An MGB for everyone. Fun, practical, affordable: why the brilliant B is still on top? The evergreen B is a classic for all seasons – and a bargain to boot. MGs biggest best hit. The enduring MGB still offers unbeatable value for money, says James Page as he falls for the charms of a 1964 roadster. Photography Tony Baker.
How would the MGB be regarded today if its production run had lasted only as long as that of its predecessor? After all, that was the intention of the designers and engineers who had been involved in its birth. Had it happened, it would have taken their new car up to 1969. That year, Motor tested an MGB beneath the headline ‘Vintage But Competitive’. The writers admitted that ‘we expected to find this ageing design… to be completely outclassed by subsequent progress’. Instead, they found that it was still an able and entertaining sports car.
And yet, despite the fact that it was regarded as being a little long in the tooth even by the end of the 1960s, not until 1980 did BL finally do the decent thing and end production – at the same time emphatically not doing the decent thing and closing the entire factory. A car that had its roots in the days of separate chassis and Harold Macmillan had lasted until Margaret Thatcher was in Number 10 and a new breed of hot hatches was sweeping aside the old guard.
Such is the familiarity with the way in which the British car industry fell from grace during the 1970s, it is easy to overlook the optimism and excitement with which the latest MG sports car was greeted at the beginning of the previous decade. It wasn’t as if Abingdon had an easy job on its hands, either. The MGA had been a huge success, particularly in the all-important export markets, with more than 100,000 being built since its introduction in 1955.
Grille design maintained a link with previous MGs, but was dropped with BL’s facelift for 1970. Below: rear end echoes Midget sibling; boot compromised somewhat by spare wheel.
Beneath that lithe, pretty body, however, lay a separate-chassis design that owed more to prewar practice than contemporary thinking. When draughtsman Don Hayter joined MG in 1956, in fact, Syd Enever and Jim O’Neill were already considering the A’s replacement. Hayter worked up two or three coupé bodies, but they were going to be too heavy. The team soon decided to concentrate on a monocoque roadster.
This was not exactly new ground for MG or BMC. The Magnette featured unitary construction as early as 1953, and the 1958 Austin-Healey Sprite proved that it could work on a sports car. Using the technique for the MGB therefore made it modern rather than groundbreaking, but it would bring a number of benefits.
To give it the required rigidity despite the lack of a roof, the shell featured three hefty longitudinal sections – both sills plus the transmission tunnel – that worked in combination with the scuttle and front bulkhead to resist torsional forces. Even though the wheelbase was reduced by 3in to 7ft 7in – surprisingly, the B is also 3in shorter overall than the A – the occupants were moved further forwards in a cockpit that received universal praise for being more spacious and comfortable than that of its predecessor.
During the development process, aluminium was used for the doors, bootlid and bonnet, but on the production cars everything apart from the last of those panels was made out of steel. Despite that, the better weather protection and such luxuries as wind-up windows, the B tipped the scales at only 50lb more than the A.
Compensation came in the form of a larger version of the B-series powerplant. Several engines were considered, including a V4, straight-six and – more plausibly – the MGA’s twin-cam, before MG decided to play it safe. As luck would have it, BMC was planning to stretch the 1622cc unit to 1798cc for use in the forthcoming 1800 saloon. With twin SU carburettors fitted, this updated variant would suit MG very nicely indeed.
Styling-wise, Hayter took a certain amount of inspiration from the EX181. There exists a sketch where the profile of the MGB sits perfectly within that of Abingdon’s record car, the former’s waistline matching the EX181’s upper surface. Chop off the front and rear ends – the latter showing a distinct family resemblance to the recently launched Midget – and there you had it. Hayter completed a series of models and later reported that the finished article’s clean shape “just evolved”.
There is little doubt that the MGB reflects the styling trends of the 1960s just as much as the lower, more sculpted A reflected those of the previous decade. Every enthusiast, and a reasonable proportion of the general public, can summon an image of an MGB in their mind’s eye, but to see an immaculate, standard early car such as our featured Iris Blue example is to appreciate anew how well-proportioned and handsome a design it really is.
This 1964 car retains many features that were gradually lost through the decade. The B-series has the three-bearing crankshaft, which was upgraded to a five-bearing unit in October of that year, the pull doorhandles were replaced with push-button items in 1965, and the threesynchromesh gearbox lasted until a fully synchro unit was brought in with the ‘Mk2’ of 1967.
Main: Hayter’s final design featured a beautifully improved packaging is clear – occupants sit much further forward than in an MGA clean profile. Inset above.
Inside, it also retains the large, sprung steering wheel that links it to MGs of the 1950s. As does the layout of the various controls. The only column-mounted lever operates the indicators. Everything else is on the crackle-black dashboard itself, leaving a newcomer to flick various toggle switches before finding – for example – the heater, which was an option at first but soon became standard fitment.
In purely practical terms, there is no doubt that the MGB was a huge leap forward from the A. There is plenty of room for two occupants to sit alongside each other without the driver having to apologise profusely every time they reach for first or second gear, the seats are comfortable, and there’s even a reasonable-sized boot, despite the presence of the spare wheel. The B-series plays its part admirably as long as you remember that this is no rev-happy, scream-its-head-off powerplant. What it does do is pull cleanly and smoothly from low speeds, the torque effortlessly pushing you along at a very respectable rate of knots. Flick the overdrive switch to the right of the steering wheel, and it becomes even more relaxed.
From top: sprung wheel takes centre stage in a cockpit that was more spacious than that of the MGA; famous Octagon badge; four-speed gearbox has a nicely mechanical shift; pull doorhandles lasted until 1965, the same year that the pretty Pininfarina-designed GT (right) was introduced.
‘TO SEE AN IMMACULATE EARLY MODEL IS TO APPRECIATE ANEW HOW HANDSOME THE MGB IS’
It’s a grown-up sports car, this – a classic that anyone could get into and immediately enjoy. As an all-rounder, its abilities should not be underestimated. It’s not as focused as a Lotus Elan, for example, but it was aiming at a much bigger market, and neither does it share many of the compromises or foibles of its rivals.
‘IT WAS A HOUSEHOLD NAME, WITH A HUGE NETWORK OF CLUB AND SPECIALIST SUPPORT’
From top: monocoque construction being shown off via cutaway MGB at the 1962 London Motor Show; returning home – Martin’s car outside Kimber House in Abingdon; wire wheels were offered as an optional extra from launch. Clockwise, from top left: engine was carried over from the MGA, but was stretched to 1798cc; horn push in centre of stylish wheel; fins house vertical tail-lights; the MGB’s straightline performance is keen, with B-series unit offering effortless torque.
The springs and dampers were softer than on the MGA – the former by 25% – so there is a fair degree of roll, but the payoff is an impressive ride and supreme composure through that rigid structure. The rack-and-pinion steering is nicely weighted and the gearchange is lovely, too, precise and mechanical in feel. With the seats being further forward than in the A, there was no longer any need for that car’s remote linkage.
The motoring press gave it a warm welcome. ‘It is faster than the previous model, yet more docile and comfortable,’ wrote the tester from Autocar. ‘From any angle it looks good, as the products of the Abingdon design team always have, and it should be as big a success in home markets as it will surely be abroad.’ And The Motor had this to say: ‘Verve has been blended with refinement to an extent which will suit any age from 17 to 77.’
The range was completed with the arrival of the elegant Pininfarina-styled GT in 1965, a car that as an affordable mainstream sporting coupé had few rivals. Consider the confidence that must have been running through Abingdon at this point. The MGB was not only selling well, it was performing strongly in competition, winning the gruelling Marathon de la Route at the Nürburgring in 1966, as well as the GT category on that year’s Targa Florio. It also took class wins in the 1966 and 1967 Spa 1000km.
There was even rock ’n’ roll endorsement: in 1966, Bill Wyman bought himself a roadster, KLH 604D. Okay, Keith Richards acquired a Bentley at roughly the same time, and Mick Jagger got an Aston DB6, but still – a Rolling Stone owned an MGB! The rebel image is tarnished only slightly by the discovery that Wyman had purchased a Morris Traveller shortly before. That’s the way to stick it to The Man, Bill.
‘AN MGB, ESPECIALLY AN EARLY CAR, TICKS SO MANY BOXES THAT IT LOOKS IRRESISTIBLE’
In 1967 came a raft of changes that led to the updated car being dubbed the ‘Mk2’, even if it was never badged as such in either the UK or America. The all-synchromesh gearbox was joined by an alternator (and negative-earth wiring), plus interior modifications such as recessed doorhandles and other US-dictated safety changes. In 1969, the MGB finally received reclining seat frames – previously, you could adjust them only via the use of a spanner.
And that, theoretically, should have been that. The B had been a roaring success, surpassing total MGA production as early as 1967 and proving that a sports car didn’t have to be uncomfortable or compromised to be fun. The problem was, newly formed British Leyland just wouldn’t let it lie. For 1970, there were RoStyle wheels as standard and a recessed grille that lost the original’s vertical metal bars.
The purists were not impressed, but worse was to come. BL’s ailing finances forced it to update rather than replace the MGB, which led in 1974 to the fitment of heavy ‘rubber’ bumpers and a ride height that was raised by 1½in in order to meet US safety requirements. The results – admittedly slightly less offensive on an MGB than a Midget – were neither an aesthetic success nor a dynamic one.
On it went. The B-series was progressively strangled by emissions laws – by the late 1970s, US-spec cars were producing only 63bhp via a single carburettor – and the interior was enlivened by the use of colours that PG Wodehouse would have described as ‘sudden’. In 1980, 1000 Limited Edition models were built to finally mark the end of production. The Midget had gone shortly before, and the Abingdon plant closed too. On the face of it, that was a sorry way for a glorious chapter to finish, and certainly the loss of the famous factory appeared to sound the death knell for the marque.
But here’s the thing. Carrying on through the 1970s meant that more than 500,000 MGBs were built, and the car’s increasing struggles against the march of time meant that the later models were soon worth a relative pittance. In many ways, the MGB became the sports car equivalent of the Mini, in that people were never far removed from one, whether via their parents, a friend, whoever. It covered a huge amount of bases – first car, only car, classic car, student car. It was a household name, with a vast network of specialist and club support.
Thirty-five years after it went out of production, that holds true. Had the MGB story ended in 1969, no doubt it would have a strong following. A car with all the qualities that we have already considered couldn’t fail to. But it is unlikely that it would have been – or would still be – the choice of the old-car enthusiast on a strict budget, who could see beyond the rubber bumpers and eye-watering interior trim to recognise that here was a way to put that famous Octagon badge, plus a dose of classic sporting fun, on their driveway.
It is still possible to pick up a road-legal MGB for around £1000, but there is a strong argument for digging a little deeper. “The early ‘pullhandle’ cars are still the most desirable,” says William de la Rivière from long-time marque specialist Beech Hill Garage, “but rubberbumper ones are being pulled along with the gently rising values, and you’re still getting the experience of driving an MGB. Spending £4000- 5000 gets you a good roadster, and you’re looking at £2000-3000 for a solid GT.
“Anything less than that is in risk of needing sills. If you need to do the inner, outer and castle rail, it’ll be £2000 per side. That’s what will make a cheap car not worth the money. There’s a reinforcing box under the front wing-top that collects debris, too, and you need to look at the rear chassis leg where the spring shackle mounts. “The good thing is that everything’s available, and mechanically they’ve got no Achilles’ heel. The engines and gearboxes are strong, and while earlier cars with the three-synchro ’box and three-bearing crank are a bit weaker that’s only in comparison to the later ones.”
“Any car has got to be solid,” he concludes. “An amateur can do all the mechanical bits but welding is different! The best chrome-bumper cars might well be nudging £20,000, but even on those you still won’t recover the cost of a full restoration, which can be up to £25,000.” There is a great deal of affection within the Drive-My office for the MGB – Port, MacLeman and Clements have between them owned chrome- and rubber-bumper versions of roadsters and GTs. I’m slightly ashamed to admit that I’ve always taken it a little bit for granted, like a great tourist attraction that you’ve never visited purely because it’s on your doorstep.
Even a bracing February day in an entirely unsuitable coat, however, did not stop me from succumbing to the MGB’s charms. It wasn’t that our 1964 example stood out in any particular way. It does few things brilliantly, but that’s not the point. It does almost everything very well indeed. It handles tidily, it rides nicely, it goes keenly, it looks good. An MGB, especially an early MGB, ticks so many boxes that it starts to become almost irresistible.
These days, there are few cars of its type and age that can easily be bought for less than £20,000. None will be more straightforward to live with. You can also enjoy much the same experience as you would in an early example for as little as £2000. Forget the BL debacle if you can, the MGB’s status as a great British success story should stand untarnished.
If production had indeed ended in 1969, no doubt the handful of purists would have been happy, but the classic car world as a whole would have been much poorer.
It was perhaps inevitable that the Abingdon born and bred Martin would end up owning MGs: “I grew up seeing them around town, and a friend’s dad worked on the gate so we used to go and sit in the cars.” Having owned Midgets and an MGA, Martin bought the featured MGB in April 2010: “It had apparently been restored in the early 1990s but hadn’t done many miles since. When we started using it, various things needed fixing. They want driving, and we’ve covered about 6000 miles; the engine was rebuilt just before Christmas. “I’ve got friends who help me look after it, and you get sucked into the club scene. There’s a great social side to it, and I’ve made friends all over the world.”
RACING AN MGB
“I started racing my current MGB in 2006, having previously competed in an RV8. The car is prepared to the FIA’s Appendix K specification, which means that it has to run in what is, in essence, 1964 form. The suspension, for example, is of the same type but with uprated springs and dampers. The engine is still a B-series, but with about 150bhp at the wheels.
“It’s absolutely fantastic to drive on-track. It’s very predictable – you can really throw it around, and when an MGB is properly set up it’s progressive in the way that it slides. It’s not vicious in any way – it won’t bite. The suspension is quite archaic in some ways, but get it sorted and it’s a hoot. It’s quick enough to nibble at the heels of Triumph TRs, and I’ve been able to drive at world-class circuits such as Spa – which was fantastic – plus the Silverstone and Brands Hatch Grand Prix layouts.
“I mostly run in the Equipe GTS series with the Aston Martin Owners Club, but there are other series with the MG Car Club and the MG Owners’ Club. There are plenty of cars around – there were 50 FIA-spec MGBs at MG Live! recently, for example – and it’s ideal for newcomers. There’s a lot of specialist knowledge to tap into, and good camaraderie between racers. “It can get expensive in terms of engine preparation, but the regulations militate against spending mega-bucks. It’s a very ‘analogue’ car – you could save a lot of money by preparing it yourself. MGBs with genuine period race history are costly, but that’s a whole other level of the sport. In terms of entry-level racing, it wouldn’t take much to turn a road car into something that you could use in competition.”
THE YOUNG ENTHUSIAST
“My parents had MGBs the first time around and one of my earliest memories is being crouched in the footwell of my mum’s rubber-bumper car during the storm of 1987 because the hood had blown off! My family then got back into MGs when my brother was looking for a car to drive after passing his test. Insuring him on a modern car was ridiculously expensive, and a friend told us that he should try a classic. He found a green BGT, then Dad bought a 1932 D-type and Mum a 1969 BGT.
“I bought Scudlet – my 1970 roadster – after a great deal of searching and fell in love at first sight. We’re just into our 30s now, and insurance is very affordable – we have it on a limited-mileage policy – it is tax exempt and if you are mechanically minded or keen to learn then it is straightforward to maintain. My husband and I are now members of the MGCC MGB Register committee and are trainee marshals at circuit races and hillclimbs.
“On our wedding day in 2009, all four of the family MGs were roped into service. I arrived at church in the D-type and then Chris drove me away in Scudlet [right]. It was the first time he’d driven the car apart from a short test run, so I was rather nervous! I even wondered whether my wedding dress would allow me to drive instead. The sound of the cars pulling away from the church and up the lane is something I remember to this day.”
Thanks to Richard Martin, Adam Sloman at the MG Car Club: www. mgcc. co. uk
|Engine||all-iron, pushrod 1798cc ‘four’, twin SU carburettors|
|Max power||95bhp @ 5400rpm|
|Max torque||110lb ft @ 3000rpm|
|Transmission||four-speed manual with optional overdrive, driving rear wheels|
|front||independent, by coil springs and wishbones|
|rear||live axle, semi-elliptic springs; lever-arm dampers f/r|
|Steering||rack and pinion|
discs front / drums rear
|Length||12ft 9in (3886mm)|
|Width||5ft 2in (1575mm)|
|Height||4ft 1in (1244mm)|
|Wheelbase||7ft 7in (2311mm)|
|Price new (1964)||£988|