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.)
Many historians assume the MGC was just an MGB with the engine from the Austin-Healey 3000, but it was not that simple. Although the MGC’s inline six had the same bore and stroke as the big Healey, it was essentially a new engine, similar (though not identical) to the one developed for the Austin 3-litre sedan.
The main problem with the earlier C-series, which dated back to 1954, was its prodigious bulk. The big six was a sizable lump of iron weighing about 610 lb (277 kg) — more than a small-block Chevrolet V8. It was also considerably undersquare (the stroke exceeded the bore) and had only four main bearings. Syd Enever pushed for an extensive modernization of the C-series, including different bore and stroke dimensions, but BMC technical director Alec Issigonis overruled him on cost grounds. However, Issigonis did approve the development of a new seven-main-bearing crankshaft. Engineers at BMC’s Coventry Engines Branch also redesigned the engine to reduce its exterior dimensions and take advantage of the latest thinwall casting techniques.
Unfortunately, these efforts were not quite as successful as anticipated. Coventry Engines had hoped to bring the big six’s dry weight under 500 lb (227 kg), but even with all the changes, the engine still weighed a hefty 567 lb (257 kg), 209 lb (95 kg) more than the 1.8-liter (110 cu. in.) B-series four. The redesigned engine was a useful 1.75 inches (45 mm) shorter than its predecessor, but the six remained a tight squeeze for the MGB’s engine bay, especially since budget restrictions prohibited any alterations to the monocoque structure or the firewall. Even after pushing the radiator well forward and adding a deeper U-shaped front crossmember, the MGC’s hood had to be bulged to clear the six’s valve cover and a second, smaller bulge was needed to accommodate the carburetors.
The new crossmember precluded the use of the MGB’s coil springs and lever-action dampers (which also served as the upper control arms), so the MGC got a new front suspension with tubular shock absorbers and torsion bars. A new vacuum-assisted Girling brake system replaced the MGB’s Lockheed brakes and 15-inch wheels with five-lug hubs replaced the B’s four-lug 14-inch wheels. To keep steering effort manageable with the bigger wheels and greater front-end weight, the steering ratio was increased (numerically) by more than 15% while the driveshaft and rear axle were beefed up to withstand the six’s torque. The standard transmission was essentially the new fully synchronized four-speed from the MGB Mk 2, albeit with different ratios. As with the Mk 2 MGB, both Laycock de Normanville overdrive and a three-speed Borg-Warner Model 35 automatic were optional.
All of these changes made the MGC roughly 400 lb (180 kg) heavier than a comparable MGB — and more than 20% more expensive to boot. Inevitably, the six-cylinder car also cost more to run than its four-cylinder sibling. Fuel consumption was around 10% higher and the big six made the MGC a costly proposition in European nations that based vehicle taxes on engine displacement.
THE COLD SHOULDER
Anyone expecting the MGC to be the first MG Supercar was to be sorely disappointed. The first warning sign was that the new six was actually less powerful than the outgoing Austin-Healey 3000 — rated output had fallen from 150 hp (112 kW) to a nominal 145 hp (108 kW). Although the rated torque output (variously quoted at 170 and 174 lb-ft (230 and 235 N-m)) was stout enough, testers soon found that the new head and manifold design had robbed the MGC of the big Healey’s robust low-end urge. Moreover, while the big six was smoother than the MGB’s four, restrictive breathing and a very heavy flywheel kept the new C-series engine from revving with any notable enthusiasm.
The MGC was indeed faster than the MGB: An MGC roadster with manual shift was capable of 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) in about 10 seconds and a top speed of nearly 120 mph (193 km/h) — not as fast as the last Austin-Healey 3000 or the six-cylinder Triumph TR5 PI, but highly respectable for a British sports car of this era. However, the MGC was neither as quick nor as effortless as its displacement and rated output suggested, and testers felt that it demanded too much effort for too little return.
As dissatisfied as the automotive press may have been with the engine, they reserved the real critical brickbats for the MGC’s handling. The MGC rode better than the B — no bad thing — but its higher center of gravity, inadequate roll control, and greater front weight bias induced substantial understeer, exacerbated on early press cars by improper tire pressures. Reviewers also complained that the slower steering and larger turning radius made the MGC feel cumbersome in low-speed maneuvers, a sensation alien to the MGB. American testers were disappointed while British critics reviled the MGC as something less than a sports car.
(We must qualify those scathing reviews by noting that the early MGB was considered one of the best-handling production cars of its era. Its controls were heavy and the ride sometimes bordered on the abusive, but it had sharp, accurate steering and a pleasing directness that won it many fans. In comparison, the heavier, softer MGC could hardly avoid being seen as a retrograde step.)
Between the higher prices and the dismal notices, buyers shied away. MGC sales were dismal — even in the U.S., which had far fewer barriers to big-engine cars. Worldwide sales for the 1968 model year totaled only about 5,000 units, including both roadsters and GTs. Despite its generally frosty reception, the six-cylinder car did find at least one friend in high places: HRH Charles, Prince of Wales, selected a 1968 MGC GT coupe as his first car. Curiously, BMC’s press office did not really publicize that fact. Their discretion was admirable, but the MGC needed all the help it could get.
Although the press and the public had little love for the MGC, the feelings of BMC’s Competitions Department [sic] were considerably warmer. By this time, the four-cylinder MGB was having some difficulty even qualifying in the under-2-liter racing classes; the addition of the six-cylinder engine offered a basically excellent chassis a new lease on life. In early 1967, months before the MGC made its public debut, the Competitions Department prepared six specially bodied MGC GTS coupes for racing use. One of those cars made its debut in the 1967 Targa Florio, although that car was temporarily fitted with a 2,004 cc (122 cu. in.) B-series four because the six had not yet been homologated.
The race-prepped MGC still had a forward weight bias (which was less severe in the GT than in the roadster), but the competition suspension erased the stock car’s softness and understeer, while ported and polished heads, bigger valves, a hotter cam, and a trio of Weber 45 DCOE carburetors extracted a reliable 200 hp (149 kW) from the big engine. In March 1968, Andrew Hedges and Paddy Hopkirk drove one of the lightweight cars to a class victory in the 12 Hours of Sebring, scoring 10th overall. Later that year, two other MGC GTS coupes ran in the 84-hour Marathon de la Route at the Nürburgring, one of them (driven by Hedges, Tony Fall, and Julian Vernaeve) achieving a respectable sixth place.
For owners dissatisfied with the MGC’s street performance, Abingdon soon offered a Special Tuning kit that included a new cylinder head, valve gear, and intake and exhaust manifolds. Although we haven’t been able to confirm it, it appears that the kit was developed by Daniel and Veronica (“Bunty”) Richmond of Downton Engineering Works, an aftermarket shop that created competition parts for many BMC cars of this era. Downton offered several MGC upgrade kits of its own, all of which carried the full factory warranty. Downton’s Kit 43 was similar (if not identical) to the works Special Tuning set-up, while the pricier Kit 45 added a third carburetor and a completely redesigned intake manifold. (Bruce Ibbotson of the MG Club of Queensland speculates that the Downton modifications may have been intended for the aborted Austin-Healey ADO 51 as a way of further distinguishing it from its cheaper MG cousin.)
The Special Tuning and Downton 43 kits didn’t dramatically improve acceleration times, but either kit transformed the character of the big six. Testers noted much-improved low-end torque along with a newfound willingness to rev. Fuel economy was significantly better as well. Had the factory made similar modifications to the standard MGC, its press reception might have been quite different.
While Abingdon could easily have produced a much better MGC (indeed, engineer Mike Allison told author David Knowles that some work had been done on fuel injection for the C), MG’s parent company had other ideas. BMC’s merger with Jaguar in late 1966, forming British Motor Holdings, had done little to arrest the company’s financial hemorrhaging. In the spring of 1968, the British government pushed for a merger between BMH and the successful Leyland Motor Corporation, which had already absorbed Standard-Triumph and Rover.
The merger ended any possibility of addressing the shortcomings of the MGC. Since the new conglomerate already had two six-cylinder sports cars — the Triumph GT6+ and the new TR6 — British Leyland executives saw little reason to waste time and money on the slow-selling MGC. Even the Competitions Department would now concentrate mainly on Leyland products. The MGC GTS lightweights continued to race for a while, but only in private hands. Two of the coupes took fifth and sixth in their class at Sebring in 1969 while two others ran in the 1970 Targa Florio and Monte Carlo Rally with indifferent results.
The MGC and MGC GT lingered through the 1969 model year with few changes, but production ended in August 1969. University Motors, MG’s London distributor, bought between 150 and 200 of the unsold 1969 cars and continued to sell them into the 1970 and 1971 model years. Many of the University Motors cars were customized with unique grilles, special paint, and aftermarket accessories like Koni shocks and alloy wheels. At least a few also had Downton engine conversions.
We’ve found several conflicting figures for MGC production, but the grand total, including pre-production cars built in 1966, was around 9,000 cars. The Austin 3-litre, which shared the 2.9-liter six (albeit with many minor differences), was also a commercial flop, and British Leyland dropped the C-series engine at the end of the 1971 model year. There would be a V8-powered MGB GT from 1973 to 1976, powered by Rover’s ex-Buick 3,528 cc (215 cu. in.) engine, but there wouldn’t be another six-cylinder MG until Rover launched the ZS 180 and ZT 190 in 2001.
Less than three months after British Leyland abandoned the MGC, Ford of England introduced the Capri 3000, powered by Ford’s 2,994 cc (183 cu. in.) Essex V6. The six-cylinder Capri offered similar performance to the departed MGC GT at a similar price. The V6 Capri proved to be a modest commercial success and eventually became a British motoring icon, surviving through 1987.
THE REHABILITATION OF THE MGC
For all the MGC’s bad press, the competition cars and the Downton conversions suggest that the factory could easily have made a credible sports car out of it if MG’s corporate parents had had the will to do so. Even without the expense of a Downton-style engine conversion, some owners say that just installing a declutching fan and a lighter flywheel (after properly balancing the engine) can make a big difference in engine response. The handling, meanwhile, can be sharpened considerably with some judicious suspension tuning.
It seems that the MGC’s biggest problem was that it was the answer to a question no one was really asking. Racing aside, people liked the MGB because it was cute, fun, and relatively inexpensive. The four-cylinder MGB’s modest power-to-weight ratio (which eroded steadily throughout the seventies) did no harm at all to its sales, even in North America. The MGC was more powerful, but its higher price and running costs made it impractical for European buyers, and American customers looking for more power had many other choices; the price of an MGC GT would buy a big-block pony car with more than 300 gross horsepower (249 kW). As for Australia, it appears that a few RHD MGCs were sold there, but they were quite rare. Unlike the MGB, which was locally assembled, the MGC was subject to import tariffs and presumably quite costly. In short, the MGC was not nearly as cheap and far less cheerful than its four-cylinder sibling and its popularity suffered accordingly.
In recent years, the MG faithful have finally begun to reassess the MGC, which we think is long overdue. If it was not as nimble as the early MGB, even a completely stock MGC stacks up well against the clumsier rubber-bumper Bs of the late seventies and it’s certainly faster. The C may not be as rare or as desirable as the later MGB GT V8, but it’s unusual enough to turn heads and it has an interesting story to tell.
NOTES ON SOURCES
Our sources included Keith Adams, “Austin 3Litre,” AROnline, 19 September 2008, www.aronline. co.uk, accessed 14 September 2010, “Classic boo-boo,” The Independent 4 July 2006, www.independent. co.uk, accessed 21 August 2010, “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); the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide, “MG Sports Cars,” HowStuffWorks.com, 23 May 2007, auto.howstuffworks. com/ mg-sports-cars.htm, accessed 9 September 2010, and “Replacements for the MGB: Triumphs Were the Corporate Will,” Cars That Never Were: The Prototypes (Skokie, IL: Publications International, 1981), pp. 73-76; “Autotest: MGC GT automatic,” Autocar 7 November 1968: 10–14; Jouke Bloem and Jolanda van der Meer, “MGC royal connections,” “MGC, Abingdon’s Grand Tourer,” n.d., www.joukebloem. nl, accessed 10 September 2010; “Car and Driver Road Test: MG-C,” Car and Driver June 1969, pp. 53-56; 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); Downton Engineering Works website, www.downton. com, accessed 12 September 2010; Mark Foster, “Downton Engineering Works 1947-1975,” mk1-performance-conversions. co.uk, n.d., accessed 12 September 2010; “Giant test: MGC v. TR5,” Car August 1968, pp. 49–53; John Heilig, MG Sports Cars (Enthusiast Color Series) (Osceola, WI: MBI Publishing Company, 1996); Bruce Ibbotson, “How to Develop the MGC, Overcome most of the Problems and Further Develop the Car for Use on Our Roads, in Today’s Traffic Conditions,” MG Car Club of Queensland, 10 February 2010, www.mgccq. org.au, accessed 12 September 2010; 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, and MG by McComb (Colchester, Essex: Osprey Publishing Ltd., 1978); Mark J. McCourt, “Six into four, M.G. style,” Hemmings Motor News September 2006; “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; “M.G. C – University Motors Special MGC GT with Improvements,” Autocar, 17 December 1970; Skye Nott, “MG Racing Results 1963-1978,” The MG Experience, n.d., www.mgexperience. net, accessed 10 September 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; “Softly, softly” (Motor Road Test No. 37/67: MGC), The Motor 4 November 1967, pp. 25-30; “So You Want to Buy an MGC?” Safety Fast December 2007, pp. 29-34; “Space with dignity (Motor Road Test No. 1/69: Austin 3-litre automatic),” Motor 4 January 1969, pp. 13-18; and Rainer Wilken, “Special BGTs: The most historically important, exotic, spectacular and stylish MGB GTs packed into one page…almost,” www.garage24. net, accessed 8 September 2010.
Information on the Austin-Healey series came from 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; John Chatham, “The Austin Healey 4000,” Classic & Sports Car Vol 10, No. 5 (August 1991); Geoffrey Healey, Austin Healey: The Story of the Big Healeys (Sparkford, Yeovil, Somerset: Gentry Books Ltd., 1978), excerpted in Chapter 4 of John Heilig, MG Sports Cars, pp. 75-77; Geoffrey Healey, Healey, The Specials (London: Gentry Books, 1980); and Frederick Pearce, “The Big Healey Stretch,” Auto Magazine, August 1973, reprinted on the web with the permission of the author at englishcars. com/ austinhealey/ 4000/ ah4000.html, accessed 13 September 2010.
For comparison with the Ford Capri 3000, we consulted “Fastest British Ford yet,” The Motor 11 October 1969, and “Autotest: Ford Capri 3000GT XLR (2,994 c.c.),” Autocar 30 October 1969, both of which are reprinted in High Performance Capris: Gold Portfolio 1969-1987, ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, England: Brooklands Books Ltd., ca. 1990).
Special thanks to the owners of the black MGC GT and the Metallic Riviera Silver Blue MGC roadster.
Historical exchange rate data for the dollar and British pound came 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. Exchange rate values cited in the text represent the approximate equivalency of British and U.S. currency at the time, not the contemporary U.S. suggested retail prices, which are cited separately. Please note that all exchange rate equivalencies cited in the text are approximate and are provided for general information and illustration only; 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!
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