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MG Magnette

Published: 3rd May 2011 - 0 Comments - Be the first, contribute now!

The MG Magnette was one of the best sports saloons of the 1950s and a better car than the Farina replacement. The MG Magnette was one of the best sports saloons of the 1950s and a better car than the Farina replacement.
Lovely drawing room look and feel of Magnette cabin. Not cheap to restore though Lovely drawing room look and feel of Magnette cabin. Not cheap to restore though
Wood may need re-doing. Fake metal top on the earliest examples, hard to replicate Wood may need re-doing. Fake metal top on the earliest examples, hard to replicate
B-Series engine is robust, a DIY dream, and easily uprated to MGA specification B-Series engine is robust, a DIY dream, and easily uprated to MGA specification
Boots rust but are same as Wolseley Boots rust but are same as Wolseley
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What is an MG Magnette (ZA and ZB?)

It’s the ‘beginner’s Jaguar’. With its sleek Italian-influenced styling, luxurious Jag-like interior and lively performance, this MG became one of the very best sports saloons of the 1950s. Today the charismatic ZA or ZB Magnette makes more than a convincing, cheaper alternative to a Mk1 or Mk2 Coventry cat and a fine starter classic for those also after an MG for all the family to enjoy.

History

The history of the Magnette is really about its legendary designer Gerald Palmer who, having been at MG from 1937 -1942, rejoined it after WW2 as chief designer. It has to be said that after the war MG were in a quandary with its ranges and needed his help. Both the sporting T Series and the old Y- Type saloons were decidedly outdated and quick fixes were needed. Fortunately Gerald Palmer came from having designed the forward-thinking Javelin for Jowett, and he was just the man for the job. As part of the Nuffield Group and then BMC (British Motor Corporation), the MG Magnette was to become a modified, badgeengineered Wolseley 4/44, which Palmer 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 benefit of the new fangled (twin carb) B-Series engine and not the aging 1250cc XPAG unit plus a four on the floor 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 ZA went very well indeed for a 60bhp 1.5-litre, not least around corners where it was one of the best MGs yet, care of unitary construction, 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 first 6500 Magnettes did not feature the advertised walnut dashboard as standard, using a specially sprayed metal one instead. But in March 1955 along with over-riders and fog lights, the proper wood dash materialised (with those useful front quarterlights appearing a year earlier).

Initially the car ran a 4.3:1 axle ratio, but for a short while a lower 4.875:1 final drive was substituted to improve acceleration. This had the desired effect but sadly made the Magnette far too fussy at speed, and so from chassis 18101 a 4.55:1 differential was fitted together with an uprated 68bhp engine to compensate for the taller gearing. The revamped ZB followed in autumn 1956 and Varitone versions with their usefully wider rear window and distinctive two-tone paintwork became a popular option. In total the thick end of 40,000 Magnettes were made between 1953 and 1958 when it was replaced by the pretty horrid Austin Cambridge-derived range!

Driving

Magnette was one of the best sports saloons of its era and heaps better than the later hotted-up Austin Cambridge which replaced it. The rack and pinion steering, although a little low-geared, is delightful with no slack and if the suspension is in similarly good fettle you’ll find this MG a fairly crisp GT to pilot, and far better than many rival 50 year olds. With the car weighing over 1100kg and with under 70bhp in standard tune, performance is at best only reasonably lively although 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 of the B-Series makes the MG feel brisker than it is. And in reality it’s not that much slower than a 2.4-litre Jag. Where the Jaguar scores over its Midlands rival is with its more relaxing cruising gait as Magnettes are inherently fussy on faster roads and overdrive was never made available and nor is it particularly easy to fit either. Somewhat easier to transfer over are disc brakes from later MGAs, although if in good order the standard drum set up suffices for normal classic use.

Prices

It is reckoned that owing to rust and the Magnette’s attraction to stock car/banger racers during the 1970s and 1980s, under 1000 now survive. This means that a complete car is going to be worth £1500 just for the spares alone while a good, sound roadworthy example won’t be yours for much less than £4000. However, Magnettes don’t attract big prices yet and top cars sell for no more than £7000 unless truly concours. When you consider how much an equivalent Mk1 or Mk2 Jag goes for these days you can see what bargains theses genteel Gts still represent. As they are easy to update with later A60 and Magnette Mk3 and Mk4 parts, modified ZA and Zbs are common and some mods certainly improve the car although it’s up to you to decide whether such examples are worth paying extra for. They should certainly not command a higher price than a standard top-notch one.

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!
  • These bodyshells can rot badly structurally and the condition of the sills are 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 here with utmost care.
  • Another well known rot area is the box section which sits just behind the front wheels. This can fill with water and if the drain channels are blocked, this rot will quickly spread to the sills.
  • A good test of a good car 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.
  • The floors can do a passing resemblance to Fred Flinstone’s car. Lifting the carpets will give a good feel as to the overall condition. Also, check thoroughly from underneath. Scrutinise the toe boards and all box section members, too. Front and rear suspension spring mountings rot and are MoT safety-critical.
  • Inspect the A and B post by the doors. At the rear have a good look at the rear wheel arches with the doors open. This area is structural and they dissolve with ease. Has filler been used where it shouldn’t be?
  • Inner wings, seat belt anchorage points, boot floor, front and rear bulkheads etc are all rot prone too, as is the car’s snout and front valance panel, the latter costing a whopping £400 or more.
  • 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 thankfully bolt on - can be a nightmare and rust along the top edges, along the leading edge by the front bumper and around the headlamps.
  • The front wings are becoming scarce and even good used ones sell for over £200. And 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 fit.
  • External trim (and there’s plenty of it) can be pretty difficult 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.
  • 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.
  • 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 featuring double valve springs. Is the correct engine still fitted?
  • The B-Series is a toughie 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 very simple, inexpensive units to overhaul.
  • If you fancy replacing rather than overhauling, then you can fit a 1622 unit from a 1960s Oxford or Cambridge and slot in the Magnette bits or - better still - the 80bhp unit found in the MGA. Although it looks similar, the larger, longer MGB unit is not a direct swap but can be squeezed in.
  • The combined clutch and brake master cylinder corrodes internally and is expensive to refurbish so needs checking. Look for leaks and slipping clutch or sub-standard brakes - or both!
  • Transmissions are sturdy although they can lose synchromesh, invariably second gear, and become noisy but soldier on regardless unless really past it. Ditto the rear axle, although is the right ratio still fitted to the car?
  • Later ZBs had the option of a novel clutch-less semi-automatic called Manumatic. This quirky set up was run by vacuum from the inlet manifold to a special clutch system. Gripping the gear knob rather than pumping a clutch pedal activated the system. It was not reliable or popular and getting the system serviced or overhauled will prove very difficult as well as costly.
  • Even when new Magnettes had no less than 17 grease points needing replenishing every 1000 miles, so expect a lot of wear and tear due to neglect or sheer boredom. Just the usual checks suffice however, although rusty front wishbones and broken rear springs are not uncommon.
  • The standard drum brakes hold no particular horrors but watch for lack of maintenance. It’s an okay set up even for modern roads unless you drive hard - later Mk3/4 bigger drums or MGA discs can fit (while you can add wire wheels if desired so long you obtain the relevant hubs) for added reassurance.
  • In terms of replacement parts, a good number of MGA and Austin parts can be used although this old MG is not as nut and bolt friendly as an MGA or MGB, for example.
  • The interior, particularly of later cars, is Jag-like appointed in wood and fine 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 while replacement trim becoming is hard to find. Early cars with their wood-effect steel dash will be hard to replicate, too.

Verdict

It’s easy to see the attraction of the Magnette and why it can be favourably called a poor man’s Jag. It has that same stylish stance, old world English interior and sports saloon feel, but at much lower prices and running costs. Sadly restoration costs are similar and thanks to their lowly values there are a lot of murky Magnettes around. So it’s wise and economically prudent to buy the best you can right from the outset - and enjoy it from the word go.



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