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The mid-engined MGF was designed to relaunch the MG brand and 20 years after introduction, despite a poor reputation, is becoming a classic in its own right
Just as the Mazda MX-5 hit our showrooms, Austin Rover, under the control of BMW, was finalising what was to become the MGF, arguably the first and only truly up-with-the-times MG to ever be produced. Whereas before MGs were historically very much Johnnycome- latelys, just about keeping abreast with rapidly changing times, the MGF – for once – was going to be ahead of the game.
After the demise of MG in 1980, it looked as though it was the end of this famous name even though Austin Rover kept it on a life-support with MG versions of the Metro, Maestro and Montego before signs of recovery were shown by the MGR V8. However, that revamped MGB was little more than a glorified pastiche and only good enough as a limited run. For something that was to take MG forward, it needed to be bang-up-to-date and not a 1990’s rehash of a 60’s favourite – like the (hugely successful) Mazda MX-5…
Project Phoenix (MG rising from the ashes?) was steeped in a heritage that was almost too spooky for words.
The bodywork was loosely connected to Tickford and the charmingly named Coventry Hood and Sidescreen Company of which MG had been associated with since the 1920s. The personnel involved also ironically had links with MGs of the past such as Brian Griffin, whose father Charles was once the engineering head of Austin Morris and Peter Parker, who had links with BL’s gas turbine experiments.
Throw in Dr Alex Moulton, inventor of the Hydragas suspension first seen in the Allegro and of course the earlier Hydrolastic system and you had the feeling that a distant relation to Cecil Kimber was also in the team – somewhere!
But while respecting its glorious past, the MGF was no pastiche and was the most advanced production MG ever to wear the badge. After sizing up many configurations, including an orthodox RWD V8, it settled on a modern mid-engined design using a fuel efficient four-cylinder engine, which it happily had just signed off, called the K Series.
Some 240 development mules were used in honing the MGF which included disguised road-legal Metro vans (the MGF used Metro subframes in its makeup) while Toyota MR2s were purchased to see how you actually go about successfully fitting a transverse engine mid-ships; Midlands’ enthusiasts were ignorant of seeing strange Toyotas running around with the K Series engines at full cry.
The MGF was announced that summer and such was the popularity of the car, that lengthy delivery waiting times resulted and ‘used’ cars started to sell for a premium; not unlike the XJ6 of 1968. Small wonder it became the best selling sportster in the UK, eclipsing the now established MX-5.
For a company that had been out of the game for at least 15 years, you would be forgiven for thinking that the MGF had some catching up to do – but you’d be wrong. The engineers knew fully well what a 1990s sports car should be and added its own innovations into the bargain.
Like gas suspension. On paper the Hydragas system was totally out of place in a sports car yet in practice it worked quite beautifully, giving the MGF a supple ride Colin Chapman would have been proud of.
If MG did hark back to its past it was with its famous ‘Safety Fast’ slogan. No way was the MGF going to follow other mid-engined machines and be a twitchy oversteering liability that demanded the skill of a racing driver to master. Instead, the engineers managed to make it handle almost like a family saloon; safe and secure – clearly MG knew its market.
Another benefit was the compact design of Hydragas enabling more space for the interior, something the MGF excelled with making it a very friendly but serious sports car. Perhaps the MG was too friendly? Certainly, while the 1.8 K Series engine both in normal 118bhp guise and the rev happy 145bp VVC (Variable Valve Control) option had impressive pace – good enough for Lotus to use in its Elise – the MGF was endowed with taller gearing more suited to relaxed frugal touring than spine-tingling throttle response. But overall, the MGF was a sports car enthusiasts were dying to get their hands on – what a shame that MG mechanics at main dealers became more familiar with them instead.
F WORD IS A SWEAR WORD
Before the infamous K Series engine even blew its first head gasket, the MGF started to gain an iffy reputation, almost as it left the factory. Tales of cars with incorrectly aligned (Metro) subframes and wrong suspension settings were commonplace and some cars even needed to be returned back to base to effect repairs dealers couldn’t handle.
It sadly all started to sound oh so familiar with a product associated with British Leyland; owners were left to finish off the development work and poor durability blights the MGF’s reputation – quite wrongly we believe – to this day.
In an effort to give the MGF some motorsport success, like its illustrious predecessors, US Land Rover technician Terry Kilbourne prepared a self-made special codenamed EX253 to tackle the famous Bonneville salt flats in 1997.
It looked like an elongated MGF and was propelled with a 1.4 turbo engine for 330bhp which was enough to see this MGF attain 217mph – something that has yet to be topped.
Because it didn’t wish to be outdone, MG constructed EX255. Still MGF shaped, it now employed a Janspeed-tuned 4.8-litre V8 for a staggering 942bhp. Timed to commemorate the 50th Bonneville speed week and beat 1961 F1 champ Phil Hill’s speed of 254.91mph set back in 1959 in an MG, sound barrier breaking land speed Thrust SSC pilot Andy Green was to drive the factory machine until a clutch failure sidelined the bold attempt.
Other concepts of the MGF included a road racing Super Sports where a special canopy made this two seater a single seater and with a supercharger, it went like one too. The idea never got off the ground and sadly nor did the more realistic road going 200bhp Super Sports of 2000, chiefly because the timing couldn’t have been worse for MG with BMW jettisoning the Rover brand.
Instead, buyers were simply wooed by a cluster of special editions such as the 75th Anniversary limited edition model although MG did put the racing experience from its popular MGF Cup to good use when it introduced the 160bhp Trophy model in 2001.
RETURN OF THE TF
A refresh in 2000 saw a facelift and some better interior materials plus there was now the option of an automatic called Stepspeed which was broadly based upon the old DAF Variomatic design, albeit with manual override. This was complemented with a six-speed sequential transmission a year later (Servotronic) and while both broadened the appeal of the MGF neither were popular picks; less so now as any repairs usually exceed the value of many cars.
With the Hydragas suspension approaching 30 years old MG decided to re-engineer the car with a conventional damper and coil spring set up which along with a new facial signalled a new model, the TF. Ditching the old Allegro suspension was a mixed blessing because while it did improve the MG’s handling, the over-firm ride was a trade off many old MGF owners didn’t accept and a special ‘softening’ kit was quickly developed. After the demise of MG in 2005, but not before MG Rover showed tantalising pictures of the V6-powered TF GT coupé, new Chinese owners NIAC kept the TF alive, renaming MG from Morris Garages to Modern Gentlemen and making the K Series engine trustworthy at long last with an improved N Series development.
A CLASSIC CAR BARGAIN OR JUST AN OLD BANGER?
Twenty years since launch, the two decades haven’t been particularly kind to the MGF/ TF and instead of being looked upon as the last ‘genuine’ MG sports car, have slunk to banger status where quite respectable examples sell for £500 or less. In fact, such are their lowly values that at one point MG owners’ clubs claimed 100 a month were scrapped simply due to them being uneconomical to repair. Once the head gasket had failed taking the engine with it, repairs exceeded the cars’ worth. Suspension gas spheres are now virtually unobtainable unless from a scrapper and while a ‘TF’ suspension conversion has been devised by specialists, at around £1000 it exceeds the value of many cars.
Yet the MGF’s future isn’t as beak as it half appears. Go to any classic car show (and there’s a dedicated MGF one at Gaydon this August) and you’ll increasingly find rows of examples, lovingly cared for by enthusiastic owners of all ages who treat the car like the modern classic it really is even carefully selecting the right tyres for the sensitive chassis (MG only recommended three brands, now the majority run on a real mish-mash but mark our words a uniform set of tyres transform the car and worth the investment-ed).
Dedicated MGF specialists are also sprouting up dealing in repairs and spares plus a good number are now offering fully refurbished and guaranteed models for around £5000 and it’s hard to think of a better, modern famously-named classic full of heritage for that level of outlay. When all is said and done, the MGF was a classic in the making 20 years ago. How sad that the famous Octagon badge is now marketed as a rival to a Skoda, Kia or Hyundai.
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