MG mgb 1969 sports mk ii

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MG MGB: Remembering an automotive icon

When Morris Garages made fun and affordable sports cars.

When confirmation came last week that MG was pressing ahead with its radical MG Cyberster all-electric sports car, a small nostalgic part of my brain kicked into overdrive.

MG Motor, the modern iteration, is known for its affordable range of SUVs and a single city car sized hatchback. Nowhere in its line-up, is there a drop-top roadster, or sports car of any kind. For a company with a near-century long heritage of building sports cars almost exclusively, that seems a glaring omission.

The MG MGB is arguably one of the most recognised sports cars ever made, a small and affordable convertible that defined a generation of British-ness. And over its 18-year lifespan, it became the biggest-selling open-top sports car in history, with over 500,000 produced. That mantle eventually fell to the car that copied the MGB’s simple formula – the Mazda MX-5 – which surpassed the British car’s sales record in the year 2000.

It’s not difficult to understand why the MGB became a roaring success, almost in spite of itself.

In 1962, the world, still emerging from a post-war austerity slumber, was ready for an affordable, lightweight, convertible sports car. Yes, the MGB’s predecessor, the gorgeous MGA, was a runaway success, with over 100,000 produced, some 80,000 of which ended up the US. But it lacked even basic things like door handles and wind-up side windows. Gorgeous? Definitely. But practical? Not a chance in hell.

Enter the MGB, which, from the moment it was launched in 1962 captured the public’s imagination, thanks to its modern design and the fact it had door handles, probably. And windows.

Under the skin, the MGB did away with the body-on-frame underpinnings of the MGA, instead adopting a monocoque chassis that resulted in significantly improved handling. Power came from an enlarged version of the MGA’s 1.6-litre unit, bored out to 1.8 litres and good for 71kW and a top speed in excess of 100mph (160km/h), all while the wind ruffled your hair and the sun kissed your face.

Sure, performance wasn’t exhilarating, but contemporary accounts speak of a car that was fun and engaging to drive, with sharp – if heavy – steering, and decent handling. Add in a roomier cabin and increased luggage space over the outgoing MGA, and it was clear Morris Garages was on to a winner.

And so it proved, with the Abingdon factory in full production mode coping with orders. Its affordable price helped too, the original MGB asking for around £950 when new in 1962. By the end of its first full year of production in 1963, around 23,000 MGB’s had rolled off the production line. Annual production increased to 26,000 in 1964, with the US the major export market.

A hardtop MGB GT version arrived in 1965. Styled by Pininfarina, the pretty coupe gained an additional two seats (although most contemporary reports suggest the second row was best saved for small children or ideal for extra luggage) and a permanent roof along with a hatchback for easy access to the cargo area.

Under the bonnet, an upgraded engine with a five-bearing crankshaft (replacing the old three-bearing version) didn’t add anything in terms of performance but did add some robustness, while an overdrive for the four-speed manual gearbox added some refinement to the drive experience.

An automatic transmission was made available from 1967, but really, the purpose of an MGB was to be an enjoyable and engaging drivers’ car. No surprise then, the Borg Warner 35 wasn’t popular, and was phased out by 1973, having been optioned just 5000 times in the intervening six years.

While the 1960s spelled a period of great success for MG, the 1970s weren’t so kind. Now owned by British Leyland, the MGB didn’t receive the attention it deserved from its new owners which focussed instead on legacy brands like Triumph and Austin Healey.

And ever-stringent fuel emissions regulations in the US – easily MG’s largest market – neutered what was once a great little sport car. Power was down and in 1974, rubber bumpers replaced the chrome versions on previous cars in order to meet US safety regulations. It didn’t help the MGB’s ride-height was increased by around 38mm, the end result a less-resolved, and some would posit, downright ugly MGB roadster.

But, it wasn’t all doom and gloom in the 1970s, with British Leyland cramming a V8 engine into the coupe to create the MGB GT V8, but, only after it saw the potential when independent tuner, Ken Costello, fitted a 119kW V8 sourced from Rover under the bonnet. With the bent-eight doing the work, the Costello MGB GT V8 was good for a top speed of around 210km/h and could complete the sprint from 0-60mph (97km/h) in under eight seconds.

British Leyland owned Rover at the time so it would have made sense for the carmaker to adopt Costello’s blueprint for more horses. It didn’t.

Instead, BL stuffed a detuned, low-compression version of Rover’s alloy 3.5-litre V8, good for 102kW and a top speed of 200km/h. The GT V8’s downfall though was timing, the fuel crisis in the Middle East in full swing in 1973 and ’74. Petrol-guzzling V8s were on the nose around the world and sales of the GT V8 suffered because of it.

The MGB limped on until 1980, but by then much of what made the original MGB so appealing to so many had been engineered out. The last MGB rolled off the Abingdon production line in October 1980, signalling an end to what has become, alongside the Mini and Jaguar E-Type, arguably one of Britain’s most recognisable cars. British Leyland closed the Abingdon factory not long after.

As an aside, not all MGB’s were made in Abingdon, with just over 9000 of the popular roadster assembled in Australia between 1963-72. The cars were shipped from the UK as CKD (complete knock down) kits. Initial assembly took place at Pressed Metal Corporation in Enfield, Sydney but moved to BMC’s plant in Zetland, in Sydney’s inner-east in 1968. All Australian-built MGBs were roadsters and can be identified by their serial numbers beginning with the letter ‘Y’.

The new MG Cyberster concept might tick all the boxes for a modern sports car – futuristic design with styling cues from the original MGB roadster, an all-electric drivetrain with 800km of range and a 0-100km/h sprint time of 3.3 seconds (according to the manufacturer), but it simply won’t have the charm and charisma of what has become one of the great automotive icons.

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