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MG Magnette

Beginners MK2 Published: 10th May 2011 - 0 Comments - Be the first, contribute now!

Fast Facts

  • Best model: ZB Varitone
  • Worst model: Anything bodged
  • Budget buy: ZA
  • OK for unleaded?: Needs additive or converting
  • Will it fit in the garage? (mm): L 4293 x W1600
  • Spares situation: Good
  • Club support: Typical MG
  • Appreciating asset?: Yes
  • Good buy or good-bye?: Look at it as MG’s Jag Mk2
Shades of Jaguar about it, the Magnette was luxurious for its day although few cars will be in this exceptional condition Shades of Jaguar about it, the Magnette was luxurious for its day although few cars will be in this exceptional condition
Rugged B-Series is so easy to keep sweet. MGA tune perks the saloon up notably Rugged B-Series is so easy to keep sweet. MGA tune perks the saloon up notably
Classic styling looks as good as a MK2 but the MG rusts for fun and bodges rife Classic styling looks as good as a MK2 but the MG rusts for fun and bodges rife
Open the rear door and check here for rust and fi ller. If bad walk away Open the rear door and check here for rust and fi ller. If bad walk away
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Who needs a Jag when this MG saloon offers the same style and character but for a lot less cash!

Pros & Cons

Style, character, ease of running, excellent club and spares support, value
Many tatty and badly restored examples, sedate performance, serious rust problems
£1500 - £8000

MG is best known for its sports cars as the fi rm’s saloons rarely made the grade. The Y-Type was good in its day, but seriously outdated by fi fties, and just before the 1960s, MG slipped into pensioner mode with the oldfashioned Farina derivative. What followed in the 1980s – yes we had to wait that long – were largely half-hearted attempts at making the humdrum Maestro and Montego worthy of the MG badge (turbo models accepted to be fair-ed). The last real MG saloon, in our minds, was the ZA Magnette, a car that was produced at the same time as the MK1 Jaguar. They had plenty in common, not least the fact that the new cars attracted younger buyers for each company. Jaguar, of course, made its name with the MK1 and then the MK2 during the 1960s, while the Magnette was allowed to become a bit of a standing joke against new GT upstarts from the likes of Ford, Vauxhall and even MG’s in-house rivals within BMC. But the ZA and ZB Magnettes were always highly regarded and today they make an excellent starter classic for those keen to climb the ladder to Jag MK2 ownership. Or you may even be drawn to the Magnette’s unique character and style. And why not – it’s a terrifi c car!

History

Look at the magnette as an mga for all the family

The history of the Magnette is really about its legendry designer Gerald Palmer who, having been at MG from 1937 to 1942, rejoined after WWII as chief designer. Part of the Nuffield Group and then BMC (British Motor Corporation), the MG Magnette was to become a modifi ed, badge-engineered Wolseley 4/44, which Palmer had also penned, along with contemporary Rileys. This hardly pleased the indignant MG die hards who liked their independence, but at least when the Magnette surfaced a few years after the 4/44 it had the benefi t of the new fangled twin-carb B-Series engine and not the aging 1250cc XPAG unit plus a four on the fl oor gearbox and lower, sportier stance. The ZA Magnette was unveiled at the 1953 Earls Court Motor Show, and, after initial criticism of its heritage, MG fans had to admit that the ZAwent very well indeed for a car with a modest 60bhp 1.5-litre engine, not least around corners where it was one of the best MGs yet, care of unitary construction (fi rst ever for an MG), telescopic dampers and rack and pinion steering. Despite an interval of eight years since the war, there were still material shortages in the UK and the fi rst 6500 Magnettes did not feature the advertised walnut dashboard, using a specially sprayed metal one instead. But in March 1955 along with over-riders and fog lights, the proper wood dash materialised. Initially the car ran a 4.3:1 axle ratio but, for a short while, a lower 4.875:1 fi nal drive was substituted to improve acceleration. This had the desired effect, but a top gear per 1000rpm of only 15.25 mph made the Magnette far too fussy at speed. As a result, a 4.55:1 differential was fi tted together with an uprated 68bhp engine to compensate for taller (16.32mph) gearing. There was also an automatic option called Manumatic – a clutchless semi auto which was advanced for its time. Sadly, it was also unreliable and sapped performance. Less than 500 were made and parts are equally hard to come by.

The revamped ZB followed in autumn 1956 and Varitone versions with their wider rear window and distinctive two-tone paintwork became a popular option. Almost 40,000 Magnettes were made between 1953 and 1958 when it was replaced by the horrid Austin Cambridgederived range of which a punch-pulling Motor Sport remarked “Does not fi ll the individualistic niche which cased enthusiasts to regard the ZB Magnette with such warm affection.”

Driving

The Magnette was one of the best sports saloons of its era and heaps better than the later soupedup Austin Cambridge that replaced it. The rack and pinion steering, although a little low-geared, is delightful with no slack and if the suspension is in good fettle you’ll fi nd this MG a fairly crisp GT saloon to pilot, and far, far better than many rivals of the era. With the car weighing over 1100kg and with under 70bhp in standard tune, performance was, at best, only reasonably lively and in today’s terms a 0-60mph stroll of 20-23 seconds (depending upon model) and no more than 90mph seems positively snail like. But it’s the way the Magnette goes about its business which surprises most and the characteristic low rev torque nature of the B-Series makes the MG feel brisker than it is.

However, Magnettes are inherently fussy on faster roads and overdrive wasn’t never made available nor was it easy to fi t. Somewhat easier to transfer over are disc brakes from later MGAs, but the standard drum arrangement is more than competent but only providing it has been well-maintained. As an upmarket saloon the Z cars impressed. Motor commented that the MG had a genuine air of quality about it, thanks to a cabin that could almost have been a MKII Jag with its wood, thick carpets and lots of leather.

Prices

It is reckoned that owing to rust and the Magnette’s attraction to stock car/banger racers during the 1970s and 80s under 1000 now survive. This means that a complete car is worth £1500 for the spares alone, while a roadworthy example won’t be yours for much less than £4000. However, Magnettes don’t attract big prices and top cars sell for no more than £8000 unless truly concours. When you consider how much an equivalent MkI or MkII currently goes for then the Magnette is a true bargain. As they are easy to update with later A60 and Magnette MkIII and MkIV parts, modifi ed ZA and ZBs are common and some mods certainly improve the car, but it’s up to you to decide whether such examples are worth paying extra for. They certainly shouldn’t command a higher price than a standard top-notch one.

Improvements

Thanks to its good handling the Magnette became a popular sight on the circuits during the fifties and sixties before becoming a top choice on banger racing circuits thereafter! A good overhaul of the suspension with uprated dampers and new springs will transform most of what’s out there – you can go fur ther with uprated bushes and stiffened springs if you wish but the ride will suffer. The Magnette only used drum brakes for its modest power. And again, a thorough brake ser vice with perhaps harder brake linings (Ferrodo AM4 or the softer AM8 work well) may be all that’s needed as a servo was standard. MGA discs can be easily substituted if desired. The Magnette used the evergreen B Series in 1489cc 60bhp and 68bhp guise depending upon year. Naturally this engine responds well to the usual tuning mods (gas-fl owed head, bigger carbs etc) and period tuning gear is around if you look hard enough. It’s much easier to bring the engine up to MGA tune; 72bhp originally or if you use the later 1622cc block up to 90bhp. Incidentally, the Farina Magnette engine, also 1622cc, is rated at only
68bhp while although the 1.8 MGB engine can indeed be fi tted in, it’s physically larger and so not the direct swap many envisage! Overdrive was never av a i l a b l e o n t h e Magnette and the car was always viewed as undergeared as a result. A 4.3:1 rear axle ratio from an MGA or later Farina can be fitted. Overdrive from an MGB can be grafted on, but it’s not easy. It’s possible to slot in a Ford Sierra fi ve-speed ‘box (it fi t’s the Morris Minor and the MGA with ease) and enjoy better intermediate ratios as well as a more relaxed cruising gait.

What To Look For

  • As with any car that’s half a century old, rust is the biggest fear along with subsequent bodging, so take a magnet to a Magnette to see where bad metal really lies!
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  • Bodyshells can rot badly and the condition of the sills is hyper critical – particularly the welded seam where the inners and outers are joined. New outer panels cost over £100 alone (they differ from Wolseley and Riley ones) and if the inners have gone then expect major, expensive repairs. So check with utmost care.
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  • Another well known rot area is the box section which sits just behind the front wheels. This can fi ll with water and if the drain channels are blocked rot will quickly spread to the sills.
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  • A good test is to ask to see if the car can be raised with its standard jack. The jacking points were fast rusting when new and chances are these will be non-existent by now.
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  • The fl oors can bear a passing resemblance to Fred Flinstone’s car. Lifting the carpets will give a good feel as to the overall condition – be sure to check thoroughly from underneath, too. Inspect the toe boards and all box section members. Front and rear suspension spring mountings rot and are MoT safety-critical.
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  • Inspect the A and B post by the doors. At the rear have a good look at the wheel arches with the doors open. This is structural and they dissolve with ease. Has fi ller been used where it shouldn’t be?
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  • Inner wings, seat belt anchorage points, boot fl oor, front and rear bulkheads etc are all rot prone, as is the car’s snout and front valance panel, the latter costing a whopping £400 or more to right.
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  • Window ledges rust and cause water to be trapped in the doors causing further corrosion while the door bottoms used to rust almost from new. Front wings, which bolt on, can be a nightmare and rust along the top edges by the front bumper and around the headlamps.
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  • Front wings are becoming scarce and even good used ones sell for over £200. While the Magnette was essentially a revised Wolseley 4/44, only the basic shell, boot lid and front doors were direct carry-overs so other panels need modifying to fi t.
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  • External trim can be diffi cult to obtain, particularly the hockey stick chrome mouldings, bumpers and the grille so any re-chroming of the original parts is going to be pricey.
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  • Mechanically it’s much simpler as the Magnette uses a mix of BMC bits. The downside is the distinct possibility that non-MG parts have been substituted over the decades. There’s nothing wrong with this unless you demand total originality.
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  • The original B-Series was a twin-carb 1489cc unit, which could well have been swapped over from the staid Oxford/Cambridge cars. Bear in mind that later ZAs and ZBs used a better cylinder head with double valve springs. Is the correct engine still fi tted?
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  • The B-Series is tough and tolerant of neglect. Look for low oil pressure (anything less than 50psi on the move is bad news), smoking, undue tappet noise and rumbling crankshafts under load. A lighter noise is usually the big end shells needing replacing. On a run, look for blue smoke under power but these are simple, inexpensive units to overhaul.
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  • If you fancy replacing rather than overhauling, then you can fi t a 1622 unit from a 1960s Oxford or Cambridge and fi t the Magnette bits or better still the 80bhp unit found in the MGA. Although it looks similar, the MGB unit is not a direct swap.
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  • The combined clutch and brake master cylinder corrodes internally and is expensive to refurbish. Look for leaks, a slipping clutch or substandard brakes on a test drive.
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  • Transmissions are sturdy though they can lose synchromesh, usually in second gear, and become noisy but soldier on regardless unless really past it. The same goes for the rear axle. Check to see if the right ratio still fi tted to the car – it may have been changed.
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  • The clutchless semi-automatic Manumatic transmission is rare, but there are a few around. This quirky set up was run by a vacuum from the inlet manifold to a special clutch system. Gripping the gear knob rather than pumping a clutch pedal activated the unit. It was not reliable or popular and getting the system serviced or overhauled will prove very diffi cult as well as costly.
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  • Even when new Magnettes had no less than 17 grease points, which need replenishing every 1000 miles so expect a lot of wear and tear due to neglect or sheer boredom. Just the usual checks suffi ce, but rusty front wishbones and broken rear springs are not uncommon.
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  • The standard drum brakes hold no particular horrors but watch out for lack of maintenance. The set up is adequate for modern roads unless you drive hard but MkIII or IV drums or MGA discs can be fi tted for added reassurance.
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  • The interior, particularly of later cars, is Jag-like appointed in wood and fi ne leather but is often damaged by ageing and water leaks (penny to a pound the screen rubbers will be past it) plus is frighteningly expensive to restore properly – as dear as a Jag Mk2 for example and replacement trim is hard to fi nd… Early cars with their wood-effect steel dash will be hard to replicate, too.

  • Three Of A Kind

    Jaguar MKI/MKII
    Jaguar MKI/MKII
    Surprisingly similar in style, character and indeed concept, the Jag has the advantage of a smooth straight six and more power but in 2.4 guise, it’s not that much quicker than a good Magnette, while there’s little to choose in terms of handling either. Interior space is similar, though the Jag’s cabin feels a touch classier. The leaping cat is more expensive than a similar MG and MKIs have shot up in value lately. Try one and compare with a Magnette before deciding.
    Vauxhall VX4/90
    Vauxhall VX4/90
    Vauxhall’s sportier Victor was more MG Magnette than Cortina GT and despite the VX having a hefty 44 per cent power gain over the Victor, they were never fast cars. Luxury and comfort was the Vauxhall’s aim and it was well appointed, especially the later ‘101’ FC which also benefi ted from a limited slip differentialthat was standardised in 1966. Dirt cheap for what they offer and rare too, but parts supply can be a bind, especially body and trim gear. Buy a good complete car from the outset.
    Humber Sceptre
    Humber Sceptre
    This jazzed up Hillman Superminx has a lot in common with the MG and the VX, not least its well-appointed interior. A good sub Rover 2000 pick in the 1960s with genuine 100mph pace, the sleek looking Sceptre also benefi ted from overdrive but handling was always biased towards comfort. Later 1968 cars lost their unique body style in favour of a normal Minx shell but were best of the bunch with a lavish interior and a punchy 1725cc engine. Good value and strong club back up.

    Verdict

    It’s easy to see why the MG Magnette is considered as a beginner’s Jag MK2, but on the other hand it’s no poor person’s pick either. The Magnette has a style and character of its very own – the fact that the MG is still great value is the icing on the cake. Just buy the best you can from the outset and you’ll be increasingly drawn to this Magnette.



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