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

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.

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.

THE V8 MGB

In the fall of 1967, MG introduced the MGC, a six-cylinder version of the MGB, powered by the 2,912 cc (178 cu. in.) engine from the Austin 3-litre sedan. While this sounded good on paper, the big six played hob with the B’s weight distribution and handling and the motoring press had promptly beaten the C about the ears. Sales were poor and the MGC was withdrawn in 1969.

The 1968 merger between BMC and the Leyland Motor Corporation had many unfortunate ramifications for MG, but it also presented an intriguing opportunity for a different big-engine B. In 1967, Leyland had acquired Rover, which had recently begun manufacturing its own version of Buick’s old all-aluminum V8 for use in the P5 and P6 sedans. The lightweight, compact 3,528 cc (215 cu. in.) engine soon had the British aftermarket salivating and led the press to speculate whether British Leyland would install the V8 in the MGB. Despite its greater displacement, the Rover V8 was only a few pounds heavier than the B-series four and seemed like a much better match for the MGB’s chassis than did the bulky C-series six.

1969 MGC GT front
A rare North American MGC. The MGC’s distinctive bonnet bulge (with a second, smaller bulge for the carburetors) was necessitated by the installation of the big C-series six, shared with the Austin 3-litre. The MGC was not a commercial success and only about 9,000 were built before production ended in August 1969.

(Some sources assert that the Rover engine actually weighed less than the B-series, which had a dry weight of about 360 lb (163 kg). While Buick quoted a dry weight of 318 lb (144 kg) for its original 215 cu. in. (3,528 cc) V8, both the Oldsmobile and Rover versions had many minor design variations and were somewhat heavier than the early Buick engine. Dutch Rover enthusiast Rene Winters cites a dry weight of 375 lb (170 kg) for the Rover engine, which would make it 17 lb (8 kg) heavier than the B-series four — still a very modest penalty given the V8’s substantially greater displacement and power.)

At first, British Leyland had no such intention. The fact that Triumph was about to introduce its own V8 sports car, the Stag — powered not by the Rover engine, but by a new 2,997 cc (183 cu. in.) SOHC V8 — may have had something to do with that; a 3.5-liter MGB would have been a direct competitor. According to Robin Weatherall, Austin-Morris engineering director Charles Griffin did explore the possibility of installing the Rover engine in the MGB, but declared in November 1970 that it would be impossible without substantially widening the engine bay.

Around the same time, Abingdon proposed an entirely different V8 MGB using the aluminum Daimler V8, either the 2,548 cc (153 cu. in.) version from the Daimler SP250 sports car or the 4,561 cc (278 cu. in.) engine from the big Daimler Majestic Major. Mock-ups were built to see if the Daimler engine would fit, but it appears that this combination was never seriously considered for production.

1973 MG MGB GT V8 engine © 2007 Axel Volker (used with permission)
Although quite a few MGB owners have performed private engine swaps, this MGB GT has the factory V8’s unusual “lobster claw” intake manifold, which enabled the Rover engine to fit in the B’s engine bay without an MGC-style bonnet bulge. With two S.U. HIF6 carburetors, the 3,528 cc (215 cu. in.) engine was rated at 137 hp DIN (101 kW) and 193 lb-ft (261 N-m) of torque. (Photo: “mgb gt v8” © 2007 Axel Volker; used with permission)

Griffin didn’t realize at the time that not only was it possible to install the Rover engine in the MGB, the aftermarket had already done it. In 1969, racing driver Ken Costello had installed the Oldsmobile version of the 3.5-liter engine (from the original Oldsmobile F-85/Cutlass) in a borrowed MGB roadster with promising results. Before long, Costello was building similar cars for friends. He soon formed his own company in Kent, the V8 Conversion Company, offering Rover V8 conversions for customers’ MGB coupes and roadsters. It was an expensive swap, at around £1,000 (about $2,400), but it provided impressive performance with little sacrifice of the stock MGB’s balance and handling.

The Costello conversions received enthusiastic reviews in the motoring press, which in turn came to the attention of British Leyland. In May 1971, Costello received a letter from Charles Griffin inviting him to Longbridge to demonstrate his conversion to Griffin and technical director Harry Webster. Two weeks after that, Costello was summoned to a meeting with chairman Donald Stokes (now Lord Stokes), who commissioned Costello to build a prototype for a production MGB V8, providing a new GT coupe and Rover engine for that purpose.

1970 MGB roadster nose
1973 MGB roadster nose
The 1970 MGB (top) had an unpopular new recessed grille, added at the behest of British Leyland management, which considered the earlier chrome grille both dated and too expensive to produce. J. Bruce McWilliams, head of British Leyland’s North American operations, so detested the recessed grille that he pushed for an immediate replacement, which appeared for the 1972 model year. The new grille (bottom) combined the earlier chrome surround with a cheaper black plastic insert, restoring some of the flavor of the early MGB at a lower cost. Early V8 cars shared this grille, albeit with “V8” badges; it was replaced in mid-1974 by the new “rubber-bumper” nose.

The production V8, known internally as ADO75, was a more elaborate conversion than Costello’s engine swap, utilizing some of the beefier drivetrain components developed for the defunct MGC. The compact Rover engine didn’t require the MGC’s altered front suspension, although the front crossmember was modified to ensure proper ground clearance, the radiator was moved forward, and the firewall was reshaped to accommodate the V8 bell housing. Rather than using the high-compression V8 from the Rover 3500, Abingdon opted for the mildly tuned Range Rover engine, which still had ample power and was more readily available. (It also put less of a strain on the gearbox, whose torque capacity was sorely tested by the bigger engine.)

The V8 made the ADO75 the fastest stock MGB to date. While the Rover engine was at least nominally less powerful than the old MGC — 137 hp DIN (101 kW) to the MGC’s 145 net horsepower (108 kW) — the V8’s power-to-weight ratio was decisively better. MG advertising claimed a top speed of 124 mph (200 km/h) and 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) in 8.3 seconds, which was certainly conservative. Since weight and weight distribution were similar to the four-cylinder MGB’s, the V8’s steering, handling, and braking were little changed, but the MGB now had the muscle to face rivals like the Datsun 240Z, Reliant Scimitar GTE, and Ford Capri 3000. Furthermore, the tuning potential of the Rover engine was well known.

Abingdon announced the new model, prosaically dubbed MGB GT V8, in August 1973. With a starting price of £2,085.42 with tax (around $5,000 at the contemporary exchange rate), it cost almost 50% more than a four-cylinder MGB roadster. The V8 was still cheaper than a UK-market 240Z, which was subject to heavy import duties, but an uncomfortable £430 (over $1,000) more than the Ford Capri 3000GT, which had similar performance in a more modern package. The V8 also had the misfortune to bow just before the 1973 OPEC oil embargo, which made buyers shy away from powerful, thirsty cars.

1973 MG MGB GT V8 front 3q © 2009 Gazh Photography (used with permission)
Although the V8 fit equally well in the MGB roadster and the GT — former MG engineer Donald Hayter later owned a MGB roadster powered by the original development engine — the factory offered the Rover engine only in the coupe. Other than its badges, distinctive alloy wheels, and standard tinted windows, the MGB GT V8 looked just like a four-cylinder GT, an undoubted advantage in stoplight drag racing, but not very reassuring to the V8 buyer who had laid out an extra £700-odd (about $1,700) for the big engine. All GT V8s had a four-speed gearbox with standard Laycock de Normanville overdrive, usable only in fourth; the Borg-Warner automatic had been discontinued by the time the V8 went on sale. (Photo: “MGB GT V8” © 2009 Gazh Photography; used with permission)

The V8 would probably have done better in the U.S. even after the embargo; by the standards of the American market, it was practically an economy car. British Leyland showed the MGB GT V8 to its North American distributors and Abingdon did build a small number of LHD cars — between six and nine — for evaluation, but the company ultimately elected not to export the V8.

The reasons for that decision are not entirely clear. The cost of federalization was likely a factor; the Rover 3500 had already been withdrawn from the U.S. market, with the Range Rover slated for withdrawal in 1974, and the projected volume of the MGB V8 probably would not have justified the cost of emissions certification (although it was crash tested). British Leyland management may also have wanted to protect the upcoming Triumph TR7 — BL withdrew the four-cylinder MGB GT from the U.S. market in early 1975 for much the same reason.

There have long been rumors — repeated by John Thornley, among others — that Rover’s licensing agreement with GM limited Rover’s total production of the V8, presumably to prevent Rover from competing with GM’s own products. However, Dan Wall, Rover’s head of V8 engine development in the seventies, later told David Knowles that Wall knew of no such restrictions. He said GM executives had long since lost interest in the aluminum engine, which Buick had dropped in 1963, and were more bemused than threatened by Rover’s continued interest in it. Nonetheless, there were limits to Rover’s engine production capacity, most of which was already earmarked for Rover’s own products, including the P6, the Range Rover, and the forthcoming SD1.

1974 MGB GT dash
The MGB’s dashboard was redesigned for the 1972 model year, restoring the glove box, and again in 1977 to meet revised U.S. safety regulations. This 1974 GT has new stalk-mounted controls for the lights and wipers, adopted on V8 cars the previous year.

Whatever the rationale, the lack of exports sharply curtailed the V8’s sales potential. With no LHD version, the MGB GT V8 couldn’t be sold in Europe (where the market would probably have been limited in any event) and it was too expensive for most Britons, particularly during the fuel crisis. MG continued to offer the MGB GT V8 through the 1977 model year, but sales never topped 800 a year. When production ended in July 1976, the grand total came to only 2,591 cars, making it one of the rarest factory MGBs. Ken Costello, meanwhile, did about 225 conversions in the seventies and another batch in the late eighties.

THE RUBBER-BUMPER B

While the V8 came and went, a second intended MGB successor, known internally as ADO21, also failed to make production. Styled by Harris Mann and Paul Hughes of the Austin-Morris design office in Longbridge, the ADO21 was a wedge-shaped, mid-engine coupe with fashionable “flying buttress” sail panels. It was to have had a De Dion rear suspension and a choice of three engines: the 1,275 cc (78 cu. in.) A-series four from the Mini Cooper 1275GT, the new 1,748 cc (107 cu. in.) E4, or the 2,227 cc (136) E6. The smaller engine would allow the ADO21 to succeed the Spridget and Triumph Spitfire, but the six-cylinder E-series engines would have made it a credible successor to the MGB and MGC as well. Had the car made it to production, it might well have been called the MGD.

British Leyland’s enthusiasm for the ADO21 gradually diminished throughout 1970. The main problem appears to have been cost. Although the ADO21 used or adapted many components from other Austin Morris products, it would probably have been significantly more expensive to build than the MGB. Moreover, British Leyland’s market research showed that the vital American market strongly preferred conventional engineering. The ADO21 was finally canceled in late December and the prototype was scrapped about a year later.

(Some sources suggest that the ADO21 lost an in-house competition with a Triumph design that later became the TR7, but author David Knowles says that was not the case. The TR7 did indeed emerge from a design contest between Austin-Morris and Triumph, but while the Austin-Morris entry — also styled by Harris Mann — was badged as an MG, it was not the ADO21, which had died months earlier. Roy Brocklehurst, who succeeded Syd Enever as MG’s chief engineer in 1971, felt that the ADO21 did influence the TR7, but its impact, if any, was stylistic rather than mechanical.)

1974 MGB GT front
The 1974 MGB’s rubber overriders — nicknamed “Sabrinas,” after a well-known, buxom British actress of the fifties — added about 6 inches (152 mm) to the B’s overall length. North American models were now down to 78.5 horsepower (58 kW) due to a lower compression ratio and other changes for EPA emissions certification. This was the final year for the U.S. MGB GT; the hatchback coupe was withdrawn in early 1975, although it remained on sale in the UK.

With the collapse of the ADO21 project, the four-cylinder MGB soldiered on. If it had continued unmolested, that might not have been so bad, but the latest American safety standards made that impossible. Starting in 1973, U.S. regulations required bumpers capable of withstanding a 5 mph (8 km/h) frontal impact and a 2.5 mph (4 km/h) rear impact, increased the following year to 5 mph (8 km/h) both front and rear. By 1975, the bumpers also had to absorb that impact without any damage to the body structure or frame. It was an extremely challenging requirement, especially for cars that had been designed more than a decade before the standards were even conceived.

Since failure to meet the new requirements would force the withdrawal of the MGB from the American market, the engineers at Abingdon worked frantically to find alternatives. As a stopgap, early 1974 MGBs added comically large rubber overriders to the existing bumpers. These were replaced late in the year by completely new steel bumpers with conformal plastic covers to integrate them with the shape of the body. This was arguably a more satisfactory solution than the massive chrome battering rams of many contemporary Detroit cars, which would have been disastrous on the MGB. The new bumpers’ aesthetic impact probably would have been mitigated if they had been body-colored, like those of the later Porsche 924 and 928, but they were available only in flat black, which gave the B a somewhat unfinished appearance.

1974 1/2 MGB roadster bumper
The late-model MGB’s “rubber” bumpers are really hollow polyurethane shells concealing the beefy steel structure that provided the actual impact absorption. A wire screen behind the air intakes protects the radiator from debris. Unlike the earlier recessed grille, which was imposed by British Leyland, the new bumpers were developed by Abingdon under the supervision of body engineer Jim O’Neill, who later defended the rubber bumpers as the best available solution to a very difficult problem.

At the same time, the four-cylinder MGB was raised about 1.5 inches (38 mm) to comply with new U.S. bumper-height requirements. This wreaked havoc on the B’s center of gravity, compounded on roadsters by the deletion of the front anti-roll bar, apparently as a cost-saving measure. The result was substantial body lean and a much tipsier feel than earlier MGBs, only partially mitigated by the belated standardization of front and rear anti-roll bars in 1977.

The redesigned bumpers also contributed to the MGB’s burgeoning curb weight, which was beginning to approach that of the old MGC. That was bad enough for unrestricted British cars, but North American Bs had to be detuned significantly to meet federal emissions standards, losing their dual exhausts and trading their twin S.U.s for a single Zenith-Stromberg carburetor. Power ratings quietly disappeared from MG’s advertising and brochures.

While the motoring press averted its collective eyes, these various indignities had surprisingly little impact on the MGB’s popularity. Business was down from its early-seventies peak, but the B was still good for between 20,000 and 30,000 sales a year, comparable to its mid-sixties volume. The MGB had outlived several direct rivals and few of the ones that remained were in significantly better shape. The late “rubber-bumper” B had become a sort of aging diva — no longer as trim, pretty, or graceful as it had once been, but still sustained by the loyalty of its many fans.

1979 MGB roadster rear
We suspect that body-colored bumpers, like the “Elastometric” bumper covers that Chrysler offered on the 1970-1974 Plymouth Barracuda and Dodge Challenger, would have done wonders for the appearance of the late-model MGB. Unfortunately, Abingdon was unable to find a sufficiently flexible paint; none of their experiments proved durable enough for production. A proposed facelift of the MGB, known internally as ADO76, would have offered bumpers molded in different colors, but that project never came to fruition.

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.

1979 MGB roadster front 3q
The black-bumper MGB was almost an inch (23 mm) shorter than the “Sabrina” model of 1974, but was quite a bit heavier: Curb weight was now more than 2,400 lb (1,095 kg). Unrestricted British cars still had 97 hp DIN (71 kW), but by 1975, North American Bs were down to 62.5 net horsepower (47 kW), making for rather sedate straight-line performance. Abingdon planned to address that shortfall in 1981 by switching to the 1,994 cc (122 cu. in.) O-series engine, but the MGB was canceled shortly before production was to begin.

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.

1980 MGB Limited Edition front 3q
For 1980, North American MGBs were back up to 67 net horsepower (50 kW) and 94 lb-ft (127 N-m) of torque, although they were still much slower than the old Mk 1 and Mk 2 cars. According to engineer Terry Mitchell, if the planned O-series engine had gone into production for 1981, U.S. Bs would have had about 95 net horsepower (71 kW), British cars a healthy 127 hp (95 kW). Abingdon also experimented with a turbocharged O-series engine, which would have up to 160 horsepower (119 kW).

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.

1980 MGB Limited Edition wheel
The North American MGB Limited Edition was introduced in 1979 and eventually sold nearly 6,700 copies. All American Limited Editions were black with silver tape stripes, five-spoke alloy wheels, and an under-nose spoiler. The 1981 British Limited Edition had the same spoiler and wheels, but was offered only in bronze or pewter.

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.

1990 Mazda Miata front 3q
A first-year Mazda MX-5 Miata (chassis code NA). The original Miata had a 1,598 cc (98 cu. in.) DOHC four, making 116 hp (87 kW) SAE with manual transmission, 105 hp (78 kW) with automatic. With a curb weight of only 2,100 lb (955 kg), it was capable of reaching 60 mph (97 km/h) in around nine seconds and won much acclaim for its steering and handling response. Cheap, economical, and definitely cheerful, the MX-5 was an immediate hit: Mazda sold 250,000 of them in only three years. Total MX-5 production has since reached more than 800,000 units.

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.

1993 MG RV8 front 3q © 2009 Gazh Photography (used with permission)
Although the MG RV8 was based on the British Motor Heritage MGB body, it had new fenders, bumpers, and grille. It was 4.5 inches (114 mm) longer than the original MGB roadster on a fractionally longer 91.7-in (2,330mm) wheelbase, retaining the B’s live axle and rear drum brakes, but adding trailing arms to help locate the axle. With a manufacturer curb weight of 2,825 lb (1,280 kg) and 190 hp DIN (140 kW) from its 3,947 cc (241 cu. in.) V8, performance was brisk. Rover claimed 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) in less than 7 seconds and a top speed of 135 mph (217 km/h). (Photo: “MG RV8 (A newer and more grown up MGB)” © 2009 Gazh Photography; used with permission)

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.

THE MGF

In the spring of 1995, Rover Group finally launched its all-new MG sports car, the MGF. Although it bore little resemblance to the B, the F revived several concepts from the long-forgotten EX234 and ADO21, including a mid-mounted engine and Hydragas suspension. The MGF was a thoroughly competent effort, but it somehow lacked the magic of past MGs. It did reasonably well, selling around 77,000 units through 2001, but it could not match the popularity of the MX-5, in part because it was never sold in the U.S.

1997 MG MGF VVC front 3q © 2012 free photos (CC BY 2.0 Generic)
A 1997 MGF with the 1,795 cc (110 cu. in.) VVC (variable valve control) engine, offering 143 hp (107 kW). An MGF with the VVC engine had brisk performance and fine agility, although it draw complaints from some reviewers for its numb electrically assisted steering. (Photo: “1997 MG MGF 1.8 I VVC” © 2012 free photos; used under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license)

The F was revamped in 2002, trading its Hydragas suspension for steel springs and conventional dampers. Renamed MG TF, it survived until the bankruptcy of Rover Group in 2005. It was subsequently resurrected by Nanjing Automobile Group, which is now part of the Shanghai Automotive Industry Corporation (SAIC). As of this writing, it appears that TF is still at least nominally available in the UK market, although SAIC suspended production in late 2009. In 2010, there were reports in the press that a replacement would debut by 2013, but as of this writing, one has yet to materialize.

MG, so often at the bottom of the corporate pecking order, ended up the last survivor of the old Nuffield and BMC brands; Riley died in 1969, Wolseley in 1975, Morris in 1983, and Austin in 1987. MG also had the satisfaction of outlasting Triumph, which disappeared after 1984. Some of those marques may eventually return — BMW owns Riley and Triumph along with the MINI brand and we believe SAIC has the rights to the Austin, Morris, and Wolseley names as well as MG — but we wouldn’t be surprised to see MG outlive them all.

Whatever the future holds, the B will always be a huge part of MG’s legacy, not least because the MGB accounts for nearly one-third of all the cars MG has built since 1923. BMC’s sometimes erratic record-keeping leaves its production figures open to question, but Anders Ditlev Clausager estimates that total MGB production (including CKD kits, but not the MGB GT V8) was approximately 512,000. If we add the GT V8, MGC, and MG RV8, they bring the grand total to almost 526,000. To our knowledge, the only other sports cars to better that figure are the Chevrolet Corvette, the Mazda RX-7, the Nissan Z-car, and the Mazda MX-5, which topped the MGB around 2001. Even their fans, however, will readily agree that the ‘vette, Z, and RX-7 really aren’t in the same category and we’re not sure the Miata would even have been conceived if not for the earlier success of the MGB. The B was not a pioneer in any technical sense; in some respects, it was rather dated even when it bowed and it was positively antiquated by the time production ended. Nonetheless, it set a standard that continues to this day and it remains a milestone car.

# # #


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!

For the record, the author has never owned an MG or, for that matter, a Miata (although he has owned and even participated in owner focus groups on other Mazda cars).


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32 Comments

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  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.

      1. I should perhaps clarify the point about Pininfarina; their work unquestionably transformed the MGB GT into the good looking car that it became – even Jim Stimson was keen to acknowledge that. Sergio Pininfarina personally told me that in his opinion, the MGB GT was the best looking design for BMC that came out of his company. Meanwhile those interested in the story have looked for more evidence; suffice to say I have found some, and it will be in my next MGB book, due for publication in 2020…

  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.

    1. Do you mean the Jacques Coune Targa?

  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…”

      1. I agree. A good pub yarn without any hard evidence. Reminds me of the ‘genuine factory MGB Daimler V8’ which I found was no such thing. Last known in Switzerland in the ownership of someone who probably didn’t like discovering the truth.

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

  12. It is interesting to note that unlike the MGC and stillborn Big Healey version, an attempt was belatedly made to differentiate the MGB GT V8 Coupe from the MGB sometime in the early/mid-1970s though coming came of it, via a clay mock up on page 147 of David Knowles – MG: The Untold Story book with the overall shape intended as a sort of “junior” Jaguar XJ-S and the front end even featuring a Jaguar-like nose (though the lack of grille on the clay mock up is almost reminiscent of the Bristol Blenheim 3S/4S).

    1. Yeah, the MGB story is littered with interesting ideas — some perfectly reasonable, some perhaps a stretch under the best of conditions — punctuated by a lack of money and a low place on the list of corporate priorities.

      1. Indeed. Read also in same book of Aston Martin proposal eventual rebodies of the MGB had they been successful in acquiring the MGB from BL.

        Despite already being considered a success the MGB has always come across as a compromised design, due to neither featuring IRS let alone a 2-litre+ engine from the outset which could have further prolonged its production without the 13 year gap between the MGB and MG RV8.

        Could an MGB plus derivatives receiving the sum of proposed improvements have made it even more of success where outside of the occasional rebody or few, there is less of a need to replace it until a proper successor is developed?

        ADO21 was unviable outside of the styling which was used for the TR7 and the Healey WAEC needed a more potent engine, while the EX234 was a Midget replacement that could have taken over from the 4-cyliner MGBs (the latter featuring 6-cylinder / V8 engines), been updated with R6 Metro-type interconnected Hydragas (think front-engined RWD MGF predecessor) as well as carried over the styling of ADO21.

        1. The question is not so much, “Could the B have been improved or modernized to good effect?” — the answer to that is indubitably “yes” — but, “Would it have made a commercially meaningful difference?” The MGB was basically a late ’50s design soldiering on through the sales inertia granted the gradual extinction of most rivals. It was not unlike the position the Mazda MX-5/Miata has occupied in more recent years, where it had an obvious niche that was sustainable, but only so long as there was not a lot of direct competition. That niche was not about the MGB being a modern car or even a particularly good one by ’70s standards (much less ’80s ones), but about it being a cute small roadster for a not-horrendous price. Would customers, particularly American ones, have welcomed a bit more power and a less choppy ride? Sure. Would those qualities have persuaded more people to buy an MGB? I’m inclined to say probably not.

          I don’t doubt the MGB could have continued soldiering on through much of the ’80s had Aston Martin continued production, but my suspicion is that the more ambitious proposals would have ended up falling by the wayside because Aston was not exactly flush with cash and sooner or later someone would have done the math and grasped that the extra expense would just make the car less profitable (or possibly a money-loser) rather than more successful.

          Periodically of late, I see late-night TV infomercials for various skin creams that are supposed to fill in lines and hide wrinkles and baggy skin. The demonstration phase of those infomercials shows that, at least under those selective conditions, the cream or remedy does temporarily mask certain lines and create the appearance of smoother skin. What it does not do, and could not do, would be to make the subject look younger. Does a 70-year-old with four sets of visible creases around his eyes look better than one with six or eight sets of creases? Arguably, I suppose, but I’d be hard-pressed to say the reduction in wrinkle-count makes him look less than 70.

          As a separate matter, I don’t think history has validated the merits of Hydragas. Even the MGF, much more modern than the proposed MGB successors/evolutions, did not demonstrate any particular ride or handling advantage over a well-tuned conventional suspension, certainly not enough to justify the cost and repair/replacement issues. There is a tendency to throw technology at automotive suspensions when something less elaborate would serve as well or better if the designers would hire some competent chassis tuning experts who can properly sort the balance of springs, dampers, bushings, and tires. It’s only been quite recently, in a historical sense, that features like adjustable shock absorbers, air springs, or active anti-roll bars have become more than just a costly brochure gimmick, and I can’t help suspecting that they’d be less worthwhile if not for the modern fad for giant, heavy wheels with ultra-low-aspect-ratio tires.

          1. While an argument can be made about the merits of Hydrolastic / Hydragas (IMHO its potential was constrained by BL’s financial problems and was said to work very well in both the Rover Metro/100 and the Minki-II prototype), EX234 does give an idea as to how the MGB could have been replaced.

            Essentially EX234 would replace both the Midget and the MGB featuring 1300-2000cc 4-cylinder engines, with an upscaled 6-cylinder and V8 version replacing the MGC / GT V8. Meanwhile the gap below EX234 could be filled by the Mini-based prototypes like ADO34 (plus ADO35/ADO36) and ADO70 featuring 1000-1300cc engines.

            You are probably correct that such models (sans Mini-based sportscars) would likely feature conventional (ideally all-independent) suspension, OTOH it is possible there would be two different versions depending on which side of the Atlantic they are sold at.

            In terms of suitable styling for the 1970s and beyond it is a dilemma, the Pininfarina styling of EX234 needs more work IMHO though quite like the look of the ADO21 (particularly at the rear) sans rear flying buttresses and pop-up headlights though a composite of the former with the styling of the Rover SD1 (particularly at the front) could work (especially since the latter was such a departure for Rover from the P6 in the same way the TR7 was for Triumph from the TR6 with both SD1 and TR7 styling actually being better suited for MG).

            As for the MGB itself would have been content with it receiving a 106 hp 2-litre B-Series (possibly even a 112-115 hp 2-litre B-OHC), IRS as well as either a 2.4-3-litre B-Series 6-cylinder or a properly-developed (and significantly lightened) C-Series for the MGC prior to gradually being replaced by the early/mid-1970s. One could make a case for a reliable properly developed version of the MGA’s 1.6 B-Series Twin-Cam engine that grows to 2-litres and spawns inline-6 variants, yet the Twin-Cam was still likely to be a limited-run engine as opposed to a genuine productionized challenger to the Alfa Romeo Twin-Cam.

          2. Well, as the article says, BL did the work on putting the 2-liter O-Series in the MGB, although that didn’t come to pass.

            I don’t know that the EX234 would have found a strong market. It had its interesting points, but Bruce Williams’ remarks about the American market also applied. The Toyota Celica (q.v.) ended up being more what U.S. buyers wanted in a sport coupe; it was uncomplicated (and the U.S. didn’t get the twin-cam or injected versions), economical, affordable, and well-built, which went a long way toward making up for its lack of verve.

          3. That is true. However BMC did look at a 106 hp 2-litre B-Series OHV a few times during the early/mid-1960s, yet by the time they actually considered putting a 112-115 hp 2-litre B-OHC into production it could not be built due to the tooling being past its prime.

            Am not 100% sold on the EX234’s Pininfarina styling though it could have potentially had a fairly long production life due to being more sophisticated compared to both the Midget and MGB as well as indirectly taking over from the original Lotus Elan (prior to the original Mazda MX5). Cannot say whether EX234 would have would spawned a 2+2 GT coupe or even have enough room in the engine bay for the Rover V7, yet would not be surprised if either is the case.

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