MGA Twin-Cam takes vs. Porsche 356B, Lotus Elite and Alfa-Romeo Giulietta 2016 / 2017

Sporting 1950s coupés MG, Porsche, Lotus, Alfa. Can the MGA Twin-Cam match its rivals from Porsche, Lotus and Alfa? Finest sporting coupés MGA Twin-Cam takes on Porsche 356, Lotus Elite and Alfa Giulietta. In the 1950s, enthusiasts had a choice of gorgeous sporting coupés. Malcolm Thorne pitches MG against Porsche, Lotus and Alfa. Photography Tony Baker Little.

MGA Twin-Cam takes vs. Porsche 356B, Lotus Elite and Alfa-Romeo Giulietta

Road test MGA Twin-Cam takes vs. Porsche 356B 1600, Lotus Elite and Alfa-Romeo Giulietta

How do you quantify desirability? If the evolution of the sporting coupé could be reduced to a mathematical formula, where such intangibles as looks, charisma, usability and driving pleasure could be measured, multiplied and illustrated by means of a schematic, what we have here would surely represent the pinnacle of automotive achievement. Produced during a golden era at the tail-end of the 1950s, to my mind these sublime fixed-heads from Alfa Romeo, Lotus, Porsche and MG represent a high-water mark.

A cut above the average, these are vehicles for which no concessions need to be made. They have none of the rough edges of pre-war cars, yet unlike later models remain unsullied in their appeal. Free from the constraints of safety and smog controls, unencumbered by an excess of power, electronic complexity and grip that prohibits interaction at anything below ‘you’re nicked’ velocities, they get to the very heart of what a sporting coupé is all about.

All four offered the ability to exceed the ton thanks to some generously exotic engineering, but though the overall concept of a junior GT may be a constant, their individual approach varies wildly. Here we have an eclectic mix of pushrod, single- and twin-overhead cam engines (front and rear mounted), water and air cooling, all-round discs versus drums. Separate chassis, steel monocoque and even futuristic composites.

Porsche 356B

Featured 356 is a later B model, identifiable by the twin grilles on the engine cover. Below: 1582cc flatfour; Porsche covers ground effortlessly quickly; drum brakes are visible behind steels; coachbuilder’s badge.

First to hit the market was, of course, the Porsche. Launched in 1948, the initial handful of cars was built in Gmünd, Austria, but by 1950 the company had moved across the border to Stuttgart. The first car to wear the now-famous crest, the 356 would remain in production until 1965 (when it was replaced by the Porsche 912) and, as such, it enjoyed by far the longest career of our quartet. But though the 356 may have been long-lived, regular upgrades ensured that the model remained relevant. Power increased from 40bhp to 130bhp in the four-cam Königsweller-equipped, disc-braked Carrera 2. The featured car is a 356B, and as such boasts a 70bhp 1582cc motor and drums all round.

Small, pert and bereft of all unneccessary frippery, the 356 provides you with everything you need and nothing that you don’t. It’s down to- earth and sensible, but that’s not a bad thing. The flowing curves of the Erwin Komenda designed body blend seamlessly into one another, the careful use of lead creating the impression of a vast single pressing. It’s a beautiful car, and it continues to influence the firm’s styling language today, which surely vindicates its greatness – if such vindication were needed.

Next up comes the Alfa Romeo, which must rank among the most brilliant PR exercises of all time. The reality of post-war Italy had enforced a shift towards mass production for the Milanese firm and, as development began on its first series model (the 1290cc Giulietta saloon), a lottery was held to raise capital. In theory, prize winners would each receive one of the new four-doors, but as time went by and the car remained no nearer to launch, press and public turned against the firm. As a damage-limitation exercise, a stopgap was conceived in late 1953. A refined fastback version of the existing development mules was hastily created by Bertone, to be launched at the Turin Salon the following spring.

Alfa’s Austrian development engineer Rudolf Hruschka (who, coincidentally, had close links with Ferdinand Porsche) insisted on a sporting character for the new model, and the result was one of the sweetest coupés of the day. It was originally unveiled with a somewhat incongruous column change, but the 90bhp, 111mph Sprint Veloce (with floor change and twin Webers) would follow in 1956, the engine being stretched to 1570cc in ’1962 to become the visually identical Giulia. In spite of its saloon origins, this car looks and feels every inch the glamorous 1950s GT and, like the 356 did for Porsche, it defined what a post-war Alfa was all about.


Lotus offers sublime balance and sharp steering. Below, from top: all-alloy Coventry Climax engine; compact Elite is second only to MGA in terms of acceleration; painted wires; ‘ACBC’ badge; neat headlamps.

The MG, in contrast, is something of an enigma and certainly doesn’t conform to stereotypes. Launched a year after the Giulietta Sprint, the A is one of the most recognisable shapes of the era. It was followed in 1956 by the fixedhead, and then in 1958 the ultimate incarnation, the Twin-Cam, was revealed to the press at Longcross test track in Surrey – coincidentally the same location that is being used for today’s photoshoot. Outwardly identifiable by its knock-off Dunlop wheels and discreet badging, there were also disc brakes all round plus, of course, a rather special powerplant.

Conceived by John Thornley to take on the 356 in the USA, the model featured a Gerald Palmer-designed 1588cc version of the BMC B-series unit fitted with a chain-driven double-overhead- cam head. The motor had made its debut in the 1955 TT at Dundrod but was forced to retire with a misfire. Alas, this was an omen for production versions; a propensity for the exotic engine to hole its pistons meant that just 2% of MGAs were Twin-Cams, of which a handful were fixed-heads. The engine was dropped after just two years, making this coupé a rare beast – especially in this shade of Ash Green.

Alongside the Alfa the MG may appear to be a smaller car, but looks can be deceptive. Sitting on a 7ft 10in wheelbase and measuring 13ft from end to end, it is a scant 2in shorter than the Italian car and is actually longer between the axles, but compared to both the Alfa and Porsche it offers far less space for passengers and luggage – a corollary, in part at least, of its separate chassis. In fact, at 12ft 4in the Lotus is the only car here to stray more than a fraction from 13ft. It also breaks the mould (if you’ll excuse the pun) by being the most radical design of the four.

Even today a glassfibre monocoque sounds pretty far-fetched, so the Type 14 must have seemed like alien technology when it was first seen at Earls Court in 1957. If truth be told, Colin Chapman’s fertile mind was a little too far ahead of the game. Maximar Mouldings struggled to produce the shells, and the task was soon handed over to the Bristol Aeroplane Company – but not before the car had gained a reputation for fragility. Powered by the all-alloy Coventry Climax FWE single-overhead-cam ‘four’, the Elite also earnt a giant-killing reputation on the track, however, thanks to its meagre weight, superb handling and excellent aerodynamics.

Alfa-Romeo Giulietta

Pretty Alfa was closely related to the Giulietta saloon. Below, from top: twin-cam ‘four’, here in 1290cc form; elegant fastback; 15in steels; Sprint Veloce means 90bhp; stylish repeater with chromed surround.

To climb down into the Lotus and fire up the fire pump is an evocative moment. Open the lightweight door and settle yourself into a firmly padded and surprisingly high-backed leather seat and the whole thing is noticeably compact, with a bulky transmission tunnel adding to rigidity but doing little for space. It’s not cramped, but the Elite feels as much shrink-wrapped racer as GT. In keeping with its construction, the architecture is modern, and the rorty growl of the 1216cc ‘four’ leaves the hairs on the back of your neck standing to attention. As you slot the slightly notchy BMC-derived ’box into first, your expectations are sky-high.

This is my first time in an Elite and it takes a few moments to recalibrate my senses to its steering. As we blast around the banking, the tiniest input through the wood-rim wheel really does have the Lotus eagerly changing direction, and until you adjust it’s all too easy to have it darting this way and that. It’s such an amazingly precise machine, with an uncannily good ride and exemplary handling, but it’s probably not a car in which to have an 80mph sneeze.

With so little mass it can get to such speeds in no time – the motor is wonderfully tractable, and accelerates the car with remarkable alacrity, while the four-wheel discs (inboard at the rear) rein it back in with little fuss.

MGA Twin-Cam takes vs. Porsche 356B, Lotus Elite and Alfa-Romeo Giulietta

Porsche 356B 1600 vs. Alfa-Romeo Giulietta

After the confines of the Lotus, the Porsche feels very generously proportioned, almost saloon car roomy – particularly in terms of width (it’s the widest here). It’s comfortable, too, with cossetting seats, but stepping from the Elite the German doesn’t feel anything like as quick or focused. It doesn’t hang around, though, and if you give it plenty of revs before shifting up (with a typically VW, long-throw gearchange) it will bowl along very nicely indeed. Despite any misgivings about a rear engine and swing axles, I can find nothing intimidating about its handling balance – in the dry, at least.

It also has an effortless ability that’s missing from the Lotus when it comes to undertaking long journeys. I’ve travelled hundreds of miles in 356s, and can testify that they are supremely relaxing over such distances. The layout means that there is little mechanical noise at speed, while the suspension works with admirable ability – albeit with that familiar bobbing around the nose. At ten-tenths, the Lotus may be the quicker, but to paraphrase a slogan used by Porsche’s UK concessionaire in period, the 356 feels like the most effortless fast car in the world.

The Alfa, like the Porsche, is a surprisingly relaxing place to be. From the outside it looks by far the biggest of our quartet (that’s largely an optical illusion), but once ensconced you struggle to assimilate just how much room is on offer. You could almost squeeze a family of four inside, although the Giulietta was marketed in the UK as a two-seater (in left-hand-drive): a set of cushions to make the parcel shelf into occasional seating was a £12 optional extra.

Up front, you sit on chairs bolted flat to the floor, legs outstretched towards the floor-hinged pedals and grasping a huge two-spoke wheel. The cabin is supremely stylish and, of the four, provides the greatest sense of occasion – as well as some intriguing details. Mysterious knobs on the fascia include one marked with what appears to be an exploding box, while another shows a flame emitting radio waves.

MGA Twin-Cam takes vs. Porsche 356B, Lotus Elite and Alfa-Romeo Giulietta

Alfa just edges Porsche on performance. Clockwise, from below: 356’s roomy, comfortable cabin; note the angle of the Alfa’s gearlever; Lotus cockpit has the most overtly sporting feel; sprung wheel for traditional MGA.

The car is, of course, a cut-down saloon rather than a purpose-built coupé, but it’s still a rewarding machine to punt along. The long gearstick leaning back at a good 45º may not look too purposeful, but it is a joy to use – by far the nicest here – and even has five ratios. Although you can keenly stir the Giulietta along, it encourages a more laid-back style. Above all, the Alfa feels grown up; it can live with its rivals and the drum brakes offer admirable retardation, but it feels somehow more suited to a gentler pace.

As with the Lotus, the cabin of the MG is definitely on the cosy side. The ambience is far more traditional, too, with its black Rexine dash, no-nonsense white-on-black instruments and shallow, upright windscreen. The Bluemels wheel is mounted very much in the vintage idiom, enhancing the old-school flavour, but when you fire up that much-maligned engine, it’s not at all what you’re expecting.

Where BMC’s pushrod units were charming but unsophisticated sloggers, this is a jewel. “You’re not pushing it hard enough,” owner Edward Vandyke repeatedly tells me as we potter to and fro, but once the photographs are done I begin to drive the Twin-Cam a little harder. As the speed builds around our test track, the MG really starts to come into its own – even considering the lower-compression engine that has been fitted to the featured example in the name of reliability. If the Alfa feels a touch lazy in this rarefied company, the MG is seriously fast and handles beautifully.

As I embark upon lap after lap, I become increasingly ensnared by this magnificent little car. It is the most inspiring thing that I’ve driven in a long time, which makes it all the more frustrating that its reliability problems were addressed too late to save it. If the engine had been properly sorted before it had gone on sale, it would surely have sold in significant numbers, and who knows what else it could have led to?

MGA Twin-Cam takes vs. Porsche 356B, Lotus Elite and Alfa-Romeo Giulietta
MGA Twin-Cam takes road test. MGA coupé retains the visual appeal of its open sibling. Below, from top: twin-cam head was added to modified B-series block; tiny boot makes luggage rack essential; knock-off steels; identifying badge; slender doorhandle.

It’s not perfect, of course. Besides being a bit tight on space, it gets awfully hot inside and it’s not exactly quiet. There really isn’t much puff at low revs, either, but wind the rev counter around towards the red paint and the MG starts to come alive, goading you to push ever faster before double-declutching down through the slightly notchy ’box as the four-wheel discs rein you in for the next corner. The Lotus could probably run rings around it, but I don’t care.

In their day, these junior thoroughbreds ranged from relatively affordable (MG) to somewhat extravagant (Alfa Romeo), but today are remarkably close in value. Three of our quartet are currently on the market, and each one could be yours for within a whisker of £70k. You could probably bag yourself an MG for a bit less, assuming that you could find one.

All four are brilliantly tempting, and if I had the wherewithal I’d gladly take any of them home. To single out a winner is an extremely tough call but, although I’m most naturally drawn to the Alfa and Porsche, I struggle to shake off the addictive charm of the MG.

Thanks to Edward Vandyke; Southwood for the Alfa (; Richard Norris (; Percival for the Lotus (; GE Classic Cars for the Porsche (






Sold/no built 1954-’1962/24,084 (Sprint and Sprint Veloce)

Construction steel monocoque

Engine all-alloy, double-overhead-cam 1290cc inline ‘four’, twin Weber carburettors

Max power 90bhp @ 6500rpm

Max torque 87lb ft @ 5300rpm

Transmission five-speed manual, driving rear wheels

Suspension: front wishbones, anti-roll bar rear live axle, trailing arms, central A-arm; coil springs, telescopic dampers f/r

Steering worm and roller

Brakes drums

Length 13ft 2in (4013mm)

Width 5ft ½ in (1536mm)

Height 4ft 4in (1321mm)

Wheelbase 7ft 9 ½ in (2374mm)

Weight 2142lb (972kg)

0-60mph 13.2 secs (1600)

Top speed 112mph (1600)

Mpg 28

Price new £2480 (1960)

Price now £30-70,000


Sold/no built 1958-’1960/2111

Construction steel box-section chassis, steel body

Engine iron-block, alloy-head dohc 1588cc inline ‘four’, twin 1 3/4 in SU carburettors

Max power 108bhp @ 6700rpm

Max torque 104lb ft @ 4500rpm

Transmission four-speed manual, driving rear wheels

Suspension: front double wishbones, coil springs rear live axle, semi-elliptic springs; lever arm dampers f/r

Steering rack and pinion

Brakes discs

Length 13ft (3962mm)

Width 4ft 10in (1473mm)

Height 4ft 2in (1270mm)

Wheelbase 7ft 10in (2388mm)

Weight 2128lb (967kg)

0-60mph 9.1 secs

Top speed 114mph

Mpg 22

Price new £1196 (1960)

Price now £35-45,000


Sold/no built 1959-’1963/988

Construction glassfibre monocoque

Engine all-alloy, sohc 1216cc inline ‘four’, twin Weber carbs

Max power 83bhp @ 6250rpm

Max torque 75lb ft @ 4750rpm

Transmission four-speed manual, driving rear wheels

Suspension independent, at front by coil springs, wishbones rear Chapman struts; telescopic dampers f/r

Steering rack and pinion

Brakes discs (inboard at rear)

Length 12ft 4in (3759mm)

Width 4ft 10 ½ in (1486mm)

Height 3ft 10in (1194mm)

Wheelbase 7ft 4in (2240mm)

Weight 1450lb (656kg)

0-60mph 11 secs

Top speed 118mph

Mpg 35

Price new £1949 (1960)

Price now £60-80,000


Sold/no built 1959-’1963/30,963

Construction pressed-steel platform with steel panels

Engine all-alloy, air-cooled, overhead-valve, 1582cc flat-four, twin Solex, Zenith or Weber carburettors

Max power 70bhp @ 4500rpm

Max torque 82lb ft @ 2800rpm

Transmission four-speed manual, driving rear wheels

Suspension independent, at front by trailing arms rear swing axles; torsion bars, telescopic dampers f/r

Steering worm and roller

Brakes drums

Length 12ft 11in (3937mm)

Width 5ft 5 ½ in (1663mm)

Height 4ft 3 ½ in (1302mm)

Wheelbase 6ft 11in (2108mm)

Weight 1883lb (854kg)

0-60mph 14.1 secs

Top speed 103mph

Mpg 32

Price new £2050 (1960)

Price now £40-80,000

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