit the MGB roadster with an accessory hardtop in order to race in the GT classes. It seemed that MG was missing an obvious opportunity.
It was not for lack of trying. The Abingdon design office had started work on an MGB coupe, designated EX227, months before the roadster even went into production, but none of their efforts had borne fruit. Engineer Roy Brocklehurst said the primary obstacle was the determination to retain the roadster’s windshield (presumably for cost reasons, although Brocklehurst didn’t specify). Because the B’s windshield was so low, it proved very difficult to design a good-looking roof that would still provide adequate headroom. The tacked-on roof of the previous MGA coupe was no solution; it looked like an afterthought and chief body engineer Jim O’Neill, among others, had never liked it. MG chief engineer Syd Enever explored various design concepts for a fixed-head MGB, but none was satisfactory and the project dragged on for almost two years.
Apparently growing impatient, BMC chairman George Harriman commissioned Italy’s Pininfarina to build a prototype — much to the dismay of Enever, who saw it as a vote of no confidence. In the fall of 1963, Abingdon shipped a gray MGB roadster to Turin. Pininfarina returned it the follow spring, now painted metallic green and sporting an attractive hatchback roof. This new design sliced the Gordian knot that had stymied MG’s designers: By raising the windshield about 4 inches (101 mm) with a commensurately larger greenhouse, the Pininfarina car combined reasonable headroom and fine proportions. It also had superior aerodynamics despite its greater frontal area.
Exactly who was responsible for the decision to raise the windshield and enlarge the greenhouse is still a matter of debate. MG managing director John Thornley credited the designers in Turin, but MG designer Jim Stimson told author David Knowles that Stimson and Syd Enever had decided to give the coupe a taller greenhouse before Pininfarina was even hired. Stimson said Pininfarina’s principal contributions were a proposal for frameless rear windows (not adopted in production) and the coupe’s distinctive roof creases.
Complicating the issue even further, the greenhouse of the finished product bears a noteworthy resemblance to a 1962 concept car built (though not designed) by Pininfarina, a one-off coupe based on the Austin-Healey 3000 platform, developed by design students Michael Contrad, Pio Manzù, and Henner Werner for an Automobile Year contest. That concept had been exhibited at the 1962 Earls Court show in London, so BMC was definitely aware of it. In fact, chairman George Harriman subsequently acquired the rights to the design, which was developed for several years as a possible E-type Jaguar competitor, the ADO30. We don’t know to what extent the ADO30 may have influenced the design of the fixed-head B, but we assume the designers in Abingdon would have seen it, whether at Earls Court or in Longbridge.
Whatever its origins, the Pininfarina prototype made an immediate hit with John Thornley, who thought it would appeal to a more upscale class of buyers; it would at last be the affordable Aston Martin he had imagined back in 1957. After a few detail revisions, the coupe was approved for production, which commenced the following summer. Dubbed MGB GT, the coupe bowed at the London Motor Show in the fall of 1965.
Like the long-departed DB2/4, the GT was a 2+2 with a tiny rear bench into which a small child or medium-size dog could be crammed for short trips. Although a heater was still optional, extra sound insulation and a marginally less flinty ride made the GT more civilized than the roadster, although no one was likely to mistake it for a Cadillac. Since the GT was some 220 lb (100 kg) heavier than the open car and used the same powertrain, its acceleration suffered somewhat, but the coupe’s lower drag made it just as fast as the roadster (if not faster) all out. The GT’s handling was actually superior, thanks to better weight distribution, stiffer rear springs, and a standard front anti-roll bar, still optional on the open car.
Starting at £998 8s 9d with purchase tax (about $2,800 at the contemporary exchange rate), the GT cost about £143 (about $400) more than the roadster, but sales were strong. If the GT was less overtly sporting than the open car, the coupe was also more elegant and obviously more practical. The arrival of the GT boosted the MGB’s total sales volume by more than 40%, prompting BMC to expand production at Abingdon.
By the time the factory had built enough GTs for homologation, the MGB’s competition heyday was winding down, but the coupe did achieve some racing success. An MGB GT driven by Andrew Hedges and Paddy Hopkirk won the GT class at the 1967 12 Hours of Sebring while an aluminum-bodied GTS (actually a prototype of the still-gestating six-cylinder MGC GTS) with a bored-out, 2,004 cc (122 cu. in.) engine ran in the 1967 Targa Florio. In 1969, another MGB GT, driven by Americans Logan Blackburn and Jerry Truitt, took fourth in class at Sebring. As with the roadster, private GTs continued to race in major events as late as 1978.
The MGB GT never became as ubiquitous as the roadster, but it was a solid success, eventually selling more than 125,000 units. Although North America took more than half of all GT production, the coupe is less familiar to Americans today in part because it was withdrawn from the U.S. market in early 1975. It remained available in Great Britain until the end. The last MGB to come off the line in 1980 was a GT.