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MGF vs. MG Midget vs. Fiat XI/9 vs. Triumph Spitfire

Conventional or cutting edge – should where the engine resides in a sports car help you make a roofless decision? We pitch four Published: 17th Jul 2019 - 0 Comments - Be the first, contribute now!

What The Experts Say...

While he prefers tin tops, our editor Alan Anderson has owned an X1/9, ran our project car MGF, is unbelievably slowly restoring a K-reg Midget and has driven a number of Spitfires and GT6s! His personal favourite was the Y-reg Fiat (believed the first Lido imported into the UK) to drive if not to work on but always loved for its sheer Ferrari-esque character and a great targa top. The MGF was a big surprise “because always I expected it to go wrong” but apart from a dicky handbrake, poor wheel alignment and depressurised suspension (all mandatory MGF ailments) was highly reliable as well as great inexpensive fun. Now getting on ever so slightly, Anderson feels that the Midget (if it’s ever finished!) may be too rustic for him now and admits he never got on with Spitfires although really likes the GT6 and wouldn’t mind buying one.

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Front-wheel drive doesn’t exactly work in a sports car, as the 1990’s Elan SE proved. As excellent as the concept turned out to be – as you’d expect from Lotus – this radical roadster didn’t gel with enthusiasts – although its sky-high prices hardly helped. In most instances, sports cars have remained decidedly retro in their configuration, resolutely keeping a rear-wheel drive format as the endearing popularity of the Mazda’s MX-5, itself an unashamed clone of the 1960’s Elan, continually proves. However, if you take the view that a sports car should be the closest thing to a racer on the road then mid-engined is surely the way to go for the precision handling. With this in mind, and summer just around the corner, we are looking at a fun-filled foursome, evenly split; MG Midget and Triumph Spitfire for the traditionalists with the Fiat X1/9 and MGF for modernists although what they all have in common is great value for money and lots of cheap fun – which are not badged MX-5!

Which one to buy

1st Midget | 2nd Spitfire | 3rd MGF | 4th X1/9

Both the Midget and Spitfire remain familiar sights at shows both being well proven off-shoots of frumpy family ferriers. A Herald in drag possibly, but the transition to Spitfire was as neat as it was effective. Most folks remain convinced that the Mk3 is the best of the bunch, and certainly it’s the quickest in standard tune, but the Stag-tailed MkIV is more common and the last-of-the-line 1500 the easiest to live with on today’s roads. If you hanker for a hardtop, then the Spitfire (available as a permanent fixed-head coupé when new, remember) is by far the most stylish of the pair.

For this twin test, we are ignoring the Frogeye Sprite because this car, while mechanically similar to the Midget, is now a separate classic in its own right – just check the prices! And also, while mentioning Midgets, much of our comments apply to the Austin-Healey Sprite which started it all and ran up to 1972. Apart from subtle badge and detail differences, these Healeys (both built at Abingdon alongside other MGs, incidentally) are rarer, but to date this doesn’t translate into higher values but may well do in the future.

Like the Spitfire, it’s the ‘mid-life’ models, in this case the 1275cc versions, with rounded wheel arches if you can, are the most desired. In tandem with the MGB, the Midget suffered from US safety bumper legislation changes in 1974, resulting in increased suspension height and rubber fenders, although in fairness the Midget wasn’t effected as much as its bigger brother. The biggest change was the fitment of the Triumph Spitfire 1500 engine to the MG, which changed the character of the car and, like the 1.5-litre Spitfire, these versions aren’t as well liked as the earlier versions – even among folk who have never even driven one! However, the flipside to all this prejudice is much cheaper prices and so even better value for money.

When the Fiat X1/9 was launched almost 50 years ago, motoring scribes were quick to comment that this is how the next Midget should be – enthusiasts had a long wait until the mid 90s when the MGF surfaced. As up to date as the Midget and MGB were archaic you’d never know that MG had been out of the game for some 15 years. Here was a state-of-the-art sports car that was a complete departure from the MX-5 launched five years earlier, its most notable features being the engine mounted midships and utilising the Metro subframe for its hydragas suspension.

When the MGF morphed into the TF, it gained a new chassis with conventional springing which some feel was a retrograde step. But there’s always been a cluster of special editions with better appointments and some, such as Wedgewood, 75 Anniversary, Trophy and the TF’s Sprint, are becoming quite sought after.

By the time the X1/9 met an expectant motoring world our MG Midget and Triumph Spitfire were very much in the autumn of their happy lives. With its advanced mid-engined chassis and super sharp 70’s styling it was everything the old school Brits wasn’t when launched in 1972. Fiat showed everybody else how to make a low cost yet serious sports car. Based upon 128 1300 Rally saloon car mechanicals, it showed the way ahead with its mid-engined format and Targa top. A move to 1500cc along with a five-speed transmission in 1979 added more urge but the Fiat still cried out for more power because the X1/9 had the spirit of a Ferrari about it; purists love the unsullied shape of the 1300 versions.

In 1981, Fiat handed over production to Bertone, leading to the car now being so badged as well as a VS model for the UK market boasting leather trim and electric windows. Further titivation included revises in 1984 and ’86 with the Gran Finale version introduced in 1989, identified by its special wheels and trim (and an ungainly rear spoiler). With only 1000 or so left, 80 per cent SORN, the Fiat rarity is causing values to push up. Average-to-good cars hover around £4000-£5000 with the 1500 models holding an advantage in the region of £1000. One dealer quite recently advertised ‘the best one left’ – at a whopping £18,000. Wonder if he got it?

Spridgets (an amalgamation of Sprite and Midget) are also starting to rise in value and five figure sums are beginning to materialise for the best, irrespective of model unless its the 1500 which are the cheapest by a long chalk – £3000 gets you a quite nice runner. It’s also the more civilised and quickest but those rubber bumpers are the turn off. Super Spitfires are now starting to go for serious money. Mk3s and MkIVs are seen as best bets although earlier cars will hold money better due to their rarity.

MGFs are the cheapest of the bunch with able runners on the market for comfortably under £1000 although it’s best to spend double for a good example. Only the best, and some later special edition TFs, can fetch around £8000 from a specialist and this usually includes a new head gasket, timing belt etc and warranties; not bad value.

What's the best to drive?

1st MGF | =2nd Midget & X1/9 | 4th Spitfire

In all honesty, it’s a bit unfair to place these cars in order as it hinges on personal taste but in terms of speed the MGF is tops, no doubt due to having the fattest, grippiest modern tyres. Yet what makes the MGF so pleasurable is the way it goes about its business.

The F may be saddled with Metro gas suspension but the British engineers did a remarkable job of turning it into one of the best and certainly most user-friendly mid-engined chassis ever. Unlike snappy Ferraris, and even X1/9s, the MGF (if on good, recommended tyres at least) is as predictable as a front-wheel drive hot hatch yet retains that darty agile feel only a mid-ship enjoys.

Furthermore (if the hydragas is set up correctly), its supple Elan-like ride means that this MG is no bone shaker either. Perhaps the only disappointment remains the electric power steering which is devoid of real feel. Is the spring suspended TF an improvement? In ultimate handling terms then yes it is, but the harsh ride trade off may not be worth it for many. In fact, it led to a softer handling kit being made an option.

The other MG comes next because of its sheer exploitability. The simple Austin A35 underpinnings ensure good old fashion fun and the Midget is almost like a Caterham in terms of handling but without the explosive power. They really are a delight and the low grip levels keeps you legal at the same time, the only major downside is the car’s harsh ride.

Compared to the MGF, the Fiat shows its age although shares the same characteristics and its steering is a gem. The X1/9’s skinnier tyres means less roadholding and it’s not as ‘foolproof’ as the MG if pushed too far. Also, the Fiat suffers from the brakes locking the front wheels, especially in the wet; it’s a trait suffered by many other Fiats along with the Lancia Beta Montecarlo that we feature elsewhere in this issue.

The Triumph suffers from its Herald rear suspension layout, causing the rear wheels to ‘tuck in’ during cornering – pretty unnerving if you’re not familiar with this quirk. The earlier the car, the more pronounced it is, but from the MkIV onwards this was quite well controlled and so long as you don’t push it too hard the Spitfire won’t bite back under a closed throttle, plus there are enough upgrades to make a Spitfire handle go, stop and brake better if you require.

Performance-wise the MGF is a class apart, offering between 110bhp-158bhp and they all feel quick – the VVCpowered models particularly so – and this is despite strangely tall gearing for a sports car. The X1/9 comes next but this baby Ferrari has always cried out for more power; the 1500 being notably nippier plus has the benefit of a five-speed gearbox although the gearing is still lowly.

The older Spitfires and Midgets are pretty much on par being no more than lively but as compensation, there’s shed loads of tuning equipment and expertise to make both much faster.

As tourers, the MGF is once again the best choice care of its tall gearing, comfy confines with the best driving position and a well fitting hood. The Fiat’s clever Targa top may be easy to remove and stow (in the front ‘boot’) but it is noisy when left in place due to poor fitting. The Spitfire is far more habitable than its Midget rival boasting better trim and overdrive – something even the Midget 1500 lacked despite using the same Triumph engine – although the ride, if anything, is worse than the Midget and the chassis displays too many creaks and rattles for those better experienced to modern cars. Finally, if you yearn for an auto, only the MGF obliges but it does this sports car no favours plus is woefully unreliable and will probably write off the car if it goes wrong.

Owning and running

=1st Midget & Spitfire | 3rd MGF | 4th X1/9

The simplistic make up of the older Brits means the DIY is both possible and a pleasure, more so in the case of the Spitfire, which offers unbeatable access to the engine and front suspension, care of its forward-hinged bonnet. Parts supply on either car is superb and a complete nut-and-bolt restoration is possible if you feel so inclined. BMH offers brand new bodyshells for MGs, while every panel along with new chassis frames are obtainable for the Spitfire. There’s a raft of proven improvements for both cars and the only limiting factor is your imagination and budget.

The MGF comes pretty close behind. General service parts are okay, via Rimmer Bros and David Manners plus BMH is making some body parts for them – no, the problem with the F is a sadly high attrition rate due to low residuals, none too good build quality and the increasing non-availability of factory parts; Hydragas spheres are obsolete, for example. There is a kit to convert an F over to conventional suspension but at a price of well over £1000 the conversion is worth more than many cars – ditto if a head gasket has lunched the engine.

On the other hand, MGF specialists are regularly sprouting supplying refurbished cars with worthy warranties at keen prices – if we were looking to buy one that’s the route we’d take. There’s also flourishing owners’ clubs; note how many cars you now see at classic shows.

Despite good club support, the X1/9 is the harder car to own. Its mid-ship engine can be awkward to get at and also the X1/9 suffers from a nightmarish clutch hydraulics. And as any owner will tell you, unless you fit an electric fuel pump (one from the Punto is popular) hot starting is an absolute pig on today’s unleaded petrol. Body parts and trim aren’t MG easy to source but there are good Fiat specialists around.

And The Winner Is...

1st MGF | =2nd Midget & X1/9 | 4th Spitfire

All are great cars in their own right and our verdict is a purely personal one. Traditionalists will steer towards the Midget and Spitfire for various reasons, not least their simplicity to maintain, good specialist back up and ease of running and selling on. Of the pair, the Midget is more hard core, the Spitfire a slightly softer option. The X/19 is an acquired taste, we freely admit… but for connoisseurs, they will love the fact that it’s a baby Ferrari in style and spirit that it was also designed by Bertone. The MGF may have arrived over 20 years after the Fiat and, a decade later than the similar Toyota MR2, but MG proved it hadn’t lost the knack of building a great sports car. Add their bargain prices and you can’t wait for the summer…

Classic Motoring

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