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MGB vs. Triumph TR4 vs. Jensen Healey vs. Sunbeam Alpine vs. Reliant SS1

British sports cars once ruled the World – and they still do as classics. Here’s a fistful of fun to consider with prices as low Published: 11th Feb 2020 - 0 Comments - Be the first, contribute now!

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Mazda’s enchanting MX-5 may be the World’s best selling sports car, but for many classic lovers only a true blue British brand will do which is MGBs and Triumph TRs remain so popular despite both pushing 60 years of age.

With the exception of the lithe Lotus Elan, British sports cars withered on the vine for decades, the only notable newcomer being the Jensen-Healey which, on paper, promised to sweep all before it. Sadly, this under-developed Lotus-powered sports car was launched just before the 1973 Energy Crisis which helped kill not only the car, but also Jensen off by 1976. It looked the end of the line for sports cars until Reliant, of all people, launched the oddly-styled SS1 during the mid 80s. It was a bold stab before MX-5 came along in ’90 making everything else redundant.

As classics this Brit bunch is another matter. A traditional design ensures easy DIY maintenance and tinkering – which for many enthusiasts is part of the fun.

Which car really has you smiling the most though?

Which one to buy

1st MGB | 2nd TR4 | 3rd Alpine | 4th J-H | 5th Reliant

If you want to add common sense into the equation the MGB stands head and shoulders above the rest. Steadily improved over nearly two decades, in both roadster or the hatchback GT guises, the biggest alterations occurred for ’75 with the fitting of those infamous rubber-bumpers which did the car’s still graceful style no favours, and even less to the handling thanks to a raised ride height. On the plus side these versions are the cheapest of all MGBs by some way, followed by the ‘black fronted’ nose of the early 1970s.

In contrast, most valuable are the early ‘pull handle’ versions but value aside for the majority the post 1967 Mk2 (sporting better gearbox and brakes) and Mark IIIs from October 1971 (cloth seats, better hood and return of the traditional chrome front grille for ’73) are the best all rounders. If you opt for a r/b, 1978 model year cars are the best as the suspension was already revised and roadster gained an improved hood.

Triumph’s TR4 was the bridge between the post-war Morgan-like TR2/3 and the not so ancient Healey-like TR5/6. It’s an often overlooked fact that the TR4 was actually a 2+2 (albeit only with the hood folded and a tight fit at that) while the novel Surrey top – which is more like a Targa – was certainly preferable and quicker to use than the antique tent-framed hood.

This optional headgear was part of the 1964 ‘4A’ revamp which also gave way to a nicer cockpit and, crucially, independent rear suspension taken from the 2000 saloon. On the one hand it adds 100lb to the weight but the superior stern does much to improve the ride if not the TR’s handling.

Sunbeam’s Alpine was never seen as a serious sports car like the MG or TR but as a softer option, hardly helped by being based upon the commercial van Husky platform. Launched way before the Triumph and MG, five iterations were offered, chiefly majoring on engine size and power changes although a beefier anti-roll bar and more modern (telescopic rather than lever arm) rear dampers sharpened the soft handling no end on the 1963 SIII.

This second generation, boasting a 1600cc engine lasted for three years and was the most popular Alpine of them all, amounting to almost 20,000 sales. The Series V, introduced mid ’65; now back on twin carbs after a brief flirtation with a single twin-choke affair to please dealers in America. Now sporting the 1725cc engine it was rated at 92bhp rather than 88bhp elsewhere thanks to a special camshaft although according to marque expert Chris Draycott whether it’s still there due to past engine swaps or rebuilds is highly debatable.

Jensen’s all new Healey promised great things although it never was a replacement for the Big Healey.

It was mix and match of proprietary parts: Lotus 16V engine, Sunbeam Rapier transmission, Vauxhall Viva suspension and brakes… a tasty recipe! Early cars gained a poor reputation leading to a hurriedly rehashed Mk2 for 1974 with improved build and a more durable Lotus lump. A five-speed gearbox was fitted too along with closed coupé called the Jensen GT. If you look at this as a posher MGB GT you’re not far wrong and for much the same money – worth chewing over if that’s what you’re after.

Last but not least there’s the Reliant SS1 which is a modern Frogeye and as much fun. Short for ‘Small Sports’, the quirkily styled Reliant was designed by Triumph stylist supremo Michelotti and it was to be the last car he styled before his death. It was hardly his best effort…

A redesign in 1988 (SS2) together with another hefty restyle in 1990 (by William Towns, of Aston DBS fame), didn’t do anything to halt the dwindling interest. Ford FWD Escort engines (1.3 and 1.6, with the 1.4-litre superseding the earlier 1.3) dominated but there was also a potent Nissan 1.8Ti power plant, before the delightfully crisp 1.4 Rover K-Series was listed. The car ran from 1984 to 1995, renamed Sabre in 1992.

Both the MG and Triumph have security in numbers otherwise, the Alpine is a nice too often ignored alternative, the Jensen-Healey (when well sorted) what a modern TR or B should have been by the 1970s and the 1980’s Reliant worth some consideration as a cheap starter sports classic.

What’s best to drive

1st Reliant | 2nd J-H | 3rd TR4 & MGB | 5th Alpine

What a turn up! The Reliant may not be the prettiest sketched sports car ever but it goes better than its looks as a test drive will instantly confirm. This modern Midget has a chassis that wouldn’t disgrace an Elan and it’s been likened to a Caterham but with more civility and room.

The Ford engines are perky but the real humdinger is the 135bhp 1.8-litre turbo which spiced up this fibreglass fun loving sportier.

If driving thrills are important, the Reliant may overcome your quite understandable prejudices…

The heady components cocktail of the Jensen-Healey promises much. With its (highly regarded in its day) Viva suspension and exotic Lotus engine, the Jensen-Healey is the next best driving performer even if it doesn’t have the sense of occasion like a TR or MG. Handling is from a different generation and the detuned Esprit 16V unit – if in good order – is fast even by today’s standards if not particularly refined when given its head, enabling a sprint to 60 in under eight seconds.

Where the J-H disappoints is in its handling which is too soft for a serious sports car although easily amended. The car’s plus points include an excellent driving position, five-speed transmission and good refinement even if the hood’s poor fit spoils touring.

Equal third belongs to the familiar MGB and TR4 of an earlier time. Both feel a lot more vintage to drive but that’s not a criticism as they serve up their own kind of fun.

The Triumph needs a more scruff-of-the-neck approach and you need to decide whether you want the rigid axle TR4 or the sophisticated 4A and opinions differ greatly about this; the earlier models benefit in handling and agility but the latter sports superior comfort and roadholding to the detriment of lugging 100lb of added weight about. In all honesty, if you are unfamiliar with the Triumph it’s best to compare the two if possible.

The TR4’s 2.1-litre engine is appreciably lustier than the 1798cc MGB unit which is saying something as the evergreen B-Series is renowned for its muscle if not a knockout punch. The MG’s handling was initially praised for its sheer predictability and controllability but the advent of rubber bumpers and raised ride heights ruined all that which the 1977 revise didn’t fully rectify. You soon notice the difference if you compare the two generations but, on the other hand, the later car’s ride is notably improved and r/bs make better motorway cars although most have been lowered back to orignal spec by now. Of the two, the MG is the lighter to drive than the Morgan-like TR which feels the more meatier.

Even less taxing is the olderfeeling Sunbeam Alpine which is less inclined to be hurriedly hustled cross-country with flair. Comparisons with the MGB are inevitable, and justified, yet the Rootes effort is the sweeter running car although more of an urbane tourer than an out-and-out sportster but some may prefer this character.

The MG and Triumph, both have the benefit of a precise rack and pinion steering, unlike the Sunbeam, although common with this threesome is overdrive that’s warmly appreciated on a run.

An even easier time is offered by the Alpine (which, like the MG, had an auto option) but on the other hand it’s not as fleet of foot, even with the latter 1725cc engine up front. Alpine expert Draycott reckons 98 per cent of today’s Alpine engines are not running on the special ‘298’ camshaft that was unique to the car but on the other hand, you now discover many are fitted with the racey if peaky Rapier H120 engine.

To sum up, Caterham-style fun lies with the Reliants and a general pleasant sporty time with the, Triumph, MG and Sunbeam in that order. The Jensen-Healey sits somewhere in between but with an improved suspension (easily sorted, inexpensively) could be the best of the lot. It rather depends what you want from your sports car.

Improvement potential

1st MGB & TR4 | 3rd J-H | 4th Reliant | 5th Alpine

It goes without saying that the MG and Triumph triumph in this respect given the wide scope of time honoured off-the-shelf inexpensive improvements available, many club accepted as they enhance rather than detract from the car’s characters. The Jensen-Healey has a heck of a lot of hidden potential. It’s quick enough in good tune, and easily uprated to Esprit spec and beyond 200bhp, so really the suspension is the first port of call as strangely the car lacks the anti-roll bars usually fitted to the Vauxhall Viva/Firenza suspension. Some owners have slotted in the Rover V8, to make it the sports car Healey once said he should have done right from the start…

The Reliant can be turned into a rapid roadster quite easily with proprietary parts and the Nissan Turbo hardly needs extra grunt unlike the stock Metro brakes ideally need uprating even for standard Reliants. The Alpine can be turned into a Tiger beater although takes a lot of work. Draycott is your man at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

Owning and running

1st MGB & TR4 | 3rd Alpine & J-H | 5th Reliant

The old guard understandably scores heavily and there’s little to split the MG and Triumph marques – perhaps the former fares the best as replacement bodyshells are offered, albeit at a price, which puts them out of reach for the majority of owners. Both are easy to maintain at the kerb and there’s no shortage of specialist or owner club help either.

Support for the Alpine is nowhere near as widespread although thanks to the unstinting effects of the AROC and Chris Draycott all what you need is out there – somewhere – and the Sunbeam is as super simple to maintain as a Hillman Minx which can donate many parts. and are the best places to know.

Engine by Lotus, transmission by Chrysler, suspension by Vauxhall… and development done by owners? was a well-used Jensen-Healey quip although as its owners club points out, reliability was in reality no worse than many other cars from that era and thanks to specialists like Rejen and Martin Robey, good stocks of spares are becoming available.

As the Reliant is another classic that’s forgotten, historically low prices result in neglect. The SS1-Sabre is no exception and chassis rot is a major concern as new frames aren’t available, later ones were galvanised, however. Corroding suspension wishbones are a worry as these are modified Opel Kadett ones now only available from Germany. The Nissan turbo unit can prove pricey to repair unlike the Ford and Rover units.

And The Winner Is...

1st MGB | 2nd TR4 | 3rd J-H | 4th Alpine | 5th SS1

All five serve up fun in their own special way. Logically speaking, the MGB and TR4 are the wisest, almost default buys, if for no other reason that they are the simplest to own and sell plus everybody loves them be at a show or in a pub car park on a sunny Sunday. With TR4 values soaring, the MGB ultimately scores with its better affordability and availability.

The Jensen-Healey is coming of age – and about time too. Granted the car’s nondescript Spitfire on steroids styling never won many friends over the decades but there’s a cracking cultured classic just waiting to come out – buy now while they’re still great bargains.

Alpines are nice, stylish easy going tourers having a unique 50’s style. The Rootes’ roadster isn’t as sporty as a rival MGB or TR4 even though they were successful racers in their day but they have a certain something about them and are much cheaper than a TR4.

The Reliant may come last but it is certainly not least and if you want pure driving fun then it should be right at the top. The SS1/SST and later Sabre are a hoot although those looks and a kit car feel always count against this Tamworth tearaway but what value at less than £2000. However, our money would go on a Jensen-Healey. Far more modern than an MGB or TR it’s more like a British Alfa Romeo Spider in concept or an interpretation of a ‘new’ Lotus Elan, before the MX-5 came along. That can’t be bad, can it?

Classic Motoring

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