1958 MGA Roadster
1958 MGA Roadster
Photo: Bill Vance

by Bill Vance

If a contest were held to choose the car that established the term “sports car” in our culture, there would be no doubt that the winning marque would be MG.

It’s true that the first TC model MGs to arrive here were nothing more than pre-Second World War designs, but we didn’t care. With their clamshell fenders, big 19-inch wire wheels, knock-off hubs, cut down doors, and folding windshield, we understood what he meant when Mechanix Illustrated’s Tom McCahill said the MG was “as intriguing as a night on the Orient Express.”

But technology marched on and in 1950 the more modern MG TD arrived with 16-inch disc wheels replacing the wires (shame!), and independent front suspension in place of the archaic solid axle. Purists cried foul, but the TD was a much better car, and really established MG as the quintessential sports car.

The TD lasted four years, to be followed by the MG TF which arrived for 1954, an interim step between pre-war classic and post-war modern. The TF’s headlamps were moulded in with the fenders and hood, and the grille sloped back a little more, but it still had that distinctly classic squareness. It was quickly realized that MG was badly out of step with such rivals as the Triumph and Austin-Healey; to remain competitive a modern style was required.

The 1956 MGA was the answer. It was a full envelope body whose inspiration came from a special MG that British motoring journalist George Phillips had raced in the 1951 Le Mans 24-hour endurance race in France. Its aerodynamic body was prepared by MG’s chief designer, Sydney Enever, and mounted on a TD chassis. Although it failed to finish due to mechanical problems, it showed the way to a more modern MG.

After making its unofficial debut in the June 1955 Le Mans race under code name EX 182, the new MGA was introduced to the public in late 1955. With a new frame, engine, transmission and rear axle, and of course, body, it was the most radically changed MG in 20 years. The space and comfort of the new body – it even had a trunk – were absolute luxury after the T-series cars. And the TF’s octagonal gauges had been replaced by round ones.

Power came from a 1489 cc British Motors Corp. overhead valve inline four developing 68 horsepower, three more than the TF’s 1455 cc four. When Road & Track (12/55) tested the new A they found that this small increase in power, plus the big reduction in aerodynamic drag, improved the A’s top speed to 153 km/h (95 mph), a good 16 km/h (10 mph) over the TF 1500. The zero to 96 km/h acceleration time was also reduced from 16.3 to 14.5 seconds.

For those seeking a snugger ride, a coupe version with roll-up windows was added in 1957, and the better aerodynamics, plus four more horsepower found somewhere, made the MGA coupe a true 161 km/h (100 mph) car. Road & Track (7/57) recorded a two-way average of 163 (101). By 1959 almost 59,000 MGAs had been produced, most of which were exported.

But the MG, while still popular, was getting eaten up in performance by Triumph’s TR series cars. The TR-3, for example, could accelerate to 96 km/h (60 mph) in 11.4 seconds (R & T 5/57), almost three seconds quicker than the MG.

The first step in the quest for better performance was a cylinder bore increase for 1959 which brought displacement from 1489 to 1588 cc. This upped horsepower to 79.5, knocked a second off the zero-to-96 (60), and increased the roadster’s top speed to 166 km/h (103 mph). Those seeking even more performance could opt for MG’s much bolder step, the 1.6 litre fitted with twin overhead cams, known as the Twin Cam.

The overhead cam engine was rated at 108 horsepower and would push the roadster from zero to 96 in 9.9 seconds, and keep on pushing right up to a 181 km/h (113 mph) top speed, (R & T 11/58).

Alas, while the performance was sparkling, the durability was found wanting. Although the engine had been strengthened internally, the 9.9:1 compression ratio and high engine speed – it developed its peak power at 6700 rpm – were just too much and it quickly developed a reputation for unreliability. Twin Cam MGAs were produced only from 1958 to 1960; they are now the most collectible MGA.

In the meantime the pushrod engine MGA soldiered on, getting another displacement increase to 1624 cc in the 1961 1600 Mark II version. The few extra cc’s, plus other modifications such as a higher compression ratio, brought the horsepower up to 90.

The Mark II was around for just over a year during which time 8,719 were produced. When MGA production ceased in 1962 approximately 100,000 of them had been built. They had bridged the gap between the neo-classic TF and the much more modern MGB, and had been the most popular sports car Britain had produced.

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