Being There [Part Four]

The best of times, the worst of times.

Peak B: 1973 MGB roadster. Image:

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[1], 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.

1973 MGB GT V8. Image: performancecarguide

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[2] 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[3]. But in truth, the B was by then well overdue a thorough rethink.

It began like this. Image: Hemmings Motor News

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[4], 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[5]. 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[6].

The moment was well overdue to carry out the development the B so desperately required[7], 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.

Image: justbritish

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)[8] 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[9].

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.

[1] 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.

[2] 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.

[3] 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?

[4] 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”.

[5] 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.

[6] 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”.

[7]  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. 

[8] 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. 

[9] 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.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

25 thoughts on “Being There [Part Four]”

  1. Good morning Eóin. I’m thoroughly enjoying this excellent series on the MGB. It still looked fresh in the early 1970s, even after a decade on the market, but the raised ride height killed it. I think it could have survived the rubber bumpers, but it’s a shame they didn’t have the means (or inclination?) to paint them in body-colour, which would have made the car look rather sleek:

    Alternatively, here’s a rather interesting modification that improves the appearance of the standard front bumper:

    Simply install it upside-down! You have to fabricate a slim grille to fill the space above, but it works rather well.

    1. That gives a look very similar to Aston Martin’s aborted £30m attempt to keep the whole thing going at Abingdon.

    2. Good morning, Daniel. To my eyes the body painted bumper and the rest of the car looks like two eras of design have been put together unsuccessfully. I’m also having some issues with the panel gaps at the front. They seem a lot wider now than the gaps between the rest of the body panels. You don’t really notice it when the bumpers are black.

      However I think the basic idea could have worked with a slightly differently designed bumper that’s a bit more flush with the rest of the car. But then maybe the requirements in the US couldn’t be met? Just wondering.

    3. Good morning Freerk. I had a rubber-bumper midget for a couple of years when I first moved to London and I recall that the bumper mouldings were pretty approximate in their fit to the body. I suspect that the material used was not conducive to precise moulding. Jaguar had similar issues with the first series XJ-S:

    4. Thanks, Daniel. From a quick search on the internet, the mouldings on the midget seem to fit rather nicely.

  2. All culminating in the ‘ultimate’ MGB GT, the ‘GT3 version’ which, I hope, is still being worked on. Powered by a twin turbo 4.0 litre Rover V8 converted to run Lotus Type 907 heads, with wild bodywork exploiting the F.I.A. GT3 regulations. Does anyone know if it still exists?

  3. Thanks, Eóin: a thoroughly enjoyable series. That Rover V8 really was a remarkable find, especially if you consider it had been discarded by GM (GM discard a good thing? Say it isn’t so!). About using the Stag V8: wasn’t that thing fatally flawed? Or was it execution?

    Both the rubber bumper MGB and the TR7 are better cars and designs retrospectively than was thought at the time, but they were also let down badly by production quality. The endless attempts to keep the MGB up to date remind me of the Alfa (105/115) Spider which was looking rather disjointed as well later in life:

    before coming good again to an extent:

    The Alfa was a car that was old by the time I became aware of cars but still being sold, unlike the MGB. Being the last remnant of an illustrious (in hindsight) era for Alfa, it carried an air of mystique. One would imagine Alfa’s financials were much the same as BLMC’s, so I doubt much more was spent on the Spider than the MGB. The MGB was – as was mentioned in a previous installment – more or less the ‘default’ classic car. A curious mix of interesting, reassuring (“ah, an MGB, this must be a classic car meet”) and so ubiquitous as to warrant little further thought.

    The brutalism of those plastic addenda also reminds me of late-1970’s Porsche 911s:

    which were a far cry from the original:

    1. Hi Tom. I was going to make the very same comparison (to the Alfa Spider) but you beat me to it!

    2. Tom V: There were teething problems with early Stag engines, mostly owing to poor manufacturing quality. The well documented overheating issues arose later in the car’s lifespan, mostly by the time the cars were on their second or third owners – many had no trouble at all. This became something the media latched onto well after the car had ceased production and the subsequent pile-in was somewhat akin to that surrounding the Lancia Beta. There are a lot of inconsistencies surrounding the Stag, so I might suggest that the jury remains out on this and several other shibboleths.

      Regarding the 911, while there is no doubt that the earlier cars were more attractive, I always thought the 1975 model year 5-mph bumpers were one of the better integrated of their ilk. I would almost go as far as to declare them as being definitive…

    3. Thanks Eóin and Daniel, I didn’t know the overhearting problems arose later in the cars’ lifespans. Poor manufacturing quality seems to have been a fact of life for most manufacturers’ newly introduced models.

      I completely agree about the 911’s bumpers. When I became aware of cars these were current, so I grew up viewing them as the ‘default’ 911, only learning about the earlier models later. They do look pretty decent. While the Alfa Spider was updated a little inconsistently with the 4th generation being a rather good update after the rather disjointed third generation, the way the (original) 911 was kept contemporary through its long life span was of consistent high (if slightly unadventurous) quality, I think.

      There were quite a few cars around in the 80’s and 90’s that had their origins at least a decade earlier but were kept “up to date” with large amounts of plastic and questionable design. Fiat’s “plastic fantastic” period, or the Maseratis that Daniel is chronicling are testament to that. Ford Europe’s (UK/Germany) solutions were usually more thorough reskins, but nevertheless they also stretched the life of a few platforms beyond reasonable limits. As chronicled here, Renault even had a major hit by essentially repurposing their 4 to build the 5.

  4. TBH, I never thought the rubber bumpers on the MGB were that bad. As Eóin states in the article, they were quite well integrated and thought had clearly been given to creating a smoother (and more aerodynamic?) nose for the car. Interestingly, it’s the rubber-bumper MGB look which Gerry McGovern seems to have evolved into the nose of the MGF, which became another MG tail of woe.

    The real sin was the raised suspension, creating a look which by coincidence (?) was carried over to the Maestro and Montego, which had the look of long trousers which were not long enough.

    I find these stories of BMC/ BMH/ BLMC/ BL mismanagement and poor decision-making incredibly melancholy, partly because there are so many of them. MG’s is amongst the saddest, given the early MGB product was perfectly good and the Abingdon plant one of the best in terms of an engaged workforce and basic competency.

    I am afraid that I can’t see the new crop of ‘MG’ badged cars as anything to do with the marque which died with MG Rover and the cynical ‘Phoenix 4’, even the incoming Cyberster (I mean, what the heck!?) roadster.

    1. Given that MG (and the rest of BLMC) is well and truly dead and buried and SAIC is only borrowing a moderately well known nameplate, I don’t mind modern MG that much.

      BLMC (et al) is a sad story, perhaps their demise was exacerbated by not having enough presence outside the home market. That aspect and in general the mix of annoyance at the (perceived) incompetence and sadness I feel remind me of Fiat and its slow-motion demise. There are differences of course: Austin Rover tried until very late in the day to produce a credible line up of models. Models that weren’t even inherently bad, but underdeveloped and hampered by a few bad choices, not to mention labour relations. Fiat seems to have given up on any semblance of product planning (except in South America).

  5. Prefer the body-coloured bumper solution for the MGB. With the exception of the planned O-Series update (possibly updated to M/T-Series if enough for production to continue a bit longer up into RV8 era), the addition of a 5-speed gearbox along with the fitment of telescopic front dampers and parabolic rear springs. What else could have been done to improve the dated dynamics of the MGB?

    TBH it was really overdue a suitable replacement in spite of its robust sales and there were a number of attempts at replacing the B from EX234, ADO21, ADO68, an ADO77 based sportscar and Broadside e.g. MG Boxer up to a FWD Maestro/Montego derived successor (including later F-16 / PR1). Some of the attempts were better than others (or at least featured promising aspects) without having to have Triumph broadly occupy MG’s sector, more so if the latter were allowed to bring to production a sportscar to replace the Midget, Spitfire and B.

    Would agree that the MG marque carried more weight in the US than Triumph, developing a new corporate 4-cylinder sportscar and marketing it as a Triumph to replace both the 4-cylinder MGB and 6-cylinder TR6 was a mistake that ultimately did neither any favours.

    Aston Martin were said to have plans to extensively rebody the Aston MGB prototype later on with a few William Towns sketches, which IIRC would go on to be recycled to some extent in the William Towns restyling of the Michelotti styled Reliant Scimitar SS1 (itself reputedly an unfinished recycling of a Broadside proposal).

  6. Thank you again for another great article Eóin. No matter how many times I read about the stories of incompetent management from the BL era I still cringe at them. They just couldn’t get anything right.

    I know that considering the background of the ‘merger’, Triumph was always going to win out. And they did have a much more complete model lineup. But considering MG’s incredibly strong brand recognition, it was criminal to neglect it to the level that they did.

    Having said that, I wouldn’t have envied them having to sort out all these rival overlapping brands under one roof.

    I also said before in one of the previous entries, I thought it was possible for MG, Triumph and Jaguar to have existed together under one roof in a progression of price and sporty performance; MG small and cheap(ish), Triumph mid sized and mid market and Jaguar at the top. Thinking about it further, I was probably being wildly naive and optimistic about that.

    1. Sloan ladders have been out of date for a long time
      The rational approach is to expand the range to use brand premium

  7. A truly wonderful series on a wonderful car, thanks a lot indeed Mr. Doyle.
    Also thanks for mentioning the Aston Martin prototype, David! Never heard of that one. The Classic Driver appears to have a page on this and the car seems to be alive still, and has recently been sold. Not entirely sure whether Aston’s improvements were exactly that, but the idea seemed sympathetic enough…

    1. Thanks Joost, it’s perhaps worth mentioning some other things of note about the Aston MGB is that it used the taller MGB GT windscreen and surround instead of the detachable roadster one, plus the GT door glass, and thus needed a new design of folding top. This was to improve ‘top-up’ access. And as part of the new emissions controls that came with the fitment of the ‘O’ series twin carb Princess motor, the old filler cap had to go so there was a new Rover group filler cap under the new flap.

  8. I decided to look up 5 mph bumpers and they’re weirder than I thought – in GM’s case, at least. I hadn’t realised that they moved so much.

    1. Thanks for the additional insights, David, interesting modifications indeed.

  9. A thought came to me over dinner; the way Leyland organised themselves, an Austin Morris volume division and a Triumph Rover Jaguar specialist devision, might have (and I can’t emphasises that enough) worked better if MG and Triumph had been swapped around.

    Triumph, like Austin, had a full line up of cars, including several sports cars and a few saloons. MG however only really had a couple of small sports cars. To me this makes it more ‘specialist’ than triumph.

    Basically what if Austin and Triumph were pushed towards being the two volume brands with a full line up of cars (perhaps even moving towards parts sharing one day) and MG, Rover and Jaguar were all kept as one/two model specialist marques focusing on one aspect (little sports cars, off roaders and big GTs), might they have faired better?

    Probably not lol.

    1. That’s far too logical, JCC. Seriously, yes, from a branding perspective, that makes a lot of sense – to have Triumph as a slightly upmarket sporty brand.

      It gets complicated when you think about products, though. Was it easier to turn a Honda in to a Rover (just throw wood and velour / leather at it), rather than pretend it was a Triumph, which possibly suggests something more? I’m ignoring the Triumph Acclaim in all this, of course.

      It’s fun to imagine what could have been – BL’s demise wasn’t inevitable by a long shot. In some ways I wish the UK still had its own volume car manufacturer. I think that’s unlikely to come about, though and I should always remind myself of what a wearing saga BL was, at the time.

  10. @ Charles

    It is fun to imagine what if scenarios yes! As you say, the collapse wasn’t inevitable. Just a different attitude, a few changes, and it may have made it.

    Glad you think my ramblings have logic too lol. Yeah I was just thinking about the model line up each brand had, and Triumph had enough to match the various bmc ones, which for me puts it firmly in the volume business, albeit in an upmarket position. MG, Rover and Jaguar however only had a handful of models each, which to me makes them specialist.

    Thinking about it further, I think they could have done something like this:

    Austin Morris Triumph Division:
    – Morris (value brand, think Skoda.)
    – Austin (mainstream brand, like VW.)
    – Triumph (upmarket brand, like Audi)

    MG Rover Jaguar Division:
    – MG (makes several sports cars off one platform, with engines from 4 cylinders to a V8, replacing the midget, mgb, spitfire and the Austin-Healeys)
    – Rover (makes off roaders now. Basically what we would now know as Land Rover)
    – Jaguar (makes big prestigious cars based off the XJ6’s platform. Pushed as upmarket as possible, where modern day Bentley and Porsche would sit)

    I was tempted to just stick with Austin on its own, but then I thought no, it’s good to have a ‘cheap’ brand to build market share, plus maintaining as much as the existing dealer network as possible would be good for cornering the home market. Giving that up was one of Leyland’s biggest mistakes imo. Also…I’m actually quite fond of Morris for some reason lol.

    As you rightly pointed out though Charlie, it’s no good just sticking bits on one car and calling it something else. Each brand needs to have its own identity. But I sincerely think that with this much more focused and rationalised line up they’d have a better idea of what to do. VW did it at the time with Audi. I don’t see why BL couldn’t have aimed for a similar outcome.

    To bring it back to MG, I’m imagining an easily understood front engined, rwd platform with engines ranging from sub 2 litre 4s to a V8, available in coupe and roadster forms, fully update for the 1970s to compete in America and Europe. Emphasises on profitability. Not totally impossible right lol

    1. This is illogical
      As a result, volume division had three basically identical range in same dealer
      Specialist devision had only a few cars with few sales, which made it difficult for dealers to survive
      In addition, it would be more strange to put off road only brand and sports car only brand in the same dealer

      On the other hand,by the early 1970s,Peugeot’s sales volume has surpassed that of Austi- Morris
      Therefore, it is definitely meaningless to maintain two brands

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