Part 1: From coachbuilder to British icon
Few brands inspire such a loyal following as MG, the British marque synonymous with light, affordable and fun to drive sports cars. What started life as a small coachbuilder under the name 'Morris Garages' became a very popular carmaker with success in motorsport and land speed records.
But the troubled history of MG features many hits and misses, from the lows of badge engineering to the highs of some of the most successful British roadsters in automotive history. Today the company, under new ownership (Chinese auto giant SAIC), produces affordable hatches and SUVs. But, let’s take it from the start.
The man behind the MG marque is Cecil Kimber (1888-1945, pictured above), an automotive enthusiast with interest in racing and exceptional managerial skills. Kimber held the general manager's position at Morris Garages, a retail sales and service business in Oxford owned by William Morris (later Lord Nuffield). In an effort to boost sales, Kimber started modifying Morris Cowleys, fitting restyled bodies and more powerful engines on the donor chassis, and thus he founded a new brand - the MG (for Morris Garages).
Above: 1925 MG 14/28 Super Sports Salonette
In 1924, Kimber registered the octagon badge as a trademark for Morris Garages and the first MG branded vehicle - 14/28 Super Sports - went on sale. The car was initially offered as a four-door saloon with a custom-built body on a tuned Morris Oxford chassis but later, a two-seater version called Salonette (above) was produced. The whole range was updated in 1927 with the 14/40.
The first MG designed for racing events was the bespoke Old Number One (below) which won the 1925 Land's End Trial race, with Cecil Kimber behind the wheel. This one-off changed hands several times and was finally found in a scrap yard by an MG employee, becoming a marketing tool for the company after receiving a full factory restoration in 1932.
Above: Cecil Kimber behind the wheel of the MG Old No. 1
People started showing interest in MG cars and soon the premises in Oxford's Alfred Lane didn't have the required space for the increased orders. MG moved to larger factories, first at Bainton Road (1925) and then at Edmunt Road, Cowley (1927), before eventually settling in an old leather factory at Abingdon, Oxfordshire in 1929, which became the brand's permanent home for more than 50 years. An interesting fact is that the VIN number of MG vehicles would usually start with the telephone number of the factory in Abingdon.
Above: 1929 MG Panbric Saloon
With the rapidly expanding business, in 1928 MG was large enough to separate itself from Morris Garages, forming a new company under the name MG Car Company Limited. The company celebrated its new identity by attending the 1928 London Motor Show. In the same year, the 18/80 saloon (above) was the first car to feature the traditional vertical grille that would become synonymous with the brand.
The first MG race car that went in production was the MG 18/100 Tigress (1929), based on the 18/80, but with a more powerful six-cylinder 2.5-litre engine producing 72kW. The Tigress made its debut in 1930 but it didn’t manage to succeed against some tougher competitor which came from its own brand - the MG Midget.
The famous line of the MG Midgets started in 1929 with the M-Type Midget (below). This small, light (506kg), affordable, agile and most importantly, fun to drive two-door sports car was based on a Morris Minor chassis fitted with a tuned 848cc Wolseley engine producing 15kW thanks to the addition a single SU carburettor. The popularity of the Midget nearly tripled the production of the company, accounting for more than half of the sales volume.
On October 12th, 1930, a 30-car meeting at the Roebuck Hotel would signal the birth of the MG Car Club which grew to 500 members in less than three years. In the same year, MG made headlines when its tiny and ultralight Midget roadsters proved their speed and reliability at the 1930 Brooklands Double Twelve race, beating more powerful opponents.
During the following decade, MG designed several versions of the Midget, capitalising on the commercial success of the original with many notable victories in sporting events.
First came the C-Type Midget (1931) designed for racing with a 33kW engine. This was followed by the four-seater D-Type Midget (1931, pictured below), the updated J-Type Midget (1932), and P-Type Midget (1934). Each of these models adopted several improvements to the engine, chassis and exterior design over their predecessors.
Alongside the line of Midgets, MG launched a second line of sports cars with in-line six-cylinder engines and a longer wheelbase. First came the F-Type Magna (1931), replaced by the K-Type Magnette (1932) with a smaller engine and the slightly narrower L-Type Magna (1933) leading to the updated N-Type Magnette (1934) which featured a 42kW engine.
In 1933, MG became the first non-Italian marque to score a class win in the famous and gruelling Mille Miglia road race with the K3 Magnette (above). It also finished fourth overall at the 1934 24 Hours of Le Mans. The Brooklands 500, the Isle of Man Tourist Trophy and the Ulster TT were only a few of MG’s numerous motorsport victories during the 1930s.
The Q-Type (1934) race car was equipped with a tuned version of the 746cc engine producing up to 109kW, giving it the title of the highest specific output of any engine in the world at the time. Its successor, the single-seater R-Type (1935) had a sleek aluminium body resembling larger Grand Prix racers.
Besides winning races, MG was also known for its land speed record breaking cars - the Magic Midgets - driven by British racing drivers Captain George Eyston and Ernest Eldridge. The record came with the supercharged MG EX120 (1931) which became the fastest car with a 750cc engine, hitting a top speed of 103.13mph (166km/h) before being completely destroyed in a subsequent record attempt.
The redesigned EX127 (1932) continued the speed legacy and was acquired by Mercedes-Benz after it reached 140mph (225km/h) on the German Autobahn near Frankfurt.
Various models with more powerful engines and streamlined bodies, based on improved versions of the Midget’s chassis, broke numerous records in the following years. The most famous of them all was the K3 Magnette based EX135 (1935, pictured above) which reached the astonishing speed of 206mph (331.5km/h).
In the mid-1930s, despite MG’s success, tension was rising between founder Lord Nuffield and Cecil Kimber, leading to the gradual reduction of the latter’s involvement in both management and engineering. It is said the rapidly growing reputation of MG, which in some cases surpassed the parent company, made Lord Nuffield uncomfortable with Kimber’s presence.
In 1935, the MG brand, which was owned by William Morris (Lord Nuffield), was sold to his company Morris Motors (later known as Nuffield Organisation). Following the sellout, Leonard Lord, Managing Director at Morris Motors, also became Managing Director at MG. His decision to end MG’s involvement with motorsports and stop any ongoing development of racecars had an immediate effect, even though Cecil Kimber strongly disagreed with such a move.
The new strategy for the British firm included less sports cars and introducing more luxury saloons to the range, sharing most of their components with other brands of the Nuffield Organisation in order to cut costs and boost profitability.
In that context, the heavily redesigned T-Type Midget (1936, pictured above), was the most comfortable and civilised car of the series, with a longer and wider steel chassis, a traditional ash wooden frame, 19-inch wheels, hydraulic brakes and a Wolseley-sourced 1.3-litre overhead valve pushrod engine producing 40kW (instead of the traditional overhead camshaft engines of its predecessors). Despite the initial reaction, this generation of the Midget proved to be a very important car for MG, but we will get to that later in our story.
The first of the new line of saloons was the SA Saloon (1936, pictured below), which was the largest vehicle that had ever come out of the Abingdon factory. The luxurious SA was built on a Wolseley Super Six chassis with a straight-six, 2.3-litre engine and graceful proportions. Due to the changes in the management team during the development of the SA, the production version was delayed and when it finally went on sale, it faced strong competition from the Jaguar SS 2.5-litre Saloon.
In 1936, MG launched the smaller VA Saloon based on a new chassis and sharing many components with the Morris 12/4 and Wolseley 12/48 including the drivetrain. Similar to the SA, the VA was criticised by purists for not complying with the performance standards set by previous MG sports cars, such as the much smaller and much more capable KN Magnette Saloon of 1933.
A few years later MG launched the WA Saloon (1938) serving as the flagship of the range, with a more luxurious interior, a slightly updated SA-based chassis and similar performance figures. However, not long after its premiere, World War II would end all car production at the Abingdon factory, signalling the end of this model line.
During the war, the company’s premises would be utilised to assemble British bomber cockpits and repair Matilda tanks, assisting the war effort, like most of the automotive manufacturing firms of the day.
In 1941, with war still raging and his responsibilities reduced, Cecil Kimber signed a contract for repairing British tanks during World War II without asking permission from Lord Nuffield. This move led to his demise from the company, signalling the end of an era.
A few years later, in 1945, Cecil Kimber visited the King’s Cross station on his way to Peterborough for a sales meeting, when a locomotive rolled backwards and derailed, crashing his coach. Both Kimber and his passenger died on the scene on this tragic Sunday morning.
After the end of World War II, production resumed at the Abingdon factory with the TC Midget (1945, pictured above) based on the pre-war TB Midget (1939) with a small number of changes and improvements. This car would become the most successful MG to date, with 10,000 units sold between 1945 and 1949 due to the significantly increased number of exports. The most famous owner of the TC was the Duke of Edinburgh who drove one before he married Princess Elizabeth.
Many American soldiers who served in Great Britain, brought their T-Type Midgets to the United States, starting an overseas sports car craze. The British roadster looked and drove unlike anything else on US roads at the time, and a large sum of orders brought new life to MG's factory creating a new export market for MG sports cars.
Besides its successful sports cars, MG needed a saloon in its range. Instead of restarting production of the pre-war SA, VA and WA models, the company decided to produce the smaller Y-Type Saloon (1947), a car that was designed by Gerald Palmer between 1937 and 1938 but never passed the prototype stage due to hostilities. The YA was based on the Morris Eight Series E chassis and came with an independent front suspension (the first car of the Nuffield Organisation with this layout) and a detuned version of the 1250cc engine from the TB Midget.
The YB, launched in 1951, was an updated version of the YA with the addition of a front anti-roll bar, stronger suspension and uprated brakes. The Y-Type might have looked dated by comparison to other cars of its time, however its classic style and luxurious interior allowed it to achieve respectable sales with a total of 8336 units produced at the Abingdon factory between 1947 and 1953.
Back to the Midget range, the unprecedented success of the right-hand drive only TC prompted MG to develop a new model for the United States. The TD Midget (1950, pictured above) was heavily redesigned with a new and more rigid chassis, smaller wheels and the Y-Type’s independent front suspension offering vastly improved comfort and handling.
The car was slower than its predecessor due to the increased weight, however it became the most successful Midget of all time with a total of 29,664 sales between 1950 and 1953. Underlining its success, more than 90 per cent of production was exported to the United States.
In 1952, Morris Motors merged with Austin Motor Company, forming the British Motor Corporation Limited (BMC). The largest automaker in Great Britain at the time, consisted of Austin, Morris, MG, Austin-Healey, Riley and Wolseley brands. The company was headed by Lord Nuffield for its first year but after his retirement, Leonard Lord took over the chairman’s position.
MG updated its two-model range at the 1953 London Motor Show, launching both the all new Magnette ZA (above) and the refreshed TF Midget.
Starting with the saloon, the Magnette ZA was the much needed replacement for the ageing YB, designed by Gerald Palmer. It was the first MG with a unibody construction shared with the Wolseley 4/44, and the first BMC model to use the new 'B Series' engine - a twin carburettor 1489cc unit producing 45kW. Even though reception was lukewarm at first, the ZA was a sales success and together with the slightly updated ZB (1956), had an accumulative production run of more than 36,000 units between 1952 and 1959.
The TF Midget (above) was a facelifted version of the very successful TD, with a redesigned body and a few mechanical updates, sold between 1953 and 1955. Initially, it lacked the performance of its competitors, something that was fixed in 1954 when it received the more powerful 1.5-litre unit. The TF was considered a stopgap model for MG as the all new successor to the T-Type Midget range was already completed before its reveal.
In 1951, Syd Enever, head of design at MG created a beautiful and aerodynamic body for George Philips’s Le Mans race car based on the TD chassis. This design study evolved into a production model proposal that was rejected by Leonard Lord, who had already decided the Austin-Healey 100 (1952) should be the main sports car of the BMC group and wanted to avoid any internal competition. This injustice was finally righted in 1955 with the reveal of the gorgeous MGA (below).
Launched at the 1955 London Motor Show, the MGA stunned the world with its sweeping curves and low bonnet line that significantly differentiated it from its traditionally-styled predecessors. Purists didn’t welcome the change at first, however they quickly accepted MGA after prototypes of the car proved its performance and reliability at the 1955 Le Mans 24 Hour, finishing fifth and sixth in class.
Based on a new chassis, the two-seater was characterised by great road holding abilities, benefiting from the low centre of gravity. It was fitted with the B-Series 1.5-litre engine, initially producing 51kW. However, in the updated twin cam version, power was increased to 81kW offering a sub-10-seconds 0-100km/h acceleration.
Over the years, the MGA received several updates and became a great success for the company, outselling all of its predecessors with more than 101,000 units produced between 1955-1962 in both coupe (above) and roadster form.
People at MG hadn't forgotten their rich racing and record-breaking heritage and in 1957 launched the MG EX 181 (above) and took it for a spin at the Bonneville Salt Flats. The 'Roaring Raindrop' was fitted with a supercharged twin-cam version of the 1.5-litre MGA engine producing 216kW using a special fuel mixture. Thanks to all that power and its aerodynamic body, the EX 181 easily broke the Class F land speed record with a top speed of 395.31km/h in the hands of Stirling Moss.
Two years later, MG returned to Bonneville with an improved MG EX 181 featuring a slightly larger 224kW engine. Racing driver Phil Hill reached 410.23km/h, dominating the Class E land speed record with a car that remains the fastest in the history of MG.
At the end of the 1950s, BMC commissioned Italian automobile designer Battista 'Pinin' Farina to create a line of four-door saloons destined for badge engineering. The mid-sized Pininfarina-designed saloon became the MG Magnette MK III (1959, pictured above) which was identical to the Morris Oxford V, Wolseley 15/60, Riley 4/68 and Austin A55 Cambridge Mk II.
MG had no real input in the development of this rather uninspiring sedan which together with the slightly updated Magnette MK IV (1961), didn’t fare well in terms of sales volume.
In 1961, MG launched a second two-seater sports car into its range which was simply called the Midget (above). This model was a rebadged version of the second generation Austin Healey Sprite and offered a cheaper alternative to the MGA with compact dimensions.
Initially it was offered with a 948cc A-Series engine (34kW) which was enlarged to 1098cc (42kW) in 1962. The Midget was updated in 1964 and again in 1966 when it received a 1275cc engine (48kW) sourced from its Mini Cooper S stablemate.
In 1962, MG made headlines again by unveiling the successor to the very popular MGA, the MGB (above). The new model was developed from the EX205 prototype (1958) and featured a modernised exterior design heavily inspired by the EX214 prototype (1956) by Frua.
Unlike its predecessor, the MGB was based on a monocoque chassis resulting in significantly improved handling, safety and comfort, as well as more space for the passengers. Under the bonnet, the 1798cc B-Series engine produced 71kW providing good performance figures for this value-for-money roadster that became a success almost immediately.
Following the original MGB Roadster, the 2+2 MGB GT (1965, pictured above) featured a new greenhouse designed by Pininfarina, with a fixed roof and a hatchback offering increased luggage space and practicality without sacrificing the MGB's looks and sporty character. Because of the added weight the MGB GT was slightly slower in acceleration but thanks to improved aerodynamics, it had a higher top speed of 169km/h.
Alongside the MGB, MG had launched a second model back in 1962 which was another example of badge engineering. The MG 1100 (1962, pictured above) - also known in the United States as the MG Sports Sedan (2-door) and the MG Princess (4-door) - was one of the many versions of the BMC ADO16 project - a range of family saloons with compact dimensions and advanced technology designed by Alex Issigonis who had already enjoyed success with his previous creation, the iconic BMC Mini.
The ADO16 wore the badges of Austin, MG, Morris, Riley, Vanden Plas, Wolseley and Innocenti and became one the most successful cars in Great Britain of the 1960s, with cumulative sales of around 3 million units.
MG marketed the 1100 as its most advanced model of all time, due to the numerous innovations it featured: the Hydrolastic suspension system designed by Alex Moulton, front disc brakes and a transversely mounted 1098cc BMC A-Series engine (41kW) powering the front wheels. This layout allowed for plenty of interior space, enough to accommodate four adult passengers. Finally, the updated MG 1300 launched in 1967 featured a redesigned exterior and a larger 1275cc engine which produced up to 56kW.
Back to the sports car range, the EX234 prototype (1965, pictured above) was developed in the mid-1960s as a possible successor to both the Midget and the MGB. Pininfarina was responsible for the design, creating a stylish body with some resemblance to some of his later designs, such as the Alfa Romeo Spider (1966) and the Fiat 124 (1970). The project was heading for production, however plans were dropped as the company continued to invest in the current range because of strong sales of the MGB and Midget, particularly in the US.
In 1965, BMC took control of its major supplier, the UK-based Pressed Steel, and in 1966 it merged with Jaguar Cars changing its name to British Motor Holdings Limited (BMH). In 1968 with the blessings of the British Government, BMH merged with its competitor, Leyland Motor Corporation, forming the British Leyland Motor Corporation (BLMC).
Being a member of an even larger group which included Austin, Morris, Triumph, Rover and Jaguar, accounting for 40 per cent of the UK market, meant that MG would not get the funding, the focus and the support it deserved from upper management of the newly-formed entity.
In 1967 MG launched a performance version of the MGB called the MGC (above) in both Roadster and GT form, fitted with a much larger BMC C Series engine which added a lot of weight on the front axle. The straight-six, 2912cc unit produced a meagre 108kW offering a top speed of 193km/h.
Besides the new engine, the car was equipped with updated brakes and redesigned front suspension but exterior changes were limited to the new bulged bonnet and 15-inch wheels. Poor reviews from the press and the high price compared to the MGB resulted in slow sales and the MGC was dropped from the range in 1969.
The proper performance version of the MGB finally came 11 years after its launch, with the MGB V8 (1973, pictured above). The Rover-sourced 3.5-litre V8 produced 102kW offering a 201km/h top speed. Thanks to a block constructed of aluminium, the new engine was the lightest V8 in the world at the time, weighing less than the four-cylinder unit and allowing great performance without ruining the handling.
In 1974, the MGB received a rather controversial facelift (below) in order to comply with new safety regulations in the United States. Changes included a redesigned front and rear end with black rubber bumpers, altered ride height and a slightly less powerful engine due to tighter emission controls. Besides the looks and the performance, handling was also affected by the raised suspension so MG added front and rear anti-roll bars to make up for the increased body roll.
The complexity of the multi-layered BLMC group, combined with a series of ill-fated decisions by management, would lead to its collapse and partial nationalisation in 1975 forming British Leyland. The already limited funding for MG was redirected towards mass production models, leaving MG with little to no budget for new or updated models. This downfall led to the company’s demise in 1980, with BL ultimately choosing MG’s rival Triumph as the only sports car marque of the group.
On 24 October, 1980, the last MG rolled off the production line in Abingdon, marking the closure of this historical site. This was the end of the MGB, the most successful model in the history of the brand with a total production of 523,836 units between 1962-1980.
The closure sparked outrage amongst MG owners, dealers, workers and fans from all over the world who couldn’t believe this could be the end of their favourite brand. With no models in its line up, no production line and no plans for an MGB successor, 1980 was by far the worst year for MG. However, this was not the unfortunate ending you might suspect, as the brand's appeal around the world would give it a second chance, although in slightly different form.