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

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.

1974 MGB GT badge


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.

1967 MGB GT red front 3q
The MGB GT’s windshield is about 4 inches (101 mm) taller than that of the roadster while the side windows are about 1.5 inches (38 mm) higher; the front fenders were reshaped to maintain the car’s proportions. The GT had the same engine as the roadster, a 1,798 cc (110 cu. in.) B-series four making 98 hp (73 kW) and 110 lb-ft (149 N-m), but the coupe’s extra weight makes it a bit more than a second slower to 60 mph (97 km/h). Note this LHD car’s single fender-mounted mirror — when dual mirrors were ordered, the driver’s side mirror was mounted on the door, the passenger-side mirror on the fender.

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 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.

1967 MGB GT red rear 3q
There’s no question that the MGB GT was heavier than the roadster, but estimates of how much heavier vary by as much as 80 lb (36 kg). We suspect the confusion is attributable to the curious contemporary practice of quoting curb weight with other than a full tank of fuel. Motor in those days measured curb weight with just enough fuel for 50 miles (80 km) of driving, Autocar using half a tank; the difference in fuel weight would account for much of the discrepancy between the various published figures. In any event, the GT received an extra leaf in each semi-elliptical rear spring to compensate for the extra weight plus a front anti-roll bar to maintain handling balance.

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.

1967 MGB GT red back seat
In pre-ISOFIX days, you might have been able to wedge two small children into the GT’s rear seat, but it was best used for extra luggage space. The leatherette-upholstered bench folded down for that purpose.

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.

1969 MGC GT cargo area
The MGB GT’s cargo area was not generously sized, but it was substantially more commodious than the roadster’s boot. With the seat folded down, the space was adequate for a couple’s weekend luggage. This is actually a 1969 MGC, but the cargo area is almost identical to that of the Mk 2 MGB GT.

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.

SIDEBAR: The Coune Berlinette

While the factory was still struggling to come up with an MGB coupe, an independent coachbuilder decided to essay a fixed-roof B of his own. In 1963, Belgium’s Jacques Coune Carrossier transformed an MGB roadster into a sleek, Ferrari-like semi-fastback coupe called the Coune Berlinette, which debuted at the 1964 Brussels Motor Show. The positive response led Coune to begin limited series production of the coupe for the European market.

Intrigued, BMC technical director Alec Issigonis arranged to acquire a Coune MGB for evaluation and entered preliminary discussions with Jacques Coune about the possibility of BMC’s licensing the design for a production MGB coupe. However, by the time BMC obtained their test Berlinette in June 1964, Pininfarina had completed the prototype of the MGB GT, which had much greater commonality with the roadster and would be far cheaper to build than the Coune car. Issigonis finally told Coune that BMC had decided not to license his design after all, offering the rather disingenuous excuse that the Berlinette was “too Italian!”

1964 Coune Berlinette NL 2 front 3q © 2008 Nicolas Lecompte
At a glance, only the familiar grille and bumper suggest the Coune Berlinette’s MGB origins; most of the upper body structure is different, including the A-pillars and windshield frame. Nicolas Lecompte, the owner of this car and a friend of Jacques Coune’s, says the windshield and backlight were borrowed from the contemporary Renault 8. The only mechanical change was an Abarth exhaust system — Coune was also the Belgian Abarth distributor — but the fiberglass-bodied Berlinette weighed about 125 lb (57 kg) less than a stock MGB roadster and the sloping roof and Kamm tail gave it better aerodynamics. Claimed top speed was 112 mph (180 km/h). (Photo © 2008 Nicolas Lecompte; used with permission)

Not dissuaded, Coune continued to market the Berlinette himself, offering both turnkey cars and conversions of customer vehicles. Either way, all Berlinettes began life as fully assembled roadsters. (Historian Anders Ditlev Clausager’s speculation that the Berlinette was assembled from Belgian CKD kits was apparently incorrect, although it certainly would have made things easier!) With a base price of 300,000 Belgian francs FOB Antwerp (about $3,400), however, a new Berlinette cost nearly twice as much as an MGB roadster, which limited the coupe’s appeal. Sales dried up after the arrival of the much cheaper MGB GT and Coune ended production in 1966, although unsold cars lingered at dealerships for several years afterward.

Total production of the Coune Berlinette eventually came to 56 cars, the first six bodied in steel, the rest in fiberglass. Except for Walter Oldfield’s car, all were left-hand drive. Most Berlinettes were sold in Belgium or the Netherlands, but at least two cars eventually made it to the U.S.


Add a Comment
  1. Excellent article …as usual!!

    Interestingly, the MGB seems to never die! Nearly all new parts are still easily available at surprisingly reasonable cost from companies like Moss Motors.

  2. I think Jetronic is a Bosch trademark–or did Lucas plan to take out a license from Bosch?

    Sounds like British Leyland had the same problem with the per-body fee for the B that Hudson did with the Jet.

    1. [quote]I think Jetronic is a Bosch trademark–or did Lucas plan to take out a license from Bosch?[/quote]

      They did. The system Lucas created for the O-series MGB was essentially one third of the system used in the contemporary Jaguar XJ-S V-12, which was a licensed version of Bosch’s D-Jetronic.

      [quote]Sounds like British Leyland had the same problem with the per-body fee for the B that Hudson did with the Jet.[/quote]

      Yup, a similar situation.

  3. [quote=Administrator]The system Lucas created for the O-series MGB was essentially one third of the system used in the contemporary Jaguar XJ-S V-12, which was a licensed version of Bosch’s D-Jetronic. [/quote]
    Even this shows how sadly "behind" BL was. The original D-Jetronic system first appeared on the 1968 VW Type 3 cars, and by the mid-1970s was already on its way out. The much simpler electro-mechanical (as opposed to electronic) K-Jetronic system was in common use from 1975 onward, and even that was in the process of being replaced by the fully electronic L-Jetronic system by the time the O-series engine was intended to be released.

    1. [quote]even that was in the process of being replaced by the fully electronic L-Jetronic system by the time the O-series engine was intended to be released. [/quote]

      This is also true, although Andrew Bywater of AJ6 Engineering notes that part of the motivation in using the older system was probably a desire for greater reliability. If you’re going to build something under license, I suppose it makes sense to choose a product that’s a well-known quantity with a substantial service history. Bosch may also have offered a significantly better deal on the D-Jetronic system than their brand shiny new L-Jetronic, which would have been attractive to cash-strapped British Leyland.

  4. In another example of BL’s horrendous management, Pressed Steel-Fisher, the MGB’s body supplier, had been a wholly-owned subsidiary of BMC/BMH/BL since 1965. In fact, it was BMC control of Pressed Steel that pushed William Lyons into the BMH merger, fearing threatened by having Jaguar’s bodies produced by a direct competitor in the luxury arena.

    All it would have taken was a few strokes of the accountant’s pen to write off PSF’s tooling investment and supply MG in a normal internal fashion. BL would have taken a small, immediate accounting charge, and the B would have been more profitable for the remainder of production. Either an example of a general lack of interest in MG versus Triumph, or total incompetence.

    1. I talked a little about the Pressed Steel/Jaguar situation in a sidebar in the article on the E-type Jaguar. I don’t know how threatened Sir William felt by BMC’s buyout of Pressed Steel before Donald Stokes offered a merger with Standard-Triumph later that year. The number of BMC products that competed directly with Jaguar was still relatively limited — the Vanden Plas Princess 4-litre R, perhaps the big Healeys — but Sir William decided that if he merged with Standard-Triumph, BMC’s principal rival, there was a strong chance of retaliation. According to Keith Adams, Sir William also looked at the merger craze spreading through the industry and realized that if Jaguar were acquired, it might not be by his choice. In that light, cozying up to BMC seemed prudent, and it certainly allowed Jaguar to retain more of its identity after the merger.

      I’m not an accountant, and my knowledge of British law is limited to the viewing of the odd BBC drama, so I have no idea what kind of fiscal implications would have been involved in restating or writing off the tooling costs; that probably would have been an additional concern.

      I suspect the real problem was finding someone in a position to actually authorize it. One of British Leyland’s biggest problems was its sheer size — more than a hundred different companies, with offices and factories scattered throughout the UK. (The fact that many of those companies had recently been bitter rivals certainly didn’t help.) If something involved multiple divisions, it almost certainly had to be authorized and supported by someone quite high up the food chain; I assume neither MG, Austin-Morris, nor PS-F had the authority to make such a change. By most accounts, senior BL officials were often quite overwhelmed by the scope of their responsibilities, and it was easy for that kind of relatively minor accounting detail to be lost in the shuffle. That in itself wouldn’t necessarily be a sign of either incompetence (except insofar as it reflected the inadequacies of BL’s management systems) or favoritism. There are instances where the latter was clearly a primary factor (like Lord Stokes’ instance that the winning Austin-Morris design in the corporate sports car competition should be built as a Triumph, not an MG), but I think the larger problem was that BL was so unwieldy and its executives spent so much time doing triage that the forest was often lost for the trees.

  5. Hi and thanks for a very interesting read. I read about the MGb O series a little while ago and was lucky enough to get my hands on an O series engine complete with twin carbs from an SD1. After a little fettling I mated it to a standard B box. The car pulls extremely well and is very capable against modern cars. If I could do it with just a few hobby tools and a small workshop then why on earth BL did not try it is beyond me. Thanks again Mike.

    1. In some ways, swapping an engine into a single car is simpler, because you can just keep fiddling until it works properly. Certainly, there’s a lot less paperwork! It wasn’t that fitting the O-series was a great technical challenge, it’s that it required a commitment of engineering resources, including adapting the Lucas Jetronic injection system for the U.S. cars and going through the various certifications for crash testing and federal and California emissions standards, including the EPA’s 50,000 mile (80,000 km) durability tests. The irony is that BL did ultimately do much of that work, only to cancel it at the last minute anyway.

    2. I’m interested in your O Series conversion. Could you send me your email address as I have a few questions…..cheers Rob

  6. Hello Aaron,

    let me first of all congatulate you with your fantastic website: it is very nice indeed!

    Secondly I am very pleased with the picture you put in it.

    For fun I also gave you the webadress to have a look on some more pictures of my car.

    Best regrds,

    Axel Volker
    Leusden, the Netherlands

  7. great article. Is it correct to say that only 1,000 1980 Mgb limited edition were shipped to the USA.

    1. No — the 1,000-unit figure was for the British-market Limited version that closed out production. I think there were significantly more than 1,000 U.S.-market Limited Editions.

  8. I’m sorry it took me five years to come across this, but I was very interested to see the thread about Jim Stimson, who used to work for Syd Enever but had started off at Cowley. Jim was always insistent that he had drawn up a coupe MGB with a higher roof but that when Syd Enever showed the result to (I assume) Harrimann, he was told to ship a roadster and his drawings out to Pininfarina. I have to say that other former colleagues of Stimposon’s were often unsure of what had happened (they weren’t necessarily involved in some of the forward prototype work, and Stimpson worked in the Boilerhouse at Abingdon, away from prying eyes) but Jim was quite assertive about it, and I wrote more in my recent “MG V8” book. Stimpson also claimed detailed authorship of the long nose used on the MGB at Le Mans.

    1. If he did come up with the idea first, I can certainly understand his exasperation with seeing it attributed to Pininfarina! I’ve seen various examples in other organizations in which ideas are suddenly taken more seriously when an outside consultant says them, even if the consultant is really just repeating things the staff have said or suggested previously. While I obviously don’t know for sure if that was the case here, it certainly happens often enough to seem plausible.

  9. Does anyone have any info on the missing MGB Targa. Its not mentioned here and Im trying to gather up info on the car to be able to build one. I have been hunting photo’s and to date have 5 and 2 newspaper article, thats taken 2 yrs. I have all the google stuff. but anything else would help, thanks.

  10. I had a 1971 MGB GT which I purchased 18 months old from a daughter of the President of the Ferrari owners club. I was told it was one of 6 made in Italy by Alfa Romao who were going to build them ( under licence) but then the agreement fell through for some reason.
    Not sure now whether story was true or just sales talk by owner.
    However it did have an aluminium bonnet & boot lid. I put a Downton conversion on it that made it quicker than a friends MGC
    Sold it in 1976 due to arrival of 2nd babs. Great car !!

    1. Without some kind of documentary evidence, my inclination is to be skeptical of the story. BMC did of course have various local production deals, some in Italy — see also the Innocenti Mini — but I have a hard time seeing why Alfa Romeo would be interested in building the MGB GT, which would have competed with the Alfa Giulia Sprint. Also, by 1971, British Leyland was expecting the MGB to expire in the near future, replaced (along with the Triumph TR6) by the Triumph TR7. The auto industry is full of weird deals, so if somebody says, “No, no, funny story, but it’s true, look at this evidence,” I’ll take that, but my off-the-cuff response is, “That doesn’t sound right at all…”

  11. looking for my 1968 MGB red with black and red interior. with 6 cylinder Capri engine

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