The best of times, the worst of times.
In the wake of BLMC’s 1968 marriage of convenience, Donald Stokes and his management team began piecing together a product strategy for the multifarious (and in some cases) overlapping marques that constituted the increasingly unwieldy British car giant. Amid this new order, the fate of MG would be subordinated to that of Triumph. And while some speculative MG designs were proposed, the reality was that Abingdon came virtually last in the BLMC Chairman’s priority list – the MGB remained a successful, profitable model line – a cheap nip and tuck and it was good for another couple of years.
Abingdon’s fears came to fruition in 1971, Stokes and his BLMC board electing to proceed with an new corporate sports car, which would be developed and marketed by Triumph. This car would broadly speaking occupy MG’s sector of the market. Given that the MG name appeared to carry more weight with US sportscar buyers, it was probably a decision made as much on political as pragmatic grounds, but it is equally likely that Triumph management were better versed than their Abingdon equivalents at board level persuasion.
It wasn’t all gloom however, there being after all more than a single route to any given destination. With the MGC tried and discarded, the idea of a more powerful version of the MGB resurfaced in 1970, when it came to Abingdon’s notice that a conversion by independent engineer, Ken Costello saw a 150 bhp Rover V8 mated to an MGB body, with predictable consequences. Buoyed by an endorsement from Stokes himself, MG were urged to develop a version of their own.
Fitted with a low compression version (as fitted to the Range Rover) of the 3.5 litre V8, developing 137 bhp, with suitable modifications to damping, rear axle ratio and braking, the MGB GT V8 (offered in closed GT form only) delivered vivid performance with better road manners than its ill-starred predecessor. Its arrival in the Autumn of 1973 however coincided with the Arab oil embargo, hardly an ideal moment. Furthermore, the car was expensive, poorly equipped and against more sophisticated rivals, felt its age.
Offered only to UK customers, its lifespan would prove almost as short as that of its forebear, with only 2591 examples built when production ceased in September 1976. MG’s John Thornley would later intimate that internal politics saw to it that the engine supply was cut short – the official BL line being that Rover needed as much volume as they could get for the new for ’76 SD1 saloon. But in truth, the B was by then well overdue a thorough rethink.
The MGB GT V8 was never offered in MG’s most crucial market, where ever-increasing US emissions regulations were progressively strangling the aged 1.8 litre B-series unit, and progressive safety-related mandates were taking just as great a toll on the car’s appearance. This would come to a head for the 1975 model year, when bumper size and height regulations called for drastic changes. These affected everyone, domestic and import alike, but for imports like the MGB, the requirements would prove not only hugely costly from a development perspective, but ruinous from an aesthetic one.
The BLMC business essentially ran out of money in 1974, with the UK government being forced to underwrite the business. If MG had been grubbing for coppers beforehand, matters would take a far more austere turn thereafter. With little by way of a budget, an aged design and an immovable object in the form of federal mandates, Abingdon did what they could, introducing their compliant cars in December that year.
In order to comply with bumper height regulations, the ride height was raised, lending the B not only the appearance of an off-road vehicle, but the road manners of one. So what had been a fine handling car was transformed into something of a joke. But if the technical changes were poorly received, the restyling work became the subject of a fierce backlash. Carried out under the direction of Harris Mann at the Longbridge studio, the deformable bumper units were in fact rather neatly integrated and in retrospect at least, quite forward-looking for the time. Certainly, other European carmakers made a far worse fist of accommodating federal bumper mandates, but MG aficionados were spitting feathers.
By mid-decade the B had to some extent become a victim of its robust sales in the US market, enabling British Leyland to justify its continued production well past its nominal use-by date, but also to essentially freeze its development, apart from essential safety and emissions changes. Viewed in the US as a cheap and easily maintained fun commuter car, its age was not considered much of an impediment. Back home however, it became increasingly seen as a hopeless anachronism, its ‘mouth and trousers’ exhaust note writing cheques its increasingly archaic dynamic package could no longer cash.
The moment was well overdue to carry out the development the B so desperately required, but while the parent company continued taking on water, and huge amounts of money and resource was funnelled into the fathomless pit of the failing volume car division, MG was left floundering.
Meanwhile, having placed all of its sportscar chips on the corporate TR7, BL management were faced with the fact that in the US, the MGB remained better liked (and better made) than BL’s troubled wedge-shaped two-seater. Because in addition to the quality woes the TR7 became all too well known for, American TR enthusiasts had developed a taste for brawny open-topped six-cylinder roadsters, rather than modernist, four-cylinder wedged shaped coupés, with striking Martello Tower-esque canopies and eccentric body graphics.
By 1977, BL’s leaky vessel was listing alarmingly and with virtually all resource earmarked for a new range of volume models which would, it was believed save the business, the MGB was left broadly to its own devices. Remarkably, sales held up, the bulk of which were by then directed across the Atlantic. But a combination of geopolitics and a further round of emission regulations would fatally undo its business case. Back in Abingdon, the endgame was looming.
 The thinking appeared to be that MGB production could continue while demand held up (and the proposed ban on convertibles was held off), but the more upmarket TR7 would step into the breach thereafter.
 It was a straightforward installation; the MGB’s engine bay having been originally designed to accommodate proposed vee-format BMC engines. The Rover V8 weighed less than the four cylinder B-Series and owing to this and the placement of the engine’s masses, the installation gave the car a 50 : 50 weight distribution, making it even better balanced than the standard car.
 Not only was Rover introducing a new car for which there were high hopes from a volume perspective, but also Triumph’s TR7-based Lynx 2+2 was to share the Rover bent-8. Within BLMC, (and elsewhere) the Rover V8 was viewed (somewhat akin to the small-block Chevy) as the cure for all known ailments and elixir of life itself. Historian and writer, Graham Robson suggested in print that MG ought to have employed the Triumph Stag V8 instead, given that there was less internal demand for it. Robson suggested that there was an excess of capacity for the Triumph unit, but given the Stag’s inexplicably low production volumes, one wonders if this was in fact the case?
 Quoting directly from the MG Owners Club: “MG were the first British manufacturers to produce a vehicle to meet the new Federal US regulations on impact absorbing bumpers and exhaust emission control. These regulations stipulated that a 5 mph impact should cause no damage to the safety related systems such as lights, brakes, steering etc. The Californian State regulations were even more stringent and as this was the prime market for MG there was no alternative but to comply. The Californian regulations stipulated that no damage whatsoever should be caused in the event of a 5 mph impact. The result of these regulations meant that substantial steel beams were fitted to the front and rear of the car braced by stiffening struts incorporated into the body structure. Mounted onto this massive framework were black moulded polyurethane bumpers, which were designed to absorb the effects of a 5 mph impact and then recover their normal shape afterwards”.
 A thicker front and the fitment of a rear anti-roll bar two years later did improve matters to an extent, but arrived a little too late in the day.
 After its mid-decade revisions, the UK auto press turned against the B, Car magazine being typically scathing in their GBU assessment from 1979: “So old, so tired”.
 It wouldn’t have taken much investment to sort out the MG’s dated dynamics, but a more modern, emissions-compliant engine was a necessity as well. Some sympathetic updating could have seen the car last well into the ’80s.
 Ironically, while the TR7 was built to a rather approximate standard at perhaps the most poorly managed and strike-prone factory in the BL portfolio (Speke), MG’s Abingdon plant was perhaps the least strife-ridden, with an engaged and dedicated workforce.
 The TR7’s falling (or rising) swage line was viewed with a mixture of horror and derision in its day, yet appears wholly contemporary now. Despite the fact that the TR7 was a sound car in principle (and came good later in life), the question of whether it honoured TR tradition or its core mission (apart from undermining that of MG in the US) remains debatable.
Source: MG Owners Club/ Classic and Sportscar/ Car magazine.