Conceived as an afterthought, savaged by the press, and hastily discarded by its maker, this six-cylinder version of the ubiquitous MGB has become the MG that time forgot. This week, we take a look at the story behind the rare and much-maligned 1968-1969 MGC.
BIG HEALEY AND THE B
By the standards of the early sixties, the first MGB had perfectly adequate performance: 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) took about 12 seconds, while top speed was perhaps 105 mph (170 km/h). Even at launch, however, it was hard-pressed by rivals like the Triumph TR4 and the admittedly more expensive Alfa Romeo Giulietta Super Spyder. The MG’s 1,798 cc (110 cu. in.) B-series four was study and torquey, but not exactly overpowered, producing 95 hp (71 kW) and 110 lb-ft (149 N-m) of torque in stock form. A liberal application of the factory’s many “Special Tuning” parts could yield some 130 hp (97 kW), but that was expensive and entailed some compromises in driveability and reliability.
The natural solution was to install a bigger engine. Although MG Cars had concentrated on four-cylinder cars since 1945, the company had offered a variety of six-cylinder models before the war, beginning with the 1928 MG Super Six. Chief engineer Syd Enever had apparently considered a six-cylinder MGB during the early stages of the B’s development, but nothing had come of it. Cost was presumably a concern, but there was also concern that a bigger engine would spoil the MGB’s excellent weight distribution. Still, by 1963, adding a more powerful MGB seemed like a sensible marketing decision, and the engineers in Abingdon began considering various possible engines, including a short-stroke version of the 2,660 cc (163 cu. in.) four from the old Austin A90 Atlantic, BMC Australia’s 2,433 cc (149 cu. in.) “Blue Streak” engine, and the 2,912 cc (178 cu. in.) C-series six used in some big BMC sedans.
MG’s corporate parent, the British Motor Corporation (BMC), soon took a keen interest in the idea of a six-cylinder B for reasons that had little to do with MG. Since 1952, BMC and the Warwick-based Donald Healey Motor Company had offered a variety of sports cars under the Austin-Healey nameplate. The small Austin-Healey Sprite had recently been refreshed, but the six-cylinder 3000, whose latest Mk 3 iteration was about to debut, was becoming long in the tooth, and BMC was looking ahead to its replacement.
Like his predecessor, Leonard Lord, BMC chairman George Harriman was reluctant to develop two cars where one would do. Since the fifties, BMC had become notorious for badge engineering: selling the same basic product with minor variations under several different names. Since 1961, MG had been selling a facelifted Austin-Healey Sprite with the venerable Midget nameplate, and ideas had been floating around since the late fifties for a bigger car that could be sold both as an MG and an Austin-Healey. Around the same time, BMC had started working on a new joint project, coded ADO 51/ADO 52, that would serve as both the Austin-Healey 3000 Mk 4 (the ADO 51) and a six-cylinder version of the MGB (the ADO 52).
This proposal was not warmly received in Warwick. The ADO 51 was obviously an MGB; cost considerations prohibited any real styling or structural changes, so the only real differences between the ADO 51 and 52 were the grilles and trim. Healey’s son Geoff, the firm’s chief development engineer, worked dutifully with Syd Enever on the project, but without much enthusiasm. The Healeys considered the ADO 51 a hopeless case: a bastardized MGB and a poor excuse for an Austin-Healey.
As was typical at cash-strapped BMC, development of the ADO 51/52 dragged on for more than three years. MGB sales were still robust, bolstered by the addition of the MGB GT hatchback coupe in the fall of 1965, but the Healey situation was coming to a head. In September 1966, the U.S. finalized its first federal motor vehicle safety standards, scheduled to take effect January 1, 1968. Since the existing Healey 3000 Mk 3 could not meet those standards, it would have to be withdrawn from the U.S. market by the end of 1967. Even the imminent demise of the big Healey was not enough to persuade Donald Healey, whose interest in applying his name to the ADO 51 remained precisely zero. BMC finally relented and the project was canceled.
Although the Healey-badged ADO 51 was dead, the ADO 52 received production approval in the fall of 1966. It was slated for introduction the following year as a 1968 model, dubbed MGC.
(After the demise of the ADO 51, the Healeys developed a new proposal for a 3000 replacement, the Austin-Healey 4000, powered by the Rolls-Royce-developed 3,909 cc (239 cu. in.) F-head FB60 engine from the short-lived Vanden Plas Princess 4 Litre R sedan. Several prototypes were built, designated ADO 24, but the project was canceled in mid-1967, owing to BMC’s financial difficulties and the objections of Jaguar’s Sir William Lyons, who had gained a seat on the board after BMC’s merger with Jaguar in 1966. Months later, BMC merged with Leyland to form the British Leyland Motor Corporation, and the new management decided to terminate BMC’s deal with Healey at the end of their existing contract. In 1970, the Healeys formed an alliance with Kjell Qvale — previously one of BMC’s biggest U.S. distributors — to develop the Jensen Healey.)