1974 and 1976 MGB
1974 (green) and 1976 (red) MGB
click image to enlarge

by Paul Williams

The British carmaker, MG, withdrew from North America some 20 years ago. Why they did so is a long story, and surely one of the stupider decisions ever made by a car manufacturer.

Why? Because from the 1950s – 1980s, almost everyone knew what an MG was. MGs were sports cars. In the days before “branding” became corporate currency, MG arguably owned the sports car identity. So much so that even if you drove a Fiat, Triumph or Porsche, owners often found that people annoyingly referred to it as an MG.

Those days are gone, although in other parts of the world a recently revived MG sports car, the MG-F, is very successful. On Canadian roads, however, the MG you’re most likely to see is the MGB.

Introduced in 1962, the MGB remained in production for nearly 20 years. After a run of over a half-million cars, and like an old boxer well past his prime, the “B” was finally retired. North Americans haven’t seen a new MG since.

2002 is the fortieth anniversary of the MGB’s introduction. Given that B’s are still one of the most popular sports cars around, let’s take another look at them.

The MGB’s appeal is easy to explain, although like all British vehicles from the 60s and 70s, it has some quirks.

According to Jordan Jones, President of the Ottawa MG Club, the B’s design is the very definition of a sports car. Long hood, short trunk, two seats, convertible top, low to the ground.

Says Mr. Jones, “The Mazda Miata, BMW Z3 and Honda S2000 may be faster and more modern, but when you think about it, they’re all continuations of the same theme.”

He points out that the car was also offered as a handsome coupe, the MGB-GT, which often featured a full-length sunroof.

The MGB’s design is distinctive, but understated. The front and rear treatment is definitely old-school, with sculpted headlight enclosures, a toothy grille and a hint of fins terminating in each rear-light assembly. This gives the car some character when coming and going.

From 1974, the MGB got a redesigned grille and bumper treatment, the result of new American regulations concerning impact resistance. For many this gives the MGB a more modern look, although at the time it was controversial. The ride height was also raised to comply with US regulations.

Connecting the front to the rear is a body that describes a gentle, pleasing arc, highlighted by a tasteful strip of stainless trim. You can’t dislike the profile.

The MGB was never a technical leader, but that’s turned out to be a strong suit. Its no-nonsense components are tough, uncomplicated and inexpensive. According to Mr. Jones, this is an important consideration. “Compared to other collector cars and modern sports-car alternatives, you can buy a “B” for surprisingly little money, and maintenance is straightforward. Even though this is typically a hobby car, it’s one that many people can afford.”

Unlike most cars of its vintage, the MGB is a unibody car. The body shell is one piece, with front and rear fenders and a front sub frame bolted on. When in good condition, it’s very strong.

Under the hood is a simple but rugged 4-cylinder, 1.8-litre, overhead valve engine, making up to 95 horsepower. Transmission is a bulletproof 4-speed or 4-speed with overdrive. There’s plenty of power to keep up with today’s traffic.

MGBs always had front disc brakes and rack-and-pinion steering, so you can stop and turn with today’s traffic, too.

Suspension is front coil and rear leaf, which does an adequate job. Some cars came with anti-sway bars for better handling. But the shock absorbers are an old-fashioned lever-arm design that was modern in the 1930s. On the “B” these shocks were adequate, but not high-performance.

As the years go by, it’s the interior that’s showing its age. The steering wheel is thin and big; knobs and switches are located haphazardly, major gauges are small and the gearshift lever is tall.

The cockpit, though, is surprisingly roomy. Seats are comfortable, and there’s plenty of legroom. If you’re tall, the top of your head is probably exposed above the short windshield.

When new, options were few. Wire wheels were popular, as was a tonneau cover and centre armrest. But there are no power windows, power mirrors or keyless remote. Forget fuel injection, anti-lock brakes, computer chips, and most other modern amenities. It should go without saying that there’s definitely no power top.

Driving, tinkering and sharing the experience is what MGB ownership is all about. Imagine motoring down a country road with the top down on a warm summer day. The engine’s chattering happily, the exhaust thrums, the wind’s in your hair, the oil pressure’s good, and life is just fine. That pretty much sums it up.

Mr. Jones does admit there are times when “B” ownership is less appealing. Like when it’s raining and you’ve just spent ten minutes raising the nightmare of a convertible top. Water’s finding its way into the car and onto your lap, the chattering engine has become a loud din, and the windows are fogging up. Then the alternator dies.

But at least you can get parts. There are several big companies that supply just about every nut and bolt for the MGB, plus catalogues full of cool accessories to study during the cold winter months. These include alloy wheels, leather interiors, sport suspensiions, performance engine kits canvas tops, carpet kits, even carbon-fibre trim, if you want a more current look.

According to Mr. Jones, “B’s are all about the body. If you’re looking to buy, do your best to get one with a solid, rust-free body. The mechanicals are a comparatively simple fix, but the body, that’s a lot of work.”

Prices range from $2500 for a solid fixer-upper, to $16,000 for an excellent, restored, example. Most cars are offered at the lower end of the price range, although prices for good cars are rising.

Safety Fast was the MG motto, not that the cars were ever very safe or very fast. But they represent a type of car and a style of life that apparently never goes out of fashion.

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