Motoring Memories: MG Magnette Sedans, 1954 1958 motoring memories
1957 MG Magnette ZB. Click image to enlarge

Story and photo by Bill Vance

The English MG name is inextricably associated with sporty, two-passenger roadsters. It was the car that laid the foundation for the North American sports car movement following the Second World War. But what is not so well known is that MG also made some interesting sedans both before the war, notably the 1936 – 1939 2.0-litre SA, and after. The postwar models were imported to North America, and are the ones that are familiar on this side of the Atlantic.

In 1947 the MG Car Co., of Abingdon-on-Thames, Berkshire, introduced its trim little Y-series sedan. Having been designed before the war, its separate fenders and headlamps betrayed its 1930s influence.

It was, however, more modern than the popular MG TC roadster, which its grille resembled, in that it was fitted with rack-and-pinion steering and independent coil spring front suspension. It would, in fact, form the basis for the updating of the TC into the 1950 TD roadster; the Y model contributed a shortened version of its frame and its superior front suspension and steering to the TD.

The Y-Series, in A and B models, was produced until 1953. For its replacement, MG reached into its history and resurrected the name of its famous 1930s racing Magnette. The Magnette series ZA sedan bowed as a 1954 model. It was a thoroughly modern car with its envelope body and nicely integrated lines.

While the Magnette sedan was being developed, the Austin Motor Company and Morris Motors merged in 1952 to become the British Motor Corporation. Morris had produced Morris and Riley, among other models, and the MG since 1935. BMC was keen on corporate twins, so the Magnette also had a companion Wolseley model. It was the 4/44 and later designated the 15/50.

The unit-construction Magnette was designed by Gerald Palmer, who brought considerable experience and expertise to the job. Along with Alex Issigonis, later of Morris Minor and Mini fame, Palmer had worked on the pre-war Y-series MG sedan.

In 1942, Palmer left Morris to become chief designer at Jowett Cars. Here, inspired by the shape of the pre-war American Lincoln Zephyr, he penned the lovely little 1947 Jowett Javelin sedan. In 1949 he returned to Morris with the assignment of developing a new line of sedans. The Magnette and its tamer corporate Wolseley twin was the result.

In traditional English fashion, the Magnette’s interior was nicely appointed in wood and leather. It was quite roomy for four passengers, and had an adequate trunk beneath the tapered lid.

The ZA Magnette was not powered by a traditional MG engine, but by BMC’s 1489 cc B-series overhead valve four, a derivation of the 1200 cc Austin A40 engine introduced in 1947. It drove the rear wheels through a four-speed, floor-shifted manual transmission.

Giving the sedan a full 1.5 litres brought chagrin to the faces of MG TD owners, who were still toiling along with their less-than-inspiring 1250 cc versions. The MG roadster’s 1.5-litre would come about a year later in the TF model.

When the little sports sedan came into the hands of the testers, it acquitted itself reasonably well. In December 1954, Road & Track magazine found that its 60 hp engine would sprint the 1,129 kg (2,490 lb) Magnette to 96 km/hr (60 mph) in 22.0 seconds, and push it to a respectable 134 km/hr (83 mph) top speed. This put it in the same performance league as the MG TD roadster, and not that far off the TD’s replacement, the TF.

Road & Track also tested the new MG TF 1500 in the same issue. It reported that while the TF’s zero to 96 km/hr (60 mph) time of 16.3 seconds was considerably faster, the TF’s top speed, 137 km/hr (85.4 mph), was only marginally better than the Magnette’s. However, the Magnette’s low 4.88:1 rear axle ratio meant that the poor little engine was spinning pretty fast at normal North American cruising speeds.

The ZA Magnette was succeeded by the ZB late in 1956, featuring an optional model called the Varitone with two-tone paint treatment and a larger rear window. It also got a welcome horsepower increase to 68, said to make it capable of 140 km/hr (87 mph).

The ZB was also available with an optional “Manumatic” automatic clutch, in which the clutch pedal was replaced by a pressure-sensitive switch on the gearshift, with the gears being engaged by servo units. Shifts were slower than normal, and it was a complicated system. It was not a popular option, since it seemed to defeat the purpose of having a sporty type car, and was soon discontinued.

The ZB Magnette was made until 1958, when it was replaced by the Mark III Magnette. The Mark III was little more than a twin-carburetor version of the A55 Austin Cambridge with some MG trim, and was generally greeted with disdain by MG enthusiasts.

Other MG sedans would follow, based on the front-wheel-drive, cross-engine Morris chassis and “hydrolastic” interconnected front-to-rear suspension. In spite of being the wave of the future, they just didn’t have the magic of those ZA and ZB Magnettes.