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MGB Published: 15th Aug 2019 - 0 Comments - Be the first, contribute now!

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How the MGB stayed in production for almost 20 years was due to many factors, not least its enduring appeal

Have you owned one yet? Until the Mazda MX-5 overtook it, admittedly several years ago, our MGB was the world’s best selling sports car and it’s clear to see why. Ever since the MGA replacement was unveiled in 1962, it’s been an affordable, immensely usable, incredibly easy to own serious sports car, surviving for an incredible 18 years and has been right at the heart of the classic scene for over four decades.

As good as it was, the MGA was never intended for a long life. Launched in 1955 as a major rejig of the old TF, itself a descendant of the pre-war TA, plans for project EX205 began in 1959 as an all new replacement, with proposals for advanced Vee engines and coil spring rear suspension. Cost ruled the former out, prolonged development issues the latter, meaning that MGB was, when unveiled at the 1962 Earls Court Motor Show as orthodox as they come although it did have the accolade of being MG’s fi rst all monocoque construction – if you overlook the ZA Magnette saloon and the MG Midget, that is.

What set the £949 MGB apart from its rivals was its elegant, clean styling that’s stood the test of time so well. It was always intended that a proper coupé would follow and as MG’s Don Hayer and John Thorley had worked previously at Aston Martin, both appreciated the quality of the DB2/4 design with its novel hatchback. They realised that, one day, the typical enthusiast would outgrow their fun but impractical two-seater soft top as they got older, got married and started to raise a family. MG reasoned, why should respectability be a byword for boring?

Suddenly, here was a proper sports car that could also cope with the school run and other domestic duties so there was no need for a dull saloon or, Heaven forbid, a commercialderived estate. Add a fabric sun roof, as many did, and you could really have your cake and eat it. What more could an enthusiast want from a car? The Pininfarina modifi ed MGB was blessed with a beautifully proportioned style that has become timeless. In fact, even the advent of rubber bumpers in the mid-1970s couldn’t completely ruin those classical looks.

Because the MGB relied upon the trusty 84bhp 1798cc B-Series engine rather than anything more exotic (the MGA’s Twin Cam was considered now it was fi nally made trustworthy) a call for something with a bit more sting soon grew and, with the old Austin-Healey being discontinued, MG tried to kill two birds with one stone with its sixcylinder MGC. Yet, far from providing the best B, the lazy nature of the new Morris-designed six-cylinder engine turned the once youthful MG into something of an old man’s car.

Launched in 1967, it was killed off around the time a certain saloon car dressed and dolled up in sexier clothes almost single-handedly killed off the affordable sports car in the UK– the Capri (subject to a comprehensive buying guide in this issue!-ed).

Other classy fastbacks followed but the MGB, by now getting on in terms of design, was still selling well, chiefl y in the US where it mattered. Successive revises kept it fresh in rapidly changing times although the engine output wasn’t touched – if anything it was gradually being detuned to cater for ever stringent US emission laws.

MG had other ideas to counter this. About the same time the ill-starred MGC was dropped, an enterprising engineer and ace Mini racer called Ken Costello did the sensible thing and dropped in Rover’s evergreen Buick-derived V8. Surely British Leyland would follow suit and make the BGT a genuine cut-price Aston?

Yet it took BL fi ve years to launch its own MGB V8, in 1973, and in GT form only, by which time car design had moved on and this ‘Queen B’, despite its prodigious performance even from the lower-tuned Range Rover engine used, felt positively antique because MG wasn’t allowed to update areas that badly needed modernising by 1973, such as the chassis and interior.

Costing as much as a Scimitar GTE or Triumph Stag, the new V8 was too expensive for what it was – even the most staunch MG fans could see that. Throw in the Energy Crisis later that year, causing rocketing fuel prices overnight, and the (surprisingly quite frugal) V8 only lasted for three years, being– ironically – comprehensively outsold by the severely slated MGC. This was a grave injustice to what could have been one of the best MGs ever, something Austin Rover proved two decades later with the bespoke RV8.

Erasing the good memories?

By the mid 70s the MGB was fast falling behind the times and badly in need of a revamp; typically, British Leyland did the opposite saddling all MGBs in latest US spec giving the Home and European markets scant thought by lumbering every loyal buyer with the ungainly new Bayfl ex rubber bumpers to comply with pedestrian protection laws.

The factory also raised the ride height to conform to the corresponding legalisation in the crudest way possible, much to the horror of Abingdon’s respected engineers, thus ruining one of the MGB’s few remaining qualities. Many thought that the bumbling B should be put out of its misery yet the MGB had one of its best sales years ever in ’76, despite (or perhaps because of? ) the launch of the oddly-styled TR7 fi xedhead.

How the press viewed the MGB understandably changed over its long production run. At launch it was lauded for its clean looks and practicality. By 1971 and with the car much the same, it was dubbed in a road test by weekly Motor as the “establishment sports car where many fanatics regard any change as an effrontery.” But others such as the ever critical Car was now loudly calling the MG, “long in the tooth and an uninspiring car today”. As expected, when the rubber bumper cars came along the writers had a fi eld day and the general opinion was that the dear old MGB should have been put to the sword several years ago.

But the car was showing its classic potential even back in 1975 because Car admitted: “Strangely enough, through the noise and crudity of it all there is still a certain charm about the car”. Three years later, and the same magazine ran a feature on sports car classics and it’s amusing to see that, on the one hand, it was praising the MGB as a classic – “Sensible sports car with pleasant nature” – but in its famous ‘Good Bad and Ugly’ buyers guide section to new cars, just 20 pages further on, the same car was being described as “so old, so tired”. Work that one out if you can…

The end of MG in 1980 didn’t signal the end of the MGB, but rather ushered a new beginning for this evergreen sports car – as a common sense classic. And it’s in this new life that the car has blossomed into one of the world’s best loved collectibles. As Autocar had to admit in 1977, “Like Wimbledon the MGB seems to have become part of the British sporting tradition”. And so the story continues…

Remember when… 1976

Although past its best, the MGB posted one of its most succesful ever sales years in ‘76. Here’s some other hot highlights of a wonderful year!

The Queen opens the National Exhibition Centre. It was to prove the perfect venue for motor shows of all types including now the Classic Motor Show, of course!

Jim Callaghan becomes Prime Minister, following the surprise resignation of Harold Wilson. Labour had already lost its majority when Callaghan took over, leading to the Lib-Lab pact. Not quite a coalition government like the 2010 alliance, but one that also failed…

Liverpool nabs its ninth league title plus wins the UEFA Cup. Southampton beat Man United for FA Cup honours – rivals City take the league cup. James Hunt snatches the F1 crown from Niki Lauda in the final race in a year of legal wrangles (both now sadly dead).

The heatwave peaks in July at over 96 °F as some parts of the UK haven’t seen rain for 45 days – drought measures were soon introduced. Britain and Iceland agree to end the Cod War while the Seychelles become independent of the UK. Hillman name is dropped by Chrysler after almost 70 years.

Rampant inflation saw car prices leap every few months. A Granada Ghia was now priced at over £4500 (which was the average wage) and even a Mini cost £1496 – which also got a decent Mk2 Jag…

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