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What is an MG 1100/1300? (And the equivalent Riley, Wolseley and Vanden Plas for that matter)
It’s the MG you rarely hear talked about - mainly because it was a badge-engineered Austin/Morris that never even saw the Abingdon factory! Yet the MG 1100 and 1300 were good little sports saloons that in many ways were the BMW 3 Series of their day being sporty, compact, pretty prestigious yet cheap enough to own and fairly attainable. Today you rarely see these highly advanced, spacious and spry cars around and yet they make splendid, seriously cheap starter classics. And let’s not forget the others in the family of upmarket 1100 and 1300s from Riley, Wolseley and Vanden Plas, where the latter in particular enjoyed surprising success in Japan over the past decade or so. Isn’t it time you tried a ‘Big Mini’?
Launched in 1962 as the ‘Big Mini’, ADO 16 (Austin Design Office) was one of the most advanced family cars ever and an instant hit. With its innovative transverse engine installation, front-wheel drive, Hydrolastic fluid suspension and brilliant space efficiency it vied with the conventional Cortina as the UK’s best seller for over a decade and rightly so as it had all the characteristics of the iconic Mini but with more space and civility. With the Mini Cooper becoming such a smash, the introduction of a sports version of the 1100 was logical. But BMC covered all its badge engineered bases by launching a quicker quartet from MG, Riley, Wolseley and Vanden Plas by 1963. Essentially apart from subtle trim and badge differences (classy two-tone paint on MGs and Rileys) these were the same car, featuring a Cooper-like 55bhp albeit from a tuned Morris Minor 1098cc engine featuring a sportier cam and twin 1.25 SU HS2 carbs.
Like the Austin-Morris cars, early examples suffered teething troubles, especially to the transmission and it wasn’t until 1965 that most of the problems were sorted. Around this time the ranges were treated to an automatic transmission first seen on the Mini.Designed by Automotive Products, the AP system was in fact a semi auto where you could also manually change the four ratios, although it sapped performance. Later that year the MkII 1100/1300 came along with revised styling and some sensible upgrades, which included a two-door line up plus the option of a brisk 1275cc engine.
Of course being BMC it was never quite that simple! For some curious reason the 1300 option was available only in single carb form, kicking out 58bhp until the fourdoor 1100 was dropped in early 1968, coinciding with the 1300 rightly gaining twin carbs and a healthy 65bhp. But even that rethink didn’t last long… because for the Earls Court Motor Show a new MkII 1300 arrived with a full fat Cooper S-like 70bhp and closer ratio gearbox, plus an improved cabin! The MG lasted - in two-door form only - until 1971 whereas the Riley Kestrel was dropped as early as 1969. The Wolseley and Vanden Plas cars were the longest survivors, staying in production after the Allegro displaced the ADO 16 range. However, these variants never benefited from the closer ratio MG transmission while automatic versions had to make do with a single carb set up as BMC could never get the AP unit to run right on twins.
Just to add further confusion… replacing the MG1300 was the Austin /Morris 1300GT: a cheapened ‘chavved-up’ MG. Introduced in 1969 (the same time as the Cooper was dropped in favour of the single-carb Mini 1275GT) it stayed in production until the hotted-up Maxi-engined Allegro Sport and SS arrived in 1973.Some 156,000 MGs were made (the vast bulk being the early 1100 Mk1, strangely), 21,000 Riley Kestrels and almost 45,000 Wolseleys - the latter production run being only slightly more than the very expensive Vanden Plas!
It’s a big Mini, so expect similar if diluted experiences with any of this quartet. Really, they were – and still are - ideal for anybody who had outgrown their Cooper. The 1100s were credited with a 0-60mph time of around 20 seconds and a virtual 90mph top speed - hardly MG standards, agreed. However the 1300s were a lot swifter: 14 seconds and 97mph respectively with all clearing 30mpg or more with ease. What the figures can’t convey is the lusty nature of these A-Series engines which can chug along and pull sharply from any gear. Handling is extremely Mini-like although the fluid suspension and longer wheelbase means it’s not so ‘chuckable’ and ‘kart-like’. That said, handling and roadholding is still impressive on good radials and the ride is much softer – and bouncier - than the stubbier Mini.
With their added sound insulation and posher leather trim, all are fairly civilised save for that famous upright driving position, while nobody can fail to be impressed with the space efficiency afforded by Issigonis’ handiwork - small wonder the BL-designed Allegro was hardly any advancement. Sadly no estate versions were made of the quartet; any found are homespun conversions.
Thanks to a lack of interest and pedigree, prices for the bunch sit firmly in the bargain basement category and probably will do for many years yet – so don’t buy one as an investment. Even top examples will struggle to break £3500 with basket cases starting from a round of drinks with the rest all stations in between. Condition is everything here so prices are uniform irrespective of badge - and really so similar are the cars that you’d be a mug to hold out for a certain model - think gift horses. What you don’t want to do is waste vast amounts restoring a shed because you’ll probably never see a return on your money.
What To Look For
- The complete lower half of the car needs to be checked, because rot can take a hold literally anywhere. The key areas to check are the ones in direct line of fire from debris getting thrown up by the wheels; the sills and both front and rear wheelarches. Unless the car has been undersealed and regularly checked, the paint will end up damaged, with holes in the metal appearing in little time.
- Make sure the sills haven’t been bodged with cover panels by looking underneath and seeing where the panel ends. If it stops half-way into the floorpan it’s a cover sill that needs to be replaced with a proper one, which is an expensive process because the sill structure is very complex. As it costs the thick end of £600 per side to put right, your best bet is to find another car in better condition.
- Next check the condition of the wings, especially the area around the headlamps and the seams where it joins the valance. The valance is another weak spot, and just like the other panels that rust, the corrosion usually starts from the inside.
- Lift the bonnet and see what state the inner wings are in; the front subframe is bolted to these so their strength is crucial. To strengthen each inner wing there’s a conical-shaped box section welded to its underside; make sure it’s still there by removing the front wheel and peering inside the wheelarch. If the strengthening panel has rotted away, the wings have to be removed to effect repairs - and the wings are spot-welded on.
- With the bonnet up, check the state of the bulkhead, which doesn’t drain properly and rots out as a result. It’s horrific to repair as so many panels have to be removed to gain access, then there’s lots of welding to do. The best way of checking its condition is to pour a jug of water down the vents at the base of the windscreen - if the footwells become wet shortly after, you know there’s trouble ahead.
- A key area to check is the heelboard, as if it’s rotten the car will fail its MoT. The heelboard is located at the back of the rear footwells; it’s the vertical panel that joins the rear footwells to the floor under the rear seat. The rear subframe is mounted to the heelboard; to replace it properly, the subframe has to be removed - which is why it’s often bodged!
- The subframe itself rots liberally, and if really badly corroded it can pull from the boot floor and floorpan, but such occurrences are very rare. Replacing the subframe isn’t too difficult, but it does take a long time. Things are often made worse once the subframe has been removed, because major corrosion often comes to light in the floorpans. You’ll get a better idea of the floorpans’ state are in by removing the rear seat – any holes (or bodges) will be immediately obvious. Front subframes don’t rot because they’re normally coated in oil from the engine and transmission!
- The boot has a habit of filling up with water before the floor dissolves in a cloud of rust. Remove the spare wheel to check.
- The A-Series engine is a tough unit that will take hard use and even a degree of neglect in its stride. But whereas most engines will display low oil pressure when they’re about to expire, this one doesn’t. Right up until the point where it goes bang it can appear perfectly healthy, although you should be wary if there’s less than 40psi showing at speed.
- On post-1971 and automatic derivatives, the engine’s stabiliser mounting bar bushes tend to disintegrate after a while, because they usually get soaked in engine oil. Try rocking the engine backwards and forwards - clapped out bushes will be obvious from the excessive play. New bushes are cheap and it’s worth investing in some uprated (polyurethane) items for less than £5.
- 1275cc engines are especially prone to valve guides and stem seals wearing out, leading to clouds of blue smoke once the power is applied after the over-run. As you lift off then reapply the power, keep an eye on the rear view mirror. If things suddenly go rather hazy out the back, you know there’s a top end rebuild looming (not difficult to be fair).
- The A-Series engine isn’t very good at retaining its oil, so don’t expect a leak-free unit. On post-1971 cars, the term gearchange oil seal is a misnomer as it doesn’t actually seal, just like the timing chain oil seal doesn’t do much in the way of helping the engine retain its lubricant! Replacing the gearchange oil seal will stop the oil escaping for a few weeks or so, but after that it’ll be back to square one - although fitting two seals instead of one usually helps matters .
- Most 1100s and 1300s were equipped with a four-speed manual gearbox, but from 1965 there was the option of an AP four-speed automatic transmission. These are pretty reliable and effective, although occasionally the front ‘sprag’ clutch can break. The symptom for this is if the car won’t pull away in drive but it’ll operate happily in the other gears. If the gearbox has really had enough it’s probably best to exchange it for a reconditioned one, which will set you back around £400.
- The fundamental problem with the transmission is that it shares its oil with the engine, which is a lot to ask of any lubricant. For this reason it should have been changed every 6000 miles - although 3000-mile oil swaps are a much better idea. The first thing to go will be the synchro cones, although these should still last 100,000 miles before giving any trouble. If there are clicking noises on full lock the CV (constant velocity) joints will need to be fixed, for which you can expect to pay about £100 per side to have them done.
- The 1100’s rack-and-pinion steering is conventional and trouble-free, the only likely problem being split gaiters allowing dirt to get into the rack’s grease. The well tried and tested Hydrolastic suspension is anything but conventional, although it too is usually reasonably trouble-free now. However, there are problems that can occur, so you need to make sure the car sits all square, from side to side and also from front to rear.
- The most likely problems will stem from rusty hydraulic pipes, leaking displacers or perished rubber outlet hoses, and because the displacers are sealed for life they can’t be reconditioned. However, if a displacer is running low on fluid (the pipework tends to leak over time), it can be recharged. But this isn’t straightforward as it needs special equipment, although many garages still have the necessary tools and the bill to top up the system rarely exceeds £20. It’s also not possible to buy new displacers any more, which means the only way of getting replacements is to source serviceable used ones. There are four per car (one at each corner) and you’ll pay £70 per unit - if you can find one that is.
- The Hydrolastic pipes that run the length of the car are made of steel, and because they’re exposed to the elements, corrode. There are two pipes, with one fitted along each side of the underneath of the car’s floorpans. To replace them properly means removing both of the subframes! Listen for grinding noises from the rear suspension. This signifies that the radius arm bearings need replacing; the bearings cost £45 per side and a special puller is needed to carry out the job.
- A lack of lubrication for the handbrake and its guides can lead to the cable seizing up along with the quadrants in which it travels at the back of its run. Potentially more problematic are the rear brakes, as the drums officially have to be removed with the use of a puller.
- The 1100’s electrical system is straightforward, so it’s just a case of making sure that everything works. The regulator box for the charging system can fail (alternators weren’t fitted until 1972), so make sure there are no tell-tale warning lights on the dash - and that the light hasn’t been disconnected in the first place. A new box costs £15.
Although hardly blue chip classics, these often ignored and underrated alternative ADO 16s make decent buys and are ideal for those who have outgrown a Mini Cooper or an MG Midget and want something for all the family to enjoy on that day out at a car show. They feel and drive like a big Mini with similar running costs yet are refreshingly different and individual. And let’s face it, compliments don’t come much bigger or better than that.
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