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MG Magnette

THE ATTRACTION OF A MAGNETTE Published: 24th Jul 2013 - 0 Comments - Be the first, contribute now!

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Charming middle class British sports saloon that’s a viable and cheaper alternative to a Mk2 Jag. You’ll enjoy gentle performance and good handling with the ZA/ZB Magnette, plus subtle mods can make it an MGA for all the family to enjoy

Happy 60th birthday MG Magnette! Granted it was the company’s sports cars that made octagon badges famous but remember it was revamped Morris models which started it all off.  However, for some strange reason MG-badged saloons have rarely had the same impact with enthusiasts – with one notable exception. That exception is the Magnette, and the ZA/ZB range in particular. Now 60 years old, and produced at the same time as the Mk1 Jaguar, the ZA/ZBs enjoy a fair bit in common with the Jag, not least their period character and sporty feel. Thanks to their simple make up, being little different to a Morris Minor, MG Magnettes make excellent starter classics and all for the price of a Morris Minor. True, the latter fi nned Farina replacements from the 1960s aren’t a patch on the original, but they have their place, too. Are you feeling the Magnette’s attraction yet?

HISTORY

A product of the Nuffield Group, and then BMC (British Motor Corporation), the MG Magnette was to become a modified, badge-engineered 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 ageing 1250cc XPAG unit, plus it further benefitted from a four-on-the-floor gearbox and a lower, sportier stance.

1953 The ZA Magnette was unveiled at the Earls Court Motor Show and, after initial criticism of its heritage of being a modified, badge-engineered Wolseley 4/44, MG fans had to admit that the ZA went very well indeed. A new perky 60bhp 1.5-litre engine, stiff unitary construction (the first ever for an MG), telescopic dampers and rack and pinion steering saw to this.

Post-war material shortages meant that the first run of 6500 Magnettes did not feature the much advertised walnut dashboard as standard, but used a specially sprayed metal one instead. It looks pretty authentic anyway and doesn’t laminate!

1955 Along with over-riders and fog lights, the promised proper wood dash did materialise this year. 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 with a top gear per 1000prm of only 15.25 mph it made the Magnette far too fussy, and so, from chassis 18101, a 4.55:1 differential was fitted, together with an uprated 68bhp engine to compensate for the taller (16.32mph) gearing.

1956 The revamped ZB followed in the autumn. In addition, 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 Austin Cambridge-derived range.

1959 A new MG Magnette joins the recently introduced Farina range. New roomy angular styling and, on the MG and Wolseley versions, the 50s rear tail fins were cut back by a hefty 30 degrees. Mechanically, the MG lost its rack and pinion steering – and most of its character.

1961 Stung by criticism a revised (ADO 38) Farina range is introduced featuring a longer wheelbase and wider track to improve the soggy handling. The engine is enlarged to 1622cc, with the MG half way tuned to MGA spec. A proper automatic option joins the range; previously a clutch-less Manumatic was optional but only 500 were made due to it’s unreliability. The Magnette MkIV, as this range was known, remained unchanged until it was dropped in April 1968 and few MG enthusiasts mourned its passing.

DRIVING AND PRESS COMMENTS

The ZA/ZB Magnette was one of the best sports saloons of its era and heaps better than the later hotted-up Austin Cambridge which replaced it, so you need to separate the ranges. It feels like a bigged-up Minor with more power, while in contrast the MkIII/IIV feels old fashioned and mushy.

With under 70bhp in standard tune, performance on all models was at best only adequate for a sports saloon; lively at the time but, in today’s terms, positively snail like, with even the MkIV taking a leisurely 19.5 seconds to 60mph. Fortunately top gear flexibility is good, so if you sit back and relax, then you are more likely to enjoy the ride. That is, after all, how they were more designed to be driven, especially the Farina cars, which are the better cruisers.

Yet it’s the way the MG goes about its business which surprises most and the characteristic low rev torque nature of the B-Series makes the Magnette feel brisker than it is and, in reality, it’s not that much slower than a 2.4-litre Jag Mk2. However, when it comes to cruising, the Jag scores over its Midlands rival thanks to that smoother six and optional overdrive. This was never made available on the MG and all feel inherently fussy at high speed, detracting from a pleasant Jag-like interior.

Chalk and cheese is how the press regarded the two ranges. In a 1957 test of the ZB Motor described it as “one of the most charming and attractive cars to come into our hands” and added aside from its sporty nature “Passengers will find the Magnette a wholly agreeable small car.”

The press tried to be nice about the Farina replacement but found it difficult. Motor Sport did its best, but it was damming praise when it remarked that the car “does not fill the individualistic niche which caused enthusiasts to regard the ZB Magnette with such warm affection.” The testers even went on to hint that you’d be just as well off with a normal Austin Cambridge and saving your money!

IMPROVEMENTS

It’s an MG, which means that there’s always room for improving the standard design and, as the MGA shares a lot of it, that’s a good an upgrade as any. Modern radial tyres make a big improvement to the handling, particularly on the revised Farinas. There will be plenty of body roll through the corners, particularly on the ADO9 cars, but the rear anti-roll bar fitted to ADO38s does improve matters and it can be retrofitted to earlier MkIIIs. You can improve matters further by swapping over to the thicker anti-roll bar as fitted to the Marina/Ital, though you’ll need MG Midget links first.

Standard engines can be modified to MGA spec using an MGB or Marina head and MGB cam (be sure to use the Marina rocker pillars if you use a Marina head otherwise the oil holes will not line up) or you can buy ready converted, unleaded, heads. A 1622 can give 90bhp with ease.

Alternatively, the early MGB 1798cc three main bearing engine is an easy swap, if you can find one going spare. Later five bearing units require more mixing and matching of parts to mate them with the gearbox, but the tuning potential is considerable if over 90bhp is still not enough. An overdrive gearbox from the MGB is not an easy conversion, as the transmission tunnel has to be widened – or you can opt for a Ford Type 9 conversion.  A 4.3:1 rear axle ratio from an MGA or later Farina can be fitted to raise overall gearing.

However only do this after tuning the engine to compensate as performance will be too sluggish. The standard brakes are adequate enough if good linings are used and augmented with a servo. You can convert to discs from an MGB, London taxi or any of the big six-cylinder Austin/Wolseley range from the 1950s, but will need probably to fit MGB steel disc wheels to clear them. Speak to a specialist first.

PRICES

The Magnette’s attraction to stock car/banger racers during the 1970s and 1980s, plus the dreaded tin worm, means that only around 1000 now survive in all forms. A complete car is going to be worth £2000 just for the spares alone, while a sound roadworthy example won’t be yours for much less than £6500. ZA/ZBs are just starting to attract big prices and you can expect five figure sums for the best ones. When you consider how much a Mk1 or Mk2 goes for these days you can see what a bargain these genteel GTs still represent. In contrast, even the best Farinas are only worth £3500 and projects are yours for not much more than beer money (well, sort of). 

Certain mods certainly improve all cars 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, however so don’t be tricked on this point.

THE FACTS

■ Best model: ZB Varitone
■ Worst model: Farinas
■ Budget buy: Farinas
■ Ok for unleaded?: Needs additive or converting
■ Will it fit the garage?: L4293 x W1600 (ZA)
■ Spares situation:  Good
■ Club support: Typical MG
■ Appreciating asset?: Yes


GOOD BUY OR GOOD-BYE?
Yes the original Z cars, less so Farinas

What To Look For

GENERAL

As the MG is a glorified ‘Oxcam’, parts interchangeability is good, especially on Farinas where it is almost total. It’s not so complete on the ZA/ZB; sills differ 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.

There’s distinct possibility that non-MG parts have been substituted over the decades. There’s nothing wrong with this unless you demand total originality.

BODY AND CHASSIS

As with most cars over 60 years old, rust is the biggest fear, along with subsequent bodging, so take a magnet to a Magnette, to see where bad metal and filler really resides!

These bodyshells can rot badly structurally and the condition of the sills is hyper critical - particularly the welded seam where the inners and outers are joined.

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 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 on most cars by now.

RUNNING GEAR

Magnettes had no less than 17 grease points needing lube every 1000 miles. Just the usual checks suffice however, although rusty front wishbones and broken rear springs are not uncommon

Radial tyres can grip well enough to crack the front chassis where the steering box is attached. From 1964, a strengthening plate was added to rectify this.

Steel spring pan at the front suspension can trap water and rust. Later cars are even more vulnerable as the spacers used to lower the car also increase the gap here and let more muck in along with the water.■ Engine holds few fears aside from wear.

TRANSMISSIONS

Transmissions are sturdy although can lose synchromesh, invariably second gear, and become noisy, but soldier on regardless unless really past it. Ditto the rear axle, and is the right ratio still fi tted 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. It was not reliable, or popular, and getting the system serviced or overhauled will prove very diffi cult as well as costly.

 

Three Of A Kind

JAGUAR MK1/MK2
JAGUAR MK1/MK2
Similar in style, character and concept, of course the Jag is nicer but in 2.4 guise is not that much quicker than a good Magnette, plus there’s not much to choose between them in terms of handling either. Interior space about the same, although Jag’s cabin feels more special. There again, Jags cost more…
VAUXHALL VX4/90
VAUXHALL VX4/90
Vauxhall’s sportier Victors were more MG Magnette than Cortina GT, as they were never fast cars. Luxury and comfort was Vauxhall’s aim and the cars were well appointed, especially the later ‘101’ FC which also benefi ted from a limited slip differential. Dirt cheap for what they offer, if you can fi nd one.
HUMBER SCEPTRE
HUMBER SCEPTRE
A jazzed up Hillman Superminx, it has a lot in common with the MG, not least its well-appointed interior, and staid performance. 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 MG’s Magnette is considered a beginner’s Jag Mk2, yet it’s no poor person’s pick either. The Magnette has a style and character of its very own, even the Farinas, although the ZA and ZB models are by far the best of the bunch.



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