The Sports Car for All Seasons
Having learned its lesson by allowing the T-Series to linger well beyond the point at which is competitive, MG was looking to replace the best-selling MGA as early as 1957. The following year, designers, taking inspiration from Aston Martin, had completed work on a prototype that would greatly resemble the MGB in final form. Unlike the curvaceous body appended to the separate undercarriage of the MGA, the newest entrant into the stable from Abingdon was slab-sided and featured monocoque construction, which meant that the new car would be significantly more spacious inside (the firewall was moved forward by 6 inches) and allowed for a strong chassis with a forward double bulkhead that provided exceptional overall rigidity.
From its introduction in 1962, the MGB was an instant success, and though it soldiered on long past the point at which it was a competitive car (like the T-Series) it would continue in production until 1980, at which point with more than 500,000 units sold, it became the best-selling sports car in the world (later surpassed by the Mazda MX-5 Miata). It was the first MG roadster to be a proper convertible with roll-up windows and a functional top that could be used without having to resort to schematics and cursing. Although the basic design would be improved upon with the introduction of the GT version in 1965 and updated to meet continually changing emissions and safety regulations (particularly in the United States), it would continue in familiar form for almost 20 years and define the term “sports car” for generations of Americans.
MGB and MGB GT Mk I
The change from body-on-frame to monocoque construction resulted in a car that was not only much stronger than before but also lighter and more practical in design. There was now storage space behind the front seats, room for normal sized adults (and their legs and feet) in the cockpit and their luggage in the truck and weather protection that actually was capable of keeping out the wind and the rain with a full windscreen with wing vents, roll-up windows and convertible top. The suspension was similar to that used in the MGA with coil springs and wishbones in the front and a rigid axle with semi-elliptical leaf springs in the rear. The engine used initially was the B-series inline four-cylinder in 1798-cc form with twin SU carburetors and 8.75:1 compression. It developed 94 hp at 5500 rpm, an impressive 107 ft/lbs of torque at 3500 rpm and capable of reaching 105 mph before running out of breath.
Changes, as expected with a new model, were gradual, a Laycock de Normanville overdrive became available in 1964, and a much-improved engine was introduced the following year. The engine retained the same displacement but featured a new five-main bearing crankshaft which reduced flex at high speeds and offered 98 hp at 5400 rpm and 110 ft/lbs of torque at 3000 rpm. At the same time, a new oil cooler and an improved rear oil seal were also added but the biggest news of 1965 would be the arrival of the MGB GT which featured a hatchback body penned by Italian designer Pinin Farina. Sold as a 1966 model, a hinged tailgate allowed access to the cargo compartment and small, occasional use rear seats occupied the space behind the front seats. Carrying greater weight, it offered slightly worse acceleration, but the new body was better at cheating the wind and top speed increased to 110 mph. With good cargo space, the ability to carry small children – or tolerant (and small) adults in a pinch – in the rear seating area and an actual roof that allowed the car to be driven regardless of the weather, the MGB GT was (for a time) in a class of its own.
MGB and MGB GT Mk II
By the time that the Mk II versions of the MGB and MGB GT were introduced in 1967, they had firmly established themselves as the best selling sports cars in the American market and were lauded by the press and public alike for their performance, handling, comfort and reliability. The newest version, however, did not offer any increase in performance as the 1798-cc engine remained unchanged but a new transmission was installed, that included for the first time on an MG sports car, an all synchromesh gearbox with improved ratios. Also for the first time was the option for installation of an automatic transmission that, when ordered, changed the complexion of the car to that of a more relaxed touring car than an outright sports car.
Implementation of new emissions controls in 1968 saw rated horsepower drop to 92 hp at 5400 rpm with no change in torque. 1970 saw various trim changes added and the next year saw rubber extensions mounted to the bumper overriders and a new blackout style grill. Additional options such as an AM/FM radio, a center console with an electric clock and an electrically heated rear backlight for the GT added extra cost and some weight to the overall package and performance was slightly down to the added heft and the emissions components.
MGC and MGC GT
With an eye towards improved performance, MG introduced the MGC and MGC GT at the 1967 London Motor Show as 1968 models. The cars used a 2912-cc inline six-cylinder engine that shared its internal dimensions with the C-series engine used in the Austin-Healey 3000 Mk III, but was, in fact, an entirely new design with seven-main-bearings and smaller external dimensions to Big Healey mill. The new engine offered rather better performance than offered by the MGB with 150 hp at 5250 rpm and 174 ft/lbs of torque at 3500 rpm. Top speed was now in the order of 120 mph and 0-60 mph times fell to 10 seconds. Externally, both the MGC and the MGC GT were almost identical to their four-cylinder siblings, but for a large power bulge to accommodate the new engine.
The performance improvements made by the MGC were laudable and the six-cylinder changed the car from an amiable roadster to a veritable “hot rod.” Unfortunately, the gains in acceleration and top speed were also accompanied by an increase in weight (about 350 pounds) and much of that was placed far forward in the engine bay (front end weight went from 52.6 percent to 55.7 percent) and the light and limber handling the car was known for suffered horribly.
Frankly, the car tended to understeer heavily (as would be expected from so much weight forward) and the steering effort, which had been commendably light since the MG TF, became disconcertingly heavy under almost all conditions. Moreover, the new engine was decidedly lacking in feel, as it seemed reluctant to rev and (oddly) suffered from a lack of torque at low speeds. Autocar described it as “smooth and flexible, but completely lacking in sporty characteristics.”
Such attributes are hardly the stuff of automotive legend and management decided to cease production in 1969 after only 9,002 six-cylinder cars were built in just over two years. Like the MG TF, TR 250 and XK 150, however, unappreciated when new does not mean unloved now, as the MGC is, perhaps, the most attractive of the MGB variants today as it is more than powerful enough for modern traffic and the quiet character of the six-cylinder unit seems better served for occasional use. In either open or closed form, the MGC is worth seeking out whether in need of restoration or not.
MGB and MGB GT Mk III
Introduction of the Mk III versions of the MGB and MGB GT were modest and focused mainly on the interior with a new instrument panel and center console with revised armrests. Emissions controls continued to choke performance and rated horsepower fell again to 78.5 hp at 5500 rpm and 94 ft/lbs of torque at 3000 rpm. New bumper guards were added and the grille was revised again but the basic car remained unchanged as the car entered its second decade of production.
MGB Mk IV
The MGB GT was dropped from production with the release of the Mk IV edition of the now ubiquitous “B”, which was struggling to meet increasingly stringent safety and pollution standards enacted by overzealous Federal regulators. These cars are easy to spot from a distance as they acquired grotesque flat black polyurethane extensions to the front and rear ends of the car and what they detracted from the car’s appearance they added in weight (an additional 70 pounds).
Under the hood, the 1798-cc engine exchanged its dual SU carburetors in favor of a single Zenith-Stromberg and made do with a lower 8.0:1 compression ratio. Both revisions impacted performance negatively with the engine producing just 62.5 hp at 5500 rpm and 86 ft/lbs of torque at 2500 rpm. New gear ratios were also installed not to improve performance, but to extract better fuel economy from what was becoming a much heavier car. To add insult to injury, to comply with US requirements for bumper and headlight height, MG simply increased the overall ride height of the car by packing the front suspension an additional inch and raising the rear springs. Obviously, this affected both the car’s center of gravity and suspension geometry such that the once sterling handling of the beloved “B” became increasingly porcine. Rather than introduce modifications and upgrades that would allow the MGB to remain competitive in the market, MG (by then part of British Leyland) allowed the car to die on the vine by finding the most economical fix to meeting new safety and pollution standards instead of implementing solid design and engineering solutions for best effect. As such, the last MGB was completed on October 22, 1980 and with it so had an era.