MG’s missed opportunity Malcolm Thorne enjoys an exclusive drive in the EX234 prototype. The sports car that could have saved MG. A flawed business plan led to the Midget and MGB remaining on sale way beyond retirement age. After driving the one-off EX234 prototype, Malcolm Thorne explains how things could have been very different. Photography James Mann/Paul Hughes.
You can’t help but feel sorry for the MGB and Midget. At the time of their introduction, both were fantastic achievements. Engaging and viceless to drive, eminently tuneable if you felt the need, yet straightforward to maintain and cheap to buy, they were surely two of the finest roadsters of the early 1960s. Put your snobbery aside, resist the contempt that’s all too often inspired by the ubiquitous, then just look at them. In their early, unsullied form, are these not two of the prettiest two-seaters ever to have turned a crossply-shod wire wheel? But – and here’s the crux of the matter – time and circumstances were shamefully unkind to these siblings.
By the time the Midget and B were pensioned off – in 1979 and 1980, respectively – the man in the street with an eye for performance motoring was already embracing an era of front-drive tearaways. In such a context, the archaic world inhabited by Abingdon seemed as relevant as a gently puffing briar. They were certainly not the disco generation’s definition of a sports car.
I’m a huge fan of these beautiful British roadsters, but they really should have been retired from active service before the end of the 1960s. The truth is, that could so easily have been the case – and I can’t help but mourn the potential replacement that haunts them today.
This missed opportunity has a name that elicits images of high-speed derring-do, of a proud and glorious octagon that still led the way in the sports-car world – EX234, and it is standing before me in glorious spring sunshine.
If the story of the B and Midget is well known, EX234 is more shrouded in mystery. The EX stood for experimental, and a single prototype was constructed in the mid-1960s. Clothed in steel and aluminium by BMC’s favourite coachbuilder – Pininfarina – the car’s futuristic shape conceals an intriguing blend of engineering that could have conquered the automotive world and ushered in an exciting new era for Abingdon.
A few short years may be all that separates EX234 from the launch of the B and Midget, but in many respects the cars are an age apart. Of course, even when the B and Midget were introduced in the early ’60s, MG’s engineers were well aware that live axles and leaf springs were rapidly heading for the history books. The MGB had originally been conceived with a more sophisticated coil-sprung rear-end than that of the production car, but perhaps more worthy of note is that by October 1962 the idea of a hydrolastic- equipped Midget was being seriously considered. Two projects (EX229 and EX231) were undertaken during 1962 and 1963, but those fell by the wayside once Abingdon began to consider the future of the recently launched B.
Although MG toyed with the idea of an independently sprung adaptation of that car, the conclusion was soon reached that, rather than modifying the B to accept more sophisticated running gear, a better approach would be to design an entirely new model. Throw a range of different engine sizes into the equation, and suddenly there was the potential for a successor to both the B and the Midget – EX234.
The project was instigated by Syd Enever and work began in February 1964. Under the direction of Roy Brocklehurst (who Enever was keen to see succeed him as chief engineer), project office draughtsmen Mike Holiday and Jim Simpson designed a unique steel platform incorporating an amalgam of BMC mechanical elements from models including the Midget, Austin Gipsy and ADO16.
Unfortunately, documentation about the project is thin on the ground more than 50 years later, but former MG development mechanic Geoff Clark fondly recalls working on the car. “In 1965, I had just finished my apprenticeship,” he remembers, “and EX234 was one of the first projects in which I became involved after becoming a qualified Abingdon employee.
As far as I can recall, the car was sent out to Italy as a rolling chassis comprising the floorpan, suspension and engine, which was installed to ensure that there would be sufficient clearance once the bodywork was fitted.
“It came back to the factory as a more or less complete car, but it needed various things fettling and finishing off. My first task was to alter the rear suspension. It originally used parts from the BMC 1100, but Roy Brocklehurst wasn’t happy with it as it was, so I had to adapt it to take displacers from the 1800 [ADO17]. That was fairly straightforward, but then we turned our attention to the braking system.
“It had come from Italy without any brakes fitted, so we got in touch with Lockheed and they sent someone down to help us work on a four-wheel disc set-up. Fitting them was a hell of a job, because the pedalbox seemed to have been positioned without giving any thought to where the master cylinder would go – the wings were in the way and there wasn’t really space for anything. We spent about a week on it in the end, and eventually got everything in place.
“Once the car was roadworthy, I drove it up to MIRA with chassis tester Tom Haig to see how it performed. It worked very well, although I remember having a scary moment on the way back to the factory. Not far from Abingdon I had to hit the brakes hard, and the whole front suspension shifted because the tie-bars weren’t man enough for the job. We managed to limp home, and something stronger was soon drawn up and manufactured in the development shop.
“It cured the problem, but we didn’t do much more with the car after that. Most projects in those days went on for months and months, but this one was over very quickly. It ended up with all the other abandoned prototypes in an empty space at the factory next to the boiler room.” Which is where it remained until the late 1970s, but why was it forgotten?
It’s very easy today to hurl brickbats at BMC/ BL’s business plan, but that – in part, at least – appears to be what killed off EX234. In 1965, the MGB and the Midget had not long been on the market, and both were selling like hot cakes. To the bean-counters there was little justification for the considerable expense of preparing the new car for production when MG was already earning a tidy revenue from its existing models.
Just building the prototype cost in the region of £40,000, which in today’s money equates to about £730,000. The project was put on the back-burner and, as BMC morphed into BL and descended into structured chaos, the combination of politics, a crippling lack of investment, and the struggle to keep up with increasingly stringent American regulations meant that the car’s window of opportunity soon passed. There was, however, a further reason for its demise. “Alec Issigonis was anti-sports car,” says Clark, “and he still wielded considerable influence.
I don’t think he would have allowed a hydrolastic sports car to enter production.” “Most redundant prototypes were just cut up and scrapped,” he continues as we discuss the project today, so when I announce that the car is very much alive and well the news is greeted with some surprise. That it does survive is down to the foresight of none other than Abingdon boss John Thornley and arch MG enthusiast and dealer Syd Beer. The latter had been very closely involved with the firm over the years, variously looking after historic vehicles including Old Number One, the EX135, EX179 and EX181 record-breakers, plus 18/80 and N-types. That the cars still exist today is thanks to them having been stored at Beer’s Cambridgeshire premises. He also put many long hours into pre-production testing of the ill-fated MGC and rebuilding Thornley’s own BGT, ‘MG 1’.
For many years, Beer had harboured a dream of opening his own museum dedicated to the marque, so when EX234 was finally scheduled to be broken up, Thornley stepped in and offered the prototype to his friend. Alas, the shrine never materialised, but importantly the car had been saved from the cutting torch.
“Dad drove it to a few MG events in the late 1970s,” says Beer’s son Malcolm, “but through a lack of space and time it ended up in storage, where it has been for the past 15-20 years.”
After four decades in the care of its present custodians, EX234 is now to be sold. With an estimate of £35-45,000 when it crosses the block at Bonhams’ Goodwood Festival of Speed sale, this forgotten piece of Abingdon history looks as if it could be something of a bargain. It has just 6000 miles on the clock and remains in beautifully original unrestored condition. It provides a fascinating insight into what might have been.
Having previously seen only a few black-andwhite photographs of EX234, it’s with an undeniable sense of curiosity that I approach it for the first time. Viewed in the metal, it is an intriguing machine and looks considerably more attractive than is the case in photographs. There is a pronounced Italianate flavour to it, with hints of the Fiat 850 and Alfa Romeo Spiders – the windscreen looks suspiciously like an Alfa item, while the fuel filler flap appears to have been lifted straight from the Milanese car. With its delicate, circular tail-lights, there’s also a hint of the early Lotus Elan to the rear.
The frontal treatment clearly owes a lot to the MGB and, to my eye, is the least successful aspect of the design because the shallow grille and B’s indicator units somehow don’t quite gel with the rest of the shape. The people at Abingdon are believed to have altered this aspect of the design several times during the car’s brief career, and it would be interesting to discover exactly how the alternatives looked.
The MG was planned as both an open-topped roadster and a fixed-head coupé, and it retains its steel roof. Beautifully finished with a luxuriously trimmed, fluted headlining, once lifted into place this hefty piece of engineering transforms the look of the car, visually shortening it and lending EX234 something of the flavour of a miniaturised Latin thoroughbred. From certain angles there is a hint of Ferrari 365GT to it and, if you were to fit a set of Borrani wires in place of the 12in steels, it wouldn’t look incongruous sporting a prancing horse or Maserati trident.
Don’t be fooled by the roof, though – it’s not a hardtop in the conventional sense, and alas the car can’t be driven with it in place. Rather, it was intended by Pininfarina merely to illustrate how a non-detachable fixed-head could look, so it comes devoid of any method of being attached to the car and even has window apertures of a different shape to the door glass. Details such as this, plus the dash-top eyeball vents that aren’t actually plumbed into the ventilation system, bestow EX234 with the sort of experimental aura that you only ever find in a prototype. It’s a fascinating machine, and one with which I would dearly have loved to spend more time.
Thanks to Malcolm and Julie Beer; Ray Daniels; Bob Wick; Rod Stone; Geoff Clark; Chris Kynoch at the MG Car Club: www.mgcc.co.uk; Bonhams: 020 7447 7447; www.bonhams.com
Clockwise, from main: Triumph TR7 steering wheel is a later addition to the stylish cockpit; nicely finished door trim; roof of fastback GT is a mock-up only, but is beautifully trimmed.
The painful decline of MG is a sad tale made all the worse when you consider that EX234 was not the only aborted project before BL pulled the plug. Immediately prior to that car came ADO34 (below), a Mini-based front-drive roadster that looked like an MGB in miniature, while after it came the radically styled ADO21 (bottom). “We put a lot of work into that,” recalls Geoff Clark.
“Chief chassis designer Terry Mitchell was really into de Dion suspension and so we came up with a mid-engined car with a de Dion rear and Watt linkage. On paper it looked good, but it used the Maxi engine and that simply wasn’t powerful enough. We took it to MIRA for testing but it just didn’t work. We also tried putting a Daimler V8 into the B, but that was a big, clumsy thing compared to the later Rover V8 conversion.”
“In 1975, I went down to Italy to test the 2-litre O-series in the B,” he continues. “That was fantastic, but the Longbridge people who were there took one look at it and asked why we’d bothered, telling us there wasn’t the production capacity for MG to use that engine. It was a real missed opportunity because it was a great car.”
The ill-fated Aston Martin-sponsored B was developed as part of a rescue bid to save MG. The facelifted car featured the taller windscreen from the GT as well as other aesthetic mods. It went nowhere, and thus ended car manufacturing in Abingdon.
Clockwise, from main: graceful Italianate profile; aerodynamic doorhandle; chrome strip was intended for the fixed-head and is fitted only to the driver’s side of the prototype; MGB-style headlight.
From top: tight rear seat; neat hood; EX234 feels a whole generation more modern to drive than MG’s contemporary roadsters – note MGB indicators.
‘THE BEAN-COUNTERS COULD SEE LITTLE JUSTIFICATION IN PREPARING THE NEW CAR FOR PRODUCTION’
Production cars versus prototype
So, how does EX234 stack up against the cars it was intended to replace? The answer is very well. Slip from one to the next and the first thing you notice is the generous amount of space on offer. After the Midget and the MGB, it does feel roomy, but whereas in those two you nestle deep inside the cockpit, in EX234 you sit higher in a vast open-plan cabin. The heavily stylised fascia – conceived to be easily adapted from right- to left-hand drive – and cabin furniture, meanwhile, leave you with the sensation of being in something a decade younger than the B or the Midget.
Fire up the 1275cc A-series – other engine options would reputedly have been offered, although none was ever installed – and there’s no mistaking the car’s origins: the throaty throb and transmission whine are Midget through and through. Yet where such a soundtrack suits the production car, it feels strangely out of place in such sophisticated surroundings, but any incongruity is easily ignored because EX234 is lovely to punt along. In deference to the aged tyres, I keep the speeds well inside the envelope marked ‘prudent’, but it accelerates with remarkable ease, offering performance that feels more lively than either of its stablemates.
Less lively is the ride. The independent double-wishbone suspension bestows it with a smooth gait that the B simply can’t match, let alone the jittery Midget. It’s no boulevardier, though: it corners flat and the 12in tyres hang on tenaciously. Prototype or not, EX234 is a proper sports car that goes, stops and turns with aplomb.
After the spritely but unsophisticated Midget and the torquey but noticeably heavier MGB, it feels light, accurate and delicate. In fact, it makes its brethren feel as if they belong to the previous decade.
Clockwise, from main: the prototype corners with minimal body roll; proprietary rear lights on Kamm tail; A-series gives decent performance; big cockpit compared to the MGB and Midget.