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A little tuning turns the MGA into a very capable sports car, says Sam Skelton
When compared to the hairy- chested Healeys and tough TRs that were its rivals, the MGA was seen as just a little bit ‘pretty’ to be a true sports car – a car for people who would rather be seen coasting the seafront to piloting their chariot enthusiastically down a B road. The svelte curves hid a charming little machine, though; different in personality but no worse than the Triumph or Healey – and one which with a little attention and not to say a few mods can mix it with the best of them on road or track.
It’s a B-Series like an MGB, isn’t it? Well yes – and a lot of the tuning you can apply to a B can be applied to an MGA. Bob West of Bob West Sportscars (http://www. bobwestclassiccars.co.uk/ Pontefract, 01977 703828) says “I like my MGs mostly standard – if I was to uprate for myself I’d choose an early three bearing MGB engine, as it looks like an MGA unit and retains the mechanical speedo drive. We’ve done five (the later, stronger) bearing versions too – chrome bumper cars are better, as the engine mountings are in the same place. You’d get an extra 20 or 30bhp straightaway – the same as you’d get from head mods, a hairy cam, and more work to a standard MGA engine, but for far less cost plus this engine can be taken out to 2-litres fairly easily.
There are also more parts available for the MGB spec engine – nicer aftermarket pistons, for example – and the MGB spec engine benefits from a stronger crankshaft.” So unless you have strict capacity limits for racing or rallying, an MGB engine is a wiser modification than people might think – there are more options for less money. “You can uprate an MGA spec engine, and we have done so,” Bob adds, “But you’d need a stronger crank, better quality pistons, a hot cam like a Piper 285, and you’d need to do a lot of work on the cylinder head – and to get 95-100bhp out of a 1500 would cost far more and take far longer than swapping to an MGB engine. The 1622 is a better engine, but the MGB spec unit is the best option for performance mods.”
But a straightforward engine swap isn’t always that straightforward. Early three bearing MGB engines will mate straight to an MGA gearbox and starter motor if you like an original-looking engine. Depending upon how late you go, the list of uncommon parts can virtually amount to a new drivetrain – a new front plate, back plate, modified fan pulley and fan belt, modified radiator positioning and more from rubber bumper Bs. It’s not worth the effort for most. You’d need the MGA exhaust system. If all you can find is a later spec MGB unit, it might be worth thinking outside the box and fitting a totally different engine to your MGA. Over to Frontline Sportscars…
Frontline will fit a Rover K series as aturnkey conversion will cost £13,000 and should yield about 140bhp. Using parts from a scrapyard and a lot of ingenuity it could possibly be done at home for less than a professionally built car would cost, but Frontline is the experts on these MG conversions. Ed Bracik of Frontline thinks the Japanese route could be interesting: “Honda S2000 engines have been put into MGAs before but involve a massive amount of structural work.
“The other option is the Mazda engine we use in the LE50, offering 214 BHP as standard with a six-speed manual or auto box. It weighs a mere 84kg so would push an MGA along rather rapidly!”
Neither Frontline nor West were willing to comment on the suitability of the engines which succeeded the B-Series. O-Series, M-Series and T-Series engines have been fitted successfully to MGBs and would make an interesting and appropriate MGA upgrade, but the K series is lighter which will result in more economy and better weight distribution.
Back to the B Series… All benefit from better breather for starters and perhaps a session on a rolling road dyno to fine tune what you have already with perhaps sports air filters and better carb jets and springs – all worth 5bhp minimum which isn’t bad for a £100 outlay. We’d add electronic ignition too. Then it’s the exhaust manifold and system to be swapped for something better followed by a bigger valve cylinder head. If you slot in a hairier cam you may need to look at Weber DCOE carbs.
An alternative, which was a very popular period mod, was a supercharger. MGOC sells a Moss-developed kit, while Peter Edney has made his own set up based on an Eaton unit. Both claim something like a 30 per cent power increase on a standard tune engine but the three grand cost makes it an expensive way to gain MGB power.
HANDLING THE POWER
An MGB overdrive gearbox presents even more issues than the engine. It cannot be done without modifying the transmission tunnel. In the case of late MGB gearboxes, such extensive modification is needed that it’s hit and miss if whether the seats will fit! Better to do one of two things. “You end up with the gear lever too far forwards and modify the chassis,” claims Bob West. “It’s a messy conversion!” he adds. The better option is to fit a five-speed conversion, and the Type 9 box from the Sierra is the most Extreme brake conversion, but drums can work okay too widespread of these conversions. The chassis rails either side of the existing gearbox must be in excellent order as these will carry the cross-member for the Ford box. As a rule, kits are suitable for 1600 MGAs – 1500cc will need a 1600 engine backplate for the conversion to be viable.
The transmission tunnel cover will need modifying, and many find the MGA gear lever boot is too restrictive for the Ford shift pattern. If so use a late MGB gaiter.
A conversion kit is available from Hi-Gear Engineering (http://hi-gearengineering.co.uk, Derby 01332 514503) and costs £775. You’ll need to supply your own gearbox, but it includes a quick-shift gear selector which will mimic the throw length of a standard MGA gearchange. There are kits to fit Type 9s to just about anything- so if you’re changing your engine, it’s no issue. This conversion is endorsed by Bob West as being relatively hassle-free and offering benefits for the regular user.
Hoyle Engineering (http://www.hoyle- engineering.co.uk, Surrey 3932555) offers front coilover kits and independent rear suspension derived from the Ford Sierra if you really want to go mad with your MGA. They’d be ideal for those who took the “Frontline” route – with a hairy K-series or maybe even a Japanese engine and box. But at over £900 in parts these can be unnecessary unless you plan to do considerable track work.
Bigger brakes, perhaps from an MGB naturally and a thin front anti-roll bar along with quality dampers (there’s a lot of cheap nasty recon imports warns West) are all the road user should need to make an MGA pretty spot on but of course you can go much further for track work including telescopic and coil damper conversions. Power steering conversions are available but not really needed and cost around £3000. A four pot front brake disc kit is going to hit you for over £700 plus you’ll need the hubs of course to fit.
Really it depends how fast you want to make your MGA go – and stop and traditionalist West says the stock drum brakes are fine with good linings fitted. Ditto the lever arm suspension set up using good units and 400lb springs plus a thorough overhaul of the king pins. And don’t go over 165 tyres for road use, he further advises, adding: “A well sorted MGA still on drums and lever arm dampers is a lovely car”.
- Quality Mintex brake linings
- Good recon lever arm dampers
- Thinner front anti roll bar
- Top brand 165 radials
- Poly bushing
- Telescopic damper conversion
- Independent rear suspension
- Power steering conversion
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