Sorting the C. How a Healey hero brought the wild side out of MG’s open grand tourer. Sebring’ MGC roadster: when John Chatham lifted the lid on the GTS. The best MG that might have been. If all of those road-biased MGs aren’t enough, says Malcolm Thorne, how about a racer for the street? Meet the GTS roadster, built by legendary Sebring guru John Chatham. Photography Tony Baker.
You can’t help feeling sorry for the poor old MGC. Has a car ever been so unfairly blighted by such a damning reception from the press? ‘Unloved’ is a word often associated with this octagonbadged six-cylinder, and when discussing the evolution of the B it’s all too tempting to briefly utter the words ‘understeer’ or ‘unwillingness to rev’ before swiftly moving on to the V8s.
But let’s remember that it wasn’t the C’s fault that it was – sort of – given the unenviable task of replacing the much-admired Big Healey in the BMC line-up. Or that it was lumbered with a compromised lump of iron beneath the bonnet. It wasn’t the C’s fault either that, bonnet bulges and 15in wheels aside, it had the appearance of a bog-standard B, that it looked like a car that was “about to pop down the pub for a half of shandy” as a certain Mr Buckley once said. Above all, it wasn’t the C’s fault that, when it comes to reputations, mud sticks.
The MGC was far from being a bad car in the compact long-distance touring idiom. Viewed as a rapid and relaxed six-cylinder version of the venerable B, this little GT was surely far more worthy of the badge than its four-cylinder fastback brethren. But for Healey fans, this should have been a rorty, snorty sports car with the ability to bloody the noses of its rivals. And therein lies the problem. With its customary myopia and cash-flow conundrums, British Leyland never fully developed the C, but on the track this much-maligned sportster did briefly display the potential of becoming the feisty road-burner that Big Healey owners craved.
Work had begun on a racing version of the MGC GT as early as 1966, with lightweight aluminium outer panels – including roof, doors and flared wings – cladding a steel monocoque. As has been well documented over the ensuing five decades, six such shells were produced, although only two (‘Romeo’ and ‘Mabel’ – so named after their registrations, RMO 699F and MBL 546E) were built up into finished cars.
After making its motor racing debut on the Targa Florio in 1967 – albeit with a four-cylinder engine under the bonnet, because the six-cylinder MGC had yet to enter production at that time – the GTS, as it was baptised, revealed its true colours in 1968, by which time a highly tuned ‘six’ had been slung between its front torsion bars. Besides the Targa Florio, Romeo and Mabel would compete on that year’s 84-hour-long Marathon de la Route at the Nürburgring and, of course, at Sebring – the Florida venue having long since lent its name to these pumped-up bolides.
The GTS was a pretty tasty wagon. If the standard C was a little too close to being a portly old Austin Westminster dressed up in tightfitting running shorts, these wildly reconfigured racers were a whole new proposition – right down to featuring a lightweight aluminium engine in their later configuration, resulting in improved distribution of mass and a tightened turn-in, even if that agility came at the expense of additional fragility.
Alas, in spite of being able to mix it convincingly with the Porsches, the MGC’s career was all too brief, and the final works-supported outing was at Sebring in 1969 – after which the project was axed by BL. That, however, is far from being the end of the story. The GTS programme was bought lock, stock and smoking tyres by Bristol-based Austin-Healey guru John Chatham, who had been involved with the marque since the announcement of the 100 in 1952 and had been set to compete in a works Sebring on the Targa Florio in 1970.
The deal included the four unused shells, as well as the remaining stock of spare parts – a considerable reserve that enabled him to further improve the MG’s competitive edge, racing the GTS well into the ’70s. All of which leaves you wondering… if motorsport really does improve the breed, what might have been if Abingdon had been allowed to unleash the ultimate MGC on the car-buying public? A well-sorted beast with an abundance of power, plus road manners to match, would have been quite a car.
“I built myself a Sebring roadster,” recalls Chatham today. “It became known as the Red Rooster, and I ran it for quite some time – it was such a fantastic machine. I took it along to Abingdon and told the boys, ‘This is what you should be making.’ They agreed, because it really stood out alongside the B – the standard MGC was just too bland in comparison.”
Alas, by then the six-cylinder version of the MG had already been killed off, and BL had little interest in pursuing the idea of a more aggressive model.
Over the ensuing years, however, the ‘Sebringification’ of Bs and Cs by enthusiastic owners has become commonplace – do a quick internet search and you’ll invariably find dozens of the things being offered for sale. Some are beautifully built and exactingly accurate replicas of the factory racers – right down to double-take registrations that are just a digit or two out.
Others are, shall we say, a little more brash in their execution, with rather more bling than brawn. The common denominator, of course, is aesthetic – bulging flanks being the signature of the Sebring look – but the car you see here can claim an extra level of authenticity and credibility, because it is the work of none other than Chatham himself. A sister car to the original Red Rooster, it draws heavily on his considerable knowledge of all things GTS.
Behold this MG for the first time and it’s difficult to ignore the distended body: bland is certainly not a word you would use to describe it. Those wide-boy arches are more Ford Escort forest warrior than suave six-cylinder mile-eater – “They were moulded from the original factory car,” says Chatham – and could have been halfinched from a Mk1 Mexico, but they do underline this car’s intent. The MG was never conceived to attack a rally stage, of course, but the aggressive aesthetics of those fat flares suggest that a bit of sideways attitude could be all too easily provoked on a loose surface.
In line with the factory racers, other amendments to distance this C from its cooking cousin extend to bumperless extremities with neatly reprofiled valances (to integrate the rear lights and incorporate front brake cooling ducts), plus 8J centre-lock Minilites – the real deal, not those lookalikes that seem to be appearing on every other classic these days. Twin stainless exhausts, Perspex headlamp covers and a chin adorned with evocative yellow warpaint à la Romeo add a further touch of drama, while upside-down front sidelight units (again, a nod to the works cars, which were so fitted to prevent the additional driving lamps from obscuring the indicators) round off the package. It’s a purposeful mix but, thanks in no small part to the dark racing green paintwork, it’s not wildly over the top. Add a set of bumpers and it could almost be subtle.
Open the door, climb down into the cockpit and the theme of mild wild continues: there are attractive and comfortable low-backed bucket seats that look all very period and refreshingly discreet. The three-spoke wheel, a thick, leatherrimmed Moto-Lita item, is smaller than the standard Bluemel’s tiller and full of promise. Not fancy, not frilly, but workmanlike and all very thoughtfully done: neat and tasteful.
From the driver’s seat, the overall ambience is almost every inch MGB – which is, of course, no surprise: there were never more than detail differences to separate the C from its B-series stablemate. Scholars of spot-the-difference puzzles will notice the 140mph speedo – up 20mph on the contemporary B – plus a rev counter that, like its four-pot cousin’s, reads up to 7000rpm, but which is redlined at five-five, some 500rpm lower. Otherwise, it’s unremarkably Abingdon, which is to say mainstream yet pleasant. And then you notice those bulges again: not just the bonnet, but also the broad rear arches that make their presence felt whenever you glance in the door mirrors.
For all the big and burly window dressing, it’s only when you fire up the C-series ‘six’ and blip the throttle that the car really betrays its true nature. The soundtrack is wonderful: deep, raucous and with more than a suggestion that speed limits aren’t really within this car’s remit.
In no way does it feel lumpen, uneager or any of the other adjectives so routinely aimed at the standard unit. That’s hardly surprising, of course, because this particular engine has been on the receiving end of some thoughtful fettling. Among the modifications are a hot camshaft, a carefully balanced bottom end and a lightened flywheel, while the standard twin SU HS6 carburettors have been binned in favour of a trio of Weber 40DCOEs, plus a six-branch tubular manifold. The end result is a healthy and willing 217bhp – a whopping 50% up on the MGC’s output from the factory.
All of that extra power has been shoehorned into a package that echoes the lessons learnt on the track, beginning with mass. In place of the factory Sebring’s alloy panels, this car employs glassfibre: the bonnet and wings are all GRP, as are the modified valances. And beneath those bulging wheelarches you’ll find a race-bred suspension set-up, with stiffer works torsion bars, uprated dampers and a limited-slip diff.
Sitting on sticky 225/50 R15 rubber, the MG certainly looks the part and, as you plant the loud pedal (and yes, above 4500rpm it emits a wickedly antisocial cackle that transforms rural Worcestershire into a hot lap of a Florida airfield), the car launches itself firmly into your affections. It corners flat and fast, and within the limits of the law it just steers without the need for a prefix – be that under or over.
Owner Peter Tomlinson, the man who created cult television programme Tiswas, enjoys stretching the Sebring’s long legs at Shelsley Walsh – “The gearing means that it gets to 60mph in second and just over 80 in overdrive second, so I don’t really get into third” – and reckons that, if really pushed, the MG will understeer. He has no complaints in that department, however: “Compared to any other car I have driven, apart from my Prodrive Subaru Impreza, it feels rock-steady when cornering – and I include BMWs, a Porsche 911, Healey 3000 and Sierra Sapphire Cosworth, as well as my original, unmodified MGC. I’m confident around any corner on the open road, although I’ll admit that I’ve never had it much over the ton.” Tomlinson bought the Sebring to replace a Cobra replica, which reveals a taste for muscular roadsters, and his enthusiasm for the MG is infectious. Not that you need much encouragement: a day in the company of this lovely beast can’t help but leave a tantalising glimpse of what a properly sorted hot C could have become.
Casting off the shackles of standard spec, Abingdon’s ‘six’ could have been a riot of fun for the early 1970s, plugging the gap in BL’s sporting armour as the E-type went all soft and sophisticated, and the increasingly archaic TR6 rattled its way towards retirement. “In this form, the MGC would have been a very credible replacement for the Big Healey,” reckons Chatham. “It had a nice stiff monocoque, you could use the extra power and torque to overcome any tendency to understeer, and it looked a whole lot better than the standard C. But instead of developing the car, BL just left it – and MG – to die. It was criminal, a real disaster.” That a production version of the Sebring never happened is a shame, but today only adds to the allure of this hooligan. Top marks to John Chatham for this fascinating hot rod.
‘FLAT AND FAST, IT JUST STEERS WITHOUT THE NEED FOR A PREFIX – BE THAT OVER OR UNDER’