THE END OF ABINGDON
The MGB’s twilight should have been its golden years in terms of profit, but BMC’s arrangement with Pressed Steel back when the ADO23 was first launched meant that the tooling costs had never actually been paid and thus could not be paid off. Instead, Abingdon was (according to Wilson McComb) still paying a flat per-car fee for each body shell just as the factory had been at the beginning of production.
As with the Mini, the MGB left BL in a cruel bind. The roadster was no longer profitable and it didn’t sell well enough to justify any substantial changes, but it was too popular to kill, at least without risking a dealer revolt. Even in its declining years, the B still accounted for more than 30% of British Leyland’s U.S. sales and regularly outsold the much-newer Triumph TR7.
This dilemma was exacerbated by shifts in the sterling-dollar exchange rate. After dropping sharply in 1976 — a crisis that forced Britain’s Callaghan government to seek a £2.3 billion ($3.9 billion) line of credit from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) — the value of the pound had increased so much relative to the U.S. dollar that BL was now effectively selling its North American cars at a substantial loss despite repeated price increases.
By the time the 1980 models bowed in mid-1979, the disparity had reached alarming proportions. In the U.S., an MGB with overdrive started at around $8,200, which at the time was equivalent to perhaps £3,800. In the UK, a similarly equipped MGB tourer started at about £6,100, the equivalent of more than $13,000! The discrepancies in wholesale costs were not quite that bad, but by the end of the year, British Leyland admitted it was losing £900 (nearly $2,000) on every MGB sold in America. Even the most robust automaker couldn’t sustain such losses for long and British Leyland was anything but healthy.
By 1979, the political climate was also changing. Since 1975, British Leyland had been essentially a ward of the state, with 95% of its shares owned by the British government. The general elections in May 1979 brought a new prime minister and new Conservative government that was eager to distance itself from its Labour predecessor’s policy of nationalization and direct subsidies to industry. The new Thatcher government could not afford the political fallout of an immediate divestment, but Secretary of State for Industry Keith Joseph made it clear that there would be no more government money until British Leyland staunched its losses and brought its spiraling costs under control.
In September 1979, British Leyland staged a two-day gala to mark the golden anniversary of the MG plant in Abingdon. Few of the attendees realized it was actually a wake. The following Monday, BL chairman Sir Michael Edwardes announced that Abingdon would be closed at the end of the 1980 model year as part of a plan to cut BL’s workforce by 25,000 jobs. The factory’s demise would bring with it the end of both the Midget and the MGB.
The announcement was greeted with howls of protest, including public demonstrations and a letter-writing campaign, organized by former managing director John Thornley, asking MG dealers to oppose the closure. Some North American dealers threatened legal action if the MGB was canceled. J. Bruce McWilliams, the head of British Leyland’s North American organization, pushed to keep the B alive through at least 1984, but it was to no avail.
Edwardes later admitted that he hadn’t really grasped the loyalty that the MG brand commanded, but something had to give and Abingdon was among the least critical of British Leyland’s plants. The new pressure from Whitehall meant that the company’s first priority had to be mainstream products like the much-delayed Metro, so low-volume sports cars were once again deemed secondary. The MGB’s internecine rival, the Triumph TR7, would survive, although the Canley Triumph Works were also slated for closure; TR7 production would be transferred to the Rover plant in Solihull.
The decision to kill the MGB was particularly frustrating to Don Hayter, who had replaced Roy Brocklehurst as MG’s chief engineer in 1973. Embarrassed by the B’s increasingly anemic performance, Hayter had obtained permission to replace the elderly B-series engine with the new corporate O-series four, a 1,994 cc (122 cu. in.) OHC engine also used by the Austin Marina and later the base Rover SD1. North American Bs were to have Lucas Jetronic fuel injection, finally enabling them to pass their EPA tests with some honor intact. The O-series engine was originally slated to appear for 1977 along with an extensive cosmetic revamp known internally as ADO76, but the facelift was canceled and the new engine was pushed back to the 1981 model year. MG built about two dozen Bs with the O-series engine and Hayter says they had already completed U.S. emissions and crash testing when British Leyland brought down the ax.
In October 1979, Alan Curtis, the chairman of Aston Martin Lagonda, assembled a group of businessmen in a last-ditch effort to save the B. They offered British Leyland £30 million (about $70 million) for the Abingdon plant, the MGB’s design and tooling, and the rights to use the MG name. Their plan was to give the B a quick facelift courtesy of Aston Martin’s William Towns and continue production with minimal interruption. British Leyland’s initial enthusiasm for this idea was not high and it took around six months for the parties to reach an agreement. By then, Aston Martin was having financial problems of its own and was no longer able to put up its share of the money. The deal collapsed in the summer of 1980.
Perhaps the bitterest irony of the Aston Martin negotiations was that they derailed an internal plan to repurpose the Abingdon plant, adding a production facility for CKD kits and a new special vehicles unit. That plan would have allowed about a third of Abingdon’s workers to keep their jobs, but according to David Knowles, it was shelved when an agreement with the Curtis group seemed imminent. By the time the deal fell apart, British Leyland had made other arrangements and Abingdon was finished.
The last MGBs came off the line on October 23, 1980. British Leyland marketed a final 1,000 cars as 1981 Limited Edition models, priced at £6,445 (around $13,000) for the roadster, £6,937 (about $14,000) for the GT. The final U.S. MGB, a North American Limited Edition, was presented as a gift to Henry Ford II, who donated it to the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn. (It has changed hands several times since then and is now privately owned.)
THE RESURRECTION OF THE MGB
The demise of the Abingdon factory, the MGB, and the Midget did not mean the end of the MG name. British Leyland promptly applied it to the new Metro and later to the Maestro and Montego, where it survived through 1991.
Although the MGB was no longer in production, it still had a loyal following. The B had its faults, but it was a known quantity and both cars and parts were still in ample supply. By 1988, even complete body shells were once again available, thanks to David Keith of British Motor Heritage, a new division of the British Motor Industry Heritage Trust, British Leyland/Austin Rover/Rover Group’s museum and historical archives. Keith was able to salvage much of the MGB’s original tooling, allowing BMH to begin manufacturing small numbers of complete roadster (and later GT) bodies for high-end restorations.
A major reason for the MGB’s continuing popularity was that there were few modern equivalents; with the market’s newfound appetite for GTs and hot hatches, traditional sports cars had become rather thin on the ground. However, that suddenly changed in February 1989, with the arrival of Mazda’s MX-5 Miata. Although it looked more like an early Lotus Elan than an MG, the MX-5 was roughly the same size and weight as the old chrome-bumper MGB roadster, combining similar virtues with modern ergonomics and reliability.
The debut of the Miata was undoubtedly frustrating for MG fans, since the company formerly known as British Leyland (it had become Austin Rover in 1982 and Rover Group in 1986) had not offered a proper sports car since the demise of the Triumph TR7 and TR8 in 1981. There had been plans for a new MG Midget back in 1984, a much-publicized 1985 concept car called MG EX-E, and a design study for a Maestro-based FWD convertible, but none had come close to production. It was not until the debut of the Miata that Rover Group, now owned by British Aerospace, actually committed to developing a new MG sports car.
At the time, British Motor Heritage was already thinking of offering a complete turnkey MGB as a way to promote sales of its body shells. Since an all-new MG sports car was still at least three or four years away, Rover’s newly formed Special Products group (RSP) decided that a ‘new’ B would be a useful interim model. They took over the MGB revival project in the spring of 1990.
RSP’s plans soon evolved into a new car called Project Adder, based on the British Motor Heritage MGB roadster body. Since the project’s entire budget was only £5 million (about $8.5 million), RSP could only afford new fenders, a new front clip, and a revised interior with wood trim and a modern stereo system. With the old B-series engine long dead, Rover again opted for the aluminum V8 from the Range Rover, now with electronic fuel injection and a five-speed gearbox.
The new roadster, dubbed MG RV8, made its public debut in October 1992 and went on sale in early 1993. Press reaction was mixed. Most critics thought the RV8 was nicely executed and just seeing the MG octagon on something other than a family hatchback brought a nostalgic glow, but the updated interior and powertrain could not disguise the age of the basic platform. With an MSRP of £25,440 (around $42,000), the RV8 cost as much as some far more sophisticated modern sports cars and even many MG enthusiasts found the price hard to justify.
Rover had always represented the RV8 as a limited edition, but sales were disappointing nonetheless. Only 1,983 were built and more than 1,500 of those went to Japan, which also absorbed a similar percentage of Mini production. Since Rover no longer had a North American dealer network — its Sterling brand had expired in August 1991 — there was no attempt to federalize the RV8.
The final RV8 was completed on November 25, 1995. It was the last direct descendant of the MGB, although the continued availability of the British Motor Heritage shell meant that a sufficiently motivated fan could conceivably build a ‘new’ B from the ground up.