Symphony in B.
National Treasure is a term which gets bandied about rather a lot in the media nowadays, particularly amid the world of showbusiness. Normally bestowed on the basis of merit, but in some cases it is as much a matter of longevity, dogged persistence even. But regardless of rationale, most recipients tend to exhibit a common sense of virtue. It is therefore perhaps fair to suggest that all of the above traits have contributed to the MGB’s beatification in afterlife, a seemingly impregnable status close to the pinnacle of historic car national treasure-hood. For in the UK at least, a classic car event without at least one MGB in attendance really cannot authentically call itself a classic car event at all.
This of course is not to say that even the rarest, most pristine (production) MGB is ever likely to make its owner wealthy – there were not only too many made for that to be the case, but the MG marque, while subject to a deep and lasting regard amid public and aficionado alike, additionally lacks the cachet of an Alvis, an Aston Martin or even an Austin Healey. Traditionally prey to an element of snobbery, MG has been unable to fully escape its somewhat humble origins, despite the innumerable European and domestic competition successes, the speed records, not to mention the marque’s strong association with the nascent post-war US racing scene.
But if by its 1980 demise, the MGB had become something of a weak joke, it was viewed at its Autumn 1962 debut as a thoroughly up to date and wholly logical progression from the well regarded MGA – the marque’s first truly modern sports car offering. Unlike the A, which employed a separate chassis-type construction, the B employed a full monocoque bodyshell, albeit with a good deal of technical carryover in chassis hardware terms.
As with all MGs, cost was a primary consideration, especially given the expense of tooling up the unitary bodyshell for EX205 (as it was dubbed at Abingdon); so much so that MG General Manager, John Thornley believed his BMC masters would never sanction it. What this meant was that hoped-for developments such as Syd Enever’s coil-sprung independent rear suspension, which had been specified on paper would be rejected. Unlike the MGA however, which was unashamedly a roadster in open form, the B offered a somewhat less penitential experience, with decadent comforts such as winding windows, door locks, decent weather equipment and the option of a heater.
Carried over from the MGA was the coil spring and wishbone front suspension, and beam axle rear, with damping by Armstrong lever arm dampers. Retained in principle too was the twin-carburettor B-series four cylinder engine, but in this installation, upgraded to 1798 cc. With a compression ratio of 8.8:1 and developing maximum power of 95 bhp (net) at 5400 rpm with a maximum torque figure of 110 lbs. ft at 3000 rpm, the B, which left a broadly similar impression upon the weighing scales as its predecessor, provided usefully improved performance. With accurate and direct rack and pinion steering and front-mounted disc brakes, the MG gave a good account of itself.
The UK motor press were certainly impressed, noting that the MGB was not only appreciably quicker than its predecessor, but found it to be more refined, more commodious and more economical, while just as capable dynamically. Amid certain quarters, especially in the UK, a tooth-rattling ride remained a prerequisite for a two-seater sports car at this time, so the B was deemed more of a GT in spirit, since it at the very least bid lip-service, not just to passenger comfort, but to space utilisation, weatherproofing and overall civility. However, in this (and in a number of other areas), attitudes were quickly changing, driven by more sophisticated US market tastes and more sybaritic rivals like the Sunbeam Alpine.
Following on from the voluptuous elegance of the MGA – perhaps the prettiest British two seater since the Jaguar XK120 – the MGB’s styling was once more an in-house job, albeit, one from which can be detected a strong Corso Trapani influence, with distinct reflections of contemporary two-seater designs from Pininfarina, especially at the rear, with its cut down tailfins. Exactly proportioned, with a strong foursquare stance, there wasn’t a visual element out of line.
The MGB’s visual appeal would go up several notches three years later with the advent of an even better looking B GT model, dubbed by MG’s John Thornley as ‘the poor man’s Aston Martin’. With a fastback styled canopy, this time designed with assistance from Pininfarina, the B was transformed into a versatile close-coupled 2+2 gran turismo, with a useful rear hatch and occasional rear seating. With a weight penalty of 220lbs over the open model, acceleration was blunted slightly, but its cleaner shape lent the GT a higher top speed, while the slightly stiffer rear suspension settings, newly fitted Salisbury axle and more rear-biased weight distribution aided road manners.
Success was immediate, sales for 1963 to 1966 outstripping projections, especially demand from the United States. The GT model broadened the B’s appeal further; to some extent bolstered by social and economic changes which took place at the time, when (from time to time at least) credit became more affordable to Britons, and lifestyles (slightly) less regimented. Additionally, and in no small part down to its improved practicality and user-friendliness, not to mention more civilised road manners, the B now also appealed to female drivers, who had previously not made up a significant proportion of sports car sales. There was no doubt, MG hit a market sweet-spot with the B.
Towards the latter end of the decade, the design, while still competitive in appearance was starting to feel dated, and while the MG’s popularity remained undimmed, more modern rivals like Fiat’s 124 Spider and later, Datsun’s 240Z would eat into the B’s market. Furthermore, increasingly stringent passive safety and emissions mandates from MG’s core market would disproportionately impact upon Abingdon’s resources at a crucial time. Following from initial efforts to update the B’s technical specification, a decision had been made around 1966 to propose a new, more forward looking car (dubbed EX234), employing hydrolastic suspension, with a comely, if more compact two-seater body by Pininfarina. But this ambitious programme would be dropped following a review under Donald Stokes in the aftermath of the Leyland takeover.
While initial prospects of the rival Austin Healey marque moving towards the exit amid the new BLMC order might have been greeted with a certain relief at Abingdon, MG would instead be faced with an even more formidable in-house foe: Triumph. With both Donald Stokes and Triumph technical director, Harry Webster in ascendant within the new car giant, the prospects for MG were to put it mildly, uncertain. In the short term, this would mean the MGB would remain in production, largely unchanged, but as the Seventies dawned, few could envisage just how long this would be made to continue.
Part two follows shortly.
 The MGB’s engine bay had been designed to accommodate BMC’s stillborn V4 engine, which would prove fortunate later.
 The MGB’s styling is attributed to Don Hayter. Read DTW’s profile of this Abingdon stalwart here.
 Perhaps the MGB’s greatest aesthetic enemy was its sheer ubiquity.
 In the UK market, saloon-based cars like Ford’s Capri, despite being very different products, would also nibble into the MGB’s market share as the ’70s dawned.
 A mid-engined MG design was proposed, but was abandoned owing to cost constraints and evidence from US market research suggesting that American buyers favoured a more traditional, orthodox technical approach – as Fiat would also find as the traditionalist 124 Spider would prove more to US tastes than the more delicate and technically advanced X/19.
The MGC will be profiled separately.
Sources: MG Owners Club/ ARonline/ Classic and Sportscar.