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MG Midget

MG Midget Published: 29th May 2018 - 0 Comments - Be the first, contribute now!

MG Midget

Fast Facts

  • Best model: 1275 models
  • Worst model: 1500 Midgets
  • Budget buy: Bodily good, mechanically poor ones
  • OK for unleaded?: Needs convert/additive
  • Will it fit in the garage? (mm): L3490 x W1370mm
  • Spares situation: As good as it gets
  • DIY ease?: Morris Minor simplicity
  • Club support: Typical MG
  • Appreciating asset?: Yes, but taking its time
  • Good buy or good-bye?: Small price for big thrills
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Vastly underrated fun starter sportster that’s a hoot to drive and super easy to own. All are great value when compared to Frogeye yet have same character if not the charm. Good choice – but many in poorer condition than they look

There are those who reckon the MG Midget (and the rarer Austin-Healey Sprite), while being classics, aren’t real sports cars. Do they have a point? While it’s true that Spridgets – a charming well known nickname to group Sprites and Midgets together – used nothing more exotic than Austin A35 hardware with Morris Minor rack and pinion steering thrown in, let’s not forget that Colin Chapman hardly used anything more glamorous when he cobbled up the legendary Lotus 7 some 60 years ago. Turning this argument on its head, is the Spridget then a ‘pretend Lotus’ (as one road test put it) but without the acronym, hassle and prices, that go with the Lotus badge?

We’ve no time for such badge snobbery. The Austin-Healey Sprite and MG Midget are basic but brilliant starter classics for both road and track (there’s even a dedicated championship for them in road or race trim; The Lackford Engineering MG Midget & Sprite Challenge, go to mgmidget challenge. club-ed) that costs pennies to buy and run, and a DIY doddle – with typical MG club and specialist support – yet serve as much raw, if slower, thrills than any Seven, be it Lotus or Caterham badged.

It’s been far too long since we last featured the Spridget in our buying guide series although covered the Frogeye, which spawned the Spridget, only last year and which celebrates 60 years of fun in 2018. Where as values for the fun-looking crazy Frog have soared, Spridgets haven’t budged much since our 2010 guide and yet, classic status aside, are the better cars. If you’re hankering for your first classic and want an inexpensive sports car that’s not a modern MX-5 and one you can happily tinker with at home, why not select a Spridget – the psuedo Seven?

History

1961 Midget (GAN1) introduced alongside the facelifted Sprite in June, to sit alongside the bigger MGA. Essentially, it’s the Sprite albeit with different badging and with more (of sorts) luxurious trim. Costing an affordable £670, 16,084 were made.

1962 Bigger 1098cc engine taken from the Morris Minor that October. Power usefully ramps up from 46 to a sizzling 55bhp, albeit still peaking at 5500rpm. What’s more there’s also a stronger gearbox and front disc brakes are now fitted. Car known as GAN2 by MG.

1964 Revised (GAN3) MG Midget arrives sporting (at long last) wind-up windows and an improved more durable 1098cc engine that proves to be more durable and smoother running than the original even if power remains the same. More than 26,000 are produced.

1966 MkIII (GAN4) Midget spells an engine capacity rise to 1275cc plus power comes from a detuned Cooper S engine, 10bhp better than before. This slashes the 0-60mph sprint to a lively 13 seconds with a lot more torque and so makes it the best Midget yet and 13,722 were made as a result.

1969 British Leyland Motor Corporation make Sprite and (GAN5) Midget largely indistinguishable. Rear bumper is split either side of a square number plate, British Leyland badges adorn the front wings and the rear silencer now runs across the car.

1971 That January, the agreement with Healey expired and the Austin-Healey Sprite was simply called the Austin Sprite from then on, the car being killed off altogether in July.

1972 Round rear wheelarches are introduced, which many enthusiasts rate as the best looking Midget of them all, although they soon revert back to the stronger square-cut types (offering better rear-end crash resistance) for the impending introduction of the Triumph 1500-powered model announced in 1974.

1974 US emissions regs get the better of the A-Series… Still officially ‘MkIII’ (GAN6), but universally referred to as the 1500, ride height is raised to bring new large black bumpers to required safety height. Marinasourced gearbox (Sacrilege?) at last means there’s synchro on first gear!

1975 MG’s golden jubilee year is celebrated with a run of special edition Jubilee Midgets, all painted green and boasting wide gold side stripes (Of all the unloved rubber-bumper breed, this limited edition is the most valued).

1977 Head restraints, radio console and inertia reel seatbelts are all made standard, plus the axle ratio is raised to a slightly less frantic 3.7:1 that summer. Two-speed wipers, hazard warning lights and – more importantly – dual circuit brakes all follow for 1978 cars.

1979 New look instruments now shared with the Triumph Spitfire, but the oil pressure gauge is replaced with a simple warning light. The last Midget is produced that November, after a production run of almost 20 years and 238,565 units.

Driving and press comments

If you dream of sports car motoring how it used to be back in the 1960s, then it has to be with a Midget or Sprite. Comparisons with its deadliest (in house) rival – Triumph’s Spitfire – are inevitable, but really it all came down to the car’s image and the Midget was generally considered the more manly of the pair when they squared up in twin tests although the ‘Spit’ won the day with its roomier more refined cockpit: MG didn’t call its car the Midget for nothing and you do need to see if this sports car has enough room for you, although once in, there’s plenty of leg room under the dash.

Make no mistake, Midgets are not like civilised MX-5s. The gearbox on A-Series models wails like a banshee, while engine and wind din makes the legal limit a test of Morgan-like endurance on all models – overdrive was never made available, even on the Triumph-powered 1500.

To this day, this BL hybrid remains the cheapest model yet, the added torque of the larger engine over the A-Series (it was quoted the same at 65bhp) is noteworthy and gives the MG nippy performance that was as fast as most MGBs no less. For all that, the earlier cars are the most fun by dint of the sharper A-Series engine and far better handling, even if Midgets suffered less from the dreaded raised ride height and de-toxed engine to meet US laws (of 1974) than the big brother MGB did and so still handled tidily and predictably. Also the ride is slightly less rustic on the 1500.

By modern standards the Midget is small, but that’s one of the endearing factors of the car. It’s light and precise, which is why it’s still a classic sports to have if you fancy trying your hand at club motorsports. All Midgets, even sacrilegious stigmatised Triumph-engined models, are fun to drive and what a sports car should be; eminently ‘chuckable’ around the corners and, since you are virtually sitting on the rear axle, any slide is easily noted and dealt with. Away from the bends, on arterial roads, they are happiest cruising around 55-60mph; anything above gets very noisy – almost unbearably so to those new to old classics.

The press’s love with this sports car gradually eroded over the years as lack of development highlighted the car’s inherent shortcomings, though to be fair, that’s a criticism you can level at Morgans or Caterhams. In 1962 Motor said of the handling, “Drivers new to the car are inclined to emulate a person driving a kart” adding [Sprite MkII] owners would regard most other cars as sluggish and unresponsive, although remarked that the ride quality “was a mixture”.

Testing the virtually identical Midget, albeit now 1098cc-engined, the same weekly liked the “splendid controllability” and “positive control of the best vintage kind” but was now more vocal of the ride and rear axle hop, reckoning the MG was “a sports car primarily for sport” rather than solely for road use.

Moving on the the 1275cc models Motor maintained, “You can use all its reserves because it “so controllable”. Rival Autocar cited (in 1966) the move to half elliptic rear springs [1964] as a big improvement to make the ride a bit more bearable “and the Midget must be one of the very few cars which seems to go exactly where it’s pointed”. However, its testers were less happy with the comfort and refinement levels although praised the improved hood design.

The same weekly put the revised MkIII of the 1970s through its paces, still hailing the fun factor highly and the “excellent handling” but felt that the suspension was now too old fashioned, along with the driving position, and wondered whether their continued liking of this old timer was more down to having no real competition on the market, Spitfire excepted. “An excellent little car… we would like to see it developed considerably but without losing its worthy character” was the verdict.

That never happened – of course – and subsequent tests of the cracking advanced all new mid-engined Fiat X1/9 had Autocar thinking out aloud saying this is what the new Midget should be – not simply an up gunned 1500 which was, by now, understandably showing its age in all departments yet criticism was less scathing than that metered out to the similar vintage MGB.

“What it lacks in ride and comfort, it makes up with outstanding agility and responsive handling”, said rival Motor when summarising the now unloved 1500, albeit countering this by saying: “Still a great fun car but one changed by legislation rather than search for improvement”. The less said about what critical Car thought of both the MG and the Spitfire the better at this stage – but it wasn’t exactly complimentary…

Values and the marketplace

You’d have thought that soaring values of Frogeyes, where £30,000 is not unknown, would have dragged up Sprite/Midget values universally but this so far, hasn’t been the case – and won’t be reckons Frogeye specialist Classic Revival although it adds that if any model does start to gain momentum will be the Mk1 Midget (MkII Sprite) due to sheer rarity and closest links to the original.

The very best Spridgets would have to be something mint indeed to exceed £10,000 and most examples will sell for nearer half to two-thirds of this. At this price, and with values static, it’s arguable that the restoration of a shed of a project isn’t economically viable, especially if you’re considering a five figure re-shell – not unless the car is particularly special to you… or you like working on classics as much as driving them that is!

Buy the best example you can find for around £6000 and just try to keep it that way. Anything under £3000 is likely to be more filler than steel, since rust is the worst enemy of these cars along with penny pinching repairs over the decades, as the majority suffered – although Jeremy Rogers of Wey Classics (01483 223830) says overall standards have risen considerably over the past few years and the real rot boxes have mostly gone to the scrapper.

Frogeyes are worth, at least, double any Spridget, rubber-bumper cars are the least expensive and so are excellent value (whether you like them or not) at around £3500 for a good one. For most folks, however it’s a 1275cc MkIII, preferably the short run round rear arch versions. Tuned and modified cars are prevalent and if done right shouldn’t influence values either way, ditto whichever BMC badge they wear.

Rogers says Sprites and Midgets are true classic hobbies sports cars that owners can play with rather than sit in the garage to just make money – because they won’t… so just go out and enjoy one as they were intended. Hear, hear.

Improvements

There’s heaps you can do for road and track and, best of all, there are plenty of cars out there on sale that already have been tuned and improved over the years saving you the time and hassle.

The A-Series is super-tunable in the time honoured way and a good 1275cc unit can hit 100bhp reliably, although around 80bhp is more tractable and cheaper to obtain – and more than enough to put a smile on your face.

Given the cost of engine tuning parts as well as the inevitable overhaul before you strain the engine, it’s probably wisest to elect for tuned reconditioned turnkey engine from the likes of MGOC or Moss at appreciably under £2000: Good value.

As the Spridget never came with an overdrive option (including the 1500 yet the Spitfire offered it) a five-speed unit from a Ford Sierra or latterly MX-5 (see our products pages), which gives a long legged overdrive gait as well as more effective intermediate ratios appeals. Bank on around £2500 upwards (including gearbox) from the likes of MGOC but is money well spent.

A35-derived chassis can be improved immensely by fitting telescopic dampers at the rear, thus replacing the old lever-arms. Add an axle tramp kit or Panhard Rod to prevent the entire rear assembly joining you in the passenger seat under power and you’ve pretty much cracked it. Don’t go mad on tyre choice though; even tuners say 5.5 rims are more than okay for road use with quality 165/175 tyres.

If you intend to keep yours standard, consider investing in an uprated radiator on the 1500, where the reduced ‘mouth’ can lead to cooling problems. If the cabin needs a retrim then you can go all upmarket – check out A-H Spares’ informative parts catalogue for ideas and more.

What To Look For

General

  • There’s not much interior trim to restore. Carpeting wasn’t a feature – rubber mats graced the floors instead. Many interiors now have carpets on the floors, but rubber mat sets are available at £50 but sun visors were never fitted
  • Few wear their original (over-sized) steering wheel, as even when they were new many were thrown away in favour of a smaller wood rimmed alternative (see feature in this very issue-ed). Original wheels are now hard to find, although few people seem to worry about anything non-original.
  • Rev counter works via a mechanical drive from the back of the dynamo. Replacements are expensive but the original units are reliable. Instrumentation is often incorrect or not working – and replacements are dear so make sure you won’t need to buy anything.
  • The electrical system is very simple, so there’s not much to go wrong. Heaters were an optional extra so there’s often only the car’s lighting and ignition wiring to consider. Despite this, electrical systems are frequently bodged. Its simplicity makes it easy to check, so have a good look round or you could end up with all sorts of problems. Control boxes for the car’s electrical system can fail.

Engine

  • The A-Series engine is pretty durable. In 948cc form a set of big end shells may last just 40,000 miles however and 1275cc versions will probably suffer from worn piston rings and bores by the time 70,000 miles have been racked up. To check for the early stages of this, run it with the oil filler cap removed. If any fumes are evident a rebore is due.
  • Starting from cold the oil pressure should be 60psi – once warmed up expect 40psi at 1000rpm. If there’s much less than this expect a rebuild before long.
  • Tappet noise is a part of Sprite ownership, as is a rattling timing chain. If you find the latter too noisy a Cooper S Duplex assembly can be fitted. A loud rattle when starting probably comes from a fractured carburettor heat shield.
  • Check for a white emulsion on the oil filler cap on 1275s, which can suffer from failed head gaskets, chiefly because the block hasn’t been skimmed at rebuild time as it’s an engine out job.
  • A knocking from cold means the big end bearings are worn. This is most likely on the Triumph Spitfire 1500 engines, whose bottom end is not the strongest and why it’s worth replacing big end shells every 40,000 miles or so.
  • Check this powerplant too for excessive end float, that’s a famous foible, revealed by a crankshaft pulley that moves excessively when the clutch is depressed – a common Triumph trait. The rubber-bumped 1500 is prone to running hotter than the A-Series as well due to its narrower air intake; a better radiator and an oil cooler is advised.

Body and chassis

  • The body is the Spridget’s weakness – said to be worse on 1500s. What looks like a good car may actually be full of filler or past patch repairs, so inspect the panelwork very closely and make sure you take a magnet with you to check for filler.
  • The car’s monocoque construction can cause tremendous problems with weakening of the structure – by far the biggest worry. New shells are available at under £10,000 from BMH – costing more than the majority on sale and that without factoring in building, painting, etc.
  • Worst culprits are the rear spring mounting boxes in the floor behind the seats. There should be a gap of three inches or so between the top of the rear tyre and the wheelarch. If the gap is much less than this the rear spring box has almost certainly collapsed, which means major surgery is demanded. A low ride height at the rear can also be down to collapsed spring mountings – another major job.
  • Sills and A-posts corrode, so check gaps between the door and both the A-post and the B-post, which should be even. It’s common for the gap to be narrower at the top, indicating some sag in the bodyshell so find another Midget.
  • To fix properly requires jigs and lots of time and money; more than car’s worth probably. Cover sills are definitely bad news, indicating total replacement is needed. This is time consuming that’s not cheap either. Incidentally, the matt black paint on sill is straight and should not follow the curvature of the front wings but many do.
  • Check the boot floor where it joins the rear panel along with the footwells and area behind the seats. If the inner sills have rotted badly, repairs will be involved. Similarly, rear wheelarches and lower rear wings can rust badly, and although repair sections are available it’s not easy to effect a repair. If the outer rear wheelarches look tatty it’s a sure bet the inner ones will be in at least as poor a state.

Running gear

  • All gearboxes had weak synchromesh on second gear. Early cars will have a smooth gearbox casing (visible down the back of the engine), which is often substituted for the later (1098/1275cc) ribbed version, offering greater strength, improved synchromesh and better ratios. If the gearbox is getting worn it’ll jump out of gear; rebuilt gearboxes are available for £500.
  • The steering should be light and positive. If it isn’t the chances are the suspension hasn’t been greased regularly. To check for wear jack up the front of the car (spread the load carefully as the centre of the crossmember is thin), and rock the road wheel at top and bottom – if there’s any play doing this, it may indicate kingpin wear.
  • To be certain, get somebody to apply the footbrake. If it’s ‘cured’ a new wheel bearing is needed – if there’s still play the kingpin bushes or lower links (fulcrum pins) are due for replacement.
  • Lever arm dampers lose their effectiveness very quickly. Some cars have had a telescopic damper conversion, which is quite involved. Doesn’t feel any better, but the dampers will be much more durable. Any Midget is lively and buckety, but if the front end feels strangely floaty and wanders, budget on a full front suspension overhaul.
  • Master cylinder, controls both brake and clutch hydraulics. Look for leaks if one of the bores is damaged or worn you’ll have to scrap the whole unit and replace it with a new one, from £75 although double this for a quality alternative.

 

Three Of A Kind

Triumph Spitfire
Triumph Spitfire
Arch rival to the Spridget, the Spitfire outlived it by a couple of years and outsold it in every year they competed, except in 1969. A more refined, civilised arguably prettier car than the Spridget, although not as macho looking or performing, especially handlingwise. Spares and support is equally excellent however and they represent similar top value for money as well as economy of running, thanks to overdrive. 1500 Spitfire far nicer and livlier than 1500 Midget.
MGF
MGF
With prices starting from just hundreds a later MGF is a far more modern alternative as a starter classic. As modern as the Spridget is dated, the mid-engined, gas-suspended MGF is a really good, underrated car with strong performance and precise yet user friendly handling – unusual for a mid-engined design. Cheap to buy but can be a money drainer, while the K-Series is notorious for popping head gaskets at £700 a time – more than the worth of many cars.
Mazda MX-5
Mazda MX-5
Virtually the default choice as there’s precious few rivals offering the usability and low running costs that an MX-5 provides. Great to drive, so painless to run and a great choice which spans all the way up to brand new versions which, amazingly, retain that essential character after almost 30 years of production. Mk1 purest, Mk2 best all rounder and Mk3 most palatial (plus can come with powered fibreglass hood). Only problem is lack of exclusivity?

Verdict

Midgets have so much to commend them that we’re surprised they remain so cheap. You’ll enjoy the sort of ‘earthy’ old-school sports car thrills and spills that Morgan or even Caterham owners spend thousands to achieve, plus it’s as simple and cheap as a Morris Minor to keep. If you’re after an affordable sensible entry into classic sports car ownership then no other roadster quite supplies it like this MG – including the MX-5. It’s the perfect budget sports car.



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