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MG Magnette

Published: 23rd Jun 2011 - 2 Comments

MG Magnette
MG Magnette
MG Magnette

Buyer Beware

  • Bodyshells can rot badly and the condition of the sills is hyper critical – particularly the welded seam where the inners and outers are joined. New outer panels cost over £100 alone (they differ from Wolseley and Riley ones) and if the inners have gone then expect major work.
  • Another well known rot area is the box section which sits just behind the front wheels. This can fill with water and if the drain channels are blocked rot will quickly spread to the sills. A good test is to ask to see if the car can be raised with its standard jack. The jacking points were fast rusting as soon as they left the factory.
  • Lifting the carpets will give a good feel as to the overall condition – be sure to check thoroughly from underneath, too. Inspect the toe boards and all box section members. Front and rear suspension spring mountings rot and are MoT safety-critical.
  • Inspect the A and B post by the doors. At the rear have a good look at the wheel arches with the doors open. Inner wings, seat belt anchorage points, boot floor, front and rear bulkheads etc are all rot prone, as is the car’s snout and front valance panel, the latter costing a whopping £400 or more.
  • Window ledges rust and cause water to be trapped in the doors causing further corrosion while the door bottoms used to rust almost from new! Front wings, which bolt on, can be a nightmare and rust along the top edges by the front bumper and around the headlamps is just as dire.
  • Mechanically it’s much simpler. The B-Series is tough and tolerant of neglect. Look for low oil pressure (anything less than 50psi), smoking, undue tappet noise and rumbling crankshafts under load. A lighter noise is usually the big end shells needing replacing. On a run, look for blue smoke under power.
  • If you fancy replacing rather than overhauling, then you can fit a 1622 unit from the Oxford or Cambridge or better still the 80bhp unit found in the MGA. Although it looks similar, the MGB unit is not a direct swap as it’s physically larger.
  • The combined clutch and brake master cylinder corrodes internally and is expensive to refurbish. Look for leaks, a slipping clutch or substandard brakes on a test drive.
  • Transmissions are sturdy though they can lose synchromesh, usually in second gear, and become noisy but soldier on regardless unless really past it. The same goes for the rear axle. Check to see if the right ratio is still fitted to the car.
  • Even when new Magnettes had no less than 17 grease points, which need replenishing every 1000 miles so expect a lot of wear and tear due to neglect or sheer boredom. Just the usual checks suffice, but rusty front wishbones and broken rear springs are not uncommon.
  • The standard drum brakes hold no particular horrors but watch out for lack of maintenance. The set up is adequate for modern roads unless you drive hard but MkIII or IV drums or MGA discs can be fitted quite simply.

Fast Facts

  • Driving: 4/5

    Slow but sweet. Suitable upgrades can turn it into a four-seater MGA

  • Usability: 3/5

    Usual old car foibles while lowly gearing make it tiring outside town

  • Maintaining: 4/5

    One of the easiest and cheapest sports classics you could wish for

  • Owning: 4/5

    Much cheaper than a Jag to own and much more DIY friendly, too

  • Value: 4/5

    Still underrated and valued for what it offers; a cut price MK2 Jag!

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Last of the great MG saloons, it’s a viable Jaguar substitute says Robert Couldwell

Think of MGs and naturally thoughts always edge towards the sports cars but it’s as well to remember that the first cars were simply modified and re-bodied Morris saloons. MG always made sports saloons and during the late thirties had built some rather fine examples including the luxurious six-cylinder two-litre SA launched in 1935 which was 16 feet long and weighed 30cwt! It had a rather tall Morris engine which to facilitate a low bonnet line had rather unusual horizontal dashpots on the twin SU carbs. A smaller 1.5-litre VA was announced in 1936 and an even more luxurious WA in 1938. But it was the smaller car which would provide future saloon development. The history of the Magnette came about after MG decided that its post war line up was looking decidedly old fashioned. In 1949, conscious that it needed to get up to date, MG recruited ex-employee Gerald Palmer, designer of the avant-garde Jowett Javelin, to produce a stylish YA replacement with the only proviso that the design would have to serve for the new mid-sized Wolseley as well. The result was the ZA Magnette, the design of which was heavily influenced by Italian stylists like Farina. Ironically the Wolseley version was launched first in 1952 with a de-tuned XPAG engine from the MG TC whereas the ZA Magnette came in 1953 fitted with an Austin B-Series engine now that MG was part of the newly formed BMC. This was by a happy accident rather than design but it was a good unit and its 60bhp gave much better performance, befitting the MG badge. Costing £915 against the £989 of its predecessor, the YA, we weren’t to know it at the time but the ZA Magnette was to become the finest MG saloon ever and set the bar so high that no other saloon (and yes that includes the modern Z Series) has matched it. Today along with the MK1 Jag, the MG is the quintessential sports saloon of the 1950s and along with that Coventry cat is becoming highly sort after.

Which model to buy?

There’s only two derivatives of the Magnette so your choice is somewhat limited. The ZA Magnette was the first MG built on the ‘monocoque’ principle and the bodies were supplied by Pressed Steel another company owned by BMC. The first 250 or so ZAs had front windows without quarter lights and the first 6000, ‘tintop’ dashboards that had a sprayed wood effect. Magnette was improved continuously and in 1956 the ZB was launched, equipped with larger SU carbs, raised compression ratio up from 7.5:1 to 8.3:1 and improved manifolding, all which yielded an extra eight horses, The MG was always the swifter option over the Wolseley with a top speed of 80 mph against the Wolseley’s 72 and 0-60 in 22.6 against 32.6 seconds Now it was clipped to a sporty (for its time) 18.5 ticks while top speed headed towards a dizzy 90mph. With the launch of the ZB came the more upmarket Varitone version with a wraparound rear screen, flashing indicators and the option of two-tone paint. At this time a two-pedal clutchless version was made optional. Called the Manumatic, it was semi-automatic where the clutchwas actuated as you changed gear. Innovative but in service it was not very effective plus could be hugely expensive to fix. Unless you are a fan of the unusual it’s best not to become attracted to this Magnette. The ZB was the more popular of the two versions selling 18,524 in just two years against 18,076 ZAs in three years. It is likely that there will be more ZBs around as they will have had fewer years to rust away and make no mistake these cars did rust thanks to the completely unprotected and complicated monocoque structure. Rot and the Magnette’s attraction to stock car/banger racers during the 1970s and 80s means that less than 1000 now survive. This ensures that a complete car is worth £1500 for the spares alone, while a roadworthy example won’t be yours for much less than £4000. However, Magnettes don’t attract big prices and top cars sell for no more than £7000 unless concours. When considered how much an equivalent Jag currently goes for then the MG is a true bargain.

Behind the wheel?

This MGA saloon handles like a big, luxurious Morris Minor!

Typically British 50s best describes this MG. The cabin of the Magnette, even 56 years after launch, is a very pleasant place to be with high quality hide seat facings,Wilton carpets and several trees worth of wood trim (apart from very early ZAs). Of course they probably won’t be like that now but if the patina is good you’ll love the Jaguar-like ambience with that proud MG wheel and the unusual half an Octagon speedo cowl staring at you. Strangely for a sporty car a rev counter wasn’t included but there’s a good complement of subsidiary oblong-styled instruments. In mechanical terms this is a big luxurious Morris Minor and handles in a very similar way. In its time it was a much sought after sports saloon and thanks to its rack and pinion steering and strong hydraulic drum brakes can still be hustled along at a very reasonable clip. Unfortunately gearing is typically 1950s low so motorway cruising at anything more than 65 can be a bit wearing but there was a period overdrive conversion from Alexander Engineering which made all the difference. Alternatively fit a Ford Sierra five-speed ‘box as it’s a revelation because not only does it provide overdrive but the Ford’s intermediate ratios are much better suited too. An excellent nut and bolt conversion kit is available from Hi-Gear Engineering (Tel: 01332 514503). If looking for originality and eschewing upgraded power units, the ZB is the one to go for with the greatly improved performance. But If you like the look and feel of this car the trick is to check out the wide range of modern upgrades available; disc brakes from the MGA or MGB, the 1622cc engine from the MGA or the 1798 cc MGB lump can be relatively easily fitted. The suspension can also be considerably improved with uprated leaf springs and shock absorbers and a smaller steering wheel will improve the steering response albeit with increase weight at low speeds. If you don’t want to go the five-speed route one of the best mods is an MGB gearbox with overdrive unit which will transform the car at cruising speeds.Wire wheels from the MGA can also be fitted. Don’t be under the impression that the later Farina Magnettes that replaced the Z cars are much the same but in a larger, boxier and heavier body. It’s a different kettle of camshafts altogether and drives like what it really is – a twin-carb Morris Oxford lacking any sporting pretensions. It’s an MG in badge only and one which Motor Sport magazine remarked at the time: “Does not fill the individualistic niche which caused enthusiasts to regard the ZB Magnette with such warm affection.”

The Daily Option?

Magnettes must be one of the easiest classics to own

So long as you are prepared to accept lowly performance in today’s terms the Magnette can be used as a daily driver. These are straightforward, pretty reliable cars and with a few choice upgrades such as electronic ignition, alternators and uprated starter motors, can make very practical daily drivers. Most will have had seat belts fitted by now but if not these can be made up by specialist companies. There are even uprated heaters available to improve demisting in particular. That said over the winter months the most important ‘extra’ is a thorough coating of Waxoyl or similar with all box sections being injected (and invest in a coat instead!). There is room for all the family to come along and enjoy the ride plus a reasonable boot considering the sloping tail – better than a Jag in fact. The Magnette a full four and tight squeeze five-seater and the comfort levels were good for its day. Naturally appointments are minimal compared to a modern and this includes no side armrests (there is a centre one though) but as standard a clock was included as was an anti-dazzle rear view mirror! With some careful personalising this MG becomes a very useable alternative to a Jaguar saloon at a quarter of the price with much better fuel consumption (25-30mpg if in good tune is on the cards) as well as cheaper insurance.

Ease of Ownership?

Like all MGs, the Magnette ZA/ZB must be one of the easiest classics to own provided that the fairly complicated monocoque structure is rot free and protected against further corrosion.With few exceptions mechanical and body parts are freely and pretty cheaply available from several suppliers if you shop around while any good autojumble will turn up with the rest. This after all was a true BMC parts-bin car with all mechanical items shared with many other models such as Oxford and Cambridges. If originality isn’t critical then there’s wide scope for pick and mixing from most BMC cars of that era to keep your Magnette mobile, more reliable and cost effective. Z cars are easy cars for the DIY mechanic used to ‘old stuff’ to maintain although compared with today’s moderns maintenance takes is more involved as the engine oil should be changed every 3000 miles or more frequently if not used very often. Balancing the carbs will become a regular chore but the standard starting handle ensures that setting the points and tappets are simplicity itself. For the non-DIY owner it is good to know that any competent old-fashioned garage can service and repair these old warriors. They’d better be handy with the grease gun mind, as there are almost 20 points on the chassis requiring a shot of lube every 1000 miles, as was recommended in its day. “An anachronism on a modern design” said one road test but at least it means that the joints have a chance of a long life – and the mechanic can keep a watching brief on the underside! Regular attention should be given to the interior with frequent applications of hide food to keep the leather supple. Neglect could result in the need for a re-trim which if done properly could cost more than the value of the car. The same applies to the wood trim although veneering is rather less specialist and expensive than coach trimming. Nevertheless, a complete re-trim of this MG by a professional would cost Jag proportions so bear this in mind if you are considering restoring one to new standards.

Timelines

1953

ZA Magnette unveiled at the Earls Court Motor Show. Despite an interval of eight years since the war, there were still material shortages in the UK and the first 6500 did not feature the advertised walnut dashboard, using a specially sprayed metal one instead.

1955

Over-riders, fog lights and the proper wood dash materialised. Initially car ran on a 4.3:1 axle but, a 4.875:1 final drive was fitted to improve acceleration to the detriment of refinement. Then a 4.55:1 was fitted for taller (16.32mph) gearing.

1956

The revamped ZB followed that autumn and posher Varitone versions with their wider rear window and distinctive twotone paintwork became a popular option. Car now boasted 68bhp but was largely to compensate for taller axle fitted earlier and restore performance.

1959

Z Series cars replaced by truly horrid Farina-based replacement after 12,754 ZAs and 23,846 ZBs were built. MK III Magnette heavily slated so heavily revised in '61 with increase in wheelbase, track and power for the much improved MK IV until its 1968 demise.

We Reckon...

The Magnette is more than just a classy and quaint four-seater MGA! It’s also an entirely respectable cut price alternative to a Jaguar MK1/MK2 with similar style and driver satisfaction but at a much lower price and pace. Add a few subtle choice mods and you’ll probably wonder why you yearned for Browns Lane’s best.



User Comments

This review has 2 comments

  • What else to say? It's truly still nowadays a car you can use everyday. And you can get your family and luggage as well! For more ionformation see www.magnette.org

    Comment by: magnette.org     Posted on: 17 Nov 2011 at 05:46 PM

  • I have pleasant memories of the ZB from the late fifties/early sixties. Having read the article, my enthusiasm was re-kindled so I decided to look out for a decent example. The author describes 'top cars' at £7000. I found this not to be the case. Many in this price bracket were tarted up rubbish while the asking price for good cars was anything from £10000 to £16000, a ludicrous price for a fifties mass produced saloon with basic mechanics - even if it does have an MG badge on a shared body! Needless to say, my enthusiasm has waned.

    Comment by: E.C.B     Posted on: 12 Aug 2012 at 08:23 PM

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